Thursday, July 17, 2014

Men of prayer, ways of prayer: St Francis de Sales & St Josemaria Escriva

Throughout the history of the Church, her saints have led the People of God ever deeper into the mystery of prayer and what it means to be faithful to the Church's teaching on the importance of prayer for deep personal communion with God the Holy Trinity. In addition to their exemplary lives, the saints have left a great heritage of writing, communicating the essentials of their relationship of prayer with the Triune God. The Church has never ceased to encourage the People of God to encounter these teachings of the saints and gain wisdom and insight from the ways in which God chose to communicate himself to them. Indeed, it is an important part of the life of prayer for every Christian to seriously engage the writings of the men and women whom the Church has been given the insight to proclaim saints. In my conversion to the Catholic Faith, I found great solace in the lives of the saints and in their examples of holiness and prayer. Because of my desire to develop, with God's grace, the life of prayer that I had seen in the saints, I began to read as many of the spiritual writings as I could find. Two of the saints whose writings I discovered led me to great growth in the spiritual life. Guided by the experienced hand of my spiritual director, I found two worthy exemplars who have since had a very profound impact on my life. The first is St. Francis de Sales, a French bishop and doctor of the Church who died in 1622. St. Francis was both the Bishop of Geneva and a prolific author on the spiritual life for laypeople and those who were taking the first steps to grow in what he called “the devout life.” It was his work, the Introduction to the Devout Life that had such a great impact on me. The second saint that challenged me in the life of prayer is St. Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish priest and founder of the personal prelature Opus Dei, who died in 1975. St. Josemaría began as a diocesan priest, but later founded one of the largest lay apostolate programs in the world. Throughout his life he wrote both short pithy sayings on the spiritual life that were collected into topical handbooks, like The Way and The Furrow, and lengthy spiritual growth tools like his The Way of the Cross. Despite these two saints' different backgrounds, nationalities, eras, and emphases, I have found their writings to have great congruence. Both emphasize the importance of personal holiness and conversion premised upon charity. For prayer, both highlight a meditative method of engaging the Lord, with special attention paid to vivid imagery and pious speculation: and thanks to their teachings, my prayer life has shown growth in both reflection and contemplation.

Saint Frances de Sales' work Introduction to the Devout Life is considered to be a classic of the spiritual tradition.1 In Devout Life, St. Francis writes to Philothea, a “soul living in the world” and invites her to follow the “paths of devotion.” 2 His introductory note to Philothea, a pseudonym the saint uses as a stand-in for any God-loving soul, is at the same time moving and an unwitting paen to pastoral charity and zeal:
I have addressed my instructions to Philothea, as adapting what was originally written for an individual to the common good of souls. I have made use of a name suitable to all who seek after the devout life, Philothea meaning one who loves God. Setting then before me a soul, who through the devout life seeks after the love of God, I have arranged this Introduction in five parts … .” 3
From this auspicious beginning, St. Francis goes on to define the different parts of his Introduction. He describes the divisions as follows: first is conversion, with general confession and frequent reception of holy communion.4 Second is the development of what he calls mental prayer, but which modern spiritual writers might call meditative prayer: using images and considerations to prompt meditation on the things of God and engage in discursive interiority.5 Thirdly, St. Francis encourages his reader with respect to acquiring the virtues.6 Next, Philothea is instructed how to avoid the pitfalls and snares of the enemy and his angels, analogous to other writers' purgative stage.7 Finally, St. Francis teaches what might be called the unitive prayer of resting in the Lord.8

It is St. Francis' approach to prayer in the second part of his Introduction that profoundly influenced my own prayer life. In the second part, St. Francis lays out the necessity of prayer in the life of the Christian disciple, and then he begins a series of meditations that are designed to guide the reader through considerations about God.9 Before proceeding into the substance of the meditations, however, St. Francis outlines his method of meditation: three points of preparation that lead to three parts or steps toward meditation.10 He teaches that before beginning a meditation, the Christian must enter into the presence of God.11 He writes that to enter into this Divine Presence is to have “a lively, earnest realization that [God's] Presence is universal; that is to say, that He is everywhere, and in all, and that there is no place, nothing in the world, devoid of His Most Holy Presence.” 12 Next, the Christian should invoke God's Presence by some short memorized Scripture verse; St. Francis gives several examples from the Psalms.13 The final preparatory step is to bring before one's mind's eye the mystery upon which one will be meditating: the so-called “interior picture.”14 Having completed these preparations, the Christian disciple calls to mind certain considerations; these may be prompted by holy images, Scripture verses, or contemplation of divine realities.15 Earlier in the Introduction, St. Francis supplies ten meditations that can be used to help the reader engage his mind and soul in these considerations.16 The second part, the meditation, is designed to be the lengthiest part of St. Francis' method.17 It is here that the God-loving soul should learn to both listen to God and direct itself toward the Presence of its Creator and Savior, which it has already recognize in the preparation to the meditation.18 After suitable time meditating, the soul at prayer turns to St. Francis' final steps: affections, resolutions, and spiritual bouquet.19 In the affections and resolutions, the soul considers all of the good things that the Spirit has inspired the believer to meditate upon; at the same time, the soul must also face the deficiencies that close exposure to God's Presence has uncovered.20 Having uncovered these blemishes, the soul resolves to pursue some course of action or avoid some vice, asking God's help to do so.21 Finally, the soul gathers up one or two particularly striking affections and collects the resolutions God has granted and arranges them in a memorable way.22 In doing this, Philothea is making herself ready to remember the prayer experience and allow herself to be changed by the encounter with the Lord.23

In my own life, I have found St. Francis' method for meditation incredibly helpful. Coming from a Protestant Christian tradition, I was unfamiliar with the practice of Christian meditative prayer. Of course, I had heard of such things in other religions, but it had never occurred to me that Christians engaged in a similar practice as well. In my Southern Baptist prayer life, I often engaged God in conversation vocally: literally speaking out loud to God with petitions and intercessions for people I cared about or situations about which I was worried. This primitive—if sincere—form of prayer did not leave much room for growth, and there was no real conception of listening to God in the sense that Catholic spiritual writers describe. Certainly, evangelical Protestant Christians will describe listening to God in their heart, but many times, this seems in reality to be a sort of asking God's permission in prayer and then seeing whether He allows a situation to go forward after the prayer has been made. With St. Francis' help, I was able to begin meditative prayer for the first time. After a year or so of using his method, I was even able to guide other beginners toward meditative prayer. Though I have moved toward lectio divina as I have matured as a Christian, I still use much of St. Francis' method to help prepare me for that type of silent, mental prayer.

In the same way that St. Francis de Sales urges the God-fearing soul to turn toward God's Presence while holding in place a firmly place mental image of some heavenly consideration, so does St. Josemaría Escrivá use vivid images to help bring the Christian disciple into a thoughtful contemplation of Almighty God. One of St. Josemaría's most famous works is his little collection of spiritual advice, The Way.24 In this book, he takes up various topics on the spiritual life and addresses them with paragraphs containing his insights. While the whole of The Way is inundated with prayer, the third chapter of the handbook is specifically dedicated to Prayer as such.25 To begin, St. Josemaría describes slowness and deliberateness: “Slowly. Consider what you are saying, to whom it is being said and by whom. For that hurried talk, without time for reflection, is just empty noise.”26 The saint re-emphasizes this point with a reflection on St. Mary of Bethany: “'Mary chose the better part', we read in the holy Gospel. There she is, drinking in the words of the Master. Apparently idle, she is praying and loving. Then she accompanies Jesus in his preaching through towns and villages. Without prayer, how difficult it is to accompany him!”27 St. Josemaría also describes the importance of meditative prayer, indicating that he, like St. Francis de Sales, places a high value on this method of spirituality:
“'Et in meditatione mea exardescit ignis. And in my meditation a fire shall flame out.' That is why you go to pray: to become a bonfire, a living flame giving heat and light. So, when you are not able to go on, when you feel that your fire is dying out, if you cannot throw on it sweet— smelling logs, throw on the branches and twigs of short vocal prayers and ejaculations, to keep the bonfire burning. And you will not have wasted your time.” 28
This passage from St. Josemaría also highlights the saint's penchant for graphic mental images, which he uses over and over to help those to whom he writes find their connection to God.

St. Josemaría's commitment to painting a picture in the mind of those he invites to prayer comes through strongly in his The Way of the Cross.29 Like many spiritual masters before him, St. Josemaría wrote meditations on the traditional Stations of the Cross that could be used by the faithful in following along the actual via Crucis within a church; but he also designed them to be used as prompts for meditative prayer with or without the actual journeying of the station walk.30 St. Josemaría's stations are designed in three parts: first, the presentation of the station, with the opportunity to sing the traditional verses of the Stabat Mater.31 Next, he presents the reader with a vivid re-imagining, interspersed with Scriptural allusions and citations, of the historical event that took place during the station in question.32 For example, in the fourth station, St. Josemaría describes what it must have been like for Jesus to have encountered his blessed mother Mary along the sorrowful way to Calvary:
“No sooner has Jesus risen from his first fall than he meets his Blessed Mother, standing by the wayside where He is passing. With immense love Mary looks at Jesus, and Jesus at his Mother. Their eyes meet, and each heart pours into the other its own deep sorrow. Mary 's soul is steeped in bitter grief, the grief of Jesus Christ. O all you that pass by the way, look and see, was there ever a sorrow to compare with my sorrow! (Lam 1:12). But no one notices, no one pays attention; only Jesus. Simeon's prophecy has been fulfilled: thy own soul a sword shall pierce (Luke 2:35). In the dark loneliness of the Passion, Our Lady offers her Son a comforting balm of tenderness, of union, of faithfulness; a 'yes' to the divine will.” 33
These powerful reflections then lead the reader to consider numerous points of meditation that serve to present the Christian disciple with small points of crisis: opportunities to make a resolution to follow Christ in both specific and general ways.34

I first encountered St. Josemaría's writing in a gift to me of the The Way by a supernumerary of Opus Dei. Later, I discovered the saint's depiction of the Way of the Cross, and found it to be an even more important impact on my prayer life. When I pray with St. Josemaría's meditations, I lose myself in the prayer and find myself walking with Jesus and Mary through the scenes as the saint describes them. I regularly feel the great weight and the great consolation of the mediations after the reflections, leading me to challenge the status quo in my life and continue conversion. I found the shortness of the saint's sayings in The Way to be perfect for brief mediation and silent prayer when praying before the Blessed Sacrament, particularly if I do not have a lot of time available. I have found that with St Josemaría's help, even a small amount of time can be enough to enter into God's presence and entertain the mystery of Christ's redemption.

I have been deeply changed for the good by the approaches to prayer taken by Saints Francis de Sales and Josemaría Escrivá. Not only have I sensed conversion in my life due to the prayer that their methods and approaches have taken, but I have also been able to share the fruits of my growth in prayer that I attribute to these two writers with other Christians, helping them, too, to grow. I hope to continue to follow their example of prayer and holiness to advance my own spiritual life as a seminarian in the short term; in the long term, I hope to be able to recommend both of these writers as, please God, a priest of Jesus Christ.


1Pernin, Raphael. “St. Francis de Sales.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1909. 28 Nov. 2012 .
2Id.
3De Sales, St. Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life. Trans. Anon., “Library of Spiritual Works for English Catholics.” London: Rivington Pub., 1878. Published online: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Calvin College Dep't of Computer Science's Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005. 28 Nov. 2012 . Preface .
4Id.
5DeSales, Introduction. Preface.
6Id.
7Id.
8Id.
9DeSales, Introduction. Pt. II, chs. 1 et al.
10Id., Pt. II, chs. 2-7.
11Id., Pt. II, ch. 1.
12Id., Pt. II, ch. 2.
13Id., Pt. II, ch. 3.
14Id., Pt. II, ch. 4.
15Id., Pt. II, ch. 5.
16Cf. DeSales, Introduction. Pt. I, chs. 9-18.
17Id., Pt. II, ch. 5.
18Id., Pt. II, chs. 2, 5.
19Id., Pt. II, chs. 6-7.
20Id., Pt. II, ch. 6.
21Id.
22Id., Pt. II, ch. 7.
23Id.
24Escrivá, St. Josemaría. Camino. Madrid: Rialp, 1939, 1950. Trans. Anon., The Way. London: Scepter, Ltd., 1982. Online ed., “Works of St. Josemaría Escrivá.” The Way. Madrid: Fundación Studium, 2000. 29 Nov. 2012 .
25Escrivá, The Way. Ch. 3. 29 Nov. 2012 .
26The Way, ch. 3, no. 85.
27Id., no. 89.
28Escrivá. The Way, ch. 3, no. 92.
29Esrivá, St. Josemaría. Via Crucis. Madrid: Scriptor, 1950, 1986. Trans. Anon., The Way. London: Scepter, Ltd., 1986. Online ed., “Works of St. Josemaría Escrivá.” Way of the Cross. Madrid: Fundación Studium, 2000. 29 Nov. 2012 .
30Id.
31See, e.g., The Way of the Cross, 1st station.
32Id.
33Way of the Cross, 4th station.
34Id., et al.

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