As tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Francis de Sales, I thought I would share some of his counsel on prayer, taken from a series of sermons he gave to the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary (an order which he co-founded with Saint Jane Frances de Chantal in 1610) at Annecy in 1615, by way of preparation for the day itself. Surprisingly, out of the many sermons he gave to the women religious there, only four of them were on the subject of prayer, but presumably the sisters were already well aware of his teaching in this area, having Saint Francis’ Spiritual Conferences (written specifically for the Sisters of the Visitation) and Treatise on the Love of God, both of which are replete with advice on the school of prayer. The four sermons that he delivered to them in person however, are on the goal of prayer, the spirit of prayer, the different kinds of prayer, and the heart of prayer – it is the second of these that I shall be referring to.
It is remarkable that, in his addresses to those in a religious order, Saint Francis’ tone, as well as the content of what he is delivering, is so similar to what he relates in more ‘popular’ books of devotion such as The Introduction to A Devout Life – whether counselling nuns or laity, not only is the essence of the spirituality he imparts very similar, but the way in which he suggests his advice be taken up and applied is also much alike. Furthermore, a benevolent and reassuring tone is present, as with all Saint Francis de Sales’ work. In his sermon on the spirit of prayer, Saint Francis discusses the conditions which are necessary in order that we might pray well – he does so after insisting that even the greatest sinners can pray, and that it is only the devil who cannot, as he 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 fifteen, others eight. But since this number is so large, I limit myself to mentioning only three. The first is that one be little in humility; the second that one be great in hope; and the third, that one be grafted onto Jesus Christ crucified…
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.’
The Sermons of Saint Francis de Sales: On Prayer (1985), pp.9-10, Tan Books.
The insistence that we must first humble ourselves before we can pray well is grounded in the truth that if we do not recognise ourselves as nothing before God, we will not know our true condition and therefore our prayer will not be wholly sincere. If we do not know ourselves to exist moment to moment by the mercy of God, and that without Him we would be literally nothing, then our prayer will always to some extent be shaped by selfish desires and we will not ask for what we really need to progress in the spiritual life. This is why the only way we can save our life is by losing it – we must lose the illusion that our life is our own, so that we may thereby plant ourselves by life-giving streams and return to the true source of our existence (c.f.; Psalm 1:3).
The second condition of praying well mentioned by Saint Francis is that we be ‘great in hope’ – something that on the surface might seem paradoxical after his counsel to think of ourselves as nothing, but which is actually the logical conclusion of the first condition. The virtue of hope is in no earthly thing, least of all in ourselves, but in the grace and promises of God – so it is that the less we think of our own achievements and sense of self-sufficiency, the more we will place our hope in Him who holds all in the palm of His hand; hope and humility are in effect two sides of the same coin. Saint Francis also relates this condition to the primary theological virtue – that of charity, or love:
‘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 odour, 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.’
As Saint Francis says, hope, like faith, is something that will not be needed in Heaven, for there we will know as we are known, and will do so face to face (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 13:12-13). Love however is the very life of God Himself, and therefore will be the context in which we live in Heaven – it will be as oxygen is to us here on earth. This being so, our hope must always be married to love; otherwise, as Saint Francis writes, ‘it would no longer be hope, but presumption.’ For hope to really be oriented to God and be removed from any sense of self-orientation or worldly objectives, our hope must be grounded in a love of God qua God – we must place all our hope in Him because He is truly our greatest desire in Heaven or on earth, because He is our greatest good and the fulfilment of all we long for. Love of God is the animating spirit which guides all the spiritual life, and so guides the life of prayer in particular.
Finally, Saint Francis comes to the third condition, which is that we graft all our prayer onto the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This last condition draws together the other two, as once we know that we cannot do anything of ourselves to gain eternal life, and that our hopes must be for and in God in order that they be authentic and permanent, we turn inevitably to the One who makes prayer to the Father possible, and makes those hopes we entertain a reality. It is in Our Lord, and through His Holy Cross, that we are redeemed, that the gulf between God and mankind has been bridged and that we are able to speak to God with confidence (c.f.; Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:23-26; 10:19-22):
‘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…
…When Jacob wished to obtain his father Isaac’s blessing, his mother made him prepare a kid in venison sauce because Isaac liked it [c.f.; 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 savoured has given me such delight that I give my blessing to my son.” So too we, having prepared this spotless Lamb [c.f.; 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 savour the fragrance of his garment, I give him My blessing.” Amen.’
This wonderful use of typology to explain our reliance on the Sacrifice of Christ using the stories of the Old Testament reminds us that all the dealings of God with His people, imperfect though their behaviour may have been, points in various ways to the awesome fact that we would be reconciled to God only through His initiative. Though Rebecca’s clothing of Jacob in the garments of Esau was an act of deceit, it left behind in Sacred Scripture a powerful symbol of substitution and representation – the act by which one stood in the place of another, or in the case of Jacob’s son Joseph, in the place of the many (c.f.; Genesis 50:15-21). Saint Francis points in particular to the fragrance of Esau’s garments, which delighted Isaac, evoking the fragrance of sacrificial offerings, and thus the ultimate Sacrifice of obedience and love which Christ offered to the Father.
The Sacrifice of Christ, and the fact that the infinite love poured out in it so outweighs the vast array of disobedience and animosity we have placed between God and ourselves, is the only means we have of coming before Him in confidence that He will hear our prayer. It is because of this great Sacrifice that we are reminded of our rebellion and thus of the need to humble ourselves by way of turning away from that path, and because of it alone that we can have hope of eternal bliss with God in the hereafter. The love shown in Christ is our grounds for being able to pray at all, and it is the common thread that links the three conditions listed by Saint Francis de Sales – the love given to us in Christ makes communion with God possible, and the love we offer in return must be the ground and form of any response we make. Love given in response to love received – this is the spirit and heart of authentic Christian prayer, as Saint Francis details so well.