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. I will post the second conference at a later date.
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
The people of Jesus’ time had given in to the very human temptation of multiplying laws, rules and prescriptions in their efforts to please God, so they asked Jesus which of all those laws was the greatest. His answer captured the essence of everything God asks of us in these two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. It sounds so simple, and yet we know, in real life, they can be challenging, whether first century Galilee, or 17th century Savoy, or twenty-first century North America. These simple words invite us into the mysterious relationship of love that we have with God and with each other. And so it is that Francis de Sales wrote a Treatise of 12 books reflecting on just the first of these two commands. Just as he addressed the Introduction to the Devout Life to Philothea (one who loves God) so he addressed the Treatise on the Love of God to Theotimus (one who has the fear of God). He evidently intended to write a companion treatise on the second commandment, but died before he could even begin that project.
When he wrote The Treatise on the Love of God, Francis drew upon his background as a student of philosophy and theology, but as he tells us, the strongest influence was his pastoral experience as a bishop. As he wrote in the preface to the Treatise: “The things I have set forth are not so much those I learned in earlier days of disputation, but rather those which concern for the service of souls and twenty-four years spent in sacred preaching lead me to think are most conducive to the glory of the Gospel and of the Church.” In other words, what we find in the Treatise is theological reflection at the service of pastoral ministry. It ought not surprise us that the Treatise is, at times, profoundly theological. And admittedly, it can be intimidating for a twenty-first century reader, especially since we have not been formed in the concepts and terminology that Francis frequently uses. But at the same time, we need to keep in mind that Francis’ purpose in drawing upon his philosophic and theological background is to help Theotimus grow in the love of God. As he was writing the Treatise, he shared his intention for the work with the Archbishop of Vienne: “I shall not treat the subject speculatively, but just to show how that love is put into practice in obeying the first table of the commandments.” Admittedly, there are times in the Treatise when he strays back into speculation, but his overall purpose remains clear: to help a soul that is already devout to make further advances in its design. And so today what I hope to do is to present and reflect on what I call the four faces of love in the Treatise of the love of God.
Francis makes four distinctions, or more accurately, 2 sets of 2 distinctions. He writes about the love of complacence and the love of benevolence, and affective and effective love. These distinctions Francis makes are, to my way of thinking, somewhat confusing. Complacence and affective love seem very similar, as do benevolence and effective love. And yet, Francis never makes that connection; he never identifies complacence with affective love or benevolence with effective love. If I understand the Treatise correctly, Francis first describes the way in which love grows from complacence to benevolence and then develops the ways in which we live out that love both affectively and effectively. The love of complacence and the love of benevolence are stages we go through as the love of God grows in us; the exercises of affective and effective love are the ways in which we, as the name suggests, exercise that love that we have achieved. So in the next post, I will focus on complacence and in following blogs on benevolence (love as it grows and develops), affective and effective love, the ways in which we practice love. In every post I hope to point out what Francis insights may say to us today.
Fr. Donald Heet, OSFS