St. Francis de Sales on poverty and presumption

January 15, 2022 • 4 min

From The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, page 132
By His friend, Jean Pierre Camus, Bishop of Belley

He would never allow himself to be called poor; saying, that any one who had a revenue sufficient to live upon without being obliged to labour with head or hands to support himself should be called rich; and such, he said, was the case with us both.

To my objection that our revenues were nevertheless so very small that we must be really considered poor, for little, indeed, must we be working if our labour was not worth what we got from our bishoprics, he replied:

If you take it in this way you are not so far wrong, for who is there who labours in a vineyard and does not live upon its produce? What shepherd feeds his flock and does not drink its milk and clothe himself with its wool? So, too, may he who sows spiritual seed justly reap the small harvest which he needs for his temporal sustenance.

If then he is poor who lives by work, and who eats the fruit of his labour, we may very well be reckoned as such; but if we regard the degree of poverty in which our Lord and His Apostles lived, we must perforce consider ourselves rich.

After all, possessing honestly all that is necessary for food and clothing, ought we not to be content? Whatever is more than this is only evil, care, superfluity, wanting which we shall have less of an account to render.

Happy is poverty, said a stoic, if it is cheerful poverty; and if it is that, it is really not poverty at all, or only poverty of a kind that is far preferable to the riches of the most wealthy, which are amassed with difficulty, preserved with solicitude, and lost with regret.

Our Saint used to say that, as for the cravings of nature, he who is not satisfied with what is really enough will never be satisfied.

I wish that I could give any just idea of his extraordinary moderation even in the use of the necessaries of life.

He told me once that when the time came for him to lay down the burden of his episcopal duties and to retire into solitude, there to pass the rest of his life in contemplation and study, he should consider five hundred crowns a year great wealth; in fact, he would not reserve more from either his patrimony or his Bishop’s revenue, adding these words of St. Paul: Having food, and wherewith to be covered, let us (priests) be content. [Tim. vi. 8.] He gave this as his reason:

The Church, which is the kingdom of Jesus Christ, is established on foundations directly opposed to those of the world, of which our Saviour said His kingdom was not.

Now, on what is the kingdom of this world founded? Listen to St. John: All that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, or of the eyes, and the pride of life; that is to say, the pleasures of the senses, avarice, and vanity.

The Church then will be founded on mortification of the flesh, poverty, and humility. Pleasures and honours follow in the train of wealth; but poverty puts an axe to the roots of pride and sensual enjoyments.

Some, says David, blaming them, glory in the multitude of their riches; and St. Paul exhorts the rich of this world not to be high-minded.

It is a perilous thing for humility and mortification to take up their abode with wealth.

This is why he wished for nothing but bare necessaries, fearing that superfluity might lead him into some excess.

When I reminded him that if we had this superfluity we might give alms out of it, as it is written, Of what remaineth give to the poor, he replied, that we knew well enough what we ought to do; but that we did not know what we should do, and that it was always a species of presumption to imagine ourselves able to handle live coals without burning ourselves, seeing that even the Angel in the vision of the Prophet took them up with tongs!

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