Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

St. Francis de Sales – The Complete Introduction to the Devout Life [Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1612612350″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51L-MjhbUFL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”St. Francis de Sales” ]Prepared to Serve God

A Review of

The Complete Introduction to the Devout Life

St. Francis de Sales

Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2013.
Buy now:   [ [easyazon-link asin=”1612612350″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ]
Reviewed by Gary Wake
Avid readers will often have categories that govern their to-read list. Some books will never make it to the list, some will be pre-ordered before publication and others will fall in various points in between. The Complete Introduction to the Devout Life would be best placed somewhere in the middle of that scale. If you see it somewhere at a good price, get it. If you’re at a friend’s house and she’s not reading it, borrow it. If you’re at the bookstore with time to kill, thumb through it.

On the surface, that may seem like a harsh criticism, especially considering the author of the book, St. Francis de Sales, is the patron saint of writers and journalists. It’s a good book, but even the translator assumes that “few will read the book straight through” (xxviii). It wasn’t originally written as a book anyway. The author, St. Francis de Sales, put the book together after being asked to collect some letters that he had sent to encourage his mother and a friend in their Christian formation. Francis’s mother and his friend gained much from the letters and shared them. After others read the letters, they told him that he needed to publish them or they would do it themselves, causing him to respond that he seemed “to have written a book without knowing it” (xxiii). He gathered the letters together with other notes and tracts, edited them, and first published the collected book in 1609. It was revised several times before the last publication on which Francis himself worked, which was released in 1619.
Christians have been writing letters of direction and encouragement to other Christians since the early church, and Francis’ collection isn’t digging up new ground as much as it is giving an extremely thorough and practical way for disciples to deepen their faith. While there are other collections of practical methods for devotion, Francis wrote one of the most comprehensive guides explicitly aimed at the lay person instead of the clergy.
Struggling to be disciples of Christ has not changed much since the resurrection. Disciples have to learn to set aside their own desires in favor of serving Christ. Francis instructs followers through five main parts. The translator of the text, Father John-Julian, a priest in the Order of Julian of Norwich, attempts to keep the flavor of Francis’s original French text, so the titles of each of the five parts are somewhat wordy. For example, the first section is titled “Containing Recommendations and Activities Necessary to Guide the Soul — From Her First Longing for the Devout Lie to Her Final Firm Resolution to Embrace It.” Though the language may sound somewhat flowery to modern ears, the directions are not. Disciples must still “Purge the Proclivity for Useless and Dangerous Things.” The layout of the book is significant too, since Father John-Julian provides helpful annotations on the page opposite the text: Francis has the odd number pages, Father John-Julian has the even, giving the notes a more convenient format for clarification.

Section two focuses on various methods of participating in prayer, devotion, retreats, examen and the sacraments. The direction is clear, reminding the reader of the importance of such devotion, as well as giving advice on how to develop it. Francis goes on in the third part to give practical advice on the virtues, focusing on how the reader should treat others in a Christian manners, even discussing friendship, courtship and pastimes. In section four, Francis discusses temptation, and though some might assume that the temptations of the modern world are more difficult than 400 years ago, Francis still gives sound guidance, reminding the reader to fortify the heart against temptations by doing “as many lowly, humble deeds as lie in your power…for by this means you will form a habit of humility” (327).


Part Five focuses on strengthening the disciple through practices considering God’s love and the disciple’s call to serve him. Throughout the book, Francis points out that all disciples, clergy and laity, should be prepared to serve God. Because the book is thorough, Francis addresses those who believe that the devout life he describes is impossible, since it requires so much attention. Francis does not agree, and points out King David and Saint Louis as two who performed a great number of activities in service and devotion.


The value of The Complete Introduction to the Devout Life is apparent in the number of people who have been influenced by the work. The translator offers the names of Popes, authors, theologians and politicians who have been influenced by St. Francis de Sales and his writing. One doesn’t become a Saint without helping to guide people in the Christian faith. While it may not jump to the top of your to-read list, it is well worth consideration as a resource for disciples.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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