Convert the Heart and Win the Man
It is not enough to teach wisdom and knowledge. You need to stir the heart to convert and transform the person.
We share with you a reflection on the teachings of St. Francis de Sales, that master of knowledge concerning the affections of the human heart, and its cooperation with God’s grace.
Below is a translation of a newsletter from the Diocese of Annecy in France. St. Francis was the bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, in the 17th century, but in his day Calvinist control of the area forced him to reside in Annecy. He preached regularly at the parishes and cathedral of Annecy.
The newsletter article, “Who Wins the Heart,” begins with an introduction, proceeds with a passage from St. Francis’s Introduction to the Devout Life, and concludes with a commentary.
The newsletter explains that for education to be effective, it must make an impact on a student’s heart and on his or her actions. Education needs to stir the heart to transform the person. This entails that what one learns is befitting to good actions, implying that being fed with negative things could result in making us prone to committing negative actions.
Life and faith is about trying to find balance. Faith without works is dead, after all.
If you would like to chat with Catholics like yourself, why not check out our Living Jesus Chat Room of the Visitation Sisters. Join us at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday! We read a passage of St. Francis de Sales and then gather great insights and sharing!
From the time of Saint Francis de Sales to today, the conditions in which the education of children and young people take place have evolved considerably. In families, relations between relatives and children have been profoundly transformed: from birth, the child is the object of all attention; the roles of the parents are no longer defined in advance; dialogue and the expression of feelings take up more space. Knowledge has no common measure with that of the 17th century. Pedagogical science and know-how have developed since then.
However, despite all these differences, aspects of Salesian thought and spirituality – because they are deeply humanistic and humanizing – can still enlighten educators today. Saint Francis de Sales never developed a global reflection on pedagogy, but throughout his writings, he gives some common sense advice here and there. Thus, he has inspired many educators, starting with Saint John Bosco (1815–1888).
The text proposed here does not deal primarily with education. Saint Francis de Sales speaks of conversion, that is to say of an interior and exterior transformation of the person. Because education – like conversion – touches the deepest being of the person, this text also sheds light on the purpose of education.
Text from Introduction to the Devout Life
It has been said that if one writes a word on an almond, and then replaces it carefully in its husk, and sows it, all the fruit borne by that tree will be marked by the word so inscribed. For my own part, I never could approve of beginning to reform any one by merely external things—dress, the arrangement of hair, and outward show.
On the contrary, it seems to me that one should begin from within. “Turn ye to Me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12); “My son, give Me thine heart” (Proverbs 23:26); for as the heart is the fount whence all our actions spring, they will be according to what it is. … Your life proceeds from your heart like the almond tree from its core …
Whosoever wins the heart has won the whole man. But this heart needs to be trained in its external conduct, so that it may display not merely a true devotion, but also wisdom and discretion. To this end I would make one or two suggestions.
If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church … [however] … I disapprove of long and immoderate fasting, especially for the young. I have learnt by experience that when the colt grows weary it turns aside, and so when young people become delicate by excessive fasting, they readily take to self-indulgence. The stag does not run with due speed either when too fat or too thin, and we are in peril of temptation both when the body is overfed or underfed.
“Whosoever wins the heart has won the whole man.”
This statement comes as a general principle that we can also apply to education. Francis de Sales clearly opposes advisors who start by establishing a framework from the outside, without asking how it touches the heart of man. If the Bishop of Geneva gives first place to the heart, in the deep dynamism of the person, it is because he sees in him “the seat and source of love” (cf. TAD I.10): it is the birth of our actions; it is in him that the great commitments of our life take root. Our actions are as is our heart, observes François de Sales. Thereby, the educator is not only concerned with outward behavior, but he pays his attention first to the heart; he calls on the resources interior to the person.
For him, there is no question of separating the inside and the outside, as if only our heart mattered, and not our actions. There is a connection between inside and outside. In his correspondence as in his conversations with the Visitandines, Francis de Sales regularly emphasizes this link: his advice is very concrete, while at the same time aiming for spiritual depth. To maintain the fire of love in the heart, acts and gestures are necessary. The whole art of the educator is to favor a process of unification of being, so that heart and deeds are in harmony.
This work of interiorization requires “discernment and judgment.” Discernment and judgment on the part of the young person, attentive to what is happening in his heart; but also discernment and judgment on the part of the educator. “This heart, with which we want to begin, pleads, let him be educated."
So that the young person acquires discernment and judgment, and so that he gives priority to his “heart,” the educator must instruct with accuracy. So that consciousness wakes up and exercises fully, it needs to be accompanied and enlightened. Otherwise, while proclaiming the freedom of the person, the student is left in great solitude, unable to find his path. The educator is not concerned only with outward behavior, but he pays attention first to the heart. He calls on resources interior to the person.
The discernment and judgment of the educator consists in particular in seeking a balance and to avoid excess. Francis, who is a man of right measure, knows by experience that “the overly tired colt stops on the side of the road.” If he does not offer anything, the educator does not help the young person advance; but conversely, if he is too demanding, he will obtain the opposite of what he wishes: he will discourage the child or young person more than he will encourage and stimulate him to the good. “As a general rule,” says Francis in the same chapter, “a constant and moderate fasting is preferable to rigorous abstinence, alternating with great laxity.”
If you liked the above article, chat with us at our Living Jesus Chat Room of the Visitation Sisters at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday. We read a passage of St. Francis de Sales and then gather great insights and sharing.