Saint Francis de Sales on Prayer - Sermon 4
I still have to point out the distinction that exists in prayer,
whether mental or vocal
prayer. In prayer we go to God in two ways,
both of which have been recommended to us by Our Lord
and commanded by our Holy Mother the Church--namely,
sometimes we pray directly to God, and at other times indirectly, as when we say
the anthems of Our Lady, the Salve Regina and others. When we pray directly we exercise the filial confidence which is founded upon faith, hope
and charity; when we pray
indirectly and through the intercession of another, we practice the holy
humility which springs from self-knowledge. When we go directly to God we proclaim His
goodness and mercy, in which
we place all our confidence; but when we pray indirectly, that is, when we implore
the assistance of Our Lady, of the saints and of the blessed,
it is so that we might better be received by the Divine
Majesty, and then we proclaim His greatness
and omnipotence, and the reverence which we owe Him.
I should like to add another word to the remarks I made the other day on the exterior reverence which we ought to have when we pray. Our Mother
the Church indicates all the postures she wishes us to assume in reciting the Office:
Sometimes she will have us standing,
sometimes sitting, then kneeling; sometimes with the head covered, sometimes uncovered;
but all these positions and postures are nothing other than prayers.
All the ceremonies of
the Church are full of very
great mysteries, and humble,
people find the greatest consolation in
assisting at them. What do you think that
the palms which we carry in our hands today signify? Nothing other than our asking God that He
render us victorious by the merits of the victory
which Our Lord won
for us on the tree of the cross.
When we are at the Office we must be
careful to observe the postures prescribed for us by the rubrics; but in
our private prayers, what reverence ought we
to have? In private prayer, we are before God as in public
prayer, although in public prayer
we ought to be particularly attentive on account of the edification of our neighbor;
exterior reverence is a great aid to the
interior. We have many examples which witness to the great exterior reverence
which we ought to have when praying, even
though it be private prayer. Listen to St
Paul: I kneel, he says, before the Father
of Our Lord Jesus Christ for you all. [Cf. Ephesians
3:14]. And don't you see that the Savior Himself,
while praying to His Father, is prostrate to the
ground? [Cf. Matthew 26:39 and Mark 14:35].
Here is one more example. I think you know that the great hermit St
Paul lived for many years in the desert. St Antony [of the Desert],
having gone to see him, found him in prayer. After speaking with him, St
Antony left him. But having come a second
time to visit him, he found St
Paul in the same position as before, his head raised and his eyes fixed on Heaven, kneeling upright, with hands joined. St
Antony, having already waited for him a long time, began to
wonder, because he did not hear him sigh as usual; he
then raised his eyes and looked into his face and found
that he was dead. It seems
that St Paul's body, which had prayed
so much during life, continued to pray
after his death. In short,
it is necessary that the whole person pray.
David says that his whole face prayed
[Cf. Psalm 27:8], that his eyes were so attentive in looking upon God that they failed [Cf. Psalm
69:4 and 88:10; also Isaiah 38:14], and that his mouth was open like a
little bird who waits for its mother to come to fill it. But in any case, the posture
which affords the best attention is the most suitable. Yes, even the posture of lying down
is good, and seems to be a prayer in itself. For do you not see that the holy
man Job, lying on his dunghill, made a prayer
so excellent that it merited to be
heard by God? [Cf. Job
42:9-10]. But this is sufficient.
Let us now speak of mental prayer; and if
it pleases you, I shall show you, through a comparison with the Temple of
Solomon, how there are four levels
in the soul. [Cf. St Francis de
on the Love of God, Book 1, chapter 12]. In that Temple
there was first a court which was set aside
for the Gentiles, so that no one might be able to excuse himself from divine worship. It was because there was no nation
which could not come to render praise in
that place that this Temple was so pleasing to the Divine
Majesty. The second court
was destined for the Jews, both men and women, though later a separation
was made in order to avoid the scandals
which might arise in such a mixed assembly. Then,
mounting higher, there was another place for the priests, and finally
there was a court destined for the cherubim
and their Master, where the Ark of
the Covenant rested and where God
manifested His will, and this place was
called the Sancta Sanctorum [that is, the Holy of Holies].
In our souls there is the first level, which is a certain knowledge that we
have through our senses, as by our eyes we know that such an object is green, red or
yellow. But after this there is a degree or level which is still a little higher, namely, a knowledge that we have by means of consideration.
For example, a man who has been ill-treated
in a certain place will consider what he will be able to do in order not to return there.
The third level is the knowledge
we have through faith. The fourth, the Sancta
Sanctorum, is the highest point of our soul,
which we call spirit, and so long as this
highest point is always fixed on God, we
need not be troubled
in the least.
Ships at sea all have a mariner's needle, which always points to the north star, and though the boat may be heading
southward, the needle nevertheless does not fail to point always north. Thus it sometimes
seems that the soul is going straight for
the south, so greatly is it agitated by
distractions; nevertheless, the highest
point of the spirit always looks toward its God, Who
is its north. Sometimes people who are the
most advanced have such great temptations,
even against faith, that it seems to them
that their whole soul consents, so greatly
is it disturbed.
They have only this highest point which resists, and it is this part of ourselves which
makes mental prayer, for although all our
other faculties and powers may be filled with distractions, the spirit,
its fine point, is praying.
Now in mental prayer there are four parts, the first
of which is meditation; the second, contemplation;
the third, ejaculations;
and the fourth, a simple attention to the
presence of God. The first
is made by way of meditation, in this
manner: We take a mystery, for instance Our Lord crucified.
Then having pictured Him to ourselves thus,
we consider His virtues: the love which He
bore to His Father, which made Him suffer
death, even death on
a cross [Cf. Philippians
2:8], rather than displease Him, or to speak better, in order to please Him;
the great gentleness, humility
and patience with which He suffered
so many injuries; and finally, His immense charity toward those who put Him to death,
praying for them amidst His most
excruciating sufferings. [Cf. Luke 23:34]. Having
considered all these points, our affections will be moved with an ardent desire to imitate
Him in His
virtues; we will then implore the Eternal
Father to render us true images of His Son.
[Cf. Romans 8:29].
Meditation is made as the bees make and
gather honey: They go out gathering the honey which falls from heaven
upon the flowers, and extract a little of the juice from the same flower, and then carry
it into their hives. Thus, we go along picking out the virtues
of Our Lord one after the other in order to
draw from them the desire of imitation.
(Afterward, we consider them collectively at
a single glance by contemplation.)
At the creation, God meditated [Cf.
Treatise, Book 6,
chapter 5], for do you not see that after He
had created heaven He said that it was good?
And He did the same after He had created the earth, the animals, and then,
finally man. He
found everything good, considering it one at
a time, but seeing all together that which He
had made, He said that it was very good. [Cf. Genesis 1:10-25,
31]. The spouse in the Song
of Songs, having praised
Beloved for the beauty
of His eyes, His
lips, in short, of all His members
one after another [Cf. Song 5:9-16], concluded in this way: O, how beautiful is my Beloved; oh, how I love Him, He is my very dear
one! This is contemplation, for
by dint of considering in mystery after mystery how good God
is, we become like the ropes of our barges. When we row very hard these ropes so heat up
that if we were not to wet them they would catch fire; but our soul,
growing warm from loving Him Whom it has
found so lovable, continues to gaze upon Him because it delights more and more in beholding
Him, so beautiful
and so good.
The [Divine] Spouse in the Song of
Songs says: Come, my beloved, for I have
gathered My myrrh, I have eaten My bread and My honeycomb with its honey, I have drunk My
wine with My milk. Come, My beloved ones, and eat; be inebriated, My dearest ones.
[Cf. Song 5:1, according to the Septuagint and the Fathers;
also Treatise, Book
6, chapter 6]. These words represent for us the mysteries
we are about to celebrate in these following weeks. "I have
gathered My myrrh, I have eaten My bread": this was in the Passion and Death
of the Savior. "I
have eaten My honey with My honeycomb": this was when He reunited His soul
with His body.
Finally the Spouse adds, "My wine with My milk." The wine represents the joy of His Resurrection, and the milk, the sweetness of His conversation. He
drank them together, for He dwelt on earth
for 40 days after His
Resurrection [Cf. Acts 1:3], visiting His
disciples, making them touch His wounds, and eating with them.
The Spouse concludes with the following:
"Be inebriated, My dearest ones." And what
does He mean? You know well that we are not
wont to chew wine, but only to swallow it; this represents to us contemplation
in which we no longer chew, but only swallow. "You have
meditated enough upon the fact that I am good," the Divine
Spouse seems to say to His beloved;
"behold Me, and take delight in seeing that I am so."
St Francis [of Assisi] passed an entire night repeating: You
are "my All."
Being in contemplation, he pronounced these
words, as if wishing to say: I have considered You
piece by piece, O My Lord, and I found that You are very lovable;
now I behold You and see that You are "my All."
St Bruno was content to say, "O Goodness!"
And St Augustine: "O Beauty ever ancient
and ever new!" You are
ancient because You are eternal, but You
are new because You bring a new sweetness to my heart.
These are words of contemplation. [Cf. Treatise, Book 6,
Let us proceed to the third part of
mental prayer, which is made by way of ejaculations. No one can be excused from making this because it
can be made while coming and going about one's business. You tell me that you do not have
the time to give two or three hours to prayer; who asks you to do so? Recommend yourself
to God the first
thing in the morning, protest that you do not wish to offend Him,
and then go about your affairs, resolved, nevertheless, to raise your spirit to God,
even amidst company. Who can prevent you from speaking to Him
in the depth of your heart, since it makes
no difference whether you speak to Him mentally
or vocally? Make short but fervent aspirations.
The one which St Francis repeated is excellent,
although this was an aspiration of contemplation,
because it continues like a river which is
ever flowing. It is true that to say to God:
You are "my
All," and to desire something else other than Him,
would not be right, because our words
should conform to the sentiments of our heart.
But we ought not to hesitate to say to God,
"I love You," even if we do not have a
strong feeling of love, since we wish to love Him and to have an ardent desire of
A good way to accustom ourselves to making these ejaculations
is to take the petitions of the Our Father
one after another, choosing a sentence for each day.
For example, today you have taken "Our Father Who art in
Heaven"; thus, at first you will say, "My
Father, You Who are in Heaven"; and a quarter
of an hour afterward you will say, "If
You are my Father, when shall I be wholly Your daughter?" Thus you will
go on continually after each quarter of an hour
to another part of your prayer.
The holy Fathers who lived in the desert, those old and true
religious, were so assiduous in making these prayers
and ejaculations that St Jerome
relates that when someone went to visit them they heard one of the Fathers
saying, "You, O my God, are all that I desire";
and another Father: "When shall I be all
Yours, O my God"; and another repeating: "Deign,
O God, to rescue me." [Cf. Psalm 70:2]. In short, they
heard a most agreeable harmony in the
variety of their voices. But you will say to me: If we say these words vocally, why do you
call it mental prayer? Because it is made mentally also, and because it comes first
from the heart.
The [Divine] Spouse
says in the Song of Songs that His beloved has ravished His
heart with one glance of her
eyes and by one of her hairs which falls
upon her neck. [Songs 4:9,
according to the Septuagint]. These words are a quiver full of most
agreeable and most delightful interpretations. Here is one which is very pleasing: When a
husband and wife have affairs in their household which compel them to be separated, if it
happens by chance that they meet, they glance at one another as they pass--but it is only,
as it were, with one eye, because in meeting sideways, they cannot well do so with both.
In like manner this Spouse wishes to say:
Although My beloved may be very much
occupied, nevertheless she does not fail to
look at Me with one eye, assuring Me by this glance that she
is all Mine. She
has ravished My heart with one of her hairs which falls upon her
neck, that is to say, with one thought which comes from her
We shall not speak now of our fourth part
of mental prayer. Oh, how happy we shall be if we ever reach Heaven; for there we shall meditate,
looking at and considering all the works of God
in detail, and we shall see that each of them is good;
we shall contemplate, and shall see that all
together they are very good, and we shall
dart forth eternally in Him.
It is there that I wish you to be.
1. St Francis de Sales is referring to the great
joyful enthusiasm of the blessed
in Heaven. (His words here are not easily
translated into English.)