"And I beheld, and heard the voice of one eagle flying through the midst of heaven,
saying with a loud voice: Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth....
[Apocalypse (Revelation) 8:13]

Thursday, July 30, 2015

St. Francis De Sales, THE SPIRIT OF PRAYER

Sermon of the Saints: St. Francis De Sales
Sermon 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
greater length. 

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
blessing. Amen. 

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. 


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