The gentle bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), whose feast day is today, taught the faithful many things about the interior life – not least of which is the need to learn how to be patient with ourselves.
“Have patience in all things—but first of all, with yourself,” the saint so famously said hundreds of years ago.
As simple as this adage may sound, living it is quite another matter.
Thanks to the blight of original sin, we humans have a bad habit of falling. Like St. Paul so aptly described, “What I do I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).
For example, we want so much to be patient with that irritating co-worker but, never fail, they say or do something that pricks us in just the right spot to provoke a nasty retort. Once we stop telling ourselves how much the person deserved it, we begin to realize that our behavior was hardly the response Jesus would have given. And so the inner chastisements begin. “Way to go, hothead!” or “Where’s your self-control?”
Even though we’re supposed to be displeased and sorry about our falls, we must refrain from bitter, gloomy, spiteful and emotional displeasure, St. Francis teaches.
“May people are greatly at fault in this way. When overcome by anger they become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed, and vexed at being vexed. By such means they keep their hearts drenched and steeped in passion.”
The way to break this downward spiral is to ask for the grace to be more patient with ourselves.
“We must be sorry for our faults, but in a calm, settled, firm way.”
This is because we behave more justly toward ourselves when we’re calm than when we’re inwardly raging at ourselves.
“When a judge is guided in his decisions by reason and proceeds calmly, he punishes criminals much more justly than when he acts in violence in passion,” the saint counsels.
If he passes judgement hastily and passionately, he doesn’t punish the crime as much as what it seems to him at the moment.
“So also we correct ourselves much better by calm, steady repentance than by that which is harsh, turbulent and passionate.”
In other words, we need to be reasonable with ourselves and resist the urge to exaggerate every fall into a personal catastrophe.
“A father’s gentle, loving rebuke has far greater power to correct a child than rage and passion,” the saint writes.
He goes on to recommend a much better way to speak to ourselves after a fall: “Alas, my poor heart, here we are, fallen into the pit we were so firmly resolved to avoid! Well, we must get up again and leave it forever. We must call on God’s mercy and hope that it will helps us to be steadier in the days to come. Let us start out again on the way of humility. Let us be of good heart and from this day be more on guard. God will help us; we will do better.”
The same gentle attitude should pervade our prayer lives as well. Just as we do in regard to our outward behavior, we tend to expect too much from ourselves in prayer as well. We get upset over distractions, accidentally skipped prayers, even for not feeling as much fervor as think we ought. God is not a “hair splitter” who fusses over every tiny detail of our prayer. Of the two persons engaged in prayer – ourselves and God – we’re more likely to be the tedious taskmaster, not Him.
In Welcome to Carmel, Catholic author Marilyn Zwick writes: “The reason most of us have difficulty with acquiring a gentle attitude is that we do not love ourselves enough. We have a difficult time accepting ourselves as we are and this attitude is contrary to gentleness.”
Whether in prayer or not, these angry outbursts at ourselves are proof of a secret pride that makes us resist the truth – we’re human beings who are full of imperfections.
Instead, let us take the advice of St. Francis and learn how to deal with our shortcomings with the same gentle acceptance that God does.
Remember, “It is no wonder that infirmity is infirm, weakness weak, or misery wretched.”
Let us accept the fact that we’re not nearly as perfect as we’d like to believe. And when we do fall, simply repent of the offense and, as St. Francis recommends, “with great courage and confidence in His mercy, return to the path of virtue you had forsaken.”
St. Francis de Sales, pray for us!
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