Today, January 24, is the feast day of St Francis de Sales. “If I could find out who is the patron saint of letters,” wrote James Joyce in 1915, “I should try to remind him that I exist: but I understand that the last saint who held that position resigned in despair and no other will take the portfolio.”
Actually, the patron saint of letters was not officially appointed until 1923 but presumedly had been holding down the job since going to heaven in the 16th century. He was the French priest Francis de Sales, a chaotic soul who spent his youth studying theology, meditating, hitting the piss and getting into swordfights.
Out riding one day he fell off his horse three times. The reason could have been consequential on any of his inclinations but he decided it was a message to enter the seminary and was eventually ordained. He then set off to convert Swiss Calvinists and trudged through the countryside doorknocking and delivering doorstop sermons. In the evenings he would sleep in haylofts. He once slept in a tree to avoid wolves but had to tie himself to a branch to keep from falling and was so frozen next morning he had to call for help to be cut down. He carried on doorknocking but after three years had become such a mouthy shouty mad fucker that householders would see him coming and hide. So he copied out his sermons by hand and surreptitiously slipped them under the door. Thus he became the patron saint of writers and journalists and mouthy shouty mad fuckers that people avoid eye contact with.
It was said of him (by the Catholic Encylopaedia) that even though he propagated stern ideals, he had an admirable peasant slyness. One of his favourite sayings was that more flies are attracted by a spoonful of honey than by a whole barrel of vinegar. Which is more or less what George Bernard Shaw always proclaimed, saying that he sweetened the medicine in his plays to make it more palatable. To which James Joyce replied how sensible it was of Shaw's audience to take the sweetener and reject the medicine.
St Francis de Sales is remembered in Devonport in Auckland, Waverley in Taranaki, Island Bay in Wellington and Rangiora in Canterbury.