These sermons were translated from St. Francis de Sales' Oevres, vol. IX (Annecy:Nierat,1892-1964), pp. 46-72. They come from the memories of two of the visitation sisters who heard them, and not from St. Francis' own notes. St. Francis died at age 55 in 1622. He was canonized in 1665 and declared a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX in 1877.
The goal of prayer 22 March 1615
The Spirit of prayer March 29, 1615
The kinds of prayer April 5, 1615
The heart of prayer April 12, 1615
THE GOAL OF PRAYER 22 March 1615
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, given on March 22, 1615, concerning
the usefulness and necessity of prayer, the operations of the
understanding, meditation, petitions, contemplation, and the goal of
St. 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 to
speak well (meaning to instruct, to discourse); then to do well in giving
good example; and 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 St. 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. Is. 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 of God.
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 is made by justice, the second is
made by authority, and the third 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,"2 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 is.
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 above.
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." [Lk. 18:1].
The early Christians who had been trained by St. 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 St. 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.
1. The old French for "I moan" is "mediteray," which St. Francis de
is using as a pun for "meditate." 2. Francis de Sales is capitalizing on
the fact that in the French language "please," "pray" and "prayer" are
THE SPIRIT OF PRAYER March 29, 1615
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, given on March 29, 1615, concerning
who can pray, and the three conditions for praying well.
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
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
Many of the ancient Fathers, and also St. 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. Jn.
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. I Jn. 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. Rom. 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
The angels pray, and this has been shown to us in several passages of Holy
Scripture. [Cf. Tob. 12; Rev. 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
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 grace, they are also capable
of prayer. It is only the devil who is incapable of prayer, because he
alone is incapable of love.
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 15, others eight. But since this number is so
large, I limit myself to mentioning only three. The first is that one be
little by humility; the second, that one be great in hope; and the third,
that one be grafted onto Jesus Christ crucified.
Let us speak of the first, which is nothing other than that spiritual
mendicancy of which Our Lord says: Blessed are the mendicant in spirit, for
theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. [Cf. Mt. S: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. Ps. 130:1-2; Sir.
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.
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.
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 Christ crucified. 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. Heb. 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.
St. 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. St. Paul, writing to his dear children
[Cf. Rom. 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 Majesty.
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. Gen. 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. 1
Pet. 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
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; Christ's spouse (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 Virgin Mary.
THE KINDS OF PRAYER April 5, 1615
Sermon for Passion Sunday, given on April 5, 1615, concerning the prayers
of sinners, what to ask God for, vital prayer, vocal prayer, obligatory and
non-obligatory prayers, and the Divine Office.
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. Jn. 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: impenitent sinners,
penitent sinners, and 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. Is. 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. Is. 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" [1 Cor. 12:3], and no one can call God "Father" unless he
has been adopted as His son. [Cf. Rom. 8:15; Gal. 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. Wis. 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. Jn. 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. 2 Cor. 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. Ps. 102:18, 20-21; 103:3-4 and Is. 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. Lk. 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
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
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
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. Tob. 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. Matt. 3:4] or grasshoppers, and cicadas, that
he ate no grapes, nor drank ale or anything which could intoxicate. [Cf.
Lk. 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. Jn. 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. Lev. 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. Is. 1:13 and Prov. 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. 2 Cor. 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
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 .
THE HEART OF PRAYER April 12, 1615
Sermon for Palm Sunday, given on April 12, 1615, concerning direct and
indirect prayer bodily posture during prayer, the four levels of the soul,
meditation, contemplation, and ejaculations.
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
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, simple, devout
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. Eph. 3:14]. And don't you
see that the Savior Himself, while praying to His Father, is prostrate to
the ground? [Cf. Mt. 26:39 and Mk. 14:35].
Here is one more example. 1 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. Ps. 27:8], that his eyes were so
attentive in looking upon God that they failed [Cf. Ps. 69:4 and 88:10;
also Is. 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
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 Sales: Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. 1,
ch. 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. Phil. 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. Lk. 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. Rom. 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, Bk. 6, ch. 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. Gen. 1:10-25, 31].
The spouse in the Song of Songs, having praised her [Divine] 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, Bk. 6, ch. 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. Now when
He says, "Eat, My beloved ones," He means, "Meditate"; for do you not know
that in order to render meat fit to be swallowed it is necessary first to
chew it and make it smaller, and to toss it from side to side in the mouth?
So we must do with the mysteries of Our Lord: We must chew them and turn
them over several times in our mind, first to warm our will and then to
pass on to contemplation.
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 Bk. 6, ch. 5].
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 doing so.
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. Ps. 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. [Cf. Song 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 heart.
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. Amen.
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.)
END OF TEXT