DeSales and Prayer

The Introduction to the Devout Life was first published in 1609 by Saint Francis de Sales. It is considered a spiritual classic in the Christian tradition. The work is also used as a guide in Christian spiritual direction. The Devout Life is a compilation of letters and notes used by deSales in the spiritual direction of his cousin, Madame Marie de Charmoisy. She was the wife of an ambassador of the Duke of Savoy.

The Devout Life is distinguished by addressing itself to all Christians in any state of life. Spiritual growth is for all people rather than to just those who have been called to a religious vocation. For example, De Sales said,

My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances. It is an error, or rather a heresy, to wish to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the mechanic’s shop, the court of princes, or the home of married people. … Wherever we may be, we can and should aspire to the perfect life.

Part II of the Devout Life is entitled, Containing Sundry Counsels As To Uplifting The Soul To God In Prayer And The Use Of The Sacraments. Chapter I in this section is “The Necessity of Prayer.” DeSales covers some aspects of prayer in this chapter.


PRAYER - WHY? Why do Catholic use wax candles in the liturgy? A candle gives off two things: light – a symbol of wisdom; and warmth - a symbol of love. But notice, the candle only does this as it “sacrifices itself.” Hence candles, especially the Paschal Candle lit on the Vigil of Easter, has traditionally been used as a symbol of Jesus Christ.

DeSales refers to this same liturgical metaphor when writing about prayer. He writes that prayer,

“Opens the understanding to the brightness of Divine Light, and the will to the warmth of Heavenly Love. Nothing can so effectually purify the mind from its many ignorances, or the will from its perverse affections. It is as a healing water which causes the roots of our good desires to send forth fresh shoots, which washes away the soul’s imperfections, and allays the thirst of passion.”

What deSales is talking about is the idea of “purgation.” The topic is covered in the 7th chapter of The Devout Life, “The Second Purification, From All Sinful Affections.” The men of That Man is You were recently discussing this chapter in one of their regular meetings. They mentioned how difficult it is to, first admit such sinful inclinations and second, to actually do something about it over time. DeSales says that this cannot be accomplished without prayer.


PRAYER – HOW? Although deSales doesn’t come out and say it directly, Scripture forms the basis of prayer. St. Francis commends meditation on the Life and Passion of our Lord (Where else are you going to get that?). Start by devoutly saying “the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, the rosary, etc..” This avoids prattling on with lots of words and not getting to the heart of prayer in your heart. Prayer can be vocal prayer or mental prayer. Go with whatever is easier for you to do. Calm and peace in spirit are hallmarks of deSales’ advice in trying to grow in the spiritual life.


PRAYER – HOW LONG? An hour prayer daily is recommended. DeSales says that morning is the best time when “your mind will be less cumbered, and fresh after the night’s rest.” St. Francis also says not to “spend more than an hour thus, unless specially advised to do so by your spiritual father.” This is good advice. I have seen men and women use prayer, Mass and “spiritual stuff” as a crutch. They avoid facing and dealing with the challenges they have in their marriages, their jobs and their family life.


PRAYER – WHERE? DeSales recommends praying in church for several very practical reasons. “No one, father or mother, husband or wife, can object to an hour spent there, and very probably you could not secure a time so free from interruption at home. Speaking for myself, I recommend having a special place – your own sanctuary – where you go when you pray. When you go there, subconsciously you are saying to yourself, “This is now ‘God time.” Set it up with physical accouterments such as icons, a rosary, a Bible, a candle, a clock, a few spiritual books that you’re working on, holy cards, etc.. Use whatever helps you to enter into a time and place for your prayer.

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