How to practice a variety of virtues

August 11, 2021 • 10 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 90
By St. Francis de Sales

The choice we ought to make as to the practice of the Virtues.

As the queen bee never goes out into the fields without being surrounded by all her little subjects, so charity, the queen of virtues, never enters the heart without bringing all the other virtues in her train, exercising and disciplining them, as a captain does his soldiers.

But she does not employ them all at the same time, nor all alike, nor in all seasons, nor in every place; for as the just man, like a tree planted by the river side, brings forth fruit in due season, so charity, watering the soul, produces a variety of good works, each one in its proper time.

“Music, however agreeable in itself, is out of season in time of mourning,” says the proverb. It is a great fault in many, who, undertaking the practice of some particular virtue, seek to exercise it on all occasions.

Like some ancient philosophers, they either always weep or laugh; and, what is yet worse, they censure such as do not act always like themselves, and exercise the same virtues; whereas we should “rejoice with the joyful, and weep with them that weep,” says the Apostle, for “charity,” he says, 'is patient, kind, bountiful, discreet, and condescending."

There are, however, some virtues of such general utility that not only require an exercise of themselves apart, but also communicate their qualities to all other virtues.

Occasions are seldom presented for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity, and munificence; but meekness, temperance, modesty, and humility are virtues wherewith all the actions of our life ought to be tempered.

It is true there are other virtues more excellent, but the use of these is more necessary. Sugar is more excellent than salt, but the use of salt is more necessary and general.

We must always, therefore, have a good store of these general virtues in readiness, since we stand in need of them almost continually.

In the exercise of the virtues we should always prefer that which is most conformable to our duty, not that which is most agreeable to our imagination.

St. Paula was prejudiced in favour of corporal austerities and mortifications, that she might the more easily enjoy spiritual comfort; but she was under a greater obligation to obey her superiors, and therefore St. Jerome blamed her for using immoderate abstinences against her bishop’s advice.

The apostles, on the other hand, being commissioned to preach the Gospel and distribute the bread of heaven, judged that it would be wrong for them to interrupt these evangelical exercises to relieve the poor, though otherwise an excellent virtue.

Every condition of life has its own peculiar virtues. The virtues of a prelate are different from those of a prince; those of a soldier from those of a married woman or a widow, and so on through every class of society.

Though all ought to possess all the virtues, yet all are not equally bound to exercise them, but each ought to practise, in a more particular manner those virtues which are most requisite for the state of life to which he is called.

Among the virtues unconnected with our particular duty, we must prefer the most excellent to the most glittering and showy. Comets appear larger than stars, and occupy a greater space to our eyes, whereas, in reality, they cannot, either in magnitude or quality, be compared to the stars; for, as they only seem large because they are nearer, and appear in a grosser manner than the stars, so there are certain virtues which, on account of their proximity, become more sensible, or, as I may say, more material, and therefore are highly esteemed, and always preferred by the vulgar.

Hence it is that so many prefer corporal alms before spiritual; the hair shirt, fasting, going barefoot, using the discipline, and other such corporal mortifications in preference to meekness, modesty, and other mortifications of the heart, which are, nevertheless, more excellent.

Choose, then, Philothea, the best virtues, not the most esteemed; the most excellent, not the most apparent; those that are actually the best, not those that are most ostensible or shining.

It is profitable for everyone to exercise some particular virtue, yet not so as to abandon the rest, but to keep his spirit in a more settled condition.

A fair virgin, in royal attire, more bright than the sun, whose head was decorated with a crown of olives, appeared to St. John, Bishop of Alexandria, and said to him: “I am the eldest daughter of the king; if thou canst have me for thy friend I shall conduct thee to his presence.” The holy prelate understood that she was mercy towards the poor, which God recommended to him; and therefore, ever after, he gave himself up so absolutely to the practice of that virtue, that he obtained the title of St. John the Almoner.

Eulogius the Alexandrian, desiring to do some particular service to God, and not having strength enough to embrace a solitary life, nor to subject himself to the obedience of another, took a poor wretch quite eaten up with the leprosy into his house, that he might exercise, in his regard, the virtues of charity and mortification; and to perform them the more worthily, he made a vow to honour and serve him as his lord and master; now, on a temptation happening, as well to the leper as to Eulogius, to depart the one from the other, they addressed themselves to the great St. Anthony, who said: “Take care, my children, not to depart from one another, for being both of you near your end, if the angel shall not find you together, you run a great risk of losing your crown.”

St. Louis, King of France, visited hospitals and the sick as diligently as if he served for wages.

St. Francis had so extraordinary a love for poverty as to call her his lady; and St. Dominick for preaching, that his Order takes its name from it.

St. Gregory the Great, following the example of the great Abraham, took pleasure in entertaining pilgrims, and like him received the King of Glory in the form of a pilgrim.

Tobias exercised his charity in burying the dead.

St. Elizabeth, though a great princess, delighted in nothing so much as in humbling herself.

St. Catherine of Genoa, in her widowhood, dedicated herself to serve an hospital.

Cassian relates that a devout lady, desirous to exercise the virtue of patience, came to St. Athanasius, who, at her request, placed her with a poor widow, so exceedingly peevish, choleric, and troublesome, as, by her insupportable temper, to give the good lady ample occasion to exercise the virtues of meekness and charity.

Thus, among the servants of God, some apply themselves to serve the sick; others to relieve the poor; others to propagate the knowledge of the Christian doctrine amongst children; others to reclaim souls that have gone astray; others to adorn churches and deck altars; others to restore peace and concord among such as have been at variance.

As embroiderers lay gold, silver, and silk on the several articles which they are engaged in ornamenting, with such an admirable variety of colours as to resemble all kinds of flowers, so those pious souls make choice of some particular devotion to serve as a ground for the spiritual embroidery of all other virtues, holding, by means thereof, all their actions and affections better united and ordered, by referring them to that principal end; and thus they show forth their spirit in its gilded clothing, surrounded with a variety of virtues.

When assaulted by any vice, we must embrace the practice of the contrary virtue, and refer all the others to it, by which means we shall overcome our enemy, and at the same time advance in all the virtues.

Thus, if assaulted by pride or anger, we must in all our actions turn ourselves to humility and meekness, and make all our exercises of prayer, the sacraments, and the virtues of prudence, constancy and sobriety, subservient to this end.

For as the wild boar, to sharpen his tusks, whets and polishes them with his other teeth, and by this means sharpens all at the same time, so a virtuous man, having undertaken to perfect himself in the virtue of which he stands most in need for his defence, files and polishes it by the exercise of the other virtues, which whilst they help to sharpen that one, make all of them become more excellent and better polished.

It was thus that it happened to Job, who, exercising himself particularly in patience, against the many temptations wherewith he was assaulted, became confirmed in all kinds of virtues.

Nay, St. Gregory Nazianzen says that, by the perfect exercise of one virtue a person may attain to the height of all the rest; for this he quotes the example of Rahab, who, having practised the virtue of hospitality, arrived at a great degree of glory.

But this is only to be understood, when such a virtue is practised with great fervour and charity.

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