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Mental prayer according to St. Francis de Sales

October 19, 2010

“Just as little children learn to speak by listening to their mothers and lisping words with them, so also by keeping close to our Savior in meditation and observing his words, actions, and affections we learn by his grace to speak, act, and will like him.”

St. Francis de Sales


One of the most useful books I have found for the lay Christian who earnestly desires to cultivate a holy life is St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, published in 1609. It is there that he provides instruction on how to practice mental prayer, which is sometimes termed meditative prayer or, simply, meditation. (This should not be confused with the non-Christian practice sharing the same name, for their aims and means are radically different.)

To many, mental prayer is an enigma. As in the days of St. Francis, its practitioners are few — whether one is Catholic or Protestant. From my experience, this is due to lack of instruction as well as due to fear (“Meditation sounds too mysterious and New Age-y. I am safer sticking with my prayers of petition and/or my Rosary and/or other formal prayers.”)

However, if we look upon the Saints, we shall see that not only did mental prayer permeate their lives, but they insisted on its practice by all Christians. Consider the devout St. Teresa of Avila, who experienced tremendous heights in her mental prayer: “He who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there with his own hands.” St. John of the Cross said, “Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon.” And St. Alphonsus de Liguori concluded, “All the saints have become saints by mental prayer.”

So how does one begin on the road of mental prayer? I shall seek to provide a condensed teaching below, based on St. Francis de Sales’ instruction (one should know there are other equally acceptable methods [Carmelite, Ligorian, Sulpician…], if one wishes to explore them also):

A Brief Method on Mental Prayer

Part I: The Preparation

1. Place yourself in the presence of God

To prepare for mental or meditative prayer, one must begin by summoning a “lively, attentive realization of God’s absolute presence.” Our goal is to be mindful of God’s nearness to us, and that He is beholding us at all times, but most especially at this moment as we pray. St. Francis proposes several different ways of focusing our mind on this truth, but I will only provide one: through use of the simple imagination, consider that Jesus is physically near. Perhaps he is sitting in the chair across from us, or standing before us. If one is praying before the Blessed Sacrament then all the better, for then one knows he is truly there observing them and the imagination is assisted by the Lord’s real presence.

2. The invocation

By this St. Francis means we are to prostrate our soul before God “with the most profound reference.” The invocation is where one’s soul acknowledges its utter unworthiness to appear before His Majesty, and “implores His grace in order to serve and adore Him properly.” St. Francis suggests using various brief words found in Scripture, such as, “O God, cast me not out from your presence and your Holy Spirit take not from me,” or “I am your servant; give me discernment.”

Secondly we should invoke our guardian angel as well as the holy Saints who had part in the particular Scripture passage on which we are going to meditate. “For example,” St. Francis instructs, “when meditating on the death of our Lord, you can invoke our Lady, St. John, Mary Magdalene, and the good thief, begging that the affections and interior movements they then conceived may be shared with you.”

3. The subject of the mystery

The third thing we must do to prepare to meditate is simply use our imagination to picture the entire mystery as if it were taking place in the present time before us. An example would be this: the “mystery” we might meditate on could be the time while Jesus was on the cross dying. Using one’s imagination, they would picture themselves as being there with him, seeing and hearing all that was done or said. If one likes, they may draw upon the particular Scripture passages that describe our Savior’s Passion in order to assist them (this is especially useful if your mind wanders and has difficult staying on task).

Part II: Considerations

After the scene is composed in our imagination, we are then to use our intellect to consider various points about the mystery that “raise our affections to God and the things of God.” Using the last example concerning Christ’s crucifixion, one might be drawn to consider Jesus’ profound forgiveness of those present who reviled him and even drove the nails into his hands. St. Francis suggests we stay on that specific consideration as long as our minds find “enough appeal, light, and fruit” in them. When we have extracted what we are able, we are to calmly and slowly proceed to another aspect of the mystery.

Part III: Affections and Resolutions

From these considerations, one’s soul will experience various “affections,” such as:

“Love of God and neighbor, desire for heaven and glory, zeal for the salvation of souls, imitation of the life of our Lord, compassion, awe, joy, fear of God’s displeasure, judgment, and hell, hatred of sin, confidence in God’s goodness and mercy, and deep sorrow for the sins of our past life.”

However tempted we may be to do so, the most essential part of meditation is not reflecting at length on these affections, but using them to make resolutions for our specific correction and improvement. If by meditating on the Lord’s forgiveness during his crucifixion one’s soul experiences a “holy longing” to imitate him, one should turn that longing into a specific resolution applicable to their own life. For instance, one may resolve not to be angered or interiorly disturbed by a particularly disagreeable family member, neighbor, co-worker, or other acquaintance and that when they next encounter them, they will say or do such-and-such thing in order to appease him or her. “In this way…you will correct your faults in a short time, whereas by affections alone it would be a slow, difficult task.”

Part IV: Conclusion and Spiritual Bouquet

Meditation is concluded with three acts, done with great humility:

  1. Act of Thanksgiving, “by which we return thanks to God for the affections and resolutions he has given us and for his goodness and mercy.”
  2. Act of Offering, “by which we offer to God his own goodness and mercy, his Son’s death, Blood, and virtues, and in union with them our own affections and resolutions.”
  3. Act of Supplication, “by which we beseech God and implore him to share with us the graces and virtues of his Son and to bless our affections and resolutions so that we may faithfully fulfill them.”

St. Francis advises us then to take time to pray for the Church, our pastors, family, friends, and so on. For this purpose it is appropriate to ask for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, the angels, and the Saints. To conclude we must say the necessary prayers of all the faithful: the Our Father and Hail Mary (which St. Francis suggests we learn to say in Latin, the common language of the Church).

Lastly, we are to “gather a little devotional bouquet.”

“People who have been walking about in a beautiful garden do not like to leave without gathering in their hands four or five flowers to smell and keep for the rest of the day. In the same way, when our soul has carefully considered by meditation a certain mystery, we should select one, two, or three points that we liked best and that are most adapted to our improvement, think frequently about them, and smell them spiritually during the rest of the day.”

Other Notes and Instructions

– This practice of prayer should be done daily, for no more than an hour unless otherwise advised by one’s spiritual director, and preferably in the morning hours.

– Before entering into mental prayer, one should begin by saying the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Apostle’s Creed. Other formal, vocal prayers (Litanies, the Rosary, etc.) may be said before entering into mental prayer, but if God draws us into mental prayer at any point we should not refuse it, for mental prayer is more pleasing to the Lord and profitable for our souls than vocal prayer.

– One must strive to put their specific resolutions into effect that very day. “This is the great fruit of meditation and without it meditation is often not only useless but even harmful. Virtues meditated on but not practiced sometimes inflate our minds…and we think that we are really…as we have thought and resolved to be.”

– Be careful as you leave prayer to enter into your duties of daily life, lest your heart “spills the balm that it has received.” St. Francis recommends we keep silent as long as possible and strive to keep our minds focused on the desires and decisions produced in our meditation.

“The lawyer must be able to pass from prayer to pleading cases, the merchant to commerce, and the married woman to her duties as wife and her household tasks with so much ease and tranquility that their minds are not disturbed. Since both prayer and your other duties are in conformity with God’s will, you must pass from one to the other with a devout and humble mind.”

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3 Comments
  1. Francis deSales is one of my favorites and I love this book. I return to it now and again to refresh my own “devout life”.
    Thank you for your comment on my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed perusing the posts. I have enjoyed perusing yours as well.
    God bless!

  2. Christina permalink

    My idea of prayer, from my experience, has been similar to this. Perhaps its because I was raised Catholic? When I came to know the Lord as a teen, mental prayer was my main source of communication with God. In fact, my church at the time did not teach or recite any formal prayers at all. Interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Wow, really?! I am honestly surprised, although I am definitely glad to hear it. Even in my parish there is no discussion or teaching whatsoever about this sort of prayer. In my prior (protestant) church I was taught that praying was basically just expressing my thoughts and presenting my petitions to God. “God I’m so sad lately, God I’m unworthy, God please do this, God please give me this, God please watch over this person, God I love you, Amen.” The whole idea of praying by being silent and focusing my mind on God and what He wants to reveal to me, then changing my life accordingly, was an extraordinary revelation! 🙂

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