Friday, January 8, 2010

The Honey of Heraclea


In Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales uses a metaphor about honey to speak of good and evil friendships. In Part III, Chapter XVII, he explains that the nectar for the honey of Heraclea of Pontus is gathered by bees from poisonous aconite, which is plentiful in Heraclea. Then in Part III, Chapter XX ("Of the difference between True and Vain Friendships") he says :
"Observe, Philothea, this important admonition. The honey of Heraclea, which is so poisonous, altogether resembles that which is wholesome, and there is great danger of mistaking one for the other, or of mixing them, for the virtue of one would not counteract the harmfulness of the other. So we must be on our guard not to be deceived in making friendships, especially between persons of the opposite sexes, for not infrequently Satan deludes those who love one another. They may begin with a virtuous affection, but if discretion be lacking, frivolity will creep in, and then sensuality, till their love becomes carnal: even in spiritual love there is a danger if people are not watchful, although it is not so easy to be deluded therein, inasmuch as the very purity and transparency of spiritual affection show Satan’s stains more promptly. Consequently, when he seeks to interpose, he does it stealthily, and strives to insinuate impurity almost imperceptibly. You may distinguish between worldly friendship and that which is good and holy, just as one distinguishes that poisonous honey from what is good—it is sweeter to the taste than ordinary honey, owing to the aconite infused;—and so worldly friendship is profuse in honeyed words, passionate endearments, commendations of beauty and sensual charms, while true friendship speaks a simple honest language, lauding naught save the Grace of God, its one only foundation. That strange honey causes giddiness; and so false friendship upsets the mind, makes its victim to totter in the ways of purity and devotion, inducing affected, mincing looks, sensual caresses, inordinate sighings, petty complaints of not being loved, slight but questionable familiarities, gallantries, embraces, and the like, which are sure precursors of evil; whereas true friendship is modest and straightforward in every glance, loving and pure in caresses, has no sighs save for Heaven, no complaints save that God is not loved sufficiently. That honey confuses the sight, and worldly friendship confuses the judgment, so that men think themselves right while doing evil, and assume their excuses and pretexts to be valid reasoning. They fear the light and love darkness; but true friendship is clear-sighted, and hides nothing—rather seeks to be seen of good men. Lastly, this poisonous honey leaves an exceeding bitter taste behind; and so false friendship turns to evil desires, upbraidings, slander, deceit, sorrow, confusion and jealousies, too often ending in downright sin; but pure friendship is always the same—modest, courteous and loving—knowing no change save an increasingly pure and perfect union, a type of the blessed friendships of Heaven.

"When young people indulge in looks, words or actions which they would not like to be seen by their parents, husbands or confessors, it is a sure sign that they are damaging their conscience and their honor. Our Lady was troubled when the Angel appeared to her in human form, because she was alone, and he spoke to her with flattering although heavenly words. O Savior of the world, if purity itself fears an Angel in human shape, how much more need that our impurity should fear men, although they take the likeness of an Angel, if they speak words of earthliness and sensuality[.]"
Image:
Illustration from Tacuina Sanitatis (14th century), from Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

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