Saint Francis de Sales on Prayer - Sermon 1
Saint Bernard - whose memory is dear to those who have to
speak on prayer - in writing to a bishop,
advised him that all that was necessary for him was:
well (meaning to instruct, to discourse);
then to do
well in giving good example;
finally, to devote himself to prayer.
And we, addressing this to all Christians,
shall dwell upon the third point, which is prayer.
First, let us remark in passing that,
although we condemn certain heretics of our time who
hold that prayer is useless, we nevertheless
do not hold with other heretics that it alone suffices for our justification.
We say simply that it is so useful and
necessary that without it we could not
come to any good,
seeing that by means of prayer we are shown
how to perform all our actions well. I have therefore consented to the desire which urges
me to speak of prayer, even though it is not
my intention to explain every aspect of it
because we learn it more by experience than
by being taught. Moreover, it matters little to know the kind of prayer.
Actually, I would prefer that you never ask the name or the kind of prayer
you are experiencing because, as Saint Antony says, that prayer is imperfect
in which one is aware that one is praying.
Also, prayer which one makes without knowing
how one is doing it, and without reflecting
on what one is asking for, shows clearly that such a soul
is very much occupied with God and that,
consequently, this prayer is excellent.
We shall treat, then, on the following four
Sundays, of the final cause
of prayer; of its
efficient cause; of that which properly should not be called the "material cause," but rather the "object" of prayer;
and of the effective cause of prayer itself.
For now, I shall speak only of its final
cause. But before entering upon the subject of prayer,
I must say three or four little things that
it is well to know.
Four operations pertain to our understanding: simple
thought, study, meditation, and contemplation.
Simple thought occurs when we go running
over a great number of things, without any aim, as do flies that rest upon flowers, not
seeking to extract any juice from them, but resting there only because they happen upon
them. So it is with our understanding,
passing from one thought to another. Even if these thoughts be of God,
if they have no aim, far from being profitable, they are useless and detrimental and are a
great obstacle to prayer.
Another operation of our understanding is
study, and this takes place when we consider
things only to know them, to understand them thoroughly or to be able to speak correctly
of them, without having any other object than to fill our memory.
In this we resemble beetles which settle upon the roses for no other end than to fill
their stomachs and satiate themselves. Now, of these two
operations of our understanding
we shall speak no more, because they are not to our purpose.
Let us come to meditation. To know what meditation is, it is necessary to understand the
words of King Hezekiah when the sentence of
death was pronounced upon him,
which was afterward revoked on account of his repentance.
"I utter shrill cries," he
said, "like a swallow," and "I moan like a dove," in the height of my
sorrow. [Cf. Isaiah 38:14].
He meant to say: When the young swallow is all alone and its mother has gone in search of
the herb called "celandine" in order to
help it recover its sight, it cries, it pips, since it does not feel its mother near and
because it does not see at all. So I, having lost my mother, which is grace, and seeing no one come to my aid, "I utter
shrill cries". But he adds, "I moan like a
dove". We must know that all birds are accustomed to open their beaks
when they sing or chirp, except the dove, who makes her little song or cooing sound whilst
holding her breath and it is through the movement up and down which she makes of it,
without letting it escape, that she produces her song. In like manner, meditation is made when we fix our understanding on a mystery
from which we mean to draw good
affections, for if we did not have this intention it would no longer be meditation, but study. Meditation is made, then, to move the affections,
and particularly that of love. Indeed, meditation is the mother of
the love of God and contemplation
is the daughter of the love
But between meditation and contemplation there is the petition
which is made when, after having considered the goodness
of Our Lord, His
infinite love, His omnipotence,
we become confident enough to ask for and entreat Him
to give us what we desire. Now there are three kinds of
petition, each of which is made differently:
The first petition is made by justice,
the second petition is made by authority,
the third petition is made by grace.
The petition which is made by justice cannot be called "prayer," although we use this word, because in a petition of
justice we ask for a thing which is due to
us. A petition which is made by authority ought not be called "prayer" either; for as soon as someone who has great
authority over us--such as a parent, a lord or a master--uses the word "please," we say immediately to him, "You can command," or "Your
'please' serves as my command". But true
prayer is that which is made by grace,
i.e., when we ask for something which is not due to us at all, and when we ask it of
someone who is far superior to us, as God
The fourth operation of our understanding is contemplation,
which is nothing other than taking delight
in the goodness of Him
Whom we have learned to know in meditation
and Whom we have learned to love by means of this knowledge.
This delight will be our happiness in Heaven
We must now speak of the final cause [that is, the goal] of prayer. We ought to know in the first place that all things have been created for prayer, and that when God
created angels and men,
He did so that they might praise Him
eternally in Heaven above, even though this is the last thing
that we shall do--if that can be called "last"
which is eternal. To understand this better
we will say this: When we wish to make something we always look first to the end [or
purpose], rather than to the work itself. For example, if we are to build a church and we
are asked why we are building it, we will respond that it is so that we can retire there
and sing the praises of
God; nevertheless, this will be the last
thing that we shall do. Another example: If you enter the apartment of a prince,
you will see there an aviary of several little birds which are in a brightly colored and
highly embellished cage. And if you want to know the end for which they have been placed
there, it is to give pleasure to their master. If you look into another place, you will
see there sparrow hawks, falcons and such birds of prey which have been hooded; these
latter are for catching the partridge and other birds to delicately nourish the prince.
But God, Who
is in no way carnivorous, does not keep birds of prey, but only the little birds which are
enclosed in the aviary and destined to please Him.
These little birds represent monks and nuns who have voluntarily enclosed themselves in
monasteries that they may chant the praises
of their God. So their principal exercise
ought to be prayer and obedience
to that saying which Our Lord gives in the Gospel: "Pray
always" [Luke 18:1].
The early Christians who had been trained by Saint Mark the
Evangelist were so assiduous in prayer
that many of the ancient Fathers called them "suppliants,"
and others named them "physicians,"
because by means of prayer they found the remedy
for all their ills.
They also named them "monks," because they
were so united; indeed, the name "monk"
means "single". Pagan
philosophers said that man
is an uprooted tree, from which we can conclude how necessary prayer
is for man, since if a tree does not have
sufficient earth to cover its roots it cannot live; neither can a man
live who does not give special attention to heavenly things.
Now prayer, according to most of the Fathers,
is nothing other than a raising of the mind
to heavenly things; others say that it is a petition;
but the two opinions are not at all opposed,
for while raising our mind to
God, we can ask Him
for what seems necessary.
The principal petition which we ought to
make to God is that of union
of our wills with His, and the final cause of prayer lies in desiring only God.
Accordingly, all perfection is contained
therein, as Brother Giles, the companion of Saint Francis
[of Assisi], said when a certain person asked him what he could do in order to be perfect very soon. "Give,"
he replied, "one to One". That is to say,
you have only one soul, and there is only one
God; give your soul
to Him and He will give Himself
to you. The final cause of prayer,
then, ought not to be to desire those tendernesses
and consolations which Our
Lord sometimes gives, since union does not consist in that, but rather in conforming to the will of God.