Light and Peace: Instructions for Devout Souls to Dispel Their Doubts
Christian liberty of spirit, so earnestly recommended by the saints, consists in not becoming the slave of anything, even though good, unless it be of God’s will.
Thus our purest inclinations, our holiest habits, our wisest rules of conduct, should yield without murmur or complaint to every manifestation of this divine will, in order that they may never become for us obstacles or impediments to good or the occasion of trouble and disquietude. By this means only can we perform all our actions with cheerful confidence and devout courage.
“I leave you the spirit of liberty; not that liberty which hinders obedience, for such is the liberty of the flesh, but that which excludes scruples and constraint…. We ask of God above all things that his name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
All this implies the spirit of liberty; for provided God’s name be sanctified, that His divine Majesty reign in you, that His will be done, the spirit desires nothing more.”(Imitation, B. III., Chap. XXVI.)*
St. Francis de Sales, speaking on this important subject, says: “He who possesses the spirit of liberty will on no account allow his affections to be mastered even by his spiritual exercises, and in this way he avoids feeling any regret if they are interfered with by sickness or accident. I do not say that he does not love his devotions but that he is not attached to them.”
A soul that is attached to meditation, if interrupted, will show chagrin and impatience: a soul that has true liberty will take the interruption in good part and show a gracious countenance to the person who was the cause of it. For it is all one to it whether it serve God by meditating or by bearing with its neighbor. Both duties are God’s will, but just at this time patience with others is the more essential.
The fruits of this holy liberty of spirit are prompt and tranquil submission and generous confidence. Saint Francis de Sales relates that Saint Ignatius ate flesh meat one day in Holy Week simply because his physician thought it expedient for him to do so on account of a slight illness.
A spirit of constraint would have made him allow the doctor to spend three days in persuading him, he adds, and would then very probably have refused to yield. I cite this example for the benefit of timid souls and not for those who seek to elude an obligation by unwarranted dispensations.
This matter is of such importance and a just medium so difficult to follow in practice, that it seems useful to transcribe the following passage from Saint Francis de Sales in its entirety, with the rules and examples it contains, in order that the proper occasions for the exercise of this virtue and its limitations may be well understood.
A heart possessed of this spirit of liberty is not attached to consolations, but receives afflictions with all the sweetness that is possible to human nature. I do not say that it does not love and desire consolations, but that its affections are not wedded to them…. It seldom loses its joy, for no privation saddens a heart that is not set upon any one thing. I do not say it never loses it, but if it does so it quickly regains it.
The effects of this virtue are sweetness of temper, gentleness, and forbearance towards everything that is not sin or occasion of sin, forming a disposition gently susceptible to the influences of charity and of every other virtue.
The occasions for exercising this holy freedom are found in all those things that happen contrary to our natural inclinations; for one whose affections are not engaged in his own will does not lose patience when his desires are thwarted.
There are two vices opposed to this liberty of spirit,—instability and constraint, or dissipation and servility. The former is a certain excess of freedom which causes us to change our devout exercises or state of life without reason and without knowing if it be God’s will. On the slightest pretext practices, plans and rules are altered and for every trivial obstacle our laudable customs are abandoned. In this way the heart is dissipated and spent and becomes like an orchard open on all sides, the fruit whereof is not for the owner but for the passers-by.
Constraint or servility is a certain lack of liberty owing to which the mind is overwhelmed with vexation or anger when we cannot carry out our designs, even though we might be doing something better. For example: I resolve to make a meditation every morning. Now if I have the spirit of instability or dissipation I am apt to defer it until evening for the most insignificant reason,—because I was kept awake by the barking of a dog, or because I have a letter to write, although it be not at all pressing.
If on the contrary I have the spirit of constraint or servility I will not give up my meditation even though a sick person has great need of my aid just then, or if I have an important and urgent dispatch to send which should not be deferred; and so on.
It remains for me to give you some examples of true liberty of spirit which will make you understand it better than I can explain it. But, before doing so, it is well that I should say there are two rules which it is necessary to observe in order not to make any mistake on the subject.
The first is that a person must never abandon his pious practices and the common rules of virtue unless it is plainly evident that God wills that he do so. Now this will is manifested in two ways,—through necessity and through charity.
I desire to preach this Lent in some little corner of my diocese; however, if I get sick or break my leg I need not give way to regret or inquietude because I cannot do as I intended, for it is evident that it is the will of God that I serve Him by suffering and not by preaching.
Or, even if I am not ill or crippled, but an occasion presents itself of going to some other place which if I do not avail myself of the people there may become Huguenots, the will of God is sufficiently manifest to make me amiably change my plans.
The second rule is that when it is necessary to make use of this liberty of spirit from motives of charity, care should be taken that it is done without scandal or injustice.
For instance: I may know that I should be more useful in some distant place not within my own diocese: I should have no freedom of choice in this matter for my obligations are here and I should give scandal and do an injustice by abandoning my charge.
Thus it is a false idea of the spirit of liberty that would induce married women to keep aloof from their husbands without legitimate reason under pretext of devotion and charity…. This spirit rightly understood never interferes with the duties of one’s vocation nor prejudices them in any way. On the contrary, it makes every one contented in his state of life, as each should know it is God’s will that he remain in it.
Saint Charles Borromeo was one of the most austere, exact and determined of men; bread was his only food, water his only drink; he was so strict, that during the twenty-four years he was an Archbishop he went into his garden but twice, and visited his brothers only on two occasions and then because they were ill.
Yet this austere priest when dining with his Swiss neighbors, which he often did in order to move them to amend their lives, did not hesitate to join them in drinking toasts and healths on every occasion and in doing so to take more than was necessary to quench his thirst.
Here is true liberty of spirit exemplified in the most mortified man of his time. An unstable spirit would have gone too far, a spirit of constraint would have thought it was committing a mortal sin, a spirit of liberty would act in this way from a motive of charity.
Saint Spiridion, a bishop of olden times, once gave shelter to a pilgrim who was almost dying of hunger. It was the season of Lent and in a place where nothing was to be had but salt meat. This Spiridion ordered to be cooked and then gave it to the pilgrim. Seeing that the latter, notwithstanding his great need, hesitated to eat it, the Saint, although he did not require it, ate some first in order to remove the poor man’s scruples. That was a true spirit of liberty born of charity.—Saint Francis de Sales.
Again, it is this Christian spirit of freedom that excludes fear and uneasiness in regard to all those things which God has not permitted us to know. It gives us a sweet and tender confidence as to the pardon of our past sins, the present condition of our souls and our eternal destiny.
It reminds us continually that although we have deserved hell, our divine Lord has merited heaven for us, and that it would be doing a great injury to His goodness not to hope for pardon for the past, assistance of divine grace for the present, and salvation after death. Finally, it teaches us to drown our remorse for sin in the ocean of the divine mercy.
I earnestly exhort you never to make indiscreet vows in the hope of thus increasing the merit of your ordinary works. One can attain the same end by many ways that are easier and less dangerous. Those who are guilty of this imprudence often run the risk of breaking their vows and of thus sinning gravely. And if they avoid this misfortune it is only at the expense of their peace of soul, sacrificed to a craven and unquiet servitude which is totally incompatible with the tranquility and confidence required in the great work of our spiritual perfection.
Many pious persons are too prone to advise obligations of this kind. If they do so to you, humbly excuse yourself by saying that you do not possess the extraordinary virtue requisite in order to fulfill them without disquietude.
Saint Francis de Sales disapproved of all the particular vows made by Saint Jane Frances de Chantal and declared them null. I have almost invariably found persons bound by such solemn obligations restless and agitated, and have frequently seen them exposed to the gravest falls.
Do not allow yourself to be misled by the example of some of the saints who made vows. Rarely is the desire to imitate certain extraordinary practices of theirs an inspiration of divine grace: rather is it a temptation from the devil inciting us to pride and temerity.
Saint Francis de Sales exclaimed: “Give me the spirit that animated Saint Bernard and I shall do what Saint Bernard did.” Let us apply ourselves, I repeat, to the imitation of those simple and solid virtues by which the saints attained sanctity, and be content to admire those supernatural acts that suppose it already acquired.
To bind one’s self by arbitrary vows without compromising salvation, three things are necessary: 1st. supernatural inspiration urging one to make them; 2d. extraordinary virtue so as never to violate them; 3d. unalterable tranquillity in order to preserve peace of soul in keeping them.
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