Saint Francis de Sales on Prayer - Sermon 2
We have now to speak of the efficient cause of prayer.
It is necessary for us to know, then, who can and who ought to pray.
The question would soon be decided were we to say that all can pray and that all ought to
do so. But in order the better to satisfy the mind, we shall treat this subject at greater
In the first place we must realize that God cannot pray
at all, since prayer is a petition which is
made by grace and requires that we know that
we are in need of something, for we are not accustomed to ask for that which we already
possess. Well, God can ask for nothing
through grace, but rather, He does everything by divine
authority. Moreover, He
cannot have need of anything, since He
possesses everything. It is therefore quite certain that God
neither can nor ought to pray. So much for
what regards God.
Many of the ancient Fathers, and also Saint Gregory Nazianzen,
teach that Our Lord Jesus Christ can no
longer pray (as, being God, it is quite evident, since He is one same God
with His Father; we have already spoken of
this). They base their opinion on what this Divine
Savior says to His disciples:
I am going to My Father, but I do not say that I shall pray
[Cf. John 16:16,26]; and they add: If He does not say that He
is going to pray, why should we say
it? The rest of the Fathers hold that Our
Lord does pray,
because His well-beloved Apostle
wrote, speaking of his Master, that we have
an Intercessor in the presence of the Father. [Cf. 1John 2:1].
Nevertheless, they do not contradict each other by their different
opinions, although it may seem so. For it is certain that Our
Lord Jesus Christ does not have to pray,
but can by justice ask of His Father what He
wishes. We see, too, that advocates are not accustomed to ask as favors, but rather they
ask according to justice, for the rights
which they uphold. It is indeed on sure grounds that the Savior
asks, for He shows His
wounds to His
Father when He desires to
obtain something. Nevertheless, it is a most certain truth that although Our Lord asks by justice
for what He wants, He
does not cease, as man, to humble Himself
before His Father, speaking to Him with a deep reverence
and making more profound acts of humility
than ever any creature either knew how to or could make; in this sense His petition can be called "prayer."
We find in some passages of Scripture
that the Holy Spirit has petitioned and prayed. [Cf. Romans 8:26-27 ].
From this it ought not to be understood that He
is actually praying, for being
equal to the Father and to the Son He cannot pray;
but it means that He has inspired man to make such a prayer.
The angels pray, and this has
been shown to us in several passages of Holy Scripture.
[Cf. Tobit 12; Revelation 8:3-4]. But for people who are
in Heaven we have not so much testimony,
because before Our Lord died, rose
and ascended into Heaven there were no people at all in Paradise; they were all in Abraham's bosom.
Nevertheless, it is quite evident that the saints and the people who are
in Paradise do pray,
since they are with the angels who pray.
Let us see now if all people can pray.
I say yes, and that no one can excuse himself from doing so, not even heretics. Moreover, there was once a pagan [Cf. Acts 10:4, 30-31 ] who made a prayer
which was so excellent that it deserved to be presented before the throne of
the Divine Majesty; and God granted him
the grace of the means of being instructed
in the Faith, and afterward he was a great saint
among the Christians.
It is true that great sinners experience
great difficulty in praying.
They resemble very young birds who, as soon as they have their feathers, are able to fly
by themselves by means of their wings; but if they happen to perch upon birdlime which has
been prepared to catch them, who does not see that this sticky substance will adhere to
their wings so that afterward they will be unable to fly? Thus it happens to sinners - who
so entangle themselves and settle into the
sticky substance of vice, and so allow themselves to be stuck to sin,
that they cannot soar to Heaven by prayer.
Nevertheless, so long as they are capable of
are also capable of prayer. It is only the devil who is incapable of prayer,
because he alone is incapable of love.
[Tradition, with a small 't', says that Satan
has no knees with which to kneel and pray,
as suggested in the above painting by Duccio.]
The Necessary Conditions to Pray Well
All that remains is for us to state the necessary conditions to pray
well. I know indeed that the ancients who treat this matter cite a great many such
conditions; some count fifteen (15), others eight (8). But since this number is so large, I
limit myself to mentioning only three (3):
The first is that one be little by humility;
the second, that one be great in hope;
the third, that one be grafted onto Jesus Christ crucified.
First Condition - Let us speak of the first, which is nothing other than that spiritual mendicancy of which Our Lord says: Blessed
are the mendicant (poor) in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. [Cf. Matthew
5:3]. And although some of the Doctors interpret these words thus: How happy are the poor in spirit,
these two interpretations are not opposed,
because all the poor are mendicants [beggars] if they are not proud,
and all mendicants are poor if they are not avaricious.
In order to pray well, then, we
must acknowledge that we are poor, and we must greatly humble
ourselves; for do you not see how a marksman with a crossbow, when he wishes to discharge
a large arrow, draws the string of his bow lower the higher he wants it to go? Thus must
we do when we wish our prayer to reach Heaven; we must lower ourselves by the awareness
of our nothingness. David admonishes us to do so by these words: When you
wish to pray, plunge yourself
profoundly into the abyss of your nothingness that you may be able afterward, without difficulty, to let your prayer
fly like an arrow even up to the heavens.
[Cf. Psalm 130:1-2; Sirach 35:21].
Do you not see that nobles who wish to make water
rise to the top of their castles go to the source of this water
in some highly elevated place and then convey it
by pipes, forcing it to descend for as great
a distance as they wish it to rise?
Otherwise the water would never rise. And if
you ask them how they made it rise, they
will answer you that it rises through this
descent. It is the same with prayer; for if
you ask how it is that prayer can rise to Heaven, you will be told that it rises there through the descent of humility. The spouse
in the Song of Songs' astonishes
the angels and makes them
say: Who is this who comes from the desert, and who rises like a
column of smoke, laden with myrrh and frankincense and with every perfume known, and who
is leaning upon her Lover? [Cf. Song 3:6; 8:5]. Humility in its
beginning is a desert, although in the end it
may be very fruitful, and the soul that is humble
thinks itself as being in a desert where
neither birds nor even savage beasts dwell, and where there is no fruit tree at all.
Second Condition - Let us pass on now to hope, which is the second
necessary condition for praying well.
The spouse coming up from the desert rises
like a shoot or column of smoke, laden with myrrh. This represents hope,
for even though myrrh gives off a pleasant odor, it is nevertheless bitter to the taste.
Likewise, hope is pleasant since it promises that we shall one day possess what we
long for, but it is bitter because we are
not now enjoying what we love. Incense is far more appropriate as the
symbol of hope, because, being placed upon
fire, it always sends its smoke upward; likewise, it is necessary that hope be placed upon charity,
otherwise it would no longer be hope, but rather presumption.
Hope, like an arrow, darts up even to the gate of Heaven, but it
cannot enter there because it is a virtue wholly of earth. If we want our prayer to penetrate Heaven
we must whet the arrow with the grindstone of love.
Third Condition - Let us come to the third necessary condition. The angels say that the spouse
is leaning upon her Lover; we have seen that
for the last condition it is necessary to be grafted onto Jesus
The [Divine] Spouse
praised His spouse, saying that she was like a lily
among thorns. She,
in turn, answered Him: My
Lover is like an apple tree among the trees of the woods; this tree is completely laden
with leaves, flowers and fruit; I shall rest in its shadow and receive the fruit which
falls into my lap and eat it, and having chewed it, I shall relish it in my mouth, where I
shall find it sweet and agreeable. [Cf. Song 2:2-3]. But
where is this tree planted? In what woods will we find it? Without doubt it is planted on Mount Calvary, and we must keep ourselves in its
shadow. But what are its leaves? They are nothing other than the hope
that we have of our salvation by means of
the death of the Savior.
And its flowers? They are the prayers that He offered up to His
Father for us [Cf. Hebrews 5:7]; the fruits are the merits of His
Passion and Death.
Let us remain then at the foot of this Cross,
and let us never depart from there, so that we may be all saturated with the Blood which flows from it.
Saint Catherine of Siena once had an ecstasy while meditating
on the Passion and Death
of Our Lord. It seemed to her that she was
in a bath of His Precious Blood, and when
she came to herself she saw her dress all red with this Blood,
but others did not see it. We, too, must
never go to prayer without being similarly
bathed; at least it is necessary to be thus bathed in the morning at our first prayer.
Saint Paul, writing to his dear children [Cf. Romans
13:14], told them to be clothed with Our Lord,
that is to say, with His Blood.
But what is it to be clothed with this Blood?
Do you not know that we say: There is a man clothed in scarlet; and scarlet is a fish.
That garment is made of wool, but it is dyed in the blood of the fish. [Cf. Oeuvres, vol.
VIII, p. 144]. In like manner, even though we are clothed with wool, by which it is
understood that we perform good works, these
good works - though from us - have neither
worth nor value if they are not dyed in the Blood
of Our Master, Whose
merits render them agreeable to the Divine
Isaac Blessing Jacob - by
FLINCK, Govert Teunisz -
from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
When Jacob wished to obtain his father Isaac's blessing, his mother made him prepare a kid in
venison sauce because Isaac liked it. [Cf. Genesis
27:9-29]. She also made him wear the skins of the kid on his
hands, because Esau, the elder son to whom the blessing
belonged by right, was all hairy. She even made Jacob wear the scented
garment destined for the eldest son of the home. She led him thus to her husband, who was blind. When Jacob asked for the blessing, Isaac felt his hands
and cried aloud: Ah, but I am in such pain!
The voice I hear is that of my son Jacob, but the hands I feel are those
of Esau. And having smelled the scented garment, he said: The good
fragrance that I have savored has given me such delight that I give my blessing to my son. So too we, having prepared
this spotless Lamb [Cf. 1Peter
1:19] and having presented Him to the Eternal Father to satisfy His
taste, when we ask for His blessing He will
say, if we are clothed with the Blood of Jesus
Christ: The voice that I
hear is Jacob's, but the hands (which are our evil
deeds) are those of Esau; nevertheless, because of the delight with which I
savor the fragrance of his garment, I give
him My blessing.
1. The book of the Bible known as the "Song
of Songs" (also called the "Canticle
of Canticles" or "Song of Solomon")
describes in symbolic language the happy union between Christ
and His spouse.
The Divine Spouse (the Lover,
or Bridegroom) is Christ;
(the bride) is the Church,
and most particularly the happiest part of the Church,
that is, perfect souls, every one of which is His
beloved; but above all others,
the spouse is the Immaculate