“The practice of virtues” is the focus of the third part of St. Francis de Sales’s An Introduction to the Devout Life.
The saint counsels each person to seek chiefly to advance in those virtues required by the particular state of life to which God has called him. Among those virtues not especially involved by our position we should cultivate the most excellent rather than the most showy. If we are hindered by some particular vice, we should cultivate the opposite virtue.
Foot of the cross
The picture of St. Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross was especially revered by St. Francis de Sales, and he sometimes called it a whole library of his thoughts. One day he saw a painting on this subject in the home of Bishop Jean Pierre Camus of Belley. He said that we should carefully cultivate the little virtues which grow beneath the foot of the cross.
Bishop Camus asked the saint what virtues he was referring to. The saint answered, “Humility, patience, gentleness, kindness, forbearance, calmness, good temper, heartiness, pity, ready forgiveness, simplicity, frankness, and so on. These virtues are like violets growing in a shady nook, fed by the dew of heaven, and, though unseen, they give forth a sweet and precious odour.”
“What, then, can be found at the top of the cross itself?” Bishop Camus inquired.
The saint replied, “Plenty. You will find there many bright and shining graces, provided they are formed in the spirit of love: virtues like prudence, justice, magnificence, liberality, almsgiving, strength, bodily mortification, obedience, contemplation, perseverance, contempt of wealth and honour, and many such as these.
“Men are more anxious for these virtues because they win praise. But to be truthful we should value them only insofar as we can please God by their means and discover new ways of proving to Him our love.”
Bishop Camus wrote that St. Francis “considered the most general virtues to be the most preferred, charity only excepted. Thus he valued prayer as the light which illuminates all our good works; devotion, which consecrates all our actions to God’s service; humility, which makes us have only lowly thoughts of ourselves and our works; gentleness, which yields to all; patience, which endures everything.
“These he valued more than magnanimity, liberality, or magnificence, because such virtues affect fewer subjects. He was always suspicious of showy virtues, because he said they tend to feed vainglory, the plague of all good works.”
‘Make haste slowly’
St. Francis de Sales was very fond of an ancient emperor’s motto, “Make haste slowly.” The saint always cautioned people against thinking that perfection is to be found in a multiplicity of religious exercises.
He urged his penitents to avoid over-eagerness. He often said: “It is far better to do a few things well than to undertake many good works and leave them half-done.” He once said, “It is not by the multiplicity of things we do that we attain perfection, but by the perfection and purity of intention with which we do them.”
He said, “What do I mean by doing a good work perfectly? Of course I mean good works performed in a state of grace, as otherwise they would not only be imperfect, but of no value as regards eternity.
“Well, such actions must be performed, first, with a great fervour; second, with a great purposefulness; and third, with great purity of intention. Is it not true, then, that one such action is far better than many done, first, coldly; second, irresolutely; and third, without the purity of intention?”