Notes to Novices
What would it be like to receive a letter from St. Francis de Sales, especially as you are just starting out in religious life?
Some fortunate novices contemporary with St Francis actually did receive advice from his enlightened pen! And if you read these excerpts, his timeless wisdom will help you too!
St Francis de Sales responded to a novice back in 1603 regarding the discernment of feelings:
“You ask me if you are to receive and yield to feelings [of devotion]. You say that without them your spirit languishes, and that still you cannot receive them without suspicion ; and it seems to you that you ought to reject them. Feeling and sweetness may come from the friend or from the enemy, that is, from the evil spirit or from the good one.
Now, we can tell whence they come by certain signs, all of which I cannot well name to you ; but here are some of them which will suffice. When we do not stay in them, but simply use them by way of recreation, to enable us afterwards to fulfil our duties, and the work with which God has charged us, more courageously, it is a good sign ; for God gives them sometimes for this purpose. He bends down to our weakness ; he sees that our spiritual taste is outof order ; he gives us a little sauce, not that we may eat the sauce only, but that he may tempt us to eat the solid meat. It is, therefore, a good sign when we do not stop at feelings ; for the evil one, when it is he who gives the feelings, desires that we should -stay in them, and that eating only the sauce our spiritual appetite should be weakened, and, little by little,ruined.
Secondly, good feelings do not inspire thoughts of pride, but, on the contrary, they strengthen us to reject those which the evil one may take occasion from them to whisper to us, so that the superior part ever remains entirely humble and lowly. It understands that Caleb and Josue would never have brought back the grapes from the Promised Land, to entice the Israelites to conquer it, unless they had considered their spirits to be weak and in need of stimulating ;and so, instead of thinking itself to be something on account of these feelings, it argues and acknowledges its weakness, and humbles itself lovingly before its Beloved, who pours out his balm and his perfume that the young maidens and weak souls like itself may perceive, love, and run after it.
But when they are evil feelings that possess us, instead of making us think of our weakness, they make us think we are getting them as a reward and prize.
Good feelings, when they depart, do not leave us weakened, but strengthened, not afflicted, but cheered ;evil ones, on the contrary, when they arrive, give us some joy, and departing, leave us full of distress. Good feelings, when they go away, recommend that during their absence we should cherish, serve, and follow virtue, for the increase of which they had been given to us ; evil ones make us believe that with them virtue goes away, and that we are unable to observe it as we should.
In short, good feelings do not want us to love them,but to love him who gives them (not that they are unworthy to be loved, but that is not what they seek);whereas evil ones would have themselves loved above all things. Hence the good ones do not make us eagerly seek them or cherish them ; but bad feelings encourage us ever to seek virtue with eagerness and disquiet.
By these four or five marks you will be able to tell whence your feelings come from.”