Preparing for the Holy Ghost with Saint Francis de Sales

I certainly learned much I never knew about the fabric of the Lutheran family thanks to Mark Ellingsen’s posting.  I have only very limited experience with the Lutheran Church, and so I certainly appreciated the chance to have some of the basic and more nuanced differences between the various strands of the Lutheran family spelled out.  It is heartening to hear about the joy and spontaneity Mr. Ellingsen experiences in his life as he follows Jesus, and which he suggests many Lutherans enjoy.  

The metaphor of a marriage and a family that Mr. Ellingsen uses in many ways rings true for me as a Roman Catholic, as he describes the characteristics of a spouse (Jesus) rubbing off on believers the more they know and spend time with Him, as in a marriage.  I think it is certainly true that the more we love Christ, and the more we serve Him, we begin to “just sort of know” as Ellingsen asserts, how to please Him.  However, I’m not sure I would trust myself to serve our Lord very faithfully for very long within the model Ellingsen seems to put forward.  Mr. Ellingsen asserts that “true human love is spontaneous,” and my Roman Catholic tradition has taught me to disagree deeply.  He also explains that “Lutherans claim that there is no need to teach Christians how to follow Jesus.  It will just happen spontaneously when you are living with Jesus.”  Again, both what I have learned and what I have experienced will not allow me to agree.  And yet, there is something in the spirit of what Ellingsen says that I really like, and a way in which I sense Catholics and at least some of the Lutherans he describes are not far off from one another.  I hope to explore that a bit here.

First, we must establish how we disagree about the nature of love.  Thomas Aquinas speaks for my tradition here, and the contemporary apologist Peter Kreeft explains it succinctly:  “St. Thomas Aquinas defines [love] as “willing the good of the other” — the simplest definition of love I’ve ever seen. Agape is an act of the will, not the feelings. That is why we are responsible for it, and commanded to do it, to choose it. We are not responsible for our feelings…We are responsible for our agape or lack of it, for agape comes from our free will, our deliberate choice, while feelings come from wind, weather, hormones, advertisements, and digestion” (What is Love? Peter Kreeft,  While souls can sometimes enjoy spontaneous love, alas, there is a whole life of practice and discipline that must accompany those blessed moments when we get to feel the joy and peace that Ellingsen describes (and with brain chemical functions to boot!).  While these sweet moments (we call them ‘consolations’) can spur us on, in my tradition there is certainly more emphasis on mastering the will, by God’s grace, even when it hurts.  It is this practice of willing the good of the other that Roman Catholics would call “true love.”  

The old differences then, alas, between Roman Catholics and Lutherans rise to the fore.  How much of following Jesus has to do with good works as the exercise of our own free will, and how much of following Him and accomplishing good must we attribute purely to the work of the Holy Ghost?  I am not a theologian, but I do find that Luther’s take on both the good and the evil we do to be weirdly devoid of free will.  And yet, there is certainly a way in which Catholics acknowledge, like Lutherans, that we truly cannot manage any good without God’s grace! The spontaneous flow of moving with the Holy Ghost that Ellingsen describes is certainly appealing, but I can attest to having made little progress at true love, or willing the good for the other as Aquinas defines it, (even in my own family!), until I took up a more serious ‘practice’ of prayer and the spiritual life.  This could be a testament to my own weakness, though I suspect others may find the same to be true.

Perhaps a look at the instructions from a man almost contemporary with Luther will highlight what we share and where we differ.  Saint Francis de Sales is a Doctor of the Church, was born just 21 years after Luther died, and much of his ministry was a response to the rise of Protestantism in Europe.  His Introduction to the Devout Life has long been a manual for Catholics, and so much of my own growth I can attribute to this dear friend and father in the faith.  His instructions for morning prayer reveal part of the core of traditional Roman Catholicism, and have been life changing for me.  In four simple steps he sets the Christian up for a day worthy to offer back to God. 

His first instruction is to “Adore God most profoundly” offering thanks for preservation through the night, imploring pardon for any sin committed therein.  He shows us in this first step that our existence depends on God’s pleasure in keeping us alive.  For our very existence we owe him praise and adoration.  I think Lutherans could agree with this!  

Second, we are to “consider that the present day is given you in order that you may gain the future day of eternity.  Make it a firm goal, therefore, to employ it well with this intention.”  I wonder if Lutherans could see our daily existence as related to our future (or not) with God in eternity?  If yes, I wonder if that phrase “make it a firm goal” would trouble them?  Again, for Catholics the life of faith is deeply related to mastering the will, and growing toward a greater conformity with our Lord and His will.  Without making that firm resolution each day, it is easy to lose sight of heaven as our ultimate goal.

Third, Saint Francis de Sales asks us to foresee the business of the day, with an eye toward how we might serve God generously, and also where we may be exposed to particular temptation to offend God.  He instructs us: “dispose yourself carefully to avoid, resist, and overcome whatever may present itself that is prejudicial to your salvation and the glory of God.  It is not sufficient to make this resolution unless you also prepare the means of putting it into practice.”  Here he means, for example, that if we know we will be tempted to gossip, we should think in advance of the kindly phrase we will employ to avoid it.  Or, if we imagine a good service we might do for someone as an act of love, we should determine the hour of the visit, and any details that will help actually bring it about.  This is the kind of ‘work’ in prayer we can do to predispose our day to be one which will glorify God.  While certainly Providence will come into play, and our plans may often fail, it is part of what is meant by ‘willing the good of the other,” and the preparation involved acknowledges our human frailty.  We just might not get around to doing much spontaneous good, even with the Holy Ghost’s promptings.  We may not even sense those promptings without disposing ourselves in this way.  This concrete preparation also lends itself to a much more specific and fruitful examen of conscience at the end of the day.  I imagine Lutheran’s might be uncomfortable with this ‘un-spontaneous preparation to do good works,’ but I don’t know!  I would love to hear Mr. Ellingsen’s thoughts on this as a way to better understand Lutheranism.

Finally, and here is where I see a lot of potential commonality, we hear St. Francis de Sales implore us to humility and a right understanding of any good we manage.  He asks us to finish this morning exercise by lifting our hearts as if in our hands to God, as an offering.  The prayer he gives us by way of example says it best:  “Behold, O Lord, this poor, miserable heart of mine, which, through your goodness, has conceived many good affections, but which, alas, is of itself so weak and wretched that it is incapable of executing the good which it desires, unless you impart to it your heavenly blessing, which for this end I humbly beg of you, O merciful Father, through the merits of the passion of your Son, to whose honor I consecrate this day, and all the remaining days of my life.”  It is only God’s grace which has helped us to want to do good, and indeed we need God’s grace, meted out bit by bit through each hour of the day, to accomplish the very good he has helped us to desire.  If I understand correctly, Lutherans would agree with this.  It is worth noting as well that any ‘merit’ we manage in a day (and Catholics are very comfortable with that word) only has value if united to what Christ merited on the Cross.  I’m not sure how Lutherans would feel about that concept, and I hope Mr. Ellingsen will explain.

I offer these morning exercises from Saint Francis de Sales because I suspect they hit on both some central truths of the faith that we share, as well as highlighting how some of the differences of the Lutheran sense of “by Grace alone” don’t end up jiving with a Catholic practice of the faith.  Ellingsen tells us: “Lutherans claim that there is no need to teach Christians how to follow Jesus.  It will just happen spontaneously when you are living with Jesus.”  Yet, I am so grateful that Saint Francis de Sales taught me, and many others, about this method for preparing each day to follow Christ.  It is clear that these morning exercises make no room for ‘sinning boldly,’ as much effort in the Catholic life is put into mastering the will on our path to uniting ourselves to God, and with Christ himself as our food for that journey.  While we can, with the Lutherans, give all the glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for any good we do, we must also take complete responsibility for any good we fail to do, and more, for the sins we commit.  This is all part of striving after that perfection which our Lord implores us to in Matthew 5:48: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” The active nature of employing our wills to conform to Christ’s may be less spontaneous than the way Lutherans follow Jesus, but I am pleased that we share the impulse to give all glory to God for anything meritorious.  I wonder if scientists have yet found a way to observe or measure in the brain the deep, still, enduring joy one begins to know (not feel) from this practice of following Jesus?

1 reply
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Christina,

    My catholic sensibilities should have already communicated to you that I see you as a sister. Indeed, the ecumenical agency of the world Lutheranism which I serve prior to my present position was instrumental in facilitating Lutheran-Catholic dialogue at a world level. Administrative work for the Joint Statement on Justification which our traditions embraced was done by my senior colleagues at the time. Thus you know where my heart is. I am operating with a belief that we have compatible ways of talking about salvation, given our mutual commitment to prevenient grace. I can affirm with qualifications the Catholic synergism and you can endorse the legitimacy of justification by faith (as per Vatican II, Unitatatis redingegration, 31; Formula of Concord SD II.90). Concerning possible agreements, keep in mind my admission that a lot of Lutherans (Pietists and the Orthodox Confessionalists) share you belief that you cannot rely on spontaneity in the Christian life, that a life of love must be intentional and planned. Lutherans and most Protestants call this the Third Use of the Law (using the Law of God as a guide to Christian life). So your and Francis de Sales’ agenda has a lot of overlap with the Lutheran heritage. The examining of conscience at the end of the day is right in line with Luther’s claim that the Christian is repenting every day (The Ninety-Five Thesis, 1). Francis’ prayer that you quote, stirred my Lutheran piety. And the eschatological urgency he taught (considering the present day to gain the future day of eternity) is right in line with the realized Eschatology of Luther, the belief that we need to practice urgency because any moment may be the moment of God’s Presence among us (Small Catechism; Mark 1:14-15).
    Of course there is more emphasis on grace alone among the Confessionalists in my tradition than on mastering the will like in yours. But since you resonate with the metaphor of a marriage (and of course Luther got that from Catholic Mystics as well as from the Bible), maybe I can remove some concerns with an elaboration of the point. Of course not all human marriages thrive with spontaneity, and even in good ones there are moments when it takes acts of the will to make the marriage intact. But recall, in our marriages with Jesus we are talking about divine love, a love that does not fail. Lutherans have an almost naïve confidence that that love ultimately/eschatologically never fails, no matter how much we mess up. That’s why we don’t feel like we need to worry as much about following Jesus as our other Christian friends do. Can you at least concede with me that that sort of confidence in the power of grace is an appropriate catholic alternative (Lam.3:22; Ps. 91)?

    Great to be in dialogue,


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