St François de Sales (1567-1622), who had a penchant for writing treatises for the edification of aristocratic women, is sometimes regarded as one of the more indulgent saints. Modern commentators eagerly point out that he countenanced dancing.
Well, up to a point. “Games, balls, feasts, pageants, and plays, in themselves are in no wise evil, but indifferent,” François wrote, “it being possible for them to be carried out well or ill.”
For himself, he preferred to stress the negative aspects. “Such things are always dangerous,” he reckoned, “and to indulge an affection for them is contrary to devotion, and extremely hurtful.
“It is a pity to sow in the soil of our hearts such vain and foolish affections: for they take the place of good ones, and hinder the powers of the soul from being employed in good inclinations.”
This is hardly an apologia for Strictly Come Dancing. Even mere friendship between the sexes, François insisted, should be most carefully regulated.
Flirtations were entirely reprehensible – “bad, because they finally end and terminate in sins of the flesh; foolish, because they have neither foundation nor reason; vain, because they bring neither profit, nor honour, nor contentment”.
These titillations “waste time and compromise honour, without giving any pleasure save that of anxious aspirations and hopes”. Flirts do not even know what they really want.
In the matter of worldly temptation François knew what he was talking about. He was the first of 13 children, and his father had been determined that he should cut a figure in Savoy. François himself recalled that, as a young man newly committed to the religious life, he had felt a pang at the removal of his golden locks.
But years later, as author of Introduction to the Devout Life, he believed that the stakes were too high to permit any spiritual counsel which aimed at less than perfection.
“When people really believed in hell,” wrote George Orwell, “they were not so fond of striking elegant attitudes on its brink.” St François really believed in hell.
“Imagine to yourself a gloomy city,” he wrote, “all burning with brimstone and noisome pitch, full of citizens who are unable to leave it.
“The damned are within the abyss of hell, like those within this woeful city, in which they suffer unspeakable torments in all their senses and in all their members, because, as they have employed all their senses and members in sinning, so they will suffer in all their senses and in all their members the pains which are due to sin.”
Such were the lucubrations of a holy man who was celebrated for his tenderness, humour, patience and understanding towards weaker vessels. In fact, he even became the patron saint of journalists.