Poverty of Spirit to be observed by the Rich

July 4, 2021 • 6 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 135
By St. Francis de Sales

Chapter XIV.

Poverty of Spirit to be observed by the Rich.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. v. 3). Accursed, on the other hand, are the rich in spirit, for hell is their portion. He is rich in spirit who has his riches in his spirit, or his spirit in his riches: he is poor in spirit who has no riches in his spirit, nor his spirit in riches.

The halcyons form their nest like an apple, and leave only a little opening at the top; they build them on the seashore, and make them so firm and impenetrable that when the waves sweep over the strand the water can never get into them, but keeping always uppermost and following its motion, they remain in the midst of the sea, upon the sea, and masters of the sea.

Your heart, Philothea, ought to be in this manner, open only to heaven, and impenetrable to riches and all transitory things. Whatever portion of them you may possess, keep your heart free from the least affection towards them; keep it always above them, and in the midst of riches let it hold them in contempt and be their master. Do not suffer this heavenly spirit to be the captive of earthly goods, let it be always their master, but never their slave.

There is a material difference between having poison and being poisoned. As apothecaries keep almost all kinds of poison for use on various occasions, but yet are not poisoned, because they have not poison in their bodies, but in their shops: so you possess riches without being poisoned by them, if you keep them in your house or purse, and not in your heart. To be rich in effect, and poor in affection, is the great happiness of the Christian; for by this means he has all the advantages of riches for this world, and the merit of poverty for the world to come.

Alas! Philothea, no one ever acknowledges that he is covetous; everyone disavows that base and mean passion; persons excuse themselves on account of the charge of children which oppresses them and of that wisdom which requires that men should establish themselves in the world: they never have too much: some pretence is always discovered to get more: nay, the most covetous not only deny that they are avaricious, but even think in their conscience that they are not so.

Covetousness is a malignant fever which is less and less felt according as it becomes more violent and ardent. Moses saw the sacred fire which burned the bush, and yet consumed it not; but this profane fire of avarice, on the contrary, consumes and devours the covetous person, and yet burns him not; for in the midst of the most excessive heats of his avarice, he boasts of the most agreeable coolness in the world, and esteems his insatiable drought to be a natural and pleasing thirst.

If you have a longing desire to possess goods which you have not, though you may say you would not unjustly possess them, yet you are nevertheless truly covetous. He that has a longing, ardent, and restless desire to drink, although he may drink nothing but water, shows nevertheless that he is feverish.

O Philothea, I know not if it is a justifiable desire to wish to justly obtain that which another justly possesses: for it seems that by this desire we would serve our own convenience to the prejudice of another. If a man possesses anything justly, has he not more reason to keep it justly than we have to desire it justly? Why then do we extend our desires to his possessions, to deprive him of them? At the best, if this desire is just, yet certainly it is not charitable, for we would not in any case, that another man should desire, although justly, that which we have a desire to keep justly. This was the sin of Achab, who desired to have Naboth’s vineyard justly, which Naboth much more justly desired to keep: Achab desired it with an ardent and impatient desire, and therefore offended God.

It is time enough; Philothea, to desire your neighbour’s goods when he is desirous to part with them; for then his desire will make yours not only just, but charitable also; yes, for I am willing that you should take care to increase your substance, provided it may be done not only justly, but with peace and charity.

If you have a strong attachment to the goods which you possess, if you are over-solicitous about them, set your heart on them, have them always in your thoughts, and fear the loss of them with a sensible apprehension, believe me you are feverish; for they that have a fever drink the water that is given them with a certain eagerness and satisfaction which the healthy are not accustomed to feel. It is impossible to take such pleasure in laughing without having an extraordinary affection for it.

If when you suffer loss of goods, you find your heart quite disconsolate, believe me you have too great an affection for them: for nothing can be a stronger proof thereof than your affliction for their loss.

Desire not, then, with a full and express desire, the wealth which you have not, nor fix your heart much on what you have; grieve not for the losses which may befall you, and then you shall have some reason to believe, that though rich in effect, you are not so in affection, but rather poor in spirit, and consequently blessed, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs to you.

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