St. Francis de Sales on Obedience

January 10, 2022 • 4 min

From The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, page 124
By His friend, Jean Pierre Camus, Bishop of Belley

UPON OBEDIENCE.

Blessed Francis always said that the excellence of obedience consists not in doing the will of a gentle, courteous superior, who commands rather by entreaty than as one having authority, but in bowing the neck beneath the yoke of one who is harsh, stern, imperious, severe.

He was, it is true, desirous that those who had to judge and direct souls should do so as fathers rather than as masters, as, indeed, he did himself, but at the same time he wished those in authority to be somewhat strict, and those subject to them to be less sensitive and selfish, and consequently less impatient, less refractory, and less given to grumbling than most men are.

He used also to say that a rough file takes off more rust and polishes iron better than a smooth and less biting one, and that very many and very heavy blows of the hammer are needed to temper a keen sword blade.

“But,” I said to him, when discussing this subject, “as the most perfect obedience is that which springs from love, ought not the command to be given lovingly, so as to incite the subordinate to a loving obedience?”

He answered:

There is a great deal of difference between the excellence of obedience and its perfection. The excellence of a virtue has to do with its nature; its perfection with the grace, or charity, in which it is clothed.

Now, here I am not speaking of the supernatural perfection of obedience which emanates most assuredly from the love of God; but of its natural excellence, which is better tested by harsh than by gentle commands.

Excessive indulgence on the part of parents and superiors is only too often the cause of many disorders.

More than this, even as regards the supernatural perfection of obedience, it is very probable that the harshness of the command given helps its growth, and renders our love of God, which is our motive in obeying, stronger, firmer, and more generous.

When a superior commands with overmuch gentleness and circumspection, besides the fact that he compromises his authority and causes it to be slighted, he so attracts and attaches his inferior to himself that often unconsciously he robs God of the devotedness which is His due.

The result is that the inferior obeys the man whom he loves, and because he loves him, rather than God in the man, and for the love of God alone.

On the other hand, harshness tests far better the fidelity of a heart which loves God sincerely. For, finding nothing pleasing in the command except the sweetness of divine love, to which alone it yields obedience, the perfection of that obedience becomes the greater, since the intention is purer, more direct, and more immediately turned to God.

It was in this spirit that David said that, for the sake of the words of God—that is, of His law—he had kept hard ways. [Psalm xvi. 4.]

Our Blessed Father added this simile to explain his meaning further:

Obeying a harsh, irritating, and vexatious superior is like drawing clear water from a spring which flows through the jaws of a lion of bronze. It is like the riddle of Samson, Out of the eater came forth meat; it is hearing God’s voice, and seeing God’s will alone in that of a superior, even if the command be, as in the case of St. Peter, Kill and eat; [Acts x. 13.] it is to say with Job, Although He should kill me, I will trust in Him. [Job xiii. 15.]

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