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St. Francis de Sales on Purification

The following is an excerpt from St. Francis De Sales’s excellent book, “Introduction to the Devote Life” which can be purchased here or read online here.

CHAPTER 5: WE MUST BEGIN WITH SELF-PURIFICATION

The flowers, says the sacred Spouse (Song 2:12), have begun to blossom in our land, pruning time has come. What are the flowers of our heart, Philothea? Our Good desires, certainly. As soon as they appear, we should get hold of a pruning knife to cut off from our conscience every deed that is useless and irrelevant. In order to marry an Israelite, a girl who was a foreigner had to take off the garment she was wearing as a captive, trim her nails and shave her head (Deuteronomy 21:12,13). So whoever seeks the honour of being a spouse of Christ has to strip off the old self and be clothed in the new (Eph. 4:12,24), giving up sin and then trimming and cutting away all sorts of obstructions which lead away from the love of God. The first step of our spiritual health is to be purified from our sinful dispositions.

St. Paul was cleansed in a moment becoming perfectly purified, as were also St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Pelagia and some others. But this sort of purification is entirely miraculous and extraordinary in the order of grace, as the resurrection of the dead is in the order of nature, and so we should not claim it. The usual purification and healing, of the body as well as of the spirit, takes place only little by little, by gradual progress, by constant improvement, with effort and over a period of time.

The Angels on Jacob’s ladder, even though they have wings, do not fly but rather go up and come down step by step in an orderly manner. One who rises from sin to devotion is compared to the dawn (Proverbs 4:18) which when it breaks does not drive away the darkness suddenly but little by little. As the saying goes, the cure which takes place slowly is always more sure. The illnesses of the heart, like those of the body, come on horseback very fast, but they go away on foot, slowly.

Therefore, one has to be courageous and patient, Philothea, in this venture. Alas! it is sad indeed to see people who finding they are subject to many imperfections, after practising devotion a few times, begin to become anxious, upset and discouraged. They almost let their heart be carried away by the temptation to give up everything and go back to life as before. But on the other hand they also are in extreme danger who, by a temptation that is contrary, are led to believe they are freed from their imperfections on the first day of their purification. These consider themselves perfect when hardly formed and try to fly without wings. Philothea, they are in great danger of a relapse, having taken themselves too soon out of the doctor’s hands. Do not rise before the light is come, says the Prophet, rise after you have been seated. (Ps. 127:2 RSV). He himself puts this advice into practice and, though he is washed and clean, he prays that he should be purified even more (Ps. 51:2).

The practice of self-purification cannot and should not come to an end as long as we live. Therefore, let us not be disturbed by our imperfections, because our perfection consists in fighting them. And we cannot fight them unless we see them, nor can we overcome them if we do not come across them. Our victory is not in not being aware of them but in not consenting to them. And to be bothered by them is not the same as consenting to them.

In this spiritual struggle, we have to be wounded sometimes in order that we may practise humility, but we shall never suffer defeat unless we lose either life or courage. As imperfections and venial sins cannot take away our spiritual life, which is lost only by mortal sin, the only thing that matters is that they should not make us lose courage. Save me, Lord, David said, from cowardice and discouragement (Ps. 55:5). We have a happy condition in this warfare that we shall always be victorious as long as we want to fight.

CHAPTER 6: FIRST OF ALL, PURIFYING OURSELVES FROM MORTAL SINS

We must begin by making a purification from mortal sin and the means to realize it is the holy sacrament of Penance. Look for the best confessor you can find. Get hold of one of the booklets which have been composed to help people to make a good confession. (50) Read it carefully, and note point by point what are your offenses, beginning from the time you came to the use of reason up to the present. In case you cannot rely on your memory, write down what you observe. Having in this way got ready and gathered up your sinful dispositions, detest them and renounce them with all the contrition and regret that your heart is capable of. Keep in mind those four points: that by sin you have lost God’s grace, given up your place in Heaven, taken upon yourself the everlasting suffering of hell and renounced God’s everlasting love.

You understand, Philothea, that I refer to a general confession of your whole life. Of course, I admit that it is not always absolutely necessary. But I am sure that it will be of very great help to you, now in the beginning. Therefore, I strongly recommend it to you.

It often happens that the usual confessions of those who live a common and ordinary life are full of great defects. Generally they make little or no preparation, and they do not have sufficient contrition. In fact, it frequently happens that they go to confession with the implicit determination of returning to sin, since they are not willing to avoid the occasions of sin or to make use of the measures required to amend their life. In all such cases a general confession is indispensable to inspire confidence.

Besides this, a general confession invites us to a knowledge of ourselves. It arouses us to a healthy embarrassment for our past life. It makes us marvel at the mercy of God and his waiting for us with patience. It brings peace to our heart, refreshes our mind, and urges us to good resolutions. It provides our spiritual director with opportunity to give us advice that is more suitable to our condition. It opens our heart so that we can express ourselves with confidence at our subsequent confessions.

Since I am advising you about a general renewal of heart and a complete conversion to God, by committing yourself to the devout life, I think I have every reason to advise you to make this general confession.

CHAPTER 7: SECONDLY, PURIFYING OURSELVES FROM ATTACHMENT TO MORTAL SIN

All the Israelites did in fact leave the land of Egypt, but they did not all leave in so far as attachment to it was concerned. That is why, in the desert, many of them were sad that they did not have the onions and the meat of Egypt (Numbers 11: 4-5). In the same way, there are penitents who in fact leave sin but do not leave their attachment to it. In other words, they intend not to sin again but they give up and deny themselves the unhappy pleasures of sin with a certain reluctance. Though their heart turns away from sin and leaves it behind, yet it does not stop looking back again and again in that direction as Lot’s wife did towards Sodom (Genesis 19:26).

They give up sin the way the sick give up melons. The sick do not eat melons because of the doctor’s warning that eating them would mean death. But they are disturbed at having to do without them. They talk of them and try to bargain if they could possibly have them. They want at least to smell them, and consider those who can eat them to be very happy. Similarly, penitents who are weak and lack courage give up sin for some time but with sadness. They would like very much if they could sin and not be damned. They speak of sin with delight and appreciation, and regard as happy those who sin.

A man determined to take revenge will change his mind in confession, but soon afterwards he will join his friends and enjoy speaking about his quarrel. He will say that but for the fear of God, he would have done this or that; that the divine law with regard to forgiveness is hard; that, God willing, taking revenge should be allowed. Yes, it is quite clear that, though this man has given up sin, he is greatly burdened with attachment to sin. He is in fact out of Egypt, but in desire he is still there, longing for the garlic and onions which he enjoyed eating there. He is like the woman who has put a stop to her love affairs, but still takes delight in being courted and surrounded by admirers. Alas! such persons are certainly in great danger.

Dear Philothea, as you desire to commit yourself to the devout life, you must not only turn away from sin but you must completely cut away from your heart every attachment connected with sin. Otherwise, there is first of all the danger of falling back to sin. Besides, these unhappy attachments will constantly weaken your spirit, and make it sluggish, so that you will not be able to do good works promptly, carefully, and frequently, for it is in this that the true essence of devotion consists.

Those who have given up sin but still have these attachments and weaknesses are, in my opinion, like anaemic girls. These girls are not sick but all their actions are lifeless: they eat without enjoyment, sleep without rest, laugh without joy, and drag themselves rather than walk. In the same way, these persons do good with such a great spiritual weariness that their good exercises, which are few in number and have little effect, are entirely lacking in worth.

CHAPTER 8: THE MEANS TO MAKE THE SECOND PURIFICATION

The first motive for carrying out this second purification is a clear and forceful realization of the great harm that sin causes us. By this means, we are led to a heartfelt and earnest contrition. Contrition, as long as it is sincere, even if it is weak, cleanses us sufficiently from sin, especially when joined to the power of the Sacraments. So, when it is strong and earnest, it cleanses us from all the attachments connected with sin.

A slight and weak hatred or ill feeling gives us a dislike for the person we hate and makes us avoid him. But if it is a hatred that is deadly and violent, we not only avoid and detest the one we hate but we hold in disgust and cannot bear the conversation of his family, relatives and friends and even the sight of his picture or anything that belongs to him. In the same way, when the penitent hates sin with a contrition that is sincere but weak he is truly determined not to sin any more. But when he hates sin with a contrition that is powerful and vigorous, he not only detests sins but also all the attachments to sin, as well as everything that results from sin or leads to it.

Hence it is necessary, Philothea, to increase our contrition and repentance as far as we can, so that it extends even to the smallest things connected with sin. Thus Magdalen, when she was converted, lost all desire for her sins and the pleasures taken in them so that she never thought of them again. (51) And David declared that he detested not only sin but also all the paths and ways leading to it (Ps.119:104,128). Through such conversion is a person made quite young again. The same Prophet compares it to the renewal of the eagle (Ps. 103:5).

In order to acquire such a realization and contrition, you must carefully make the following meditations. If you do them well, they will root out from your heart, with the help of God’s grace, both sin as well as the principal attachments to sin. This was precisely my purpose in composing them.

Make the meditations one after the other in the order in which I have put them. Take only one each day, and as far as possible in the morning, which is the most suitable time for spiritual activities. Reflect on it during the rest of the day. If you have not yet been taught to make meditation, read what is said about it in the Second Part of this book.

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