A sermon of St. Francis de Sales on God's Spiritual Providence for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
“Jesus then took the loaves of bread, and having given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated there; in the same way he gave them some fish, as much as they wanted.” (John 6:11)
The narrative which Holy Church presents to us in today’s Gospel is a picture in which are portrayed a thousand beautiful subjects helpful to us in admiring and praising the Divine Majesty. But above all else, this picture presents to us the admirable Providence, both general and particular, which God has for humanity, and especially for those who love Him and who live according to His will in Christianity.
It is true that God exercises this Providence toward all creatures, and especially toward all men and women, as much toward pagans and heretics as toward others, whoever they be. Without this Providence they would undoubtedly perish. However, it is important to know that He extends a much more particular Providence toward His children who are Christians. Even among these there are some, as we see in today’s Gospel, who merit a more special care from Our Lord. These aspire to perfection, and, to attain it, they are not content to follow Him on the flowery plain of consolation, but courageously follow Him even in the deserts, as far as the summit of that high mountain in today’s Gospel. There were many who saw the Saviour while He was going about instructing and healing people, but who did not follow Him. There were others who, thus seeing Him, did follow Him – but only as far as the foot of the mountain, content to accompany Him in the plain and through pleasant and easy paths. But a thousand times happier were those who saw Him and followed Him not only to the foot of the mountain, but, carried on by the love they bore Him, ascended with Him, divested of every care except to please Him. Thus they merited that the Divine Goodness should take care of them and even provide for them a miraculous banquet, lest they faint on the way from hunger.
It seems, indeed, that many might have been on the verge of collapse after having followed our dear Master three days and three nights without eating or drinking, distracted from such activity by the wonderful delight they found in listening to His divine words. Though their needs were very great, they did not think of them. Oh! How loving these throngs were in so perfect a practice of total abandonment into the arms of Divine Providence! We need not fear that God will neglect them. He will take care of them and will have compassion on them, as we shall soon see in the continuation of our discourse. I will speak, therefore, of the confidence which those aspiring to perfection ought to have in Providence regarding spiritual necessities, just as I have spoken before, I think in this very place, of that general Providence which God has over all people and of the confidence that we ought to have in Him in temporal matters. The lessons which we shall derive from this will be very useful for our stage of spiritual development.
I will divide what I have to say into three points, in the first of which I will consider the goodness of these people who accompanied Our Lord without any care or thought of themselves, leaving their homes and all that they possessed, attracted by the affection and the satisfaction which they found in listening to His words. Oh, what a good sign it is for a Christian to take pleasure in listening to God’s word, and to leave all to follow Him! There is certainly no doubt that persons may aspire and attain to perfection by remaining in the world and doing carefully what pertains to their vocation. Yet it is a most certain thing that the Saviour does not exercise for them so special a Providence, nor so personal and individual a solicitude, as He does for those who abandon all care of themselves to follow Him more perfectly. These have a greater capacity than the others for understanding God’s word and being attracted by the charms of His loving kindness. So long as we have a care for ourselves, I mean a care full of anxiety, Our Lord permits us to act; but when we abandon all to Him, He takes a tender care of us, and His Providence for us is great or small according to the measure of our abandonment.
I do not say this so much for temporal things as for spiritual things. He Himself taught this to His beloved St. Catherine of Siena: ”Think of Me,” He said to her, “and I will think for you.” Oh, how blessed are they who so love Our Lord as carefully to follow this rule of thinking only of Him, remaining faithfully in His presence, listening to what He says to us continually in the depths of our hearts, obeying His divine attractions, movements and inspirations, breathing and aspiring unceasingly to the desire of pleasing Him and of being submissive to His most holy will! This must always be done with divine confidence in His total goodness and in His providence, for we must always remain tranquil and not be troubled or full of anxiety in seeking the perfection which we undertake.
Consider, I beg you, this multitude who follow our dear Master, even up the mountain. See the peace and tranquillity of spirit with which they follow Him. There is not one murmur or complaint, although it must have seemed that they would expire from weakness and hunger. They suffer much and yet they do not think of it, so attentive are they to their sole desire of accompanying Our Lord wherever He goes. They who follow this Divine Saviour should imitate them in this, laying aside all the many cares and anxieties for their advancement, as well as all the many complaints because they see themselves imperfect. Oh, some are so soon wearied and exhausted, although they have laboured only a little! It seems to them that they will never enjoy that delicious banquet which Our Lord prepares for them up there on the summit of the mountain of perfection. We may say to these good people: Have patience, lay aside a bit that anxious care of yourselves, and have no fear that anything will be wanting to you. For if you trust in God, He will take care of you and everything necessary for your perfection. No one who hoped in Him and in His Providence has ever been disappointed.
Do you not see that the birds, which neither sow nor reap, and whose only purpose is to delight us by their singing, still fail not to be nourished and sustained by the order of this divine Providence? You know that two kinds of animals are kept in houses, some for use and others simply for amusement. For example, we have hens to lay eggs, and nightingales or other little birds in cages to sing. All are fed, but not for the same end, for some are for use and others for pleasure.
It is the same among us. The Church is the house of the Father of the family, who is Our Lord and Master; He takes very great care to provide for the necessities of all the faithful who are associated there – with this difference, however, that among them all, He chooses some whom He wishes to be entirely employed in singing His praises and who are therefore relieved of every other care. Therefore, He has ordained that we should be sustained and nourished by tithes which are collected without solicitude. By this I mean that we, being consecrated to His service, are the birds appointed to delight His Divine Goodness by means of our singing and the continual praises which we offer to Him.
What are religious but birds who are kept in a cage to chant unceasingly the praises of God? We might say that all the exercises of religious life are so many new canticles which make known the divine mercies to us and which continually prompt us to magnify the Divine Majesty in gratitude for the special and very particular Providence which He has had over us, in that He has withdrawn us from the rest of humankind to follow the Saviour more easily and tranquilly on the mountain of perfection.
All are called to perfection, since Our Lord was speaking to all when He said: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). But in truth, we may well say what is said in the holy Gospel: “Many are called, but the elect are few.” (Matt. 20:16; 22:14). There are many who aspire to perfection, but few attain it because they do not walk as they should - ardently, yet tranquilly; carefully, but confidently; that is to say, relying more on the Divine Goodness and His Providence than upon themselves and their own works. We must be very faithful, but without anxiety or eagerness; we must use the means that are given to us according to our vocation, and then remain in peace concerning all the rest. For God, under whose guidance we have embarked, will always be attentive to provide us with whatever is necessary. When all shall fail us, then God will take care of us, and then all will not fail us since we shall have God, who must be our all.
The children of Israel had no manna until they had run out of the flour from Egypt. This will be my second point. God would sooner work miracles than leave without assistance, either spiritual or temporal, those who trust entirely in His Divine Providence. Yet He wants us, for our part, to do all that lies in our power. That is, He wants us to use the ordinary means to attain perfection. If these should fail, He will never fail to assist us. As long as we have our rules, our constitutions and persons who tell us what we ought to do, let us not expect God to work miracles to guide us to perfection, for He will not do it.
Put Abraham with his family and Elias among the prophets. The Lord will perform no prodigy to nourish them. Why not? Because He wishes Abraham to reap his grain, to have it threshed and ground and finally made into bread for his support. He has cows, he must be fed by their milk; or else, if he wishes, he may kill his fat calves and make a banquet for the angels. But, on the contrary, place Elias near the torrent of Carith or in the desert of Bersabee, and you will see that there God supports him – one place by the instrumentality of angels, and in the other by that of a raven, which brought him bread and meat every day for his sustenance.
Therefore, when human aid fails us, all is not wanting, for God takes over and takes care of us by His special Providence. This poor multitude who follow Our Lord today were assisted by Him only after they were all near faint with hunger. He felt an extreme pity for them because, in their love of Him, they had so forgotten themselves that none had brought provisions, except the little Martial who had five barley loaves and two fishes. It is as if the Saviour, full of love for the hearts of these good people (who numbered about five thousand), said to Himself: “You have no care whatever for yourselves, but I Myself will take care of you.” Therefore, He called St. Philip to Him and asked him: “These poor people will faint on the way if we do not assist them with some food, but where could we find sufficient to sustain them?” He did not ask this through ignorance, but to test him.
We must not think that God tests us in order to lead us to evil, for that simply cannot be. He tests His most beloved servants so that they might prove their fidelity and love for Him, and that they might accomplish great and shining works, as He did with Abraham when He commanded him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. In the same way, He sometimes tests His servants in their confidence in Divine Providence, permitting them to be so languid, so dry and so full of aridity in all their spiritual exercises that they do not know where to turn for relief from the interior weariness which overwhelms them.
Our Lord tested St. Philip in this way. He was not yet confirmed in the faith and in confidence in the almighty power of his Master, and so answered Him as if rejecting His proposition: “Not even with two hundred days’ wages could we buy loaves enough to give each of them a mouthful.” This response symbolises very well indeed certain souls who do not wait for Our Lord to take pity on them, but are careful to do it themselves. No one is so poor as they are; no one, they say, was ever so afflicted as they. The pains, the sorrows of each one are always the greatest. For instance, those poor women who have lost their husbands always think that their affliction is more grievous than that of all others. It is the same with purely spiritual tribulations: disgust, aridity, weariness, and that aversion and repugnance to good which souls most devoted to the service of God very often experience. “My passions disturb me greatly; I cannot bear anything without interior repugnance; everything is extremely burdensome to me; I have so great a desire to acquire humility, and yet I feel so great an aversion to being humbled; I do not have that interior tranquillity which is so pleasing, since I am greatly buffeted by constant distraction. In short, I find the exercise of virtue so difficult that I no longer know what to do; my affliction is greater than I can describe, and I have no words to express the incomparable pain I am suffering.”
It is true that St. Andrew remarked to Our Lord: “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are these among so many?” “Alas!” say these poor souls who pity themselves, “my affliction is so great that two hundred crowns of consolation would not suffice to relieve me. It is true that we have many good spiritual books, we have sermons, we have regular times for prayer, we even experience some consoling emotions; but what good is that? It is nothing.” How strange is the human spirit: that is nothing indeed! What more would you wish? That God would send you an angel to comfort you? Oh, He will not do it; you have not yet fasted three days and three nights to follow Him on the mountain of perfection, for the attainment of which you must forget yourself, leaving to God the care to comfort you according to His good pleasure; and not troubling yourself or caring for anything but to follow after Him, while listening to His words, as these good people did.
Our Lord tested St. Philip in order to humble him – and with good reason, after Philip had given an answer so full of human prudence. It is a remarkable thing: God so loves humility that He sometimes tests us, not to make us do evil but to teach us by our own experience what we really are, permitting us to say or do some foolish thing, giving us reason to humble ourselves. Now these complaints, and this tenderness which we have for ourselves, these grievances, these difficulties in the pursuit of the good begun – truly, are they not matter fit to humble us and make us acknowledge that we are weak, and still children in what regards virtue and perfection? Oh, we must not look at ourselves so much, but we must think of God and let Him think for us.
We must indeed keep ourselves humble because of our imperfections, but this humility must be the foundation of a great generosity, for the one without the other degenerates into imperfection. Humility without generosity is only a deception and a cowardice of heart which makes us think that we are good for nothing and that others should never think of using us in anything great. On the other hand, generosity without humility is only presumption. We may indeed say: “It is true I have no virtue, still less the necessary gifts to be used in such a charge”; but after that humble acknowledgement we must so put our confidence in God as to believe that He will not fail to give them to us when it is necessary that we have them, and when He wants to make use of us, provided only that we forget ourselves and be occupied in faithfully praising His Divine Majesty and helping our neighbour to do the same, so as to increase His glory as much as lies in our power.
Notwithstanding the fact that St. Philip and St. Andrew declared that the five barley loaves and two fish were nothing for so many, Our Lord ordered them to be brought to Him, and He commanded His Apostles to make the people sit down. They all did so very simply, and in this they were certainly admirable, for they sat down to table without seeing anything on it, and there was nothing to suggest that anything could be given to them. Then Jesus took the loaves of bread, blessed them, broke them and ordered the Apostles to distribute them. When this was done, there was still some left, even though all had had enough to satisfy their need.
The question has been raised, among others, as to whether all ate of the five loaves or whether Our Lord, by His almighty power, made new ones which were distributed to the people. In speaking of another similar miracle – not the same miracle, since the number of loaves is seven, and St. John clearly relates that there were only five in the miracle of today’s Gospel – St. Mark says expressly that all ate of the seven loaves and two fishes.
There is another question whose answer will help us here. At the Resurrection, how can it be that each one will rise again in his same body, since some will have been eaten by worms, others by wild beast or by birds, others will have been burned and their ashes scattered to the winds. How then can it be that at the same time the angel shall call each one to come to judgement; all, I say, in an instant, without any delay, to rise again clothed in their own flesh? By the almighty power of God. I, in this same body which I now possess, will rise again. He will reproduce it; for as it was not difficult for Him to produce it such as it is, it will not be any more difficult to produce it again.
Thus Our Lord made all the five thousand men eat of the same five loaves and two fishes, reproducing them as often as was necessary, that each one might have a portion according to his need. All ate then of five loaves and two fishes miraculously multiplied – all but St. Martial who, not participating in this miracle, ate his own bread all alone and not that of the Saviour, because he had brought his own provision. For as long as we have our own bread, God does not work prodigies to sustain us.
Let us consider, for the third point, that Our Lord, although able to make the manna fall on this mountain as formerly in the desert for the children of Israel, nevertheless did not do it, preparing His feast instead with barley loaves. Yet these people love Him much and did not murmur as the Israelites did who murmured even without cause – for they lacked nothing, since the manna had the taste of everything they could desire. My God! What does this teach us? The murmuring Israelites are nourished with the bread of angels, that is, with the manna which was kneaded by their hands; however, they who followed Our Lord with incomparable affection and gentle hearts, despoiled of all care of themselves, are nourished only with barley loaves. What can this mean except that worldlings, represented here by those Israelites who really aspired to reach and obtain only the earthly Promised Land – these worldlings, and those who live in the world but desire Heaven, do not fail, nevertheless, to amass for themselves and to seek unnecessary possessions and ease here below on earth. But they who aspire to follow Our Lord on the mountain of perfection must be satisfied with a sufficiency in all that regards their necessities, corporal as much as spiritual, avoiding abundance and superfluity in all things, remaining content with a simple sufficiency, or even with being deprived of what is necessary, when it pleases God that this shall happen.
As for me, I will tell you my thought on the question which I am going to put to you, namely, which would you prefer: to be fed with a little bread baked under the ashes with the Prophet Elias in the desert of Bersabee, or else, with the same prophet, with the bread and meat which he received from the beak of a raven near the torrent of Carith? I cannot know your thoughts, but as for me, I will tell you very frankly that I would prefer the bread baked under the ashes from the hand of the angel to bread – however white it might be – or flesh, brought to me by the beak of a raven, a foul and repulsive bird. Better is a morsel of barley bread from the hand of Our Lord than the manna from that of an angel. More honoured a thousand times are these poor throngs eating a morsel of barley bread at the table of our sweet Saviour than if they were fed with pearls and the most delicate meats in the world at the table of the wretched Cleopatra.
The true friends of God, and those who follow Him faithfully wherever He goes, urged on by their ardent love for His Divine Majesty, and especially religious who make it their profession to accompany Him through the roughest and most difficult ways on the mountain of perfection, should imitate these people and have only one foot on earth, keeping their whole soul with all its powers and faculties occupied with heavenly things, leaving all care of themselves to Our Lord, to whose service they are dedicated and consecrated. Therefore, they ought neither to seek nor to desire anything but what is simply necessary, especially regarding spiritual needs. As for temporal things, that is very clear since they have abandoned the world and all its conveniences, where they once lived according to their own will. God, as we have said, did not command Elias in the desert to return among the prophets to be supported there, but Himself sent an angel to him because he had gone there by the order of Divine Providence. In like manner, He does not wish religious to return to the world to seek consolation to revive their spirits, because it was by His inspiration that they came into religion. He will watch over them in these deserts, not of Bersabee but of His Divine Majesty.
It is true that very often He does not feed them with manna, which had the taste that each one desired. Rather, He often feeds them with a piece of bread baked under the ashes, or else with a morsel of barley bread. By this I mean that Our Lord wants these souls, chosen for the service of His Divine Majesty, to be nourished always with a firm and unchanging resolution to persevere in following Him, even amid disgust, aridities, the repugnances and austerities of the spiritual life, without consolation, without relish, without tenderness, but in a very profound humility, thinking they do not deserve anything else, thus taking this bread lovingly, not from the hand of an angel, but from that of the Saviour, who gives it to us according to our need. It is certain that although it is not very agreeable to the taste, it is nevertheless extremely profitable for our spiritual health.
Our Lord gave barley bread because it was barley bread that the little Martial brought. He did not wish to change it, but He used this provision to work His miracle in order to teach us that while we have something, He wants us to offer it to Him, and that if He has to work a miracle for us, it may be with that very thing which we have. For example, if we have good desires for good instructions, and we have not sufficient strength to put them into practice, let us offer them to Him and He will make us capable of accomplishing them. If we put our confidence in His goodness, He will renew these desires as often as will be necessary to make us persevere in His service.
We say that we do not know whether the will to please Him that we now have will remain with us during our whole life. Alas! It is true, for there is nothing so weak and changeable as we are. But nevertheless, let us not be troubled. Let us, rather, frequently lay this good will before Our Lord; let us place it in His hands and He will renew it as often as is necessary that we may have enough for our whole mortal life. After this life there will be no cause for fear, nor for so many apprehensions, for with the help of God, we shall be in a safe place. There we shall never cease glorifying this Divine Majesty whom we have so dearly loved and followed according to our power, through the deserts of this miserable world to the highest summit of the mountain of perfection, to which we shall all attain by His grace, for the honour and glory of Our Lord, who is our Divine Master. Amen.