Note: This and subsequent posts are taken from a day of recollection in 2016 which I gave to the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales in 2016
The first face of love of God is what Francis de Sales calls complacent love. The word “Complacent” is an obvious but unfortunate way to translate the term that Francis uses. In modern English, complacence suggests being satisfied with the way things are, and, usually, the way we are. Complacence suggests that we are not about to change because we are pretty happy with things the way they are. Obviously, that would be a pretty weak form of love. For Francis, the word complaysance means something very different. Complaysance/complacence, as it is used in The Treatise, means an intense happiness. It refers to the joy or pleasure we feel when we encounter someone or something lovable. I once saw a picture of an incredibly cute little girl, her face all scrunched up in expressible joy. We don’t see why. Maybe she had just gotten a new toy, or had just seen her birthday cake. Whatever it was, it clearly filled her with joy. It was, I think, a perfect image of the joy of complacent love. Another image that I find helpful is that of two people falling in love. Now you’ll have to forgive me, but I often look at life through the lens of a musical theater addict. Last summer, I saw a magnificent production of West Side Story. If you are familiar with the play or movie, you know that early in the play, Tony and Maria meet at a dance and immediately fall head over heels in love. About the only thing Tony knows of her is her name and so he walks through the streets of New York, singing about Maria in some of the most beautiful and soaring music Leonard Bernstein ever wrote: “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly that name will never be the same to me.” That is, I think, what the love of complacence looks like in our experience of human love.
So how does complacence fit into our love of God? Simply put, to know God is to love him. God is so good, so lovable, that once we have an experience of God we are naturally drawn love him. To the extent that we get to know God as God really is, to that degree we will fall in love with him. Of course, the challenge is getting to know God. God is transcendent. For most of us, God is beyond our immediate experience. We don’t encounter a burning bush. We can’t see or hear God in the way that we hear and see each other. As the hymn we sometimes sing goes, we walk by faith and not by sight. Reasonably, we can conclude that there is a supreme being, the one who created the universe, but that is very different in getting to know the God who loves us. The reality of God, his beauty, his wisdom, his power, his lovability: all that has to be mediated by another human being, someone or perhaps more than one who have experienced God through faith. Of course, the great exception to this – or perhaps its ultimate expression – is the person of Jesus. Truly divine and truly human, Jesus expresses in human flesh who God is. And ironically, as Paul points out in his letter to the Philippians, it was by emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave that Jesus revealed his divinity. It was after his death, death on a cross that the father exalted him and made him Lord of the Universe. But even in the case of Jesus, we are separated by two thousand years of history. And so it is through the memories of those who encountered and followed Jesus, memories written down in the Gospels, that we get the clearest idea of who God is. It is through the witness of others that we come to know God, although ultimately, it is God himself who touches our souls through these human experiences. Those who come to faith as adults, who enter the church through the rites of Christian Initiation as adults, typically come to know God through another person whom they know and respect: A spouse or a friend, less frequently through something that they read or see on TV. In one way or another, God is presented to them in all his goodness and they are drawn to him by the love of complacence. For those of us who are cradle Catholics and were raised in the church, we probably initially heard about God from our parents. They told us the story of Jesus. They taught us how to pray and brought us to Church. Perhaps they sent us to Catholic School or to religious education class. In all those ways we were exposed to the reality of who God is from our earliest days. But for many who are raised in a Christian household, it is not until we, on our own, come to recognize the reality that has been presented to us in our childhood that we really come to love him. Before that, our belief in God, even our love for him may have been little more than something that we were supposed to do, something that was expected of us. Our relationship with God may have been based more on duty than love. The love of complacence happens when we encounter, in a personal way, the loving God we have heard so much about and come to love him. So, whether cradle Catholic or recent convert, we come to know God through our experience of God mediated through other humans, men and women who have themselves come to know and love God.
St. Francis tells the story of St. Pachomius, a young pagan Roman soldier, who with his fellow soldiers, found himself in camp with very little food. The Christian people of Thebes, seeing their situation, freely shared their food with him. As Francis writes,
“they quickly went to the aid of the soldiers in their need but with such care, courtesy and love that Pachomius was seized with admiration; he asked what were these people who were so generous, friendly, and kind, and was told that they were Christians. When he next inquired about their law and way of life, he learned that they believed in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, that they did good to all men and that they had a sure hope of receiving from God himself an ample reward. . . . By means of these Christians’ good example, as though by a sweet voice, God calls him, awakens him, and gives him the first feeling of the vital warmth of his love. As I have said, he had scarcely heard them speak of the Savior’s law of love than he was filled completely with new light and inner consolation.”
Typically, that is how our complacent love of God begins. Most often we see it manifest in another human being. Sometimes it is someone through whom God’s love shines brilliantly. Many of you know the story of Malcolm Muggeridge, a British intellectual who, for much of his life was agnostic, until he encountered St. Teresa of Calcutta and, impressed by her simple goodness, subsequently converted to Catholicism. Similarly, I think we see God’s mercy manifest through Pope Francis, especially in his love and concern for the poor. But it does not have to be – and in fact usually is not – a canonized saint or pope through whom our eyes are opened to God. Many of us first encountered our loving God through the life and witness of our parents. Or it may be a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, teacher, priest, nun, friend or acquaintance who reflects the goodness of God. That is evangelism, sharing the good news, at work.
Whatever that initial attraction – and whether it happens to us when we are children, teenagers or as adults – the grace of God draws us, as it drew Pachomius – to find out more, to learn about the God these people love. And the more we learn, the more we love. We are captured, if you will, by complacent love. It will only be in heaven that we will see God face to face, but even here in this life, as we begin to know him, we fall in love. And like a young couple falling in love with each other, we are overjoyed by the experience
The love of complaisance is a fairly passive love. Just as we usually do not set out to fall in love with another human person – as the word suggests, we “fall” into it – So too, we do not decide to fall in love with God. It happens to us. To help us understand this process, St. Francis de Sales uses the image of the apode. It’s one of my favorite images in the Treatise. The apode was a mythical bird. Evidently it was a large bird– perhaps the size of a duck or a goose, but with tiny, useless feet. I tend to think of the albatross which actually has fairly large feet, but its short stubby legs are not much use on land. Because its legs are so small, the apode was unable to get a running start needed to launch itself into flight. Once on the ground, its only hope was for a strong breeze to come along. Then, if it cooperated by spreading its wings, it could become airborne, lifted by the wind. So too, Francis says, since we human beings are weakened by original sin, there is no way we can come to know, much less love God by our own efforts. Like the apode, we are stuck on the ground. But God, in his love, sends his grace to stimulate us to respond and spread our wings in love of him. And if we, in our human weakness, respond to that grace, we take flight. We encounter the living God, and encountering God, we fall in love with God.
There are implications for this love of complacence. First of all, we have to cooperate with the initial grace of attraction. If that apode sits there with its wings folded, it will never take flight, despite the breeze that invites it to do so. So too we need to respond to that grace of God. We know that sadly there are many people who have heard about God perhaps even been taught about him, but don’t respond to his love. Why not? Why would anyone resist the alluring power of God’s love? In some cases it could be because they have been presented with so many negative views of God, that they are resistant to being open to him. They have been taught that God is a strict judge rather than a merciful father. Or they have encountered a horrible tragedy and been told simply to accept it as God’s will. As we will see, God’s will can include pain and sorrow, but our understanding has to be nuanced. It can be too easy to end up blaming God for human sorrow. In other cases individuals may be too distracted to notice the gentle breeze of God’s love. Possessions, the drive for power, the lust for pleasure – any or all of these can dull our higher senses so that we are oblivious to the beauty of God’s love. In some cases, peoples’ experience of life, of their fellow human beings, may have been marked by such cruelty or hatred, that they find it almost impossible to believe in any kind of love, human or divine. Or maybe it’s simply that no one has ever bothered to point out the love of God that is manifested all around them.
And that points us toward the second implication of our love of complacence – and, for that matter, to the love of benevolence. If we have experienced the love of God, then we have an obligation to share that love with others. That obligation flows from the fact that our love of complacence will naturally develop into a love of benevolence. And the love of benevolence will impel us to share the good news about our God with others. That is the new evangelism we have heard so much about in recent years. As Christians, as Catholics, as followers of St. Francis de Sales, we are called to share the good news of how much God loves us with our brothers and sisters. We have been given a precious gift, a pearl of great price, but we are not to hoard it for ourselves. The God who loves us so much wants us to share that love with our families, our friends, with whomever we can, whether by action or by word. God wants the love of complacence that we take in him to move us to the love of benevolence.
Fr. Donald Heet, OSFS