St. Francis de Sales, was born in 1567. His feast day was this past Friday the 24th. Very early on in life Francis de Sales vowed to become a priest. But this was very much against what his parents wanted for him. Francis was tall, handsome, intelligent and wise. So his parents had great ambitions for him. They wanted him to pursue a political or military career or maybe even become a lawyer. So at the age of 14 they sent him to the university to study law. Francis still hoped to become a priest somehow, but he followed his parent’s wishes and studied law. He did well with his studies, but his spiritual life was in a shambles. He was always filled with worry and anxiety. He worried about the state of his soul; he was convinced that he was going to hell. He did not trust in God’s love or mercy. He lived in darkness.
So every day, for two years, to rid himself of this darkness, he’d visit various churches to pray. One day he visited the Church of Saint-Etienne-des-Gres and on the wall he saw a plaque with the Memorare inscribed on it. Francis knelt before the altar of Our Lady of Good Deliverance and recited the prayer. It had an immediate calming effect. The darkness was gone, his depression and anxiety turned in to a state of grace-filled optimism. He consecrated himself to the BVM and took a vow of chastity in appreciation for his deliverance. This experience taught him to deal tenderly with all the spiritual difficulties and temptations of those he would someday help.
Francis became a lawyer at the age of 24. He hated it. But two years later with the consent of his Dad he was finally able to become a priest. And for his first assignment he was sent to Geneva. This was a difficult assignment because most Genevans had left the Church to become Calvinists. At most there were probably only twenty Catholics left in his parish. And he found that his parish was not a very safe place. The Calvinists were very hostile to Catholics especially priests. He couldn’t even live in his own parish. He had to live outside the parish boundaries and walk in everyday to care for his flock. Sometimes he was attacked by would be assassins and once he was even chased by wolves causing him to spend the night in a tree. But through all of this adversity and there was a lot, he trusted God. He had learned to trust. He didn’t let that old worry and anxiety get the best of him like it had when he was younger. The Lord’s light kept the darkness away. With time, prayer, and perseverance Francis was able to bring many of the Calvinists back to the faith, 72,000 returned to the faith. “Whoever preaches with love is preaching effectively and nothing is so strong as gentleness” he would say.
St. Francis de Sales was a man of prayer, a man of the scriptures, and he learned to trust God. The spiritual life at its most basic is all about growing in trust.
Today we heard twice of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, first in the reading from Isaiah and then again in the Gospel. These were the lands occupied by the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, named for two of Jacob’s sons, two of the twelve tribes. Centuries before, these two lands had been overrun by Assyrian forces. All the rich and educated Israelites were taken away and forced to be servants to the rich and powerful Assyrians. The poorer Israelites were left behind to farm the land and to give the produce to the Assyrians. They suffered greatly. They were oppressed and they lived in darkness. But the prophet Isaiah promised them that a great light would dispel this darkness and gloom. And in the Gospel we heard that Jesus has entered the historic lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. The light has come to the land of darkness and gloom.
Now sometimes we live in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Sometimes we live in a place of darkness, hardship, anxiety, and oppression. Maybe it’s a physical illness, or psychological suffering, or worry about children, or worry about a job, or getting a job. Maybe it’s a deep injustice we’ve experienced. Or an old grudge we just can’t seem to let go. Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one, or fear of the unknown, profound failure of some sort, or maybe its persistent sin. St. Francis de Sales for two years lived in darkness; he lived in his own Zebulun and Naphtali. What is your Zebulun and Naphtali, what is your place of gloom?
That place of gloom is the very place our Lord wants to bring his light. What might God be working in your life where you feel most vulnerable, most alone, most lost? Where might he be leading you? In the land of Zebulun and Naphtali a light has dawned, with God’s grace let us be open to this light and to this love and let us look for it. Let us make an effort to meet Christ, the light of all lights, to be present to him in Scripture, to turn around to meet him in prayer, to visit him in Eucharistic adoration, to visit him in the sacrament of reconciliation, to devoutly receive him in Holy Communion.
I’ve had my moments of worry and anxiety; I’ve had my Zebuluns and Naphtalis. I’ve had moments where I was tempted to not trust. Many years ago a spiritual director gave me a prayer about trust. It was written by St. Francis de Sales who, by the grace of God, learned trust at a very early age. I’ve prayed it many times especially when I slip into worry and anxiety, and it seems so dark. When that happens I dig it out and it reminds me of God’s goodness and light. Because after sin its worry and anxiety that are the next biggest things that turn us away from God. It goes like this:
Do not look forward to the changes and chances of this life with fear. Rather, look to them with full confidence that, as they arise, God to whom you belong will in his love enable you to profit by them. He has guided you thus far in life. Do you but hold fast to His dear hand, and He will lead you safely through all trials. Whenever you cannot stand, He will carry you lovingly in his arms. Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow. The same Eternal Father who takes care of you today will take care of you tomorrow, and every day of your life. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then, and put aside all useless thoughts, all vain dreads and all anxious imaginations.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley