Could it be true that the experience of crisis defines the human condition? From the Indo-European root krei, “crisis” signifies the act of sieving, separating, judging or deciding on something. It very well may be that how one responds to crisis determines the difference between the angel and the demon, as well as the difference between the sinner and the saint. Saint Francis de Sales (1567–1622) was no stranger to crisis and, therefore, no stranger to Christ.
At the tender age of 19, he underwent a deep spiritual crisis and was tempted to despair when he encountered the newly invented Calvinist doctrine of predestination and thereafter was convinced of his personal damnation to hell. De Sales was so disturbed by this thought that he became physically sick and even bedridden for a time. What turned him away from his scrupulous assumption about his own predetermined condemnation was the timeless Johannine doctrine that “God is love” and this unconditional love revealed in the Eucharist.
Seven years after his crisis of faith, de Sales would be ordained a Catholic priest, and nine years later, he would be consecrated Bishop of Geneva, Switzerland – the very place where Jean Calvin established and spread his Protestant reform movement in the mid-1500s. Only one year after being ordained a priest, de Sales was sent as a missionary to a Calvinist region called the Chablais. In response to the assignment of the bishop, de Sales said, “My Lord, if you think I am qualified, command me, I am ready. On your word, I shall cast the net.”
The first three years of de Sales’ missionary work would result in not a single convert. He had rocks thrown at him, and doors slammed in his face. At times, he would celebrate Mass and preach to an empty congregation. On one occasion, he slept in a tree overnight to stay out of the reach of wolves below, and on another occasion, an attack was made on his life. Yet it was his unrelenting devotion to the Eucharist that sustained him. De Sales began to print his sermons as religious tracts and slide them under people’s doors.
The young missionary understood evangelization not as a work of forceful coercion but as a movement of gentleness and love. A seventeenth-century French bishop, Jean-Pierre Camus, said of de Sales that “some wished to make themselves feared; but Francis de Sales desired only to be loved, and to enter men’s hearts through the doorway of affection.” After the fourth year of de Sales’ mission, a miracle happened. Virtually the entire Calvinist population of around 70,000 people of the Chablais would reconvert to the Catholic faith. It was not de Sales himself who brought about this massive conversion of souls, but God the Holy Spirit at work through his humility and perseverance.
In one of his early sermons, de Sales calls the Eucharist the “abridgment of our faith.” This is to say that the Eucharist sums up the entire narrative of salvation history and contains the Real Presence of the Savior. In his beloved Introduction to the Devout Life, de Sales writes that “our Savior has instituted the most august sacrament of the Eucharist, which contains his flesh and blood in their reality, so that whoever eats of it shall live forever…Whoever turns to the Eucharist frequently and devoutly so effectively builds up his soul’s health that it is almost impossible for him to be poisoned by evil affection of any kind. We cannot be nourished by this flesh of life and live on the affections of death.” De Sales was convinced that the Eucharist was the remedy for sin and the living sacramental fuel of evangelical fervor.
Further, de Sales says of the Eucharist, “Those who have good spiritual digestion feel that Jesus Christ, who is their food, spreads and communicates to all parts of their soul and body…Nights are days when God is in our hearts, and days become nights when he is not.” In one of his Christmas sermons, Saint Francis teaches that “manna is a figure of the incarnation of the Word. It also prefigured the Eucharist. Between the mystery of the Eucharist and that of the Incarnation there is only one difference: In the Incarnation we see the incarnate God in his own Person, and in the Eucharist we see him under a more hidden and obscure form. In both instances, it is the same God-Man who was born of the Virgin.” With Saint Francis de Sales, we recognize that the Incarnation of God is extended and perpetuated in the most holy Sacrament of the altar.
De Sales recommends that the faithful approach the Eucharist with frequency and steady devotion. Again, he writes in his Introduction to the Devout Life, “Two classes of people should receive the Eucharist frequently: the perfect, because being well disposed they would be very much to blame if they did not approach the source and fountain of perfection, and the imperfect, so that they rightly strive for perfection; the strong lest they become weak, and the weak that they may become strong; the sick that they may be restored to health, and the healthy lest they fall sick.” Without the Eucharist, how else could one be perfected? Apart from the Eucharist, how else could one be healed and set free from sin, guilt and anxiety?
We might wonder what practical suggestions Saint Francis de Sales gives for approaching the sacramental love of God, who approaches us first. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, de Sales describes what he calls the “short method of meditation.” Within this method, he suggests two primary points of preparation: (1) place yourself in the presence of God, and (2) invoke God’s assistance. Below is a summary of what we could call “meditative prompts for Eucharistic adoration.”
Place yourself in the presence of God
- “Have a lively, attentive realization of God’s absolute presence.”
- “Remember that God is not only in the place where you are but also that he is present in a most particular manner in your heart and in the very center of your spirit.”
- “Consider how our Savior in his humanity gazes down from heaven on all mankind, and most especially on those who are at prayer, whose actions and conduct he observes.”
- “Use your imagination to represent to yourself the Savior in his sacred humanity as if he were near us, just as we sometimes imagine a friend to be present. If the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is present, then Christ’s presence is real and not purely imaginary.”
Invoke God’s assistance
- “Knowing that it stands in God’s presence, your soul prostrates itself before him with the most profound reverence.”
“Implore God’s grace in order to serve and adore him properly in your meditation with some short, ardent words, such as:
- O God, cast me not out from your presence and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
- Let your face shine upon your servant.
- I will consider the wonders of your law.
- Give me discernment and I will keep it with my whole heart.
- I am your servant; give me discernment.”
- “It will also be helpful to invoke your guardian angel as well as the holy saints who had part in the mystery on which you meditate.”
By allowing Saint Francis de Sales to guide us along the way of meditative prayer, we too will be able to develop a faith like his in the supernatural power of divine providence unleashed in the Eucharist. When we come up against another crisis in life, we can be confident that our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, will lead us into still waters, even if it seems that he remains calmly asleep in the stern of the boat. Saint Francis de Sales teaches us that crisis itself is a launchpad into the mystery of Christ, who never fails to nourish us with his most sacred Body and Blood in the Eucharist so that “the journey may not be too much for you!” (1 Kings 19:7).