Beyond the cloister walls


A student of 17th century Scottish Catholicism asks what modern readers can learn from Francis de Sales’ devotional manual, An Introduction to a Devout Life.

This year on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, 24 January, my parish priest encouraged the congregation to read Sales’ An Introduction to a Devout Life (1609). I felt a prick of conscience. Many people I admire had mentioned the book before and I always meant to read it, but it was not until Francis’ feast day that I finally made a resolution to read it once and for all.

It might seem like a bold claim, but the Introduction changed the course of my life. I had come to Edinburgh University to study English verse but realized after reading the Introduction that it is religious and devotional literature that I am passionate about. I quickly revised my master’s dissertation proposal in order to study the fascinating 17th century English and Scottish – both Catholic and Protestant – reception of Francis’ Introduction. I finished this dissertation in July of this year. And come January of 2015—just one year after encountering his work—I will begin doctoral work on seventeenth-century Scottish Catholicism at the University of Aberdeen. I never would have dreamed of studying such a subject had it not been for reading the Introduction.

I devoted a chapter of my dissertation to the Introduction itself. I showed why it was significant in the tradition of devotional manuals, in order to understand the work’s popularity with both British and Continental readers. Whereas earlier books of devotion were written for those called to the religious life, Francis’ manual was the first of its kind to engage a lay audience. He believed that a lay man, with a ‘vigorous and resolute soul […] may discover sweet springs of piety […] and may fly through the flames of earthly lusts without burning the wings of the holy desires of a devout life.’1

Holiness, according to Sales, is open to anyone willing to try for it. Henri Bremond identified Francis and other spiritual authors as part of a movement that he termed ‘devout humanism,’ which aimed at defining a more practical spirituality, but none of Francis’ critics gave a satisfying answer to the question of how Francis could claim that devotion was a wholly inclusive pursuit. The more I thought about the question, the more I realised that it was closely related to the question I posed to myself after quickly falling in love with the Introduction. I wanted to know what it was in Francis’ early 17th century text that has inspired generations of readers, including myself in 2014.

Although all of Francis’ devotional recommendations are still encouraged by the Church and employed by Catholics today, there are some aspects of his method that were particularly suited to Catholics living in post-Reformation England and Scotland. Works like Francis’ Introduction, as well as Robert Parsons’ A Christian Directory Guiding Men to their Eternal Salvation (1582) and John Gother’s Instructions and Devotions for Hearing Mass (1699), were popular because they were well-suited to the needs of English and Scottish Catholics who were forced to turn their devotional practice inward – both physically, indoors, and mentally, in their hearts and souls. Part of the genius of the Introduction is Francis’ insistence that everyone can practice devotion because it is not dependent on the presence of cloister walls. Rather, devotion is ‘that spiritual agility and vivacity by which charity works in us’ and it is ‘interior and heartfelt devotion that renders’ the outward exercise of fasting, prayer, and virtue ‘agreeable, sweet, and easy.’2

In addition to Francis’ interior vision of devotion, several chapters of the Introduction address contemporary issues of the life of 17th century Christians. While most of his chapters on virtues are applicable for any time – such as those on friendship, modesty of dress, MARY HARDY Beyond the cloister walls A student of 17th century Scottish Catholicism asks what modern readers can learn from Francis de Sales’ devotional manual, An Introduction to a Devout Life. Spirituality Whereas earlier books of devotion were written for those called to the religious life, Francis’ manual was the first of its kind to engage a lay audience. 8 OPEN HOUSE September 2014 and making judgments – some of his advice is a bit dated. For instance, Francis warns his readers to avoid ‘dice, cards, and the like games of hazard’ which he claims are ‘plainly bad and harmful, and therefore they are forbidden by the civil as by the ecclesiastical law.’ Such chapters may not move modern readers who live in a world fraught with greater evils than games of chance.

Despite its era-specific peculiarities, Francis’ Introduction has lasting significance, which does not exist in any one chapter. Rather, I believe the merit of Francis’ work is what underlies Bremond’s ‘devout humanism.’ Francis received a thoroughly humanistic education at the Jesuit College of Clermont in Paris. He mentions in a letter that his studies in the humanities and then in philosophy were ‘made all the easier and more fruitful because this university was so addicted […] to philosophy and theology.’3 In her reconstruction of the Clermont education, Elisabeth Stopp – translator of Francis’ letters – lists several of Aristotle’s texts. Although Stopp does not specifically mention Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Francis’ vision of virtue and the moral life in the Introduction resonate strongly with Aristotelian philosophy.

In the Ethics, Aristotle likens virtue to the maintenance of physical health, which depends ‘on a due proportion of food and exercise, equally remote from superabundance or penury.’4 Thus, moral virtue is a learned mean between two extremes. A courageous man, for example, is neither ‘he who flies from every danger’ nor ‘he who rushes on every danger.’5 Unlike an arithmetic mean, the mean in moral virtue is one relative to each person. According to Aristotle, the successful practice of any virtue depends on the individual, his inclinations, and on circumstances surrounding the exercise of the virtue. Thus, proper courage of an experienced soldier is different from that of a young schoolboy. Such a theory of virtue is expressed many times in the Introduction.

In the beginning of part three, which covers the practice of virtues, Francis says: ‘The virtues of a prelate are of one sort; those of a prince of another […] Although all ought to possess all the virtues, yet all are not equally bound to exercise them. Each person ought to practice in a more particular manner those virtues which are required by the state of life to which he is called.’6 In his treatment of individuals, Francis encourages finding the mean in a given situation, with a consideration of one’s duty and position. For example, when discussing conversation and solitude, Francis warns that ‘[t]o seek association with others and to shun it are two extremes equally blameable in the devotion of those that live in the world […] To protest that we love him [our neighbour] we must not fly his company. To testify that we love ourselves we must dwell with ourselves.’7 Francis is influenced by his humanist training, especially in Aristotelian philosophy, and is able to apply it to the needs of his lay audience.

Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of the mean’ seems to be the guiding principle, not only of Francis’ idea of virtue, but also of his vision of the devout life in general. Although Francis declares his purpose for writing the Introduction in his preface, it is not until the third chapter that he fully explains how ‘devotion is compatible with every vocation and profession.’8 Like Aristotle’s understanding of moral virtue, which is practiced differently by each person, Francis claims: ‘Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the workman, the servant, the prince […] and the married woman. Not only this, but the practice of devotion must be also adapted to the strength, the employment, and the duties of each one in particular.’9 For Francis, there is neither one fixed manifestation of, nor path to, devotion; rather, the fullness of devotion to which a married woman should aspire depends on both her vocation and its demands, as well as her own moral disposition. Proper devotion for her will be different from that of other married women, of women in other lay vocations, and of cloistered religious women.

Francis’ genius is his application of Aristotelian ethics to the devout life. Aristotle’s idea that virtue is relative to each person, when applied to devotion, makes it possible for Francis to claim that true devotion is attainable by anyone. Although there are some outdated sections in the Introduction, Francis’ Aristotelian idea of devotion is lasting and one that prompts new editions of his book every few years. The message of the Introduction is a valuable one for modern readers living in an increasingly noisy, distracting, and fast-paced society. Francis assures mothers of little children, corporate businessmen, and university professors that they can all practice genuine devotion in their own way when they make use of quiet moments throughout the day to retreat into their ‘little interior orator[ies].’10

1. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, tr. and ed. John K. Ryan (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1953), xxv-xxvi.

2. Sales, Introduction, 5.

3. Elisabeth Stopp, A Man to Heal Differences: Essays and Talks on St. Francis de Sales (Philadelphia, PA: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 1997), 25.

4. Aristotle, Ethics and Politics, tr. John Gillies, third ed. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1813), 272.

5. Aristotle, Ethics, 273.

6. Sales, Introduction (1953), 107-08.

7. Ibid., 196.

8. Sales, Introduction, xxv; 7.

9. Ibid., 7.

10. Ibid., 75-6.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.