On Prayer – St. Francis De Sales

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.