St. Francis de Sales Doesn’t Dance

Here is an extremely amusing (and, in its own way, edifying) little chapter from Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve only just encountered it by chance. It’s passages like this that rather make one understand why Evelyn Underhill summed up his teaching in the one line, “Yes, indeed, my dear Duchess, as Your Grace so truly observes, God is love.”

One can almost hear the Gentleman Saint sipping his tea at the end of each numbered item in the list below.

CHAPTER XXXIII. Of Balls, and other Lawful but Dangerous Amusements.

DANCES and balls are things in themselves indifferent, but the circumstances ordinarily surrounding them have so generally an evil tendency, that they become full of temptation and danger. The time of night at which they take place is in itself conducive to harm, both as the season when people’s nerves are most excited and open to evil impressions; and because, after being up the greater part of the night, they spend the mornings afterwards in sleep, and lose the best part of the day for God’s Service. It is a senseless thing to turn day into night, light into darkness, and to exchange good works for mere trifling follies. Moreover, those who frequent balls almost inevitably foster their Vanity, and vanity is very conducive to unholy desires and dangerous attachments.

I am inclined to say about balls what doctors say of certain articles of food, such as mushrooms and the like—the best are not good for much; but if eat them you must, at least mind that they are properly cooked. So, if circumstances over which you have no control take you into such places, be watchful how you prepare to enter them. Let the dish be seasoned with moderation, dignity and good intentions. The doctors say (still referring to the mushrooms), eat sparingly of them, and that but seldom, for, however well dressed, an excess is harmful.

So dance but little, and that rarely, my daughter, lest you run the risk of growing over fond of the amusement.

Pliny says that mushrooms, from their porous, spongy nature, easily imbibe meretricious matter, so that if they are near a serpent, they are infected by its poison. So balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement, and if any serpent be at hand to whisper foolish words of levity or impurity, to insinuate unworthy thoughts and desires, the ears which listen are more than prepared to receive the contagion.

Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.

To return to the medical simile;—it is said that after eating mushrooms you should drink some good wine. So after frequenting balls you should frame pious thoughts which may counteract the dangerous impressions made by such empty pleasures on your heart.

Bethink you, then—

1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.

2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?

3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.

4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies?

5. And while you were dancing time passed by, and death drew nearer. Trifle as you may, the awful dance of death must come, the real pastime of men, since therein they must, whether they will or no, pass from time to an eternity of good or evil. If you think of the matter quietly, and as in God’s Sight, He will suggest many a like thought, which will steady and strengthen your heart.

St. Francis de Sales, giving you the side-eye.

3 thoughts on “St. Francis de Sales Doesn’t Dance

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  2. I like St. Francis de Sales.

    But it seems to me that, in this case, his thoughts are less-than-divine.

    I’ve no doubt that everything he says about the temptations of fancy-dress balls has some truth to it.

    But while I sit in Perpetual Adoration, are there not poor persons dying in a gutter somewhere? While I study my Bible, are there not prisoners whom I could be visiting? While I sleep, are there not people who have never heard the gospel? While men train to become artists or scholars, are there not wars afoot, beachheads to be defended, children being sold into sexual slavery, and many other evils in the world around?

    Certainly there are all these things, and always will be, until the Lord returns. And yet there is a need of scholars and artists, and I personally need time with the Lord and enough sleep to remain healthy. “The poor ye shall always have with you.”

    To everything, there is a season; and a time and place for every purpose under Heaven. There is even a time to kill; surely there is also a time for fancy-dress balls.

    The correct attitude, then, is to notice the temptation to imbalance: The temptation to give fancy-dress balls (or web-surfing, or eating) more of our time and attention than they merit, and to give Adoration, Lectio Divina, and the Corporal Works of Mercy less time.

    But provided we happen to be in attendance at the rare fancy-dress ball that’s fitting and appropriate to our station in life, what then? Given that we have NOT gotten the thing out-of-proportion, are we supposed to try to have a miserable time there by calling to mind all the evils in the world currently happening outside the walls?

    No. God save us from dour-faced “saints.”

    Instead, we ought to enjoy the beauty and conviviality of the occasion, chastely and temperately and with good relaxed humor, and be the savor of God to all the others in attendance.

    I am not saying that St. Francis de Sales meant his observations to be as sour as they seem on first-reading. I note that he does not utterly forbid the fancy-dress ball. And it may be that he knew the character of the lady to whom he wrote, and that she would benefit from extra vigilance in matters of frivolity and license.

    Still, with great respect to the saint, I think his words here are a little out-of-balance. The phrase, “Lighten up, Francis” comes to mind.


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