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The infused virtue of simplicity: Saint Francis de Sales and Dietrich von Hildebrand.


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. My purpose is to
   instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court,
   and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life as
   to outward appearances. Frequently, on the pretext of some
   supposed impossibility, they will not even think of undertaking
   a devout life. (3)

In guiding the faithful to holiness, de Sales recognizes that he must deal squarely with the challenge presented by diverse commitments and responsibilities. This is one of the reasons why his direction is so richly rewarding and universally applicable.

On the four hundredth anniversary of St. Francis de Sales's birth, Pope Paul VI honored de Sales as an important forerunner to the universal call to holiness. Paul VI writes, "No one of the recent Doctors of the Church more than St. Francis de Sales anticipated the deliberations and decisions of the Second Vatican Council with such a keen and progressive insight." Among the three things that Paul VI highlights in particular is the way in which de Sales "opened and strengthened the spiritual ways of Christian perfection for all states and conditions in life." (4) Central to these themes is the question of simplicity and complexity.

De Sales applies his concern for all states of life to the topic of simplicity in three works. He focuses on simplicity directly in a spiritual conference that he provides for the Sisters of the Visitation. (5) One also sees this theme of focusing on Christ in the midst of complexity in his Letters to Persons in the World and in his Introduction to the Devout Life. (6) In his preface to the latter work, de Sales indicates that the relationship between Christian simplicity and complexity has personal relevance. He notes that due to his episcopal duties, he had very little leisure to edit his Introduction to the Devout Life. He even anticipates that many will question his ability to direct others in the devout life since his own duties keep him busy. (7) St. Francis de Sales is not, however, deterred by these foreseen criticisms. His pastoral engagement with the faithful compels him to direct the faithful rather than withdraw from the world and the souls entrusted to his care.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a twentieth-century layman and phenomenologist whose commitment to Christ and perceptive mind led him to influence Church teaching on the role of conjugal love in marriage. In marriage, he argued, spouses should seek not only the end of having and raising children, but also cultivate conjugal love and thereby image the love of Christ for the Church. In articulating the twofold character of marriage and the conjugal act, von Hildebrand, like de Sales, anticipated the work of Vatican II. (8) By highlighting the importance of conjugal love and the supernatural character of marriage, von Hildebrand clarifies how marriage is a path to holiness.

In addition to his writing on marriage and conjugal love, von Hildebrand's life and work stand out for his early, frequent, and vocal opposition to the Nazi regime leading up to and during World War II. (9) While editing an anti-Nazi paper in Vienna (work that gained him the title of Nazi enemy number one in Austria), von Hildebrand gave two sets of lectures on spirituality for some friends in Florence, Italy. He would later publish these lectures under the title Transformation in Christ, initially under the pseudonym Peter Ott to allow for its German publication. (10) In this work, which has become a modern spiritual classic, von Hildebrand analyzes various spiritual attitudes and virtues that are essential to the Christian faith. Included in this collection is a chapter central for our purposes entitled "True Simplicity." Like that of de Sales, von Hildebrand's rich analysis of simplicity flows both from his conviction that everyone is called to holiness and the complexity of personal life. Both authors anticipated Vatican II's emphasis on the universal call to holiness, and with it, the foundational idea that one can serve various commitments and responsibilities without undermining commitment to Christ. (11) Von Hildebrand provides the systematic framework and de Sales the pastoral guidance.

The One Thing Necessary

Our authors contemplate a particular kind of simplicity. Their reflections focus not on an acquired virtue attained through the repetition of action but an infused virtue that requires God's grace and thereby has God as its source and end. (12) In his spiritual conference on simplicity, de Sales clarifies that the simplicity he contemplates is "inseparable from charity.... This virtue is Christian only." (13) Similarly, von Hildebrand writes in his introduction to Transformation in Christ, "The present study is restricted to a selection of the spiritual attitudes and virtues which constitute the treasure yielded by a life in Christ, the understanding of which may reveal the intrinsic, the qualitative newness of supernatural morality." (14) Specifically, in his discussion of simplicity he writes that simplicity is "steeped in charity." (15) When de Sales and von Hildebrand discuss simplicity, their focus is a specifically Christian conception.

Both authors emphasize that simplicity involves a single-minded focus on Christ. (16) To highlight the point, von Hildebrand and de Sales point to the words of Christ spoken to Martha: "Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing" (Lk (10): (41-42)). (17) Von Hildebrand fittingly ends his chapter on simplicity with this passage. (18) The ending is fitting because the theme of the unum necessarium begins and runs throughout his analysis. He highlights that true simplicity requires first that one invest "the unum necessarium with an unconditional primacy." (19) The simple person seeks only one end, judges all things from one perspective, and is prepared to relinquish all things in favor of God. (20)

De Sales refers to Christ's exchange with Martha early in his spiritual conference on simplicity. He proposes that while Martha's desire to show hospitality was admirable, she is reproved by Christ for adding secondary motives to her love of God. (21) He leaves no ambiguity about the primacy that should be reserved for God. The person with simplicity "looks straight to God, without ever suffering any admixture of self-interest. It would otherwise no longer be simplicity, for that virtue cannot endure any addition of creatures or any consideration of them." (22) God should be the focus, and nothing should stand in His way.

Even when necessity requires that one attend to other things, von Hildebrand writes that the person with simplicity "never abandons that one central attitude which is defined and shaped by Christ." (23) Similarly, but on a more practical level, de Sales advises that in preparing for daily work, "Simplicity requires that we should go attracted by the desire of pleasing God, without any other consideration." (24) The commitment to Christ should stand foundational to all other experiences and obligations.

Withdrawal from Complexity

The ultimate character of commitment to Christ requires that one sacrifice many goods. De Sales affirms that the pure love of God that simplicity seeks "is nowhere to be found so certainly as in self-mortification." (25) Similarly, von Hildebrand writes about "the great task of ridding ourselves of all inordinate attachment to creaturely goods: a task which is the chief object of all ascetical training." (26) The goods of the world can distract one from Christ. Commitment to Christ requires asceticism.

Von Hildebrand provides the systematic, philosophical framework for such asceticism, a framework that requires a little explanation. His central insight concerning simplicity is that this infused virtue requires a unity of life. In the original German, von Hildebrand begins the chapter by clarifying that he is speaking of "Einfachheit" (simplicity) in the sense of an "inneren Einheit des Lebens" (inner unity of life). (27) The unitive character of simplicity, while implied by the German Einfachheit, is illuminating in English because it distinguishes the virtue of simplicity from other uses of the word that imply a mere lack of complexity. This insight that simplicity is a unity of life frames his reflections. He identifies four ways in which created goods can be an obstacle to a unity of life and thereby present an obstacle to Christian simplicity: complexity without unity, mistaking complexity for profundity and thereby neglecting simplicity, complexity that is opposed to or out of accord with God, and a commitment to goods that ought to be reserved for God alone.

1) A person can miss true simplicity by seeking complexity without unity. Von Hildebrand describes three ways in which this can occur. First, one can lack unity by neglecting to seek a unity of life. This happens, for example, when one encounters various things in life and does not seek in earnest to unite one's interests and commitments by one dominant principle. One moves from one thing to another without integration. (28) In the second case, one attains a unity in areas of one's life. However, these subunities "are controlled by diverse and mutually contradictory currents ... without being coordinated or confronted with one another." (29) One might have, for example, a way of life at work, a way of life at home, and a way of life with friends, but collectively one's life is divided. Third, one seeking to unite one's life under one principle is prevented from actualizing that commitment because of psychic complexes and tensions. Such an individual may actively seek a unity of life but be prevented from doing so because of fear or insecurities. Von Hildebrand argues that such an individual is unable to see accurately his surroundings or understand the words and actions of others because he introduces artificial problems and complications or unnecessary sentiments. (30)

2) The second general obstacle to simplicity is to mistake complexity for profundity. In this case, one neglects simplicity through an inordinate focus or valuing of complexity. Von Hildebrand writes that the lover of this tendency "prefers obscurity to clarity." (31) For an individual so inclined, "the maze of arbitrary and extravagant but witty errors and sophistries are considered with great interest." (32) He writes, "The category of the intellectually interesting takes precedence over the category of truth." (33) The focus on complexity for its own sake prevents the pursuit and attainment of simplicity.

3) The third way in which complexity is an obstacle to simplicity, and here we move more explicitly into the realm of infused virtue, is when things that receive our attention are opposed to or out of accord with God. Von Hildebrand notes that some things are directly opposed to God and others, though not sinful, are out of accord with God. For obvious reasons, both de Sales and von Hildebrand demand that one withdraw from everything that is directly opposed to God. Von Hildebrand writes, "Without this basic revocation of our offenses against God there can be no genuine surrender to Him." (34) De Sales poignantly warns his readers, "By sin you have lost God's grace, given up your place in paradise, chosen the eternal pains of hell, and rejected God's eternal love." (35) Christian simplicity is a life united in God, and sin is a turning away or even rejection of God.

In his discussion of sin, de Sales puts his pastoral expertise on full display. Focused on the love of God, he insightfully proposes that while sin presents an obstacle to this love, so too does inordinate focus on sin:
   Although reason requires that we must be displeased and
   sorry whenever we commit a fault, we must refrain from bitter,
   gloomy, spiteful, and emotional displeasure. Many people
   are greatly at fault in this way. When overcome by anger they
   become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed,
   and vexed at being vexed.... these fits of anger, vexation,
   and bitterness against ourselves tend to pride and they spring
   from no other source than self-love, which is disturbed and
   upset at seeing that it is imperfect. (36)

One should repent of one's sin but not become preoccupied and distracted with one's imperfection and thereby give sin more importance than it deserves. The focus of simplicity is not merely to recognize sin but to unite one's life in the love of God.

Von Hildebrand and de Sales also warn that focus on the superficial distracts from God. Von Hildebrand warns against concentration on illustrated magazines, many cinema pictures, gambling, thrilling novels, and social gatherings dominated by idle talk. He notes that these activities are not opposed to God but draw us to the periphery and make unity in God more difficult. (37) De Sales offers a parallel caution against "sports, banquets, parties, fine clothes, and stage comedies." He writes that while such activities are morally indifferent, "such things are always dangerous and to have affection for them is still more dangerous." (38) Christian simplicity requires opposition to sin and caution for things that are not necessarily evil but superficial.

4) The fourth general obstacle to simplicity is to give oneself to something good in itself, but in a manner that ought to be reserved for God alone. Von Hildebrand writes that while these good things "can stand the test before the face of Christ, we must never abandon ourselves unqualifiedly to their immanent logic." (39) The temptation to give oneself unreservedly to something other than God is particularly strong when one is dealing with great goods. De Sales's pastoral reflections on friendship and virtue illustrate the point.

De Sales notes that Christian friendship is a great good: "If your mutual and reciprocal exchanges concern charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, O God, how precious this friendship will be! It will be excellent because it comes from God, excellent because it leads to God, excellent because its bond will endure eternally in God. How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven." (40) At the same time, however, de Sales proposes that "friendship is the most dangerous of all types of love." (41) Since friendship involves both love and communication, and since no one is without faults, friends are at risk of receiving one another's negative qualities. (42) He cautions that we cannot be indiscriminate or unreserved even towards virtuous friends: "We must of course meekly put up with a friend's faults, but we must not lead him into faults, much less acquire his faults ourselves.... As to sins, we must neither occasion them nor tolerate them in our friends. It is either a weak or a sinful friendship that watches our friend perish without helping him." (43) Spiritual friendships or friendships of virtue are great goods that can lead us to God, but a merely human friend is not God.

In this concern to focus on Christ, de Sales and von Hildebrand even caution against certain pursuits of virtue. De Sales affirms that one who abides in God's love will not be disquieted even by "desires for those virtues and graces which seem to it necessary.... It does not hunt about eagerly for means of perfecting itself other than those which are prescribed." (44) The goal in the moral life is not merely to develop this or that virtue, but to grow in the love of God and to faithfully embody that love in one's everyday life. (45) With a focus on the theological virtue of charity, de Sales argues that in humility one should even conceal one's virtues, especially the virtue of humility. One should not lose sight of God in the pursuit of receiving honor for one's virtues. (46)

Von Hildebrand also cautions against dwelling on one's virtue. While one needs to know enough of one's disposition to understand one's responsibilities, when one focuses on the goodness of one's action or virtue "[one loses] contact with the value (of the good) referred to in that act or response; and with that contact disappears the ethical value of our attitude: the more [one admires] it the more thoroughly it disappears." (47) The virtue of Christian simplicity is not an acquired virtue attained through a program, a strong will, and the repetition of action, but a disposition resulting from a positive response to God's offer of grace. God alone, and not even the virtue of infused simplicity, deserves our complete surrender.

The person with infused simplicity is focused on Christ with a single-minded devotion. This devotion leads to a withdrawal or at minimum a reservation toward all goods not God. Both de Sales and von Hildebrand reinforce the point near the end of their accounts of simplicity. De Sales concludes his conference on simplicity by reflecting on a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Mt 10: 16). (48) After reflecting on being simple as doves, de Sales turns his attention to Christ's invitation to be wise as serpents. He argues that serpents "when they are attacked, expose their whole bodies in order to preserve their heads. So too ought we to do, exposing ourselves and all that we have to danger when necessary, in order to preserve within us, untouched, Our Lord and His love; for He is our Head, and we are His members." (49) In the third to last paragraph of his chapter on simplicity, von Hildebrand speaks similarly of a heroism that flows from Christian simplicity: "we are ready to sacrifice, without reserve, all lower goods to a higher one; that we gladly sell all we possess in order to buy the land where the treasure is buried." (50) Christ is the treasure and one should be prepared to dispense with all else to attain him.

De Sales and von Hildebrand insist that withdrawal and reservation toward the goods of creation are necessary for Christian simplicity: one can become busy or distracted with the goods of the world, one can fall into sin and away from God, and one can even give oneself to great goods in ways that ought to be reserved for God alone. The complexity of the created world and the diversity of one's responsibilities easily become an obstacle to faith.

The Necessity of Complexity

If created goods present an obstacle to God, then should one withdraw from all things not God? Von Hildebrand and de Sales present three reasons why one cannot just focus on God and withdraw from all created goods: 1) the world in which the simple person lives is complex; 2) one must tend to the necessities of life; and 3) Christian faith requires love of one's neighbor.

i) First, the world is complex. While complexity without unity is not deserving of the name simplicity, von Hildebrand warns that one also should avoid false forms of unity that deny or ignore complexity. While the attempt to eliminate complexity may appear like simplicity, in fact, von Hildebrand argues that a "simplicity of platitude, which would strip the cosmos of all depth and all metaphysical stratification, is perhaps even more radically opposed to true Christian simplicity than is the disease of complexity." (51) This false simplicity would miss the depth and complexity of God's creation.

Here again, von Hildebrand provides a helpful framework. He identifies three forms of false simplicity that present an insufficient account of complexity: the primitive mind, the intellectually poorly equipped, and those who simplify things illegitimately. He proposes that while primitive minds are said to be simple, their simplicity reflects not a virtue but an "inner poverty and ... incapacity to respond to the depth and the qualitative manifoldness of the cosmos." (52) This category includes the person who attends only to external necessities or the economic usefulness of things or the person who simply repeats a few primitive motifs in a monotonous rhythm. In summary, von Hildebrand writes, "Thus, his world is a shrunken one, both in depth and width, and his conception of the world is simple in the sense of lacking content and differentiation. It is uncomplicated; but that freedom from complication is obtained at the cost of renunciation of metaphysical depth and abundance." (53) In the name of simplicity, the primitive mind attempts to impoverish the world through reconstruction.

Some individuals are unable to see the depth of the world not because of some fault or oversight but because they lack the intellectual capacity to grasp depth and differentiation. Von Hildebrand notes that for such individuals, tasks requiring deeper insight will lead to confusion: "His intellectual deficiency renders him awkward; his clumsy hands are unable, so to speak, to touch anything complicated, differentiated, or refined, without crushing it." (54) The concern here is the reduction of simplicity to intellectual deficiency and not intellectual deficiency itself. Von Hildebrand goes on to explain that "by fully surrendering themselves to Christ [those with intellectual deficiency] may retrieve abundance and depth of being per eminentiam by virtue of their genuine and direct contact with supreme value, which compensates for their natural shortcomings. No deficiency of natural dispositions can prevent us from transformation in Christ." (55) Those with intellectual deficiencies can live in Christian simplicity, but simplicity is more than intellectual limitation.

The third form of false simplicity that lacks complexity is that in which a person simplifies things illegitimately. Here, people occupy themselves with the higher spheres of being but "with a kind of glib dexterity doctor it, as it were, until the problem appears to be solved or, rather, enchanted away. They do not treat things adequately but merely tamper with them, though often with a show of success." (56) In the theoretical domain, one may interpret the entire cosmos after the pattern of its lowest sphere. For example, one might think of reducing human experience to the empirically verifiable or reduce human motivation to sexual drives. The person who oversimplifies the practical domain might think their lives "run smoothly without friction, conflicts or complications because they contrive to master all its aspects by dint of a few schematic notions." (57) Simplicity is not a reduction or false denial of the depth and complexity of the world.

2) The second reason why one cannot withdraw from all goods not God is that one must tend to the necessities of life. De Sales and von Hildebrand recognize that not only the world but also human life is complex. This complexity will differ for individuals depending on their life circumstances. De Sales writes, "Devotion must be exercised in different ways by the gentleman, the worker, the servant, the prince, the widow, the young girl, and the married woman. Not only is this true, but the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, activities, and duties of each particular person. I ask you, Philothea, is it fitting for a bishop to want to live a solitary life like a Carthusian? Or for married men to want to own no more property that a Capuchin?" (58)

Despite differences in activity and responsibilities, what remains constant for every person is the need to care for the necessities of life. In this sense, the challenge of busyness is not a new challenge for the internet age, where information, work, and events are always at one's fingertips. The problem of simplicity and complexity is a perennial, universal question for humanity. Every person, even the hermit, insofar as he is embodied and lives within the limits of time and space, must resolve the dilemma of simplicity and complexity. After all, the hermit needs to eat and sleep, to work, to pray, to take care of his clothes and his housing. Von Hildebrand writes, "Surely, the primacy of the unum necessarium cannot dispense us from our several duties concerning our fellow men, our profession, our daily bread, and so forth?" (59) Regardless of one's commitment, one must tend to the basic necessities of life.

3) Finally, the Christian faith entails complexity because Christ demands that the faithful love their neighbor. De Sales writes, "Your neighbor is there, in the Heart of the Saviour, there, as so beloved and so lovable that the divine Lover dies of love for him!" (60) Rooted in love of God, infused simplicity requires that one not ignore but love one's neighbor. A complete denial of complexity would send one running away from the needs of one's human brothers and sisters.

With great insight, von Hildebrand concludes his section on the false denial of complexity by proposing, "All these forms of false simplicity, much as they differ from one another, have this in common: that with them, the advantage derived from the avoidance of complexity is outweighed by a grave defect or aberration.... The basic error of all false simplicity lies in the assumption that it is a simple thing to have true simplicity." (61) The goal of simplicity is not a denial or ignorance of complexity or a boredom flowing from a lack of complexity. Due to the goodness of creation, the necessities of human life, and the call to love one's neighbor, true simplicity cannot be merely a withdrawal from but rather must be an integration of all things in Christ.

The Integration of Complexity

True simplicity is a way of life united by one principle. Since complexity is a necessary part of reality, however, this one principle should not obscure but must illuminate all things. For this reason, von Hildebrand notes that while a high vocation or a great love can unify one's life to an extent, only God can serve as the ultimate principle:
   Within the limits of the purely natural sphere, we cannot--and
   must not--aspire to an all-pervasive inward simplicity.
   Only to God, only to the living God who manifests Himself
   in Revelation, may we so deliver our whole life as to keep our
   regard fixed on one thing exclusively: the unum necessarium.
   He alone ... may impart to our whole life that ultimate unity
   and simplicity which, far from diminishing its wealth of substance,
   permeates it with a new and incomparable abundance
   of being. (62)

No created good is capable of uniting all things. When one gives himself completely to something other than God, he ends up obscuring reality. He is unable to respond appropriately to things that do not fit his principle and his worldview. True simplicity, on the other hand, "is a state of mind entirely different from the obsession of blind zeal which compels one to talk always about the one thing one is absorbed in, without regard to the situation and without applying the necessary discretion." (63) Simplicity then is not merely a way of life united under one principle, but a unity of life that integrates and illuminates all things. This unity is found in Christ alone.

De Sales and von Hildebrand maintain that active participation in grace provides the hope that one can live without being of the world. De Sales writes, "A strong, resolute soul can live in the world without being infected by any of its moods, find sweet spring of piety amid its salty waves.... True, this is a difficult task, and therefore I wish that many souls would strive to accomplish it with greater ardor than has hitherto been shown." (64) One can deal with a variety of responsibilities without being distracted from Christ, but only with hard work and the assistance of grace.

Christian simplicity, however, involves more than avoiding the negative influence of material goods. Christians want to avoid being overwhelmed by the world but also to integrate all things in Christ. Von Hildebrand again provides the framework and de Sales the pastoral guidance and application. In his treatment of simplicity, von Hildebrand highlights three ways to integrate all things in Christ: gratitude, analogy, and sacrificing one's work to Christ. To these paths of integration, I will add a fourth path: Prayer. It is a major theme in the writings of both von Hildebrand and de Sales.


Von Hildebrand and de Sales highlight how the encounter with God in prayer enables one to unite one's life in God. While recognizing that one must take care of the necessities of life, von Hildebrand affirms that in order to "baptize all these things ... we must dominate them by reason of our conscious, direct, and permanent contact with Christ." (65) De Sales beautifully illustrates the transforming and unifying character of prayer: "Since prayer places our intellect in the brilliance of God's light and exposes our will to the warmth of his heavenly love, nothing else so effectively purifies our intellect of ignorance and our will of depraved affections. It is a stream of holy water that flows forth and makes the plants of our good desires grow green and flourish and quenches the passions within our hearts." (66) Because God provides the source, sustenance, meaning, and end of all things, prayer unifies one's life.

As they often do, de Sales and von Hildebrand offer important qualifications concerning the morally formative character of prayer. De Sales warns against highlighting the formative character of prayer while neglecting the need for concrete action. After a rich discussion of mental prayer, he insists that one should end mental prayer with a resolution for concrete action. He even proposes that mental prayer can be harmful without such a resolution: "Virtues meditated on but not practiced sometimes inflate our minds and courage and we think that we are really such as we have thought and resolved to be." (67) Formative prayer leads to concrete action.

Von Hildebrand clarifies that while prayer has a formative impact on one's personality, one should not reduce prayer or God to an instrument for one's personal growth: "We must actually throw ourselves open to the radiance of the lumen Christi, without attempting to adapt it to our own nature or to falsify it by our natural categories. We must not humanize and interpret in an easy oversimplified manner the One in whom is all plenitude of divinity (in quo est omnis plenitude divinitatis), lest we succumb to the pitfall of false simplicity." (68) This is a theme that von Hildebrand develops more fully in his earlier work, Liturgy and Personality, where he argues that while the liturgy has exceptional power to form individuals, "this formation is not the primary intention of the Liturgy. The divine Office is recited primarily because all praise and glorification is due to God, the fullness of all holiness and majesty, and not because it will bring about a transformation in ourselves." (69) He proposes that the very transformative power of prayer results from one's focus on God's glory:
   One of the special reasons for the strength and depth of the
   transformation of personality brought about by the Liturgy
   is that this transformation is not the end in view.... it is
   achieved through that which, independent from pedagogical
   action, dispenses it as a superfluum or gift of superabundance.
   Thus the deepest and most organic transformation of man
   in the spirit of Christ is found precisely at that point where
   we purely respond to values, in the giving up of ourselves to
   God's glory. (70)

One's primary intention and focus in the liturgy then ought to be the glory of God, even while one knows and even voluntarily wants the personal transformation that superabundantly flows from such prayer. Prayer then purifies and unifies one's thoughts and one's life, but only if one's focus is on God and only if the fruit of one's meditation regularly manifests itself in concrete application.

Sacrificing Work to God

The second means of integrating all things in Christ is to offer one's work as a sacrifice to God. (71) While von Hildebrand and de Sales do not give significant space to this theme, the process of sacrificing one's work is crucial for integration of complexity since as we have noted one must tend to life's necessities. Indeed, most people spend a large portion of their lives working. By offering our work as a sacrifice to God, we place it into God's hands and thereby reorient work as coming from and returning to God. (72)


The third means of integrating all things in Christ is gratitude. Von Hildebrand argues that gratitude presents a "profound connection between the genuine goods of the world and God." (73) He goes on to note that "by all gifts we are reminded of the Giver: 'In all things give thanks' ((1) Thess (5): (18))." (74) For his part, de Sales begins his Introduction to the Devout Life with a series of meditations. He highlights gratitude in the first four of those meditations. (75) He also provides an excellent illustration of the importance of gratitude in his analysis of wealth and possessions. He proposes that since all possessions ultimately belong to God, one should care for one's possessions with the same attentive care as a gardener would care for the garden of a prince or king. In turn, these possessions, which ultimately belong to God, should be shared generously with the poor. (76) In gratitude, the Christian sees one's possessions in their proper light, that all that is good comes from God and is ordered by and to God.


Finally, one can integrate all things in Christ by analogy. One sees not only that God is the source of all things but that all things in one way or another represent their Creator. Von Hildebrand writes that for those who see the analogy of God, "the cleansing effect of water will evoke in our minds the redemptive power of Baptism. The deep union of two human beings in marriage will acquire a new meaning in the light of the bond between Christ and His Church, and of the mysterious union, transcending all conceptual understanding, of the three Divine Persons in one Substance." (77) Von Hildebrand clarifies that to see things as an analogy of God is not a subtle way of withdrawing from or misrepresenting the goods of the world. Rather, "If we consider all things in conspectu Dei, every genuine good finds its right place in the cosmic order and discloses its specific value more splendidly than if we attend to it in arbitrary isolation." (78) Analogy allows one to see the true nature of the good, and to see that good in proper relation to a vast hierarchy of goods.

The analogy of God stands out more profoundly for higher spheres of being. Von Hildebrand proposes that a genuine encounter with great goods, like the human person, or the beauty of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or the manifestation of a generous soul, has a particular potential to elevate one to God. (79) The movement towards God presented in the analogy of such goods contains "a faculty of coordination and unification, both in an interpersonal and intrapersonal sense." (80) While one should not give himself completely to these values, von Hildebrand argues that one also cannot merely encounter such goods. One must actively participate in this invitation from God to be raised to Him and to recognize the mission of these goods "to liberate one from lower attachments." (81) One sees in these great goods an opportunity to grow in simplicity as a way of life united in Christ.

Von Hildebrand roots the connection between simplicity and these great goods in a metaphysical principle: "the higher a thing is, the simpler it is." (82) He presents this metaphysical principle by working his way through different levels of being. He explains that different objects exhibit different kinds of inner unity. Whereas material objects have a mere "combination of things rather than creative interpenetration," the various parts of living things are "subordinated to one principle" and have a greater "mutual interpenetration." (83) Of the person, von Hildebrand writes, "the principle of interpenetration is far more predominant even than in the living organism." (84) The spiritual person has "far more substantiality and depth than has the living organism ... by the same token it also possesses much more simplicity." (85) As one moves to greater beings, one witnesses a greater unifying principle of life and interpenetration of parts. The higher a thing is the simpler it is. This character of simplicity grows, von Hildebrand writes, "along the ascending hierarchy of the cosmos until it culminates in the one eternal Word of God, in quo est omnis plenitudo ("in whom is all plenitude of divinity")." (86) God, while providing for the diversity of all things, is Simple and One.

De Sales also articulates how unity and diversity coincide in God when he writes in his Treatise on the Love of God, "God's supreme unity diversifies all things and his permanent eternity gives change to all things, because the perfection of his unity is above all difference and variety and must therefore have both means to furnish all diverse created perfections with their being and contain power to produce them." (87) God's simplicity is not a unity that denies difference but one, to use de Sales's language, that is "above all difference." In the simple unity of God, one finds the integration of all complexity. This insight of our authors stands out all the more when one explicitly highlights the union and distinction found not only in God's creation but in the Trinity.

Pastoral Application

While von Hildebrand offers to us a framework, clarifying the metaphysical principle of simplicity, and some key paths for integrating all things in Christ, de Sales clarifies that one must not neglect the reality of sin and human limitation in one's pursuit of simplicity. The possibility of integrating all things in Christ does not imply that everyone, in their current state, is in a position to do so. In his pastoral guidance, de Sales reminds us that one's ability to integrate complexity in one's life will depend on the height of a person's faith and fortitude. One sees examples of this pastoral application in his Letters to Persons in the World.

Despite de Sales's general concern for the risks of complexity, in one of his letters, he discerns in his conversation partner a high potential for integration in Christ. He praises the man for maintaining his faith within the complexities of court: "My dearest son, though you may change place, occupations and society, you will never, I trust, change your heart, nor your heart its love.... the variety of the faces of court and world will make no change in yours. Your eyes will ever regard heaven, to which you aspire, and your mouth will ever demand the sovereign good which you hope to have there." (88) For another man, however, de Sales is more concerned. He concludes that while the man's faith is strong enough to go off to court, he should be cautious to avoid vanity and ambition, bad books, fond loves, gaming, and delicacies. (89) De Sales recognizes that some individuals have a greater potential for integrating complexity than others.

De Sales reminds us that a comprehensive integration in one's life will not occur on earth. The pursuit of Christian simplicity requires the humble awareness of one's weakness and limitations. Accordingly, de Sales proposes that perfection on earth is not having all things integrated in Christ, but knowing how to deal with one's imperfections. (90) He writes, "This is the height of virtue, to correct immoderation moderately." (91) In one letter, de Sales provides a vivid analogy cautioning against a rash and self-asserting eradication of imperfection: "Huntsmen push into the brambles, and often return more injured than the animal they intended to injure." (92) The one who impetuously pursues the simplicity of God will likely find himself overwhelmed by the complexity of the world and his own vain pursuits. The gradual development of Christian simplicity requires grace and time: "The soul that rises from sin to devotion has been compared to the dawning day, which at its approach does not drive out the darkness instantaneously but only little by little." (93) Only through humility, self-awareness, and a prudent eye toward gradual growth, all rooted in the hope of eternal life, will one grow in the simplicity of God.


St. Francis de Sales and Dietrich von Hildebrand are two forerunners to the universal call to holiness. In their attentiveness to this call, they address the perennial, universal question of the relationship between simplicity and complexity. Von Hildebrand provides for us the philosophical framework and the great insight that simplicity is a unity of life rooted in commitment to God. De Sales provides the pastoral guidance focused on love of God and attentive to the depth of an individual's faith as well as the real risks of complexity. By placing the two in conversation, one sees that simplicity is a way of life united and integrated by love of God.

This simplicity is attained by withdrawing from complexity that is opposed to and distracts one from God. Simplicity, however, is not merely a withdrawal from complexity. The personal call God offers to each individual, the complexity of the world, the requirement to tend to basic needs, and the Christian responsibility to love one's neighbor all require engagement with complexity. In the midst of complexity, the simple person focuses on loving God who is simple and allows him to form her in simplicity by unifying and integrating her life. Christians participate in this formation by turning to God in prayer, by sacrificing daily work to God, by being grateful, and by seeing in the great goods of the world, especially in one another, an inspiring and uniting analogy of God. Knowing one's limitations and yearning for God's grace, the simple person seeks gradual growth and lives in the hope that one day all things in their diversity and complexity will be integrated into the Simplicity of the Trinity.


(1.) Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, August 6, 1993, Vatican trans. (Boston, MA: St. Paul Books and Media, 1993), [section] 118-19, emphasis in original.

(2.) Ibid., [section]119.

(3.) St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image Books, 1989), 33.

(4.) Pope Paul VI, Sabaudiae Gemma, January 29, 1967, trans. Neil Kilty, OSFS, http:// In connecting St. Francis de Sales to Vatican II, Paul VI mentions in particular Lumen Gentium, chap. 5, [section]40 and Gaudium et Spes, part II, chap. 1, [section]48. See also Pius XI's encyclical on the three-hundredth anniversary of St. Francis de Sales's death where Pius XI highlights the ongoing relevance of St. Francis de Sales, especially his teaching that all are called to holiness (Pius XI, Rerum Omnium Perturbationem, January 26, 1923, http://www, [section]2-4, 13-15, 26-27, and 35-36). Servais Pinckaers, OP, makes similar observations in his influential history of moral theology, The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. from the 3d ed. by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, OP (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 256 and 287.

(5.) St. Francis de Sales, "On Simplicity and Religious Prudence," in The Spiritual Conferences, trans. by Abbot Gasquet and Canon Mackey, OSB (Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1943), 212-33.

(6.) St. Francis de Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, vol. 1, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey, OSB (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1900).

(7.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 34-36.

(8.) Von Hildebrand published two works in the 1920s that stimulated conversation about the relationship between conjugal love and procreation. His formulation that conjugal love and procreation are primary in marriage and the conjugal act finds sanction in Gaudium et Spes, [section]49-51. For a summary of the discussion that occurred between Casti Connubii and Gaudium et Spes, see Geoffrey Grubb, "The Anthropology of Marriage in Significant Roman Catholic Documents from Casti Connubii to Gaudium et Spes (Doms, Hildebrand)," PhD diss., Saint Louis University, 1986; Rolando B. Arjonillo, Conjugal Love and the Ends of Marriage: A Study of Dietrich von Hildebrand and Herbert Doms in the Light of the Pastoral Constitution 'Gaudium et Spes' (Bern: Lang, 1998); and Kevin Schemenauer, Conjugal Love and Procreation: Dietrich von Hildebrand's Superabundant Integration (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009).

(9.) Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Henry Crosby, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich (New York: Image, 2014); Alice von Hildebrand, The Soul of a Lion (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000), 197-322; and Dietrich von Hildebrand, Memoiren und Aufsatze gegen den Nationalsozialismus, edited by Ernst Wenisch, Rudolf Ebneth, and Alice von Hildebrand (Mainz: Matthias-Grunewald, 1994).

(10.) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, trans. anonymous (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2001).

(11.) St. Francis de Sales's writings seem to have had a limited influence on von Hildebrand's thought. Von Hildebrand opens his chapter on humility in Transformation in Christ with a reference to de Sales (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 149). This reference stands out all of the more because von Hildebrand does not often quote sources other than Scripture and liturgical prayers, and his opening sentence of each chapter always highlights the chapter's central theme.

(12.) For more on the difference between the acquired virtues and the infused virtues, see Michael S. Sherwin, OP, "Infused Virtues and the Effects of Acquired Vice: A Test Case for the Thomistic Theory of Infused Cardinal Virtues," The Thomist 73 (2009): 29-52; Romanus Cessario, The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 99-125; Arielle Harms, "Acquired and Infused Moral Virtue: A Distinction of Ends," New Blackfriars 95, no. 1055 (Jan 2014): 71-87; and William C. Mattison III, Introducing MoralTheology: True Happiness and the Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 324-31. For discussion of the theological origins of the distinction, see Angela McKay Knobel, "Relating Aquinas's Infused and Acquired Virtues: Some Problematic Texts for a Common Interpretation," Nova et vetera 9, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 411-31 and Bonnie Kent, "Augustine's On the Good of Marriage and Infused Virtue in the Twelfth Century," Journal of Religious Ethics 41, no. 1 (2013): 112-36.

(13.) De Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 213.

(14.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, xx-xxi.

(15.) Ibid., 87.

(16.) See respectively, de Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 212, and von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 71.

(17.) New American Bible translation.

(18.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 104.

(19.) Ibid., 90.

(20.) Ibid., 83 and 90; see also de Sales, "Our soul is simple when in all that we do or desire we have no other aim" (The Spiritual Conferences, 212).

(21.) De Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 213.

(22.) Ibid., 213; later in his conference de Sales reflects on Matthew 18:3: "Unless you become simple as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of My Father" (Ibid., 225-26). He explains that children love their mother and do not worry about their pleasure and satisfaction, trusting in their parents. Similarly, we should love God and avoid excessive self-inspection (ibid., 226-27).

(23.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 87.

(24.) De Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 215. See also de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 152-53. De Sales, commenting again on Christ's exchange with Martha, writes, "Note that she would not have been troubled if she had been merely diligent, but she was overconcerned and disturbed and therefore hurried about and troubled herself. It was for this reason that our Lord rebuked her.... What I mean, Philothea, is that in ordinary affairs and occupations that do not require strict, earnest attention, you should look at God rather than at them."

(25.) De Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 219.

(26.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 90.

(27.) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Die Umgestaltung in Christus: Uber die christliche Grundhaltung (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1950), 57; the work was first published in 1940.

(28.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 71.

(29.) Ibid., 71.

(30.) Ibid., 72. See also de Sales's parallel discussion about the negative impact of anxiety in particular. He proposes, "There is nothing that tends more to increase evil and prevent enjoyment of good than to be disturbed and anxious" (de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 252).

(31.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 72.

(32.) Ibid., 73.

(33.) Ibid.

(34.) Ibid., 31.

(35.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 49.

(36.) Ibid., 149.

(37.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 92-93.

(38.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 77. In another letter, de Sales cautions a man preparing to leave for court to avoid gaming. De Sales writes to the young man of his fears that gaming will "make all the flowers of your good desires wither" (de Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, 180).

(39.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 93.

(40.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 174.

(41.) Ibid., 169.

(42.) Ibid.; see also 177-207.

(43.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 183.

(44.) De Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 226. This follows a reflection on Matthew 18:3. De Sales proposes that the simple Christian focuses on the heavenly Father as a child focuses on its mother.

(45.) On the question of how to choose a virtue to develop, de Sales writes, "we should prefer the one most conformable to our duties rather than one more agreeable to our tastes" and "we must prefer the more excellent to the more obvious" (Introduction to the Devout Life, 122).

(46.) Ibid., 136.

(47.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 178, emphasis in original.

(48.) New American Bible translation.

(49.) De Sales, The Spiritual Conferences, 232.

(50.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 104.

(51.) Ibid., 79-80.

(52.) Ibid., 77.

(53.) Ibid.

(54.) Ibid., 78.

(55.) Ibid., 82

(56.) Ibid., 79.

(57.) Ibid.

(58.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 43.

(59.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 91.

(60.) De Sales, Spiritual Conferences, 230.

(61.) Ibid., 81, emphasis in original.

(62.) Ibid., 82.

(63.) Ibid., 89.

(64.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, preface, 34.

(65.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 94.

(66.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 81. See also von Hildebrand's discussion of the topic in his chapter on recollection and contemplation, which immediately follows his chapter on simplicity:

We must guard from performing the inner prayer as though we were dispatching a business among others ... Whatever I am wont to carry and to hold in my arms I will let fall before Jesus. It will not fall into the void ... I am not abandoning them as I would abandon them in seeking diversion: I know that in Jesus they are truly in a safe harbor. When at His call I relinquish and abandon all things, I am not casting them away; on the contrary, I am assigning everything to its proper place (von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 139-40).

(67.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 90.

(68.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 85.

(69.) Von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality, rev. ed. (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1960), 4.

(70.) Ibid., 6-7.

(71.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 95-96.

(72.) De Sales writes, "Not only in prayer, but in the conduct of their whole life, they ought to walk invariably in a spirit of simplicity" (de Sales, Spiritual Conferences, 227). See also Pope St. John Paul II's rich spirituality of work in sections 24-27 of his encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, 1981.

(73.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 96.

(74.) Ibid. A few pages later, von Hildebrand writes, "Only if we receive every good (by the methods just described) in mindfulness of God and qua gifts and tokens of God--if in all values we are anxious to discern and to meet God--then the formal simplifying power of every value as such will become operative and conducive to true simplicity" (ibid., 100).

(75.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 52-59.

(76.) Ibid., 164-65.

(77.) Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, 98.

(78.) Ibid., 85; see also page 98, where von Hildebrand affirms that seeing the world's goods in reference to God "leads us through its innermost core to God."

(79.) Von Hildebrand proposes that the human person as imago Dei serves as the most profound analogy of God (ibid., 96).

(80.) Ibid., 101.

(81.) Ibid., 103.

(82.) Ibid., 72 and 75.

(83.) Ibid., 74-75

(84.) Ibid., 75.

(85.) Ibid.

(86.) Ibid., 76 and 84.

(87.) De Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey, OSB (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Bookshop, 1945), 68.

(88.) De Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, 187.

(89.) Ibid., 176-83.

(90.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 47-48.

(91.) De Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, 184.

(92.) Ibid.

(93.) De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 48. For more the on the mutual presence of infused virtue and acquired vice, see Michael S. Sherwin, "Infused Virtues" in note 12.

Kevin Schemenauer is assistant professor of moral theology at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. In 2011, he published Conjugal Love and Procreation: Dietrich von Hildebrand's Superabundant Integration. Currently, Kevin is researching the social nature of the family and Dietrich von Hildebrand's Transformation in Christ. Kevin and his wife Frances have three sons.
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Author:Schemenauer, Kevin
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
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Date:Jun 22, 2017
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