Using prudence when discerning virtues to practice

August 12, 2021 • 4 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 95
By St. Francis de Sales

Continuation of the former discourse on the choice of virtues.

Young beginners in devotion, says St. Augustine, commit certain faults, which, according to the rigour of the laws of perfection, are blameable and yet commendable, on account of the foreshadowing they give of the future excellence in piety, to which they serve as a disposition.

That low and servile fear which begets excessive scruples in the souls of new converts from a course of sin, is commendable in beginners, and a certain foreboding of a future purity of conscience; but the same fear would be blamable in those who are far advanced and in whose heart love ought to reign, which, by imperceptible degrees, chases away this servile fear.

St. Bernard, in the beginning, was full of rigour towards those who put themselves under his direction; he told them that they must leave the body behind, and come to him only with the spirit. When he heard their confessions, he severely rebuked their most trivial faults, and urged them on to perfection with such vehemence, that, instead of making them advance forward, he drove them back; for they lost heart when they saw themselves so earnestly pressed up so steep and high an ascent.

Observe, Philothea, it was an ardent zeal for perfect purity that induced this great saint to adopt that manner of proceeding. This zeal of the saint was a great virtue, but a virtue nevertheless reprehensible; of which, God Himself in a holy vision made him sensible, pouring at the same time into his soul so meek, amiable, and tender a spirit, that, being totally changed, he repented of his former rigour and severity, and became so gracious and condescending to everyone as to make himself all to all, that he might gain all.

St. Jerome having related how his dear daughter, St. Paula, was not only excessive, but obstinate, in the exercise of bodily mortification, to such a degree, that she would not yield to the contrary advice of Epiphanius, her bishop; and moreover, that she suffered herself to be carried away with such excessive grief for the death of her husband and children, as to be herself frequently in danger of death, concludes at length with these words: “Some will say, that instead of writing the praises of this holy woman, I blame her imperfections and faults; but I call Jesus to witness whom she served, and whom I desire to serve, that, I do not depart from the truth, either on the one side or the other, but set down sincerely what related to her, as one Christian should do of another; that is to say, I write her history, not her panegyric; and that her vices would have been virtues in many others:” meaning that the failings and defects of St. Paula would have been esteemed virtues in a soul less perfect; and that there are actions esteemed imperfections in the perfect, which would be held great perfections in those who are imperfect.

It is said to be a good sign, when, during convalescence, the legs of the sick person swell, for it shows that nature, now acquiring strength, casts out her superfluous humours; but this would be a bad symptom in one that was not sick, as it would show that nature had not sufficient strength to dissipate the noxious humours.

We must, Philothea, have a good opinion of those who practise virtues, though they may have imperfections, since we see that the saints themselves have often had imperfections also.

But as to ourselves, we must be careful to try to make ourselves as perfect as possible, faithfully but discreetly; and to this end we must strictly observe the advice of the wise man, “not to rely on our own prudence,” but on the judgment of such as God has given us for directors.

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