Salesian Reflections on Divine Mercy

Salesian Reflections on Divine Mercy

   The Face of Jesus by Rembrandt van Rijn

St. Francis de Sales’ ideas on divine mercy contained in his Spiritual Conferences, the Treatise on the Love of God and the Introduction to a Devout Life, provide for a most worthy reflection this time of year. You may be content reflecting upon the material I present, or you may wish to go to the source and read the entire chapter to understand the full context where the thought is found. Hopefully, these Salesian Teachings will assist you to grow spiritually in the Holy Year of Mercy.

Divine Mercy Helps Us in Difficulties
In Conference One, “Obligations of the Constitution,” St. Francis de Sales tells the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary these Constitutions assist the sisters to make a special profession of nourishing in their hearts a devotion which is interior, strong, and generous (9-10). In his remarks on generosity, he urges the sisters not to be dismayed by difficulties. These difficulties should increase their courage. De Sales quotes St. Bernard: “Whose courage does not grow in the midst of trouble and contradiction is not very valiant.” Francis continues: “It must be very generous in aiming at the very highest point of perfection, not withstanding all present imperfections and infirmities, relying with perfect confidence on divine mercy.”He says to follow the example of the woman in the Song of Songs who said to her beloved: “Draw me! We will follow you eagerly. Bring me, O King, to your chambers (Song of Songs 1:4). De Sales explains the meaning of these words:

These words seem to mean that, of myself, I am unable to move. But if you do draw me, I shall run(11).

Francis comments that sometimes the divine lover of our souls leaves us mired in our misery so we know our deliverance comes from him, and we value highly this precious gift of his goodness.

Help of Divine Mercy
In Conference XVII, “”On Voting in a Community,” Francis assures the sisters that God’s kindness and mercy are guaranteed. In following our vocation, God binds himself; we do not oblige God to bind himself, for this is impossible.

We are unable to bind God’s infinite majesty as we bind, or force, one another. He adds: “No, it is God who binds himself of his own will, urged and united to do this by the bowels of his endless and boundless kindness and mercy” (§330 and Lk 11:78). He insists this is absolutely true, and writes that when I enter Religion, “Our Lord obliges himself to furnish me with all that is necessary to make a good religious. He does this not from any obligation, but out of his mercy and divine goodness; just as a great king, levying troops for war, is bound out of prudence and foresight to arm them with weapons”( §330).

Abandonment to Divine Mercy
In Conference XVIII, “The Sacraments and Divine Office,” Francis urges us to abandon ourselves to divine mercy which calls for submission of our will and our affections, without reserve, to his domain. He writes that there is always the tendency to reserve something to ourselves. Sometimes, a spiritual person reserves to herself the will to possess certain virtues. Perhaps at Communion, she abandons herself to God, but she asks God to give her prudence to live respectably and honorably. De Sales remarks: “This person never thinks of asking for simplicity.” Others may ask for courage to do good in God’s service, or for gentleness to live peacefully with others. For others the request is for humility to set a good example, but they do not think to ask for humility to help them love their abjection. It is interesting that pious persons never ask for trials, tribulations, or mortifications (§350).

De Sales says: “Now it is certain that to make reserve of their own will and desires, however excellent they may appear to be, is not is not the way to effect that union” (§350). Our Lord desires to give himself to us, and we should give ourselves to the Lord totally to have a more perfect union of our soul with him. With St. Paul, we should be able to say: “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

In addition, we must empty our heart so Jesus may fill it totally with himself. Unfortunately, we may not permit Our Lord to reign in us as he desires.

When he comes to us in Communion, he may find our hearts filled with desires, affections, and what De Sales describes as “petty wishes.” This is not what Jesus desires. Jesus expects our heart to be empty, so he alone rules in our heart. De Sales quotes the Song of Songs that she is to put him as a seal upon her heart, so nothing may enter our heart except for his permission, and in keeping with his good pleasure. Hopefully, when Jesus knocks on the door of our heart, he will find it empty and open to his complete presence (§350-351).

Part II-Treatise on the Love of God
In the Treatise 9-1, De Sales treats union of our will with the divine will in what he calls the will of “God’s Good Pleasure.” In this connection, he discussed the exercise of mercy: “Let us review both men and angels, and the whole array of nature, qualities, conditions, powers, affections, passions, grace, and privileges which supreme providence has established in the countless multitude of celestial intelligences, and human persons, in whom divine justice and mercy are so wonderfully exercised” (Treatise 97-98). De Sales says this review will render us unable to keep ourselves from singing with respect, and loving fear:

All honor Lord to your just law I bring
Your mercy and your righteousness I sing (Ps 56-8-9).

De Sales writes that we must take the greatest complacence in how God exercises his mercy in diverse favors which he distributes among angels, and men, in heaven, and on earth. Likewise, he exercises his justice in a variety of trials and punishments. His justice and mercy are worthy of love and admiration, since both his mercy and justice are simply one and the same unique goodness and godhead (§98). Francis adds that the effects of God’s justice are severe and bitter for us, so he sweetens them by mingling among them the effects of mercy. He explains that death, affliction, sweat, and toil which abound in life are God’s just decree punishing for sin, but these are by his sweet mercy ladders to ascend to heaven by means to increase grace, and are meant to obtain glory. De Sales calls the following blessed: poverty, hunger, thirst, sorrow, sickness, death, and persecution (Mt 5:9-16). All these, De Sales says, are punishments for our faults, but they are so steeped and aromatized by God’s sweetness, benignity, and mercy, that there is a pleasant bitterness. We might call it bitter-sweet. Interestingly, De Sales adds:

Theotimus, it is a thing strange, yet true, that if the damned were not so blinded by their obstinacy and hatred for God, they would find consolation in their torments, and see how wonderfully divine mercy is mingled with the flames that eternally consume them (§98).

When the saints contemplate the horrible torments of the damned, they praise God’s justice. They realize these eternal torments are far less than the crimes for which they are punished. These saints see mercy mingled with justice, and recite the sentiments of Ps 76: 8-10:

In you alone justice reigned, and still impartial law flows from your mighty will.

De Sales invites the reader to see the interior and exterior goods and punishments divine providence has prepared for us are most holy, just, and merciful (§99). All our works depend upon God’s mercy, including his assistance toward love.

Salvation Love and Mercy
In the Treatise, 2, 9, 123-124, Francis treats how God’s love prepares our hearts by inspiration so we may love him. He begins with a beautiful quote from Isa 31:3-4:

I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore, I have drawn you, having pity and mercy on you, and I will build you up again, and you shall be built, O virgin of Israel.”

De Sales interprets this as God’s words by which he promises that when the Savior will come into the world, he will establish a new kingdom in his Church, which will be his virgin spouse, and true spiritual Israelite woman (Treatise 2, 9, 124). He concludes that it is not by our merit, but by his mercy that we are saved.

Perseverance is a Gift of Mercy
De Sales has a beautiful chapter in his treatise on Holy Perseverance in Sacred Love (3, 4, 173). He explains that God walks before us, and holds our hand in difficulties, and carries us in hardship that he foresees will be too difficult for us to bear. The continuation of assistance is not the same for all who persevere. For those converted just before death, it is brief, for example, the good thief, Dismas. He remarks that others persevere much longer, for example, St Anna, the prophetess at the presentation of the child Jesus, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Paula. These people needed a thousand kinds of assistance according to the hazards on their pilgrimage, and the length of it. Then, he adds: “But in any case, perseverance is the most desirable gift we can hope for in this life”(§175). Because we can only receive this gift from the hand of God, we should ask for it unceasingly, and use multiple means to ask for it: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, frequent reception of the sacraments, association with good companions, and the reading of Sacred Scripture. De Sales adds that perseverance does not originate from our power: “on the contrary, I know it springs from divine mercy whose most precious gift it is” (§175).

Restoration of Mercy
In a chapter in the Treatise dealing with God’s love returning to the soul, and restoring life to all the works that sin has caused to perish, De Sales writes that restoration of merit is work of divine mercy. To explain this rebirth, De Sales uses an analogy of the apparent death of plants in the rigors of a harsh winter. In the springtime, these plants grow green and vigorous again. So it is when sin is blotted out, and the grace of divine love returns to the soul, and the works blighted and withered by the harsh winter of sin flourish anew, and grow fruitful again in merits for eternal life (11, 12, 231). De Sales ends this chapter with these words: “Touched by the rays of divine mercy, they return to life, and are converted into the flames as ever before, to be placed again on the holy altar of God’s approbation, and have their former dignity, and their former value” (234).

Divine Mercy Surpasses Divine Justice
In the Treatise, 2, 8, 121 ff, De Sales reflects upon “How Greatly God Desires Us to Love Him.” He also speaks about divine mercy. Francis writes: “At the gate of the earthly paradise, there was placed the Cherubim with a flaming sword to teach us that no one shall enter the heavenly paradise unless he has been pierced thoroughly by the sword of love. For this reason, Theotimus, our merciful Jesus, who has purchased us with his own blood, infinitely desires us to love him so that we may be saved forever, and he desires to be saved so that we may love him forever” (121). God does not desire the death of the wicked, but that he turns from his way, and live. So God gives us not a mere means to love him, and in loving him to save ourselves, but he gives us a rich, ample, and magnificent sufficiency from the goodness which is great as he is. God does not give merely sufficient remedies to convert the obstinate; he dispenses the riches of his goodness.

Jesus is a divine lover who knocks at the door of our heart and continues to knock at our heart, as it is said in the Song of Songs: “Come, arise make haste, my love and he puts his hand into the lock” and tries to open it. Over and over he says: “Be converted, do penance. Return to me and live.” De Sales concludes this chapter with this sentiment:

In a word our divine Savior never forgets to show that “his mercies are above all his work,” his mercy surpasses his justice, that his redemption is copious, that his love is infinite, and as the apostle says “that he is rich in mercy and, consequently, that he wishes all men to be saved and that none should perish.” (§123 and Sacred Scripture citations: Prov. 1:20; Ezek 18:30-32; Ps 144:9; Jas 2:13; Eph 2:4 and Tim 2:4)

Mercy toward Sinners
In the Treatise, 3, 3, 168-171, “How a Soul in Charity Makes Progress in It,” De Sales returned to the theme of mercy toward sinners. To illustrate his point, he created the parable of a brave king espoused to an amiable young princess. In his presence, she fell down unconscious before him as a result of an unforeseen attack. This episode severely shocked the prince, and he almost collapsed at her side. He loved her more than his own life. The love that brought him great consolation, also gave him the strength to bear up under it. The prince rushed to a nearby cabinet, took out a precious cordial, and filled his mouth with it. He forcibly opened the princess’ lips and clinched teeth, forced the liquor out of his mouth into the unconscious woman, and poured the remainder of the phial around her nose, temples, and heart. She regained consciousness, and her strength. With the help of the prince, she rose, and walked quietly. At length, he placed over her heart an epithem (Greek for medicine) so precious and of such efficacy that she felt completely restored to her former health. She no longer needed his firm support, and so he held her right hand gently within his hands, and folded his right arm over hers, and over her breast. He continued to assist her in this way, and carried out, in her behalf, four most accessible services:

1. He testified that his own heart was lovingly solicitous for her. 2. He continued to alleviate her distress. 3. If any form of her former weakness should return, he was ready to help her. 4. If she happened to come upon a stairway or rough and difficult spot, he would hold her and support her, or if she wanted to walk a little faster, he would firmly sustain and support her. The king remained with her till midnight, and then assisted her as she laid on her couch.

Then, De Sales writes, that a just soul is the spouse of Jesus. Only when a soul is in the state of charity, is it just. This soul is led to the chamber filled with delightful perfumes mentioned in the Song of Songs 1: 1-4:

Let him kiss me with his mouth! More delightful is your love than wine! Your name spoken is a spreading perfume—that is why the maidens love you. Draw me! We will follow you eagerly! Bring me, O king, to your chamber. With you, we rejoice and exult, we extol your love; it is beyond wine. How rightly you are loved!

When such a soul sins, it is stricken, and it falls into a spiritual swoon, and an unforeseen collapse. It is astonishing that any soul should forsake the Creator, the supreme good, for the worthless allurements of sin. If God were subject to passion, he would faint away at this calamity, just as when in mortal flesh, he died on the cross to redeem us from sin. Now, when he sees a soul plunged into evil, he speeds to aid it. De Sales continues:

With unrivaled mercy, he opens the heart’s door by means of those remorseful stings of conscience which come from various kinds of light and knowledge he casts into our soul, together with salutary movements. By their means, like sweet-smelling, life-giving drafts, he causes the soul to return to herself, and makes her feel well again. (§169-170)

If God had not come to her assistance, she would have remained lost in sin. If this soul accepts the help, God will reinvigorate her soul, and lead it by movements of faith, hope, and penitence, until the soul is restored to true spiritual health which is charity. It is hard to say whether the soul walks, or is carried. As St. Paul says: “I walk, yet not I alone, but the grace of God with me.” (1 Cor 15:10) Supported by the charity of the Holy Spirit, the soul can stand on her own two feet. However, the soul must give all the credit to God. Fortunately, God continues to support this soul (§170).

To express his thoughts on divine mercy, Francis de Sales draws upon Sacred Scripture, his personal experience, and insights from the direction of souls, such as St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Moved by goodness, love, and divine mercy, our Lord desires every soul to be saved. De Sales urges us to abandon ourselves totally to God’s will. If we do so, he will extend his boundless mercy to us. Because God loves us with an everlasting love, and reveals his will in happenings in the present moment, this surrender should be continuous. We must remember that we are not saved by our own merits, but by his divine mercy.

Perseverance is a gift of divine mercy. God extends this gift of perseverance during our entire lifetime. Should we alienate ourselves for God by serious sin, and lose this divine relationship, and all personal merit, our Lord will extend the hand of divine mercy, and gives us the grace to repent, and return to our former dignity and union with him. Our God is a just God, but his divine mercy surpasses divine justice. In the poetic expression of the Song of Songs, De Sales assures us that our Lord calls us unceasingly to return to him:

I belong to my lover, and for me he yearns. Come, my lover, let us go forth to the fields, and spend the night among the villages … Set me as a seal on your heart.

Rev. William J. Nessel, OSFS About Rev. William J. Nessel, OSFS

Rev. William J. Nessel, OSFS, has an AB in Philosophy, an MA in Politics, and a JCD from Catholic University of America, and an MDiv from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He has published over 50 articles in various journals, including several in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review.


  1. Avatar Neil Kane says:

    Great article, Father! You are a true son of Francis de Sales! V+J,
    Neil Kane

  2. Avatar Joseph DiMauro, OSFS says:

    Well done????, good and faithful servant!

  3. Avatar Lewis Fiorelli, OSFS says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article on a very timely subject from the writings of a great saint and doctor of the Church!