Why St. Francis de Sales’s ‘Devout Life’ still resonates today

By Kathleen Norris, 26 January 2023
A portrait of St Francis de Sales. Image: Wikimedia Commons


Upon first reading Introduction to the Devout Life, I was won over by a passage on the guidance of souls in which St. Francis de Sales draws in grape harvesters, cinnamon traders, hunters and tigresses—and makes it work. This book has staying power: It has been in print since 1665, and it is easy to see why. Addressed to a friend of St. Francis de Sales who is seeking advice on how to balance her life in the world with a life of prayer, it has an appealingly personal tone. And the writing is a delight.

The contemporary reader will find much practical advice here: If you are a young mother, do not fret because you cannot pray like a nun; find the method that enhances your vocation as a mother. De Sales believed that all people have a call from God and goes so far as to state that to deny that prayer and devotion have a place in “the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, the domestic hearth” is a heresy.

De Sales’s insistence that a life of prayer “finds its ideal in the ordinary” will appeal to modern readers. But we might not be convinced by his reassurance that “God will always provide the leisure and the strength for a life” of devotion and may be uneasy when he reminds us that even as we revel in the flowers of our spiritual life we also need the pruning hook. Even many Christians might resist his statement that “there is always more profit and consolation” in serving the church “than in private acts of devotion.”

I suspect that most people would have difficulty with de Sales’s admonition not to stay up too late, lest “we lose the best part of the next day for God’s service” or his suggestion that as we engage in dancing, our spiritual wellbeing will be enhanced if we also remember the souls groaning in Hell and our own death drawing near. But the power of the writing is such that we may well decide that de Sales has a point.

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Kathleen Norris is the award-winning poet, writer and author of The New York Times best-sellers The Cloister WalkAcedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s LifeDakota: A Spiritual GeographyAmazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith and The Virgin of Bennington.

With thanks to America Magazine and Kathleen Norris, where this article originally appeared.


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