Dr. Alice von Hildebrand St. Francis of Sales and Christopher West

“The devil rescues people from chastity by saying; 'You have become a puritan'” (C.S. Lewis, The Screw Tape Letters, p. 55).


Anyone acquainted with the history of philosophy would be baffled by Christopher West’s presentation of stoicism. He writes: “The stoic tries to avoid the pain of desiring more than this life has to offer by choosing not to want so much, by shutting desire down” (Fill These Hearts, p. 33).


His views sway considerably from the traditional understanding of stoic philosophy. For the authentic stoic fights against all affections, all emotions, not because he fears that their “promise” may not be fulfilled, but because he views them as enemies of his sovereign freedom that can be achieved only by being above the ups and downs of our emotional life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, should disturb his “peace.”


This philosophy finds its most powerful expression in the words of Horace: Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae – “If the round sky should crack and fall upon him, the wreck will strike him fearless still” (Ode VII, 3-7).


West is free to “re-baptize” the word “stoicism,” but he should warn his readers that he is considerably swaying from its historical meaning.


One could refer to stoicism as the pitiful victory of pride over concupiscence. St. John tells us clearly that both vices threaten fallen man. They are his fearful enemies, but pride – that we share with Lucifer (Non serviam) – is the worse of the two. This fact should not make us overlook the daily threat of concupiscence that brings millions of us to committing grave sins. Alas, in man both vices are often happily “married.”


According to West, there are three types of people:


The already alluded to Stoic, the addict, and the mystic.


The addict, who yields constantly to his cravings, will one day discover that he has become a slave, having lost his moral freedom. Tragically, he can also be enslaved by purely artificial cravings. No one is born with a desire to puff on a cigarette, but once a person has started smoking, and found it to be “fashionable” or “relaxing,” he can soon become so dependent on tobacco that without it, he is “paralyzed” and incapable of doing any work. I was told of a parish priest who never delivered a homily: after reading the Gospel, his craving for cigarette was such that he asked the deacon to step into the pulpit. He hurriedly left the church, and to put his body at peace went into the yard for the duration of the sermon to smoke. He then completed the Holy sacrifice of the Mass.

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The third category is the mystics. “ … for  the mystic the true pleasures of this world are a welcome but only dim foreshadowing of the ecstasy that awaits us in the world to come.” … “When properly understood, these true pleasures sharpen our longing for the delights of the eternal banquet that will be ours in eternity” (Fill These Hearts, p. 32).


Clearly, the author is taking the same liberty with the word “mystics” that he has taken with the word “stoic.”


According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, mysticism is a “direct union of the human soul with the Divinity” – an extraordinary privilege which is a foretaste of the beatific vision.


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For a brief, ecstatic moment, the veil of faith is lifted. These extraordinary graces are granted to very few people, and they are in no way required for holiness. In his Confessions, (Book IX, Chapter X)  St. Augustine relates  that, shortly after his conversion when he was still at the foot of the mountain he was granted,together with his beloved mother, taste of the sublime sweetness of beatitude. This overwhelming delight granted to both simultaneously (an exceptional case, I believe) gave them a foretaste of the beatific union, radically transcending the most overwhelming human experience.


Indeed, “no eye has seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2-9). St. Paul could not be clearer; no human satisfaction, however overwhelming, can give us a faint idea of what the beatific vision will be. Once we have had a taste of beatitude, all human joys lose their savor. Why does St. Paul exclaim:“Who will deliver me of this body of death?”


We find similar expressions in St. Teresa of Avila’s biography. Once she had a brief taste of heavenly joys, human life as we know it on this earth became inevitably a sort of spiritual torture. To have a mystical experience is therefore a “croce e delizia” – an overwhelming joy linked to the grief of being still in this vale of tears.


Not only are mystical experiences (which need in no way be essentially linked to phenomena like levitation) granted to very few people, but they are in no way necessary for holiness. Whereas, and this should be underlined, all of us are called to holiness, very few are given mystical graces. To claim that “we all called to be mystics,” is, once again, to deviate from the traditional meaning of the word. That we are all called to holiness is clearly stated in Christ’s words: “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”


West justifies this claim by telling us that “…the deliciousness of a meal and the sadness that it is over does its job: to awake my hope in and what my appetite for the life to which I’m destined…where the banquet never ends.” (p.32)


He writes that he is referring to “true joys.” But the problem is that this word is loaded with equivocations. This becomes clear whenhe refers to the satisfaction that our palate experiences while eating a delicious meal.


Following the teaching of St. Thomas, let us makedistinctions. It might be worthwhile to compare his approach with the one of St. Francis of Sales.


This great saint, being philosophically trained, distinguishes between pleasures that attract us because of the satisfaction they give us, and those (should they be called “pleasures”?) that fill us with joy and give us a taste of happiness because they possess an inner value and beauty that motivates our response. Unless this distinction is clearly made, we open the door to innumerable equivocations.


Moreover, St. Francis of Sales tells us that what he calls “carnal” pleasures (plaisirs charnels) always entail a certain danger for fallen man. Even though God Himself has chosen to link certain bodily activities to pleasurable sensations, but because of original sin (rarely mentioned by West) they are potentially linked to venial sins. (Introduction to the Devout Life, chapter XXXIX). The Bishop of Geneva is alluding to the fact that the intensity of carnal pleasures caneasily take precedence upon its essential theme: in the case of marriage, the loving self donation to one’s spouse.


This is why he wrote: “There is no union so precious and so fruitful between husband and wife as that of holy devotion in which they should mutually lead and sustain each other” (Chapter XXXVIII) The same great saint also wrote:  that “marriage is honorable in all its parts” (Ibid). These are not the words of a "puritan" who looks down upon the flesh. They flow from the pen of a profoundly humble person who never loses sight of the fact that, as long as live in this vale of tears, we should always be spiritually alert, and realize that our enemy the Devil who never sleeps, can hijack every situation and make us trip and fall.  Any confessor will tell us that sins against the sixth commandment are rarely unmentioned in the Confessional, for “sin lies at the door of pleasure.”


What a difference between the pleasure we experience while eating a delicious meal, and “our sadness” that it is over, and our being moved to tears by a magnificent sunset, perceived through our eyes, while the latter do not “feel” any pleasure at all.

The joy that chaste spouses experience in their self-donation to the other is to be distinguished from the carnal pleasure felt in this union. The first is a faint foretaste of eternal joys. The second strikes mystics as “ordure” (dung) and slime to those who have had a brief foretaste ofeternal joys. (Treatise of the Love of God, V; 8). His teaching is luminous; they are legitimate carnal pleasures, but because of original sin, they are connected with the potential danger of gaining precedence over the joy of being united to the beloved.


St. Francis refers to the crucial distinction that St.Augustine makes between things that should be used and those that should be enjoyed. Carnal pleasures should not be isolated. St. Francis makes this clearby telling us that marriage is holy in all its parts is one thing; that it is not easy for fallen man to truly live it in all its perfections is another.


Speaking about the pleasure of the palate, (and subtly referring to all carnal pleasures) St. Francis writes,  “Persons of honor never think of eating, but when they sit down at table and after dinner wash their hands and their mouth that they may neither keep the taste nor the scent of what they have been eating.”


This is definitely a different approach from the one telling us that a person is sad that a good meal is over.


The teaching of St. Francis is luminous: all carnal joys should be baptized by gratitude; their enjoyment should never be our main concern. This king of spiritual directors hints at the fact that it is not easy for fallen man to taste carnal pleasures and avoid pitfalls which are linked to them. In his Introduction to the Devout Life addressed to Philothea (a woman), he advises married women (many of his spiritual daughters were grandes dames, inevitably leading a social life), to take the discipline twice a week.


The message is clear: being married, and enjoying the legitimate delights of the great sacrament they received, they should never lose sight of the fact that the enjoyment of carnal pleasure, because of our wounded nature, needs to be constantly purified. It might be more difficult to do so than to abstain from these pleasures altogether, as is the case of people who consecrated their virginity to God.


Let us think of great saints who were married. I choose two example among very many. St. Thomas More, married twice, was the father of four children. He wore a hair shirt, and took the discipline. The same is true of St. Frances of Rome, married for forty years.


In their humility, these great saints remained keenly aware that as long as we live, pleasure needs to be “baptized” and “re-baptized.” Let us not forget that the forbidden fruit was a delight to the eye and promised to be good to the taste.


Are carnal pleasures evil? No. But, St. Francis tells us that they call for a “caveat.” The devil like a roaring lion is always on the look out to devour us. How easily can one convince oneself that self-donation is one’s main motivation, while in fact “omnis homo mendax” (every man is a liar).


A test can make this clear: when abstinence is called for because of circumstances. How does a spouse respond to such situations? With ill grace, or joyfully embracing this sacrifice, with the realization that common sacrifices joyfully accepted are the cement of great human love. In fact, routine is the great enemy of beautiful marital exchanges.


It is deeply meaningful that Luther ridicules ascetic practices which he abolished with the consequences that we know. After Vatican II, several religious orders followed his advice; alas how many of their members today betray the wisdom of their founder. I have been told that in some Jesuit houses, there is a cocktail hour before dinner. On the other hand, new and flourishing religious orders (and thank God there are several) reintroduced discipline, hair shirts, and severe fasting.


Simone de Beauvoir refers to such practices as “masochism.” Indeed, there is such a thing as perverse masochism which aims at sexual satisfaction. Satan always aims at aping God.


Right as West is in claiming that ascetic practices can be abused (see The Heart of the Gospel, p. 256) this should not blind us to the fact that no saint has ever reached holiness without asceticism. The Little Flower tells us that the practice of the “discipline” often brought tears to her eyes. 


It is always recommended that these practices are done with the approval of wise spiritual direction. St. Francis of Sales can truly be proclaimed king of the spiritual directors. One of the marks of French spirituality is the talent to communicate a sensitive message with such noble subtlety that while luminously clear, it avoids the pitfall of using coarse and vulgar language to make sure that “one’s message is properly communicated.”


St. Francis - animated by his profound faith, appeals to what is best and deepest in the human soul, and by his loving trust that as long as we live, the image of God, while badly stained, is still there, he awakened innumerable human souls to their calling to grow wings.


He ends the chapter on married love with the words:

“I have now said all that I wish to say, and have sufficiently implied, without saying it, that which I was unwilling to say” (Chapter XXXIX).


What a precious advice for us “modern” folk. What a spiritual wake-up call to make us realize that we should re-learn to speak the languages of angels.

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