St Francis de Sales and St Thomas Aquinas

by Audrey English

The Introduction to the Devout Life and the Treatise on the Love of God are popular spiritual classics. St. Francis de Sales was well versed in Greek and Latin, in sacred Scripture, in the Fathers of the Church as well as in theology and in philosophy. He is also a close and devoted student of St.Thomas Aquinas and the influence of the Angelic Doctor is evident in his exposition of the love of God and of the ways in which the soul can become more perfectly united with this infinite Love. Through reading St. Francis de Sales, we are better able to appreciate the ways in which philosophy and theology can enlighten and enrich our understanding of spirituality.

Aware that the union of the soul with the body is for the good of the soul, St. Francis' advice on how to treat our body is humane and gentle without unduly indulging the lower part of our nature. It combines psychological insight with awareness of the difficulty experienced by the intellect in controlling the body, a weakness which comes as a result of original sin. Writing on meditation, he suggests that to avoid falling asleep we should often change our position "keep hands sometimes crossed, sometimes clasped, sometimes folded - stand - go on your knees now on one knee, now on the other..." Knowing the readiness with which the mind can be distracted, he advises to "read a little, meditate a little, read a little..."

Yet catering to the needs of the body does not altogether mean that we should always seek to escape from physical pain. The Christian acceptance of suffering in union with the sufferings of Our Lord are expressed in sublime words: "The Our Father which you say for your headache is not forbidden; but oh! my daughter, no indeed, I should not have the courage to ask Our Saviour by the pains which he had in his head that I should have none in mine.... Ah! did he endure that we should not endure? I would rather use the crowning of Our Lord to obtain a crown of patience around my aching head."

In the Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis explains the Divine nature as it is knowable through the light of reason. So much the greater the intellect so much the more from few does it gather many. The angels do not need to reason; they have fewer concepts to understand reality. Unlike the angels, the human intellect, being the lowest of all intellects, needs a great many concepts in understanding things. St. Francis shows this with the metaphor of an artist who has to make thousands of strokes with his brush in an attempt to paint a picture. By contrast with the artist, a printmaker only needs to make one engraving from a plate in order to get a copy of the whole picture.

We need a great many names to speak of God. "We say that he is good, wise, omnipotent, true, just, holy, infinite, immortal, invisible... he is all this in so pure, so excellent and so exalted a way that he contains the power, strength, and excellence of all perfection within one most simple perfection."

God's perfections are only one single infinite Perfection. The simplicity of God in whom there is only one Act which IS his Being is contrasted with our limitations, his infinity with our finiteness, his permanence with our changeability.

God's supreme simplicity is a supreme perfection. On the unity of God, St. Francis concludes: "God's supreme unity diversifies all things and his permanent eternity gives change to all things, because the perfection of his unity is above all difference and variety and must therefore have both means to furnish all diverse created perfections with their being and contain power to produce them."

God offers his grace in an infinite variety of ways. Using St.Thomas' principle that everything that is received is received according to the manner of the recipient, St. Francis explains that grace is offered to men in a multitude of ways according to their needs: i.e. On earth, everyone receives a grace so special that all graces are different. Thus the Church rejoices on the feast of each confessor: "There was not found the like of him." An awesome thought is this unique way in which each soul can give praise and glory to God, this knowledge that God has created each one of us for a specific purpose which no-one else can fulfil.

Grace varied in the angels according to their natural gifts and in proportion to those gifts. St. Francis de Sales points out that Lucifer who was raised so high by his nature and so surpassingly high by grace has fallen, yet many less gifted angels remained faithful to God. He shows that we are always responsible for our sins: grace does not fail us but we fail grace. "O God all-good, you abandon only those who abandon you. You never take away your gifts except when we take away our hearts."

Regarding our friendship with God which derives from charity, St. Francis discusses love and dilection which are expressed by way of act or passion. Dilection presupposes the judgment of reason, it implies in addition to love, a choice made beforehand. "By it we choose and elect God as the supreme object of our spirit, it is a love of supreme election or an election of supreme love."

St. Francis has a thorough understanding of Aristotle and St.Thomas' teaching on the virtues as habits in the soul: "A single act is not enough to justify the name of vice.... To deserve the name of a vice or a virtue, there must be an advance in an act and it must be habitual." Thus his advice on how to deal with temptation: "When attacked by some vice we must practise the contrary virtue as much as we can."

St. Francis explains the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin and the danger of frequently committing venial sin. Charity remains in the soul even when we commit venial sin where "we love something apart from reason but not against reason." Venial sin, however, impedes the progress of charity by weakening it; frequent venial sin can lead to spiritual paralysis and finally to death: "it is only little by little that we come to despise God, but we have no sooner come to that point than suddenly, in a moment, holy charity departs from us... dies completely."

Since charity is infused and not acquired as natural habits are, charity can be lost by a single mortal sin. However, habits which are acquired solely by human acts can be lost by long neglect of such acts or by many acts contrary to this habit. Charity is infused by the Holy Spirit in a moment. It is also taken from us in an instant as soon as we turn away from the obedience we owe to God in grave matter.

We need to reflect on this doctrine repeatedly taught by Pope John Paul II in answer to the widespread theory of the fundamental option and the mistaken notion that a single mortal sin does not destroy charity and does not incur the risk of losing heaven. "Charity does not decrease by a lessening of its own perfection...We never lose any least part of it without losing all of it."

The theory of the fundamental option is also refuted in St. Francis' exposition of the way in which the soul can be in a state of mortal sin and still have a certain remainder of love... This imperfect love which is reduced to a natural love, though salutary, may be dangerous. This is discussed in no uncertain terms.

We are also taught how to recognize this imperfect love. This imperfect love comes from the soul having acquired a certain custom and habit of loving God. Charity produces, stamps on us a certain facility in loving and leaves it in us even after we are deprived of its presence: "a custom and a habit acquired by choice and virtue are in some sort kept up later on without choice and virtue (as if the soul were asleep)...since acts done in sleep are ...devoid of virtue and merely images or representations of it." (cf. Treatise 4, 9-11)

There are many other philosophical concepts on which St. Francis de Sales rests his spirituality: St. Thomas' doctrine of the nature of knowledge to explain the difference between faith and the knowledge of reason, the natural appetite of the will for the good, the different aspects of love, the concept of friendship, the conformity of our will with the will of God etc.,

St.Thomas teaches that a good deed should be done "expediter, firmiter et delectabiliter" that is "promptly, thoroughly and joyfully." A reading of St Francis de Sales either in the Treatise on the Love of God or in the simpler Introduction to the Devout Life will arouse our devotion, that "devotion which adds nothing to the fire of charity except the flame that makes charity prompt, active and diligent not only to observe God's commandments but also to fulfil his heavenly counsels and insprations."

Audrey English


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Audrey English is a mother of seven, schoolteacher, and an occasional contributor to the Catholic press in Australia. She has also written a number of educational textbooks.

This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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