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.
What does Francis de Sales mean by the love of benevolence? Basically he is describing the drive to wish well and do well for the person we love. Once again, if we look at human relationships, especially the relationship between a man and woman that culminates in marriage, we know that a relationship that was based solely on the joy of being loved, that never returned that love, whether on the part of the man or of the woman, would be doomed. The selfishness of such love would destroy it. Love is not simply a case of being loved, of receiving love. When we love someone, we want what’s best for our beloved. We want to do what we can to make the beloved happy. In human relationships that ranges from gifts of flowers and candy, to the ongoing gift of self in a marriage. It certainly is obvious in the love that parents have for their children; it is the impetus for the many sacrifices good parents make.
Now there is, of course, an obvious problem when we talk about loving God. When we talk about loving God, we are talking about loving the creator of the universe, God, who is perfectly happy in his own divinity. What can we creatures do for our creator? It’s kind of the ultimate case of what do you get the man who has everything. Except that in this case, God – as trinity – is not a man and God quite literally does have everything. So what can we humble creatures do for the creator of the universe? How can we exercise the love of benevolence towards God?
Francis raises and quickly dismisses two possible solutions. The first is to imagine the impossible, namely to imagine that God lacked something that we could give him. Benevolence then prompts us to protest that we would joyfully offer whatever would bring him perfection. However, as I said, the situation is impossible, so this solution seems very forced. The second is not much better – in fact, perhaps it is a bit worse. Francis cites St. Augustine, who said that if he were God and God were Augustine, he (Augustine who is now God) would give away everything so that God (who is now Augustine) could be God once again. Did you follow that? No matter, it’s not very convincing.
As I said, reading the Treatise, you get the sense that Francis did not find either of these particularly satisfying. After all, both are based on impossible suppositions. Both have to imagine God not being God. But then Francis offers a third alternative. It’s based on the fact that although we humans first love God with the love of complacence which leads us to benevolence, God first loves us with a love of benevolence, and then, once we have been transformed by that love, God takes pleasure – the love of complacence – in the happiness he sees in us his creatures. Since God first loves us with a love of benevolence, our happiness, flowing from that love, is pleasing to him. Since there can be no greater source of happiness for a human being than the love of complacence we have for God, the best we can give God is to increase our complacent love for him, all the while praising his goodness. Our love for God is the best gift we can give God.
Then, loving God we give him praise, glory and honor. In Francis time, it was customary to pay honor to kings and nobles. As Francis points out, such acts really do not add anything to the one who is honored. They already are deserving of the honor given them. Often they are not even aware of many of the acts their subjects do to honor them. Such acts flow from the benevolent love of the one giving honor. They are inspired by the complacent love that that person feels for the honoree, which prompts the benevolent love that gives him honor. So too with God. As we say in Preface 4 from the missal, “although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation through Christ our Lord.” To put it another way, the only thing that we have, that God will not have unless we give it to him, is our love. And while his happiness does not depend upon our love, God knows that our happiness does depend upon our Love for Him. And so, as the God who loves us beyond our imagining, God rejoices to see us overflow with love for him. He delights in seeing our happiness. And our happiness ultimately consists in praising our wonderful God to the best of our ability. And so the prayer that we say so often is so central to our faith: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.
However, we know of course, that even the best of our love falls woefully short of the love that God’s goodness deserves. And so we look for others to join us. Francis highlights the tradition of calling on all peoples, all creation, to praise God. We see that in many of the psalms, for example in Psalm 117: “Praise the LORD, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples! His mercy for us is strong; the faithfulness of the LORD is forever. Hallelujah!” We hear it in the canticle of the three men cast into the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel, when they call on the angels of heaven, the elements of the earth, all the creatures of land and sea, all peoples of every nation to bless the Lord. We sing it in the words of St. Francis of Assisi:
All Creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voice and with us sing:
O burning Sun with golden beam,
O silver moon with softer gleam,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Let all things their creator bless
And worship God in humbleness: Alleluia, alleluia.
O praise, the Father, praise the Son
And praise the Spirit three in one,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
However, as Francis reminds us, even this chorus of all creation is insufficient either to praise God as he should be praised or to praise him with the devotion that those who love him desire. Here Francis tells of a delightful incident in his own life. He was in Milan on a pilgrimage in honor of St. Charles Borromeo. He says they heard many glorious choirs. But, “in a convent of young women we heard the voice of a religious so wonderfully sweet that alone it sounded incomparably sweeter to our minds than all the rest together. Although the other voices were excellent, they seemed merely to give luster to that unique voice and to enhance its perfection and splendor.” Francis compares this one beautiful voice that stood out in excellence from all the others, with the praise that Mary, the Mother of God, God’s most perfect creature, eternally gives to God: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
And yet it is still not enough. Mary, while the most perfect of creatures, is still only a creature. And so it is to her Son, who is also Son of God, that we look for that perfect act of praise. He did that, of course, in his perfect act of obedience of death on the cross. And the Lord’s great gift to us is the unbelievable honor of participating in that same act of worship the Lord Jesus gives his Father. In every Mass, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer where we have recalled Christ’s death and resurrection, the priest says, “Through him, with him, and in Him, O God almighty Father, all glory and honor is yours forever.” And the congregation joins in that prayer with what is known as the great Amen. Great indeed! Our “Amen!” joins us with Christ in giving all glory and honor to God our Father.
Francis sees this interplay of complacence and benevolence as the rhythm of the loving heart. Just as our heart pulls in blood and then pulses it out, so, as creatures, we find our happiness both in taking pleasure in God’s goodness and in expressing our love in praise. And it’s not something we experience simply here on earth. In Book V of the Treatise, Francis gives, to my mind, one of the most glorious views of heaven in all of Christian writing. We know that in heaven we will see God face to face. In the words of St. John, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Seeing God as he is, we will be filled with a complacence we could never endure in our earthly existence; We could not bear it; we would literally die of love. That heavenly complacence will, as it always does, inspire a complementary love of benevolence so that we, together with the whole heavenly choir, will praise God with a love that, again, we could never express in our earthly existence. But seeing God praised so wonderfully will increase our heavenly complacence that much more which will in turn prompt more benevolence, and so on in an endless and infinite progression of love. Not only will we never stop loving God; in heaven we will never stop growing in love.
Of course all this presumes that we love God as we should, “with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.” Francis makes it sound almost automatic, second nature. And yet, we know all too well that we too often fail to come even close to that love. We have moments of complacent love. And sometimes it does lead us to benevolent love, but too often it doesn’t. Something gets in the way. We get distracted by some momentary pleasure, some trinket or bauble. Our human emotions and desires overwhelm our heavenly affections and we forget who we are, who we are called to be. That, after all, is what sin does, it makes us forget who we are and the fact that we are called to the eternal bliss of loving God. In books 6 through 9, Francis helps us appreciate ways we can foster that love. In my subsequent postings, I will look at some of the ways we can exercise and focus our love of God in affective and effective love.
Fr. Donald Heet, OSFS