Three lessons learned from the “Gentle Saint’s” duel with lawyers

St. Francis de Sales is a Saint, Doctor of the Church, and bears the special title Doctor of Devotion. He is also known as the “Gentle Saint.”

It was his peaceful and humble personality that helped him in his ministry to convert thousands of Calvinists back to the Catholic faith in southern France during the late 1500s and early 1600s.

His book, Introduction to the Devout Life, is one of the most popular works on spiritual practices for people seeking to live a holy life.

The book is simple, practical, and yet deeply spiritual. It was written for laypeople at a time when spiritual works were written almost exclusively for priests and others living religious vocations.

Even though Introduction to the Devout Life was written a long time ago, the truths contained within are timeless. So much so, that the Church based its “Universal Call to Holiness” partly on St. Francis’ teachings during the Second Vatican Council which took place almost 350 years after his death.

Many people already know most of what I have written above about St. Francis de Sales.

But did you know that he was a trained swordsman?

And that while studying law at the University of Padua, he used a sword to defend himself against some of his classmates?

In the biography, St. Francis de Sales, A Biography of the Gentle Saint, author Louise Stacpoole-Kenny recounts how St. Francis’ humble demeanor was misunderstood by some of his classmates — and the price they paid for their mistake.

Francis was so gentle and sweet-tempered, so courteous and considerate, that a few of his comrades took it into their heads that all this affability and sweetness was due to weakness and timidity. They therefore resolved to make him appear as a contemptible coward, and so ruin the influence for good he was gradually obtaining over the greater number of students.

One night they lay in wait for him, expecting that as soon as they rushed out and attacked him he would fly for his life, shouting for mercy. Exactly the opposite happened. Instead of his running away from them, it was he, one against many, who put them to flight. No sooner had he perceived their intent than, drawing his sword, with a few vigorous thrusts — he was a splendid swordsman — he not only disarmed them, but brought them to their knees, praying him to have compassion on them, as their injurious words and attempted blows had only been intended as a joke. Francis smiled grimly. He quite understood the whole affair, but, with his usual gentleness, he generously forgave them.

Who knew that the “Gentle Saint” could be such a fierce fighter?

I love this story for a few reasons. It is not a story that I had heard about St. Francis before. St. Francis’ classmates behavior is very human and so is St. Francis’ response. We all can relate to this story since we all have been in situations where our kindness was used against us.

Here are three simple truths that I drew from this story:

  • Humility and strength can coexist.
  • You may be forced to fiercely engage your opponents one day.
  • Some people may mistake humility for weakness, but that’s okay, just keep being humble.

St. Francis de Sales shows us that living a saintly and virtuous life is not a boring life and that even the most gentle of Christians may be called to engage in fierce combat with their opponents from time to time.

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