Saint Francis de Sales on Prayer - Sermon 3

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Sermon for Passion Sunday, given on April 5, 1615, concerning:
yellowdot.gif (100 bytes)the prayers of sinners,
yellowdot.gif (100 bytes)what to ask God for,
yellowdot.gif (100 bytes)vital prayer,
yellowdot.gif (100 bytes)vocal prayer,
yellowdot.gif (100 bytes)obligatory and non-obligatory prayers,
yellowdot.gif (100 bytes)and the Divine Office.

 

Saint Francis de Sales on Prayer - Sermon 3

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We have shown that the end of prayer is our union with God, and that all who are on the way to salvation can and ought to pray. But there remained to us a difficulty in our last exhortation, namely, whether sinners can be heard. For do you not see that the man born blind who is mentioned in the Gospel [Cf. John 9:31], and whose sight Our Lord restored, said to those who questioned him that God does not hear sinners? But let him say it, for he was still speaking as a blind man.

We must realize that there are three kinds of sinners:

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)impenitent sinners,

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)penitent sinners, and

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)justified sinners.

Now, it is an assured fact that impenitent sinners are not heard at all, seeing that they wish to wallow in their sins; moreover, their prayers are an abomination before God. He Himself made this clear to those who said to Him: Why do we fast and afflict ourselves and You take no note of it? [Cf. Isaiah 58:3]. Answering them, God said: Your fasts, your mortifications, and your festivals are an abomination to Me, since in the midst of all these things your hands are stained with blood. [Cf. Isaiah 58:3-5; 1:13-15; 59:3]. The prayer of such sinners cannot be good, because "no one can say: 'Jesus is Lord,' except in the Holy Spirit" [1Corinthians 12:3], and no one can call God "Father" unless he has been adopted as His son. [Cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5-6]. The sinner who wishes to remain in his sin is unable to pronounce the sovereign name of Our Lord because he does not have the Holy Spirit with him, for the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a heart stained with sin. [Cf. Wisdom 1:4-5]. Do you not know, moreover, that no one comes to the Father but in virtue of His Son's name, since He Himself has said that whatever we ask His Father in His Name we shall obtain? [Cf. John 14:6, 13; 16:23]. The prayers of the impenitent sinner, then, are not agreeable to God at all.

Let us come to the penitent sinner. Without doubt we are wrong to call him a sinner, for he is no longer so, since he already detests his sin. And if indeed the Holy Spirit is not yet in his heart by residence, He is there nevertheless by assistance. For Who do you think gives him this repentance for having offended God if not the Holy Spirit, since we would not know how to have a good thought toward our salvation if He did not give it to us? [Cf. 2Corinthians 3:5]. But has this poor man not done anything on his part? Yes, most certainly he has. Listen to the words of David: Lord, You looked upon me when I was in the quagmire of my sin. You opened my heart and I did not close it. You have drawn me and I have not let go. You have urged me and I have not turned back. [Cf. Psalm 102:18, 20-21; 103:3-4 and Isaiah 50:5]. We have plenty of proof that prayers of penitent sinners are agreeable to the Divine Majesty. But I shall content myself with citing the example of the publican who went up to the Temple a sinner and came down from it justified, thanks to the humble prayer he had made. [Cf. Luke 18:10-14].

Let us go on now to the "matter" of prayer. I shall say nothing of its end, for I shall speak of that next Sunday. The matter of prayer is to ask of God all that is good. But we must understand that there are two kinds of goods, spiritual goods and temporal or corporal goods. In the Song of Songs, the spouse praised her Well-Beloved, saying that His lips were lilies which drip choice myrrh [Cf. Song 5:13], to which her [Divine] Spouse replied that she had honey and milk under her tongue. [Cf. Song 4:11].

I know indeed that these words are interpreted in this sense, namely, that when preaching to the people, preachers have honey under their tongue, and when speaking to God in prayer on behalf of the people, they have milk under their tongue. According to a second interpretation, preachers have milk under their tongue when preaching on the virtues of Our Lord as Man: His gentleness, mildness and mercy; and they have honey under their tongue when speaking of His Divinity. There are many who are mistaken in thinking that honey is made only from the juice of flowers. Honey is a liquor which falls from the heavens amidst the dew. In falling upon flowers, it takes their flavor, as do all liquors which are put into vessels which contain any kind of flavor. Honey thus represents the divine perfections, which are entirely celestial.

Let us apply these words of the [Divine] Spouse to our prayer. We have said that there are two kinds of goods which we may ask for in prayer: spiritual goods and corporal goods. There are two kinds of spiritual goods. One kind is necessary for our salvation; these we ought to ask God for simply and without condition, for He wants to give them to us. The other kind, although spiritual, we ought to ask for under the same conditions as corporal goods, that is, if it is God's will and if it is for His greater glory; with these conditions we may ask for anything.

Now the spiritual goods which are necessary for our salvation, signified by the honey which the spouse has under her tongue, are faith, hope and charity, as well as the other virtues which lead to them. The other spiritual goods are ecstasies, raptures, spiritual comforts and consolations, none of which ought we to ask of God except conditionally, because they are not at all necessary for our salvation.

There are those who think that if they were gifted with wisdom they would be much more capable of loving God, but that is simply not so. You will remember, indeed, that Brother Giles once went to St Bonaventure and said to him: Oh, how happy you are, my Father, to be so learned, for you can love God far better than we who are ignorant. Then St Bonaventure told him that knowledge did not help him at all in loving God, and that a simple woman was capable of loving Him as much as the most learned man in the world.

But who does not see the delusion of those who are always after their spiritual Father in order to complain that they experience none of these tender feelings and consolations in their prayers? Do you not see that if you had them you would not be able to escape vainglory, nor would you be able to prevent your self-love from being pleased with itself because of them, so that you would end in amusing yourself more with the gifts than with the Giver? Thus it is a great mercy to you that God does not give you them at all. And you must not lose courage on that account, since perfection does not consist in having these spiritual consolations and affections, but in having our will united to that of God. It is this that we may and ought to ask from the Divine Majesty unconditionally.

Tobit, being already old and wishing to set his affairs in order, commanded his son to go to Rages to get a sum of money which was owed him. For this purpose he gave him a signed document with which the money could not be refused him. [Cf. Tobit 4:21-22; 5:3-4]. We must do likewise when we wish to ask of the Eternal Father His Paradise, or an increase of our faith, or of His love all of which He wishes to grant us, provided we bring His Son's signed document, that is to say, provided that we always ask in the Name and through the merits of Our Lord.

This good Master has shown us very clearly the order that we must follow in our petitions, enjoining us to pray to the Father, "Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done". We ought accordingly to ask first that His Name be hallowed, that is to say, that He may be acknowledged and adored by all; after which we ask what is most necessary for us, namely, that His Kingdom come for us, so that we may be inhabitants of Heaven; and then, that His will be done. And after these three requests we add, "Give us this day our daily bread". Jesus Christ makes us say, "Give us our daily bread," because under this word "bread" are included all temporal goods.

We ought to be very moderate in asking for these goods here below and we should fear much in asking for them, because we do not know whether Our Lord will give them to us at all in His anger. This is why those who pray with perfection ask for very few of these goods, remaining rather before God like children before their father, placing in Him all their confidence--or indeed, like a valet who serves his master well, for he does not go every day and ask for his food, knowing that his services claim it well enough for him. So much for the "matter" of prayer.

The ancient Fathers note that there are three kinds of prayer, namely, vital prayer, mental prayer, and vocal prayer. We shall not now speak of mental prayer, but only of vital prayer and vocal prayer. Every action of those who live in the fear of God is a continual prayer, and this is called "vital prayer". It is said that St John [the Baptist], while in the desert, lived on locusts [Cf. Matthew 3:4] or grasshoppers, and cicadas, that he ate no grapes, nor drank ale or anything which could intoxicate. [Cf. Luke 1:15]. I shall not dwell on all that, but only on the fact that he ate nothing but locusts, or grasshoppers.

No one knows whether locusts are of Heaven or of earth for they dart continually toward Heaven, but they also fall to the earth sometimes. They are nourished by the dew which falls from Heaven and they are always singing, and what is heard is nothing other than a reverberation or twittering which is made in their breasts. With good reason did the blessed St John nourish himself with grasshoppers, since he was himself a mystical grasshopper. No one knows whether he was of Heaven or of earth, for although he sometimes touched earth in order to attend to his needs, he rose up suddenly and darted heavenward, nourished more by heavenly than by earthly meats. Do you not see his great abstinence? He ate only locusts and drank only water, and then only moderately. He also sang the praises of God almost continually, for he himself was a voice. [Cf. John 1:23]. In short, his life was a continual prayer. Likewise we may say that those who give alms, who visit the sick, and who practice all such good works, are praying, and these same good actions call to God for a reward.

Let us go on now to vocal prayer. To mutter something with the lips is not praying if one's heart is not joined to it. To speak, it is necessary first to have conceived interiorly what we wish to say. There is first the interior word, and then the spoken word, which causes what the interior has first pronounced to be understood. Prayer is nothing other than speaking to God. Now it is certain that to speak to God without being attentive to Him and to what we say to Him is something that is most displeasing to Him.

A holy person relates that a parrot or popinjay was taught to recite the Ave Maria. This bird once flew off, and a sparrow hawk pounced upon it; but when the parrot began repeating the Ave Maria, the sparrow hawk let it go. It is not that Our Lord listened to the prayer of the parrot; no, for it is an unclean bird [Cf. Leviticus 11:19], which was therefore unfit to be offered in sacrifice. Nevertheless, He permitted this to show how pleasing this prayer is to Him. Prayers of those who pray like this parrot are loathsome to God, for He tests more the heart of him who prays than the words which he pronounces. [Cf. Isaiah 1:13 and Proverbs 24:12].

It is necessary for us to know that vocal prayer is of three kinds: Some are commanded, others recommended, and still others are completely optional. Those which are commanded are the Our Father and the Creed, which we ought to recite every day, something which Our Lord made very clear when He said, "Give us this day our daily bread". This shows us that we must ask for it every day. And if you tell me that you have never prayed daily, I shall answer you that you resemble beasts. The other prayer which is commanded for those of us who are of the Church is the Office, and if we omit any considerable part of it, we sin. Those which are only recommended are the Our Fathers or rosaries which are prescribed for the gaining of indulgences. If we omit saying these, we do not sin, but our good Mother the Church, to show us that she wishes us to say them, grants indulgences to those who do recite them. Optional prayers are all those which we say other than those of which we have just spoken.

Although the prayers that we say voluntarily may be very good, those recommended are much better because the holy virtue of compliance comes into play in praying them. It is as if we were to say: You desire, my good Mother the Church, that I do this, and though you do not command me to do so, I am very glad to do it to please you. There is already a little of obedience in this. But the prayers which are commanded have a different value altogether on account of the obedience attached to them, and without doubt there is also more charity in them.

Now among these, some are community prayers and others are private. Community prayers are Mass, the Office, and prayers which are recited in times of calamities. O God, with how much reverence ought we to assist at these services, but prepared quite differently than for private prayers, because in the latter we treat only of our own affairs before God, or if we pray for the Church, we do so in charity. But in community prayers we pray for all in general. St Augustine relates that once while he was still a pagan he entered a church where St Ambrose was having the Office chanted alternately [by two choirs ], as it has been done since then. He was so enraptured and ecstatic that he thought he was in Paradise. Many persons assert that they have oftentimes seen troupe after troupe of angels coming to assist at the Divine Office. With what attention then ought we not to assist at it, seeing that the angels are present and repeat on high in the Church Triumphant what we are saying here below!

But perhaps we will say that if we had seen the angels at our Office, we would bring more attention and reverence to it. Ah, no, pardon me, but there would certainly be nothing of the kind. For even if we had been snatched up with St Paul to the third Heaven [Cf. 2Corinthians 12:2], even if we had dwelt 30 years in Paradise, if we were not rooted in faith, all that would mean nothing. I have often pondered over the fact that St Peter, St James and St John, even after having seen Our Lord in His Transfiguration, did not fail to desert Him in His Passion and Death.

We ought never to come to the Office, especially we who chant it, without making an act of contrition and asking the assistance of the Holy Spirit before beginning it. Oh, how happy are we to begin here below what we shall do eternally in Heaven, where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit lead us.

Amen.

 

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Sermon Four

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NOTES

1. St Francis de Sales is referring to the obligation of all priests and of some members of religious orders to pray the Divine Office daily. The Mass and the Divine Office constitute the official prayer of the Church .