This is the third article in my series based on my reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales. The first article was “What Does It Mean to be Devout?” followed by “Purification in the Devout Life.”
This article is based on my reading of Part 2 of the Introduction to the Devout Life. Part 2 focuses on prayer and the sacraments. I will be focusing on prayer in the devout life. (If you are interested in reading what I have previously written on the sacraments please see my “Liturgy & Sacraments” page on website and/or the sacraments section on my blog. If you are interested in watching video presentations on the sacraments, please see my series, Sacraments: Channels of God’s Grace. For my video presentation series on prayer, see Giving Our Hearts to God: What It Means to Pray)
St. Francis De Sales opens part 2, “Prayer opens the understanding to the brightness of divine light, and the will to the warmth of heavenly love” (37). Prayer is not just saying the prayers we have memorized or reading from a text. Prayer is not simply giving our list of requests to God. Prayer is about connecting with God. Prayer is about our relationship with God. St. Francis De Sales continues, “But especially I commend earnest mental prayer to you, more particularly such as bears upon the life and Passion of our Lord. If you contemplate him frequently in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with him, you will grow in his likeness, and your actions will be molded on his” (37). Mental prayer (meditation) does not exclude vocal prayer. For example, we see the two working together in praying the Rosary. The Rosary utilizes prayers we have memorized (The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.). It is vocal prayer. It is also mental prayer when we meditate upon the mysteries of Jesus’ life.
St. Francis De Sales calls us to pray one hour each day in meditation (don’t start with an hour, start with a few minutes and increase the amount of time as you can). He encourages us to pray this hour before noon when we still fresh. I suggest that you are the one who knows yourself. You know what time of day is best for your mental prayer. He encourages to offer this hour prayer in church. Why? Are we not less distracted in church than at work or home? I realize that not everyone can make it to church to pray. For suggestions on creating a prayer space at home, see my article, “Where Do You God to Find God?”. He calls us to begin all prayer “by an act of the presence of God” (38). In prayer it is ultimately God we seek. God is everyone. In prayer we ask God to help us be aware of his presence.
For it is when we are aware of God’s presence that we can best live in accord with him (St. Francis De Sales, 39). Otherwise, if we think God is not with us, we might more readily allow ourselves to fall into sin.
Returning to St. Francis De Sales’ instruction to pray in church, God is present in a special way in the church. Jesus is found in the Tabernacle in the consecrated host that is his Body. To be most aware of Jesus’ presence, St. Francis De Sales invites us to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration (40-41). As I said before, God is present everywhere. However, we can be most aware of his presence in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar.
We must not compartmentalize our prayer. St. Francis De Sales writes, “Above all things, my child, strive when your meditation is ended to retain the thoughts and resolutions you have made as your earnest practice throughout the day” (45, my emphasis). Prayer is not just something we do for a few minutes each day. It is to be part of who we are. This is what it means to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
In chapter 9 of part 2, St. Francis writes of the times when we experience dryness in prayer. We may find ourselves without the ability to mediate. In such times he encourages us to rely on vocal prayer (47) and trust in God. We may not always be aware of God’s presence or the fruit of our prayers but God is always listening. St. Francis De Sales also suggests spiritual reading in times of dryness of prayer. We might not always be aware of the fruit of our reading but it opens the door to let God in. St. Francis De Sales speaks of external actions like prostrating and kissing a crucifix as expressions of what we seek in prayer (47).
In chapter 10 of part 2, St. Francis suggests we begin our morning prayer by thanking God for bringing us through the night to the new day. Then we call to mind what the day will bring and how we might work for eternity. We ask how we might serve God in the day we are beginning while admitting where we might struggle and need God’s help (48).
St. Francis then discusses evening prayer and an examination of conscience. This examination of conscience is more than the one we do before going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This examination begins by thanking God “for having preserved you through the day past” (49). We then examine our day to ask how we conducted ourselves through the day (this is the examination of conscience for sins). Then, thank God for any good we have done and commend everything we have to God (49).
While St. Francis De Sales focuses on morning and evening prayer, he reminds us to pray throughout the day (50). That might difficult. For example, how can one possibly pray in a crowded place? Here I think of my seminary days in Washington, DC. I used to go to the National Mall where there are several monuments and museums and walk. I won’t go inside. I would just walk around the area. There were often lots of people but God revealed himself there. He would bless me with solitude in a crowded place.
We should also realize that praying throughout the day doesn’t mean always spending a lot of time in prayer. It can be as simple as pausing our work and saying just a couple of words to ask God to help us be aware of his presence (50). It might only take a minute but what we open ourselves to in that minute can refresh us in our daily tasks, strengthening us to complete the task before us (St. Francis De Sales, 52).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, part 2 of the Introduction to the Devout Life is on prayer and the sacraments. I said I wasn’t going to discuss the sacraments in this article. However, there is one sacrament that does need to be included for it is the sacrament that gives us food to endure. It is the Eucharist! St. Francis De Sales describes the Eucharist as “the very center point of our Christian religion, the heart of all devotion, the soul of piety; that ineffable mystery that embraces the whole depth of depth love, by which God, giving himself really to us, conveys all his graces and favors to men with royal magnificence” (55). The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. It is the Bread of Life, the very Body and Blood of Jesus. It is God’s great gift to us (After Christmas, I will begin a series of presentations on the Eucharist!).
Knowing what the Eucharist is should be enough to motivate us the “Keep the Sabbath holy” by coming to Mass every Sunday. For those who are able, it should motivate to come to Mass and communicate (receive Communion) everyday. St. Francis De Sales writes, “If men of the world ask why you communicate so often, tell them that it is that you may learn to love God; that you may be cleansed from imperfections, set free from trouble, comforted in affliction, strengthened in weakness” (68).