Jane de Chantal (1572–1641), early modern French cofounder of the women’s religious congregation the Visitation of Holy Mary, is quoted as claiming that “the best method of prayer is to have no method at all.” In retrospect, her claim appears somewhat ironic in that Jane, along with her cofounder Francis de Sales (1567–1622), Bishop of Geneva and popular spiritual author from the duchy of Savoy, both promoted a wide variety of prayer practices.
These two spiritual friends are at the fountainhead of the larger spiritual family known as Salesian. While it was mainly the bishop’s writings, especially the Introduction to the Devout Life and the Treatise of the Love of God, through which the Salesian perspective originally was, and still continues to be, disseminated, the congregation of the Visitation that the two founded in 1610 was, for several centuries, the chief institutional bearer of the Salesian charism.
Until the mid-twentieth century, Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life was the most frequently read spiritual guide in the Catholic world. It continues in the present day to be frequently reprinted and adapted for contemporary Christian readers.
As a man prompted by early modern Catholic reforming zeal, de Sales believed that God desired intimacy with ordinary men and women as well as with those in professed religious life. The Devout Life was written for such as these with the assumption that they, who had long been assumed to be less spiritually capable than their vowed peers, long to learn how to respond to the divine desire that stirs deep in the human heart. Prayer is one of the chief avenues of response to the divine initiative.
The Devout Life assumes that its reader comes to personal prayer in the larger context of Christian sacramental practice. The bishop describes prayer as necessary for anyone who longs to grow in God’s love as prayer clarifies the mind and draws the will by exposing it to the warmth of divine ardor. In his typically imaginative and image-rich rhetorical style, Francis writes…
[Prayer] is the water of blessing which by its watering causes the plants of our good desires to become green and to flower, washes our souls clean from their imperfections, and quenches the passions of our hearts.
All types of prayer de Sales deems important. Vocal prayers such as the Hail Mary and the Our Father are lauded. The bishop himself prayed the rosary with his episcopal household daily. But more importantly, he prompts us to move gradually into interior mental prayer focused especially on the Passion of Jesus and offers a detailed method for the aspirant who longs for a deeper awareness of the divine.
This brief method of interior meditation is recommended after we have given serious attention to purifying the soul from attachment to sin and consideration of God’s love and the true end toward which human life is appropriately directed. First, she is encouraged as she begins to pray to place herself in God’s presence, becoming aware that God is everywhere in everything, including the depths of the human heart.
Humbled by the majesty of the divine, she should ask for the grace to serve well. Then, a particular mystery (for example Jesus on the cross) is proposed to the imagination, and we are encouraged to enter the scene imaginatively in order to draw insight from it, pausing when a meditation elicits edifying response…
And if your mind finds enough flavor, light, and fruit in one of the reflections, you should stop yourself there without going any further—doing as bees do who do not leave the flower until they have gathered all the honey.
Finally, these meditative reflections should prompt affections and resolutions. The will should be moved toward impulses such as trust, zeal for heaven, compassion, or joy that then should be turned into resolutions that seek to transform affections into actions that can amend faults or encourage growth. Prayer in the Salesian tradition, even in this fairly elementary method, never remains notional but always draws the one praying toward active growth and alignment of the will with the divine prompting.
The final movements of this interior process include thanksgiving, the offering of one’s affections and resolutions, and supplication. Then, with his typically encouraging spiritual pedagogy, Francis assures that the fruits of the meditation will not fade by proposing that we collect a souvenir or “spiritual bouquet.”
As a prayer coach, St. Francis de Sales encourages us to jump in and swim in the grace of God. Amen!