I’ve been reading the St. Francis de Sales book Of the Love of God, and in book ten, I came across two very important chapters about zeal that goes too far. It seems appropriate today to post these chapters and share them in the hopes they will be useful to the individual Catholic. In these chapters, he discusses what proper zeal guides us to do and how the examples of zeal by the saints and in the events of Scripture may not be handled properly by the average man in the street—in fact, they may actually do harm. (One example is how people cite St. Paul rebuking St. Peter in a special case. St. Francis de Sales points out that not all people are gifted in a way to do this in a good way.
So I offer this posting of those chapters to my readers.
The Wise Guidance of Religious Zeal
IN proportion to the loving warmth and vehemence of zeal, so is the need that it be wisely guided, else it will easily outstep the limits of discretion. Not, of course, that the love of God, however fervent, can ever be too strong in itself, or in the impulse it gives to the mind; but it is wont to call in the use of the intellect and the passions to effect its object, and these are liable to act too vehemently, and so to hinder zeal, and make it unruly. We see an instance of this in Joab killing Absalom in spite of David’s stringent orders to save his life. In like manner zeal sometimes calls in the aid of anger, bidding it destroy the sin, yet spare the sinner; but passionate zeal, once roused, is like an unruly horse, who cannot be held by bit or bridle. So, again, the householder of whom our Lord tells2 had to check the impetuous zeal of his servants, who would have rooted up the tares at the risk of rooting up the good grain also. Indignation is a strong, vigorous servant, capable of great things, but so eager and inconsiderate that it is wont to do more harm than good. Our peasants say that the peacock is a bad inmate, for although it will Keep a place clear of spiders and the like, it spoils more than it saves. Anger is a natural reinforcement to reason, and grace uses it in support of zeal; but it is a dangerous ally, apt to get the upper hand and overthrow both reason and charity, and we are never safe or sure that it may not suddenly spread like a flame, and become destructive. It is indeed a desperate act to let a besieged city fall into the hands of one who may prove a master instead of an ally.
Self-love often deceives men, and disguises itself under the garb of zeal. Zeal has perhaps made some use of anger, and anger in its turn plays its own game under the name of zeal; under the name only, for, like all other virtues, the real thing itself cannot be used to any evil purpose.
A notorious sinner once cast himself at the feet of a holy priest, humbly seeking absolution, whereat a certain monk named Demophilus gave way to the fiercest indignation at the sight of such a penitent drawing so near the altar, and with blows and sharp words drove him thence, abusing the priest who would have received him, and removing the sacred vessels from the altar, which he held as desecrated. Demophilus proceeded next to write boastfully of what he had done to S. Denys the Areopagite, who answered him in a tone worthy of his teacher S. Paul, pointing out how indiscreet and unwise such zeal was, and illustrating his rebuke by the following instance. A Candiate Christian had been won back to Paganism by one of his former friends, whereupon a certain pious man, Carpus by name, who appears to have been bishop of Candia, was so moved to wrath that he prayed to God to destroy both with the thunderbolts of His wrath. But the Lord opened his eyes in a vision, and he beheld heaven open, and Jesus Christ sitting on His Throne, surrounded with angels, and beneath the yawning gulf, on the edge of which stood the two men he had wished to overwhelm, trembling with fear, while certain men stood by striving to thrust them in. So great was Carpus’s wrath that, as he told S. Denys later on, he scarce cast a glance upon the Blessed Saviour and His company of angels, but gloated on the spectacle of those wretched men, whose fall he longed to hasten, till, raising his eyes, he beheld the All-pitying Saviour rise up and extend His Hand to those miserable beings, while the angels strove to draw them back. Then our Lord turned to Carpus, saying, “Smite Me rather, for gladly would I suffer anew to save men. Bethink thee whether thou wouldst choose to fall into that hellish gulf, or to abide with the angels.” Some men think there can be no zeal without anger, whereas true zeal rarely if ever employs it. The surgeon never uses his knife save in extreme necessity, and holy zeal never uses anger save in a like extreme moral need.
Concerning certain Saints whose Zealous Indignation is in nowise irreconcilable with the above
WE read that Moses, Phinehas, Elijah, Mattathias, and other eminent servants of God, exercised a zealous wrath on sundry occasions; but then we must needs bear in mind that these were great men, who had full command over their anger, and knew how to control their passions, like the centurion in the Gospel, saying to one, “Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh.” But we are of a very different sort, and have not the same empire over ourselves; our steed is not so trained that we can “volt and revolt”2 at pleasure. A well-broken retriever will follow the game or hold back as his master bids, but a young dog is disobedient, and strays. Those great saints, who have subdued their passions by dint of long-practised virtues, are able to wield their wrath at will; but we, with our unruly, ill-trained impulses, dare not let anger loose, lest, once at large, we know not how to restrain it. S. Denys tells Demophilus, above mentioned, that he who would correct others must first give good heed that his wrath do not gain the mastery over his better self, and that it is vain to cite Phinehas or Elijah as examples, for our Lord Himself checked a like spirit even in His disciples. We all remember the circumstances to which S. Denys alludes—how Phinehas slew the impure, and Elijah called down fire upon Ahaziah’s soldiers, in token that the Lord was King.4 As also our Saviour’s reply when James and John asked to be permitted to imitate Elijah, and destroy the Samaritan village which denied their Master entrance: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,” thereby teaching that His zeal was mild and gracious, never exercising fierce wrath save when all other possible means were unavailing.
When that great master of theology S. Thomas Aquinas lay in his last sickness at Fosse-neuve, the Cistercian monks around asked him to expound the Canticles to them, as S. Bernard had done. To which the Saint replied, “Dear fathers, give me the mind of S. Bernard, and I will expound the sacred words as he did!” Even so, if we poor weak Christians are called upon to put forth zealous wrath like those great saints we read of in the Scriptures, it behoves us to answer, “Give us their spirit and their light, and we will do as they did.” It is not every one that knows when or how to be angry.
Those holy men were under God’s immediate inspiration, and therefore they could exercise their wrath fearlessly, inasmuch as the same Spirit Which kindled restrained it within due limits. Such anger is not that “wrath of man” of which S. James says that it “worketh not the righteousness of God.” Although S. Paul calls the Galatians “foolish,”3 and withstood S. Peter “to the face,” is that any reason why we should sit in judgment on nations, censure and abuse our superiors? We are not so many S. Pauls! But bitter, sharp, hasty men not unfrequently give way to their own tempers and dislikes under the cloak of zeal, and are consumed of their own fire, falsely calling it from heaven. On one side an ambitious man would fain have us believe that he only seeks the mitre out of zeal for souls; on the other a harsh censor bids us accept his slanders and backbiting as the utterance of a zealous mind.
There are three forms which zeal may take: First, the vigorous action of justice in repressing evil; and this appertains solely to those whose avowed office it is to censure and correct, but unfortunately a good many persons who have no right to such office assume it. Secondly, earnest zeal performs striking actions for the sake of example, to remedy evil, and the like, courses open alike to all, but which few care to pursue. And thirdly, a very admirable form of zeal lies in patience and endurance with a view to hindering evil, but scarce any one is found to exercise this. Ambitious zeal is more popular, and men do not let themselves see that it is a mere veil to intolerance, self-seeking, and anger.
Our Dear Lord’s zeal was chiefly displayed in dying to conquer death and sin, wherein He was closely followed by His chosen vessel S. Paul, as S. Gregory Nazianzen well says, “He fights for all, prays for all, is jealous over all, burns for all; nay, more, for those who are his kinsmen in the flesh he could even wish himself accursed! O superabounding courage and zeal! fit copy of Christ, Who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows!” Even as our Lord bore the sins of the world, and died an accursed death for man, being all the while the Beloved Son of God, in Whom He was well pleased; so the Apostle was willing to bear all things, yet without ever willing to lose the Love of his Master, from which, he says, he knows nothing could ever separate him. So, too, the Bride of the Canticles, affirming that love is strong as death, which separates body and soul, goes on to say that wrath (or jealousy) is cruel as the grave,2 for it is like to hell, which separates the soul from the sight of God, but it is nowhere said that love or zeal in anywise resemble sin, which alone separates us from God’s Grace. And indeed, how could ardent love desire such a separation, when love is very grace itself, or at least cannot exist without grace? We find a not unapt copy of S. Paul in S. Paulinus, who gave himself up to bondage in order to set another free.
Blessed is he, says S. Ambrose, who knows how to control zeal! And S. Bernard says that the devil will speedily mock a man’s zeal if it be not according to knowledge. Zeal must be kindled of charity, governed by knowledge, strengthened by faith. True zeal is the offspring and life of charity, and like charity is patient, kind, peaceful, free from hatred or bitterness, “rejoicing in the truth.” The action of true zeal is like that of an ardent sportsman, who is diligent, careful, active, and very stedfast in the chase, but without fretfulness or passion, for that would only hinder his pursuit. So true zeal is ardent, but gentle, stedfast, painstaking, and indefatigable, while its false semblance is noisy, proud, fierce, quarrelsome, and unabiding.
Francis de Sales, Of the Love of God, trans. H. L. Sidney Lear (London: Rivingtons, 1888), 347–353.