Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Infused Virtue of Simplicity: Saint Francis De Sales and Dietrich Von Hildebrand

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Infused Virtue of Simplicity: Saint Francis De Sales and Dietrich Von Hildebrand

Article excerpt


NEAR THE END OF VERITATIS SPLENDOR, Pope Saint John Paul II describes a distinctive simplicity that flows from Christian faith: "Through the gift of new life, Jesus makes us sharers in his love and leads us to the Father in the Spirit. Such is the consoling certainty of Christian faith, the source of its profound humanity and extraordinary simplicity.... Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church." (1) John Paul highlights that a fundamental feature of the Christian faith is the radical commitment that this faith requires. Christ is the one thing necessary. He must receive absolute primacy in one's life. Accordingly, one must avoid getting caught up in the complexity of everyday life and thereby miss the extraordinary simplicity that Christ offers to us.

The challenge, however, is that as an embodied being, one cannot merely withdraw from all things not Christ. As John Paul further explains, "this evangelical simplicity does not exempt one from facing reality in its complexity; rather it can lead to a more genuine understanding of reality, inasmuch as following Christ will gradually bring out the distinctive character of authentic Christian morality, while providing the vital energy needed to carry it out." (2) The Christian must seek to understand and live out the proper relationship between commitment to the one thing necessary and the complexity both of the created world and one's life. Withdrawal from various goods is necessary for Christian simplicity but not sufficient. I propose that true simplicity is a life united and integrated by love of Christ.

While John Paul serves as a departure point, I develop this claim with the insights of seventeenth-century doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales, and twentieth-century Catholic convert and philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand. Both authors offer extended and insightful treatment of the extraordinary Christian simplicity of which John Paul speaks. Their works bear even greater fruit in conversation with one another. Von Hildebrand, the philosopher, clarifies the nature of simplicity, insightfully distinguishes between harmful and necessary forms of complexity, and diagnoses false forms of simplicity. De Sales, the pastor, encourages humble recognition of one's limitations and directs questions about the complexity of life to love of God from which Christian simplicity flows and to which Christian simplicity is ordered. The strength of each presentation helps to overcome what is missing in the other. De Sales does not provide the systematic framework, clear definition, or helpful distinctions one sees in the works of von Hildebrand, but he offers something von Hildebrand does not, namely, pastoral guidance concerning the real risks of complexity and the concrete steps one can take to grow toward Christian simplicity.

After explaining in more detail why these two authors are uniquely qualified for speaking to the topic of simplicity, I will engage their analysis of Christian simplicity in three steps. I will integrate and add to their work to show why God must have ultimate primacy in one's life. I will describe why and how this commitment demands withdrawal from various forms of complexity. Then, after clarifying why complexity is necessary in life, I will explain how one can integrate complexity in Christ.

The Universal Call to Holiness

St. Francis de Sales was a seventeenth-century bishop who provided spiritual direction to those who lived in the world. Recognizing the uniqueness of this ministry, he writes in the preface to his spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life:

   Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion
   have been concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn
   from the world or have at least taught a kind of devotion
   that leads to such complete retirement. … 
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