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St. Francis de Sales and Our Battle with Addiction

January 24, 2020


Today the Church honors a saint who deserves to be better known for his immense wisdom and practical insights that retain their relevance almost four hundred years after his death. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was renowned as a pastor, spiritual director, and eloquent preacher. Though his spirituality flowed from a prayerful heart united to God, his guidance as a pastor of souls retains an attractive practical side that is fresh and compelling today. One example of this applied wisdom is found in his Introduction to the Devout Life, where he touches on a dynamic of conversion that speaks to all of us who battle with addictions of any kind.

In this timeless classic, St. Francis teaches that in our battle with sin, we must be sorry before God for being addicted to sin but also come to hate what we are addicted to. This is key to our reform and conversion. For unless we hate what we are addicted to, our contrition will be temporary and our transformation minimal. In short order, our love for what binds us in slavery will again draw us back in its power.

Francis grounds his theory in Scripture, in the experience of Israel in the desert. He makes the point that even though God’s people were finally free from their captors, they hankered back to certain comforts they enjoyed—the onions and flesh-pots of Egypt (cf. Num. 11:4-5). Francis then makes the parallel with ourselves and how we too can be like “penitents who forsake sin but do not give up their affection to it: that is to say, they resolve to sin no longer, but they have a certain reluctance to deprive themselves of the miserable delectations of sin” (Introduction to the Devout Life, First Part of the Introduction, Chap. 7). Here Francis identifies something in our human nature that tries to make a deal with sin and our addiction to it; while we want to be forgiven of sin and the ways we have chosen something other than God, our affection for God’s substitute stubbornly remains, which leaves us prone to choosing it again and thus sinning again. About such a person seeking forgiveness and freedom, Francis warns:

Ah! Who cannot see that, though this poor man is out of sin, he is nevertheless altogether encumbered with affection to the sin . . . Alas! Such persons are in great danger . . . For you must not only forsake sin but you must also cleanse your heart from all the affections which are connected with sin.

According to Francis, the key to a devout life and freedom from addictions is to “loath the sin with a powerful and vigorous contrition, detesting not just the sin but also all affection to the sin and all that springs from it and leads to it.”

This practical wisdom of St Francis is borne out in our sinful addictions in real life. I remember once celebrating the funeral of a man who was a chronic alcoholic and who died because of his addiction. Speaking to his daughter, she told me: “Some say Dad had a weakness for drink. I would say he had a passion for it.” His daughter’s insight rang true. Her father’s problem was not his passion or desire. The problem was his desire and affection to what eventually destroyed him. Here was a man who hated being an alcoholic, who knew he was a slave to alcohol, but who couldn’t let go of his love for drink, which dragged him back into slavery over and over again.

This dynamic is repeated endlessly in our grip of addictions. Whether they are addictions to the more destructive things like alcohol, drugs, pornography, and gambling, or more subtle addictions to things like work, power, the internet, being liked, a desperate search for intimacy, fantasies, or an endless variety of other things, what they all have in common is a tag attached to them that says “Love Me Above All Things.” And when we do, we are hooked and controlled by them. But when we come to hate what we are addicted to and seek forgiveness for living that addiction, only then, with God’s grace, can we begin to experience lasting freedom as our passion and desire shift back to God himself. Our problem is that although deep in our hearts we would prefer to be free from our addictions, the larger part of ourselves does not want to give them up. Why? Because we are still affectionately attached to them.

Here is where the wisdom of St. Francis comes in and focuses on what we truly love and necessarily hate. He teaches that the objects of our addictions become false gods and substitutes for God because we have given ourselves to them in love. Addictions supplant God’s love as the source and object of our deepest desire. This is why Jesus insisted on our loves having a hierarchy where God and his kingdom come first: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be too” (Matt. 6:21); “If anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). With these words, Jesus simply says to us: “Nothing must be more important to you than I am.”

St. Augustine once wrote, “Amor meus, pondus meum”—“My love is my weight” (Confessions, 13, 9, 10)—meaning that we always gravitate to that which we love most. This is why the spiritual life is so important in our battle to overcome addictions and to remain free—something acknowledged in the ‘Twelve-Step Program” of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not about loving less but about what we love first and most. Hating what we are addicted to is not about freedom from desire but freedom for desire—for the desire and love for the God who passionately desires and loves us. When God becomes our first love, we are free to see everything and love everything in their proper order. When God is our first love then everything else finds its place in relation to him. This is why the wisdom of St. Francis de Sales is so relevant for us today in the arena of our battle with addictions. It brings us back to where the real issue lies—who or what we love most, and the necessary choice we must make, with God’s grace, to love him and to hate everything that comes between ourselves and the God who is our first love.

On the feast of St. Francis de Sales, may his prayers and guidance help us who battle with more addictions than we care to admit. May we seek God’s forgiveness for the times we have succumbed to our addictions out of love for them. But may we also grow to hate what we are addicted to and so finally be free to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). That’s why the first commandment is not just top of a list. It is a call to love rightly and the key to a life that leads to true freedom and lasting peace.