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Saint Francis de Sales and the love heresy

Saint Francis de Sales and the love heresy

Francisco Bayeu y Subías (1734–1795), “St. Francis de Sales” (photo: Public Domain)

“It is a heresy in sacred love to make choice among God’s commandments, which to observe, and which to violate.”

Matt D’Antuono, January 24, 2020

It turns out that St. Francis de Sales is not the patron saint of shoppers; he is the patron saint of writers, and it is his writing that forced me to consider the question whether I am a heretic when it comes to love.

In Book XI, Chapter 9 of his Treatise on the Love of God, de Sales says that a Catholic is Catholic because he chooses to agree with the whole faith of the Church and a heretic is someone who chooses not to believe some of the Church’s teachings. Agreed. As a revert to the Catholic faith after trying to disprove it, I am familiar with, and agree with, this notion of the heretic.

What really hit home for me, though, was what came next. “Now it is the same in the articles of charity.”

Interesting. Why?

“It is a heresy in sacred love to make choice among God’s commandments, which to observe, and which to violate.”

I know that I fail at an alarming rate in my efforts to love fully. Does that make me a heretic in sacred love?

“To make an act of true charity, it must proceed from an entire, general, and universal love, which extends to all the divine commandments, and if we fail in any one commandment, love ceases to be entire and universal, and the heart wherein it is cannot be called truly loving, nor, consequently, truly good.”

In that case, I don’t know if I have ever made an act of true charity because I realize more and more how much my actions proceed from a partial, particular, and limited love. Is that love heresy?

I was reminded of the first time I read Brothers Karamazov when I was convicted by Father Zossima’s famous words about love. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

But why? Shouldn’t love in reality and in dreams be greater than love only in dreams, as per the Ontological argument? Harsh and dreadful doesn’t sound greater.

“Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed in the sight of all.”


“Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage.”

All the world is a stage, and my daydreams of spreading the gospel, being a martyr for the faith, or performing great acts of charity are often mixed with images of my canonization. Even my aspirations to live some life of secret self-denial, known only to God, unknown even from one hand to the other, somehow incorporate people finding out (oh no!) and celebrating the humility of such a great saint.

“But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.”

Harsh and dreadful.

Labor and fortitude.

Sounds like parenting.

Love in action is greater… not easier, but greater. Love in action is every day. Love in action involves loving in the ways that I don’t feel like loving; entire, general, and universal. I may dream of giving my life joyfully as a martyr, but why is it so hard to handle potty accidents with patience? I may entertain grandiose thoughts of traveling the globe for the glory of God, but why can’t I willingly give up five minutes to chat with my 4-year-old? I may desire to help the poor in some regular and extraordinary way, but I cannot consistently do the laundry for my family with great love.

Again, de Sales sends a punch to the gut: “Is it not an extreme temptation to be so valiant in imagination, and so cowardly in execution?”

Yes, St. Francis, you are right; it is cowardly.

“How can he will to die for God who will not live according to God?”

If I have not love, then I am nothing.

So, am I a love heretic? In looking back over the relevant passage, I noticed the word “choice.” St. Francis is talking about people who choose some commandments and not others. I choose all of them. I choose to live as closely as I can to the commands of God, even though I fail again, and again, and again, and again. I suffer not from a failure of choice, but from weakness.

At this point, the Little Flower comes to my rescue as I recall how she practically gloried in her failings as constant reminders of her littleness so that she could run back into the arms of her Father. In the end, it is about God’s love. Only He carries out that entire, general, and universal love with perfect execution all the time, and it is by his Grace that I have any love at all or even the ability to choose all of his commandments of love. If I have any love, it is only because He loved me first.

St. Francis de Sales and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, pray for us that our love may become more Catholic, i.e., more universal and entire.

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