SERMON: The Heart Of Prayer by Francis de Sales
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 – 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 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, 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 Saint Paul: “I kneel,” he says, “before the father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for you all.” (Ephesians 3:14) And don’t you see that the savior himself, while praying to his father, is prostrate to the ground? (Matthew 26:39 and Mark 14:35)
Here is one more example. I think you know that the great hermit, Saint Paul, lived for many years in the desert. Saint Antony of the Desert, having gone to see him, found him in prayer. After speaking with him, Saint Antony left him. But having come a second time to visit him, he found Saint Paul in the same position as before, his head raised and his eyes fixed on Heaven, kneeling upright, with hands joined. Saint 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 Saint 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, (Psalm 27:8), that his eyes were so attentive in looking upon God that they failed, (Psalm 69:4 and 88:10; 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? (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. In that temple, there was first a court which was set aside for 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, (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. (Luke 23:24) 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. (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 mediated, 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. (Genesis 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, (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 and my milk. Come, my beloved ones, and eat; be inebriated, my dearest ones.” 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 returned 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, (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.”
Saint 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.’” Saint Bruno was content to say, “O goodness!” And Saint 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.
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 house 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 Saint 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”; 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 Saint 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.” (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. 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.
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