Even in the time of St. Francis de Sales, 400 years ago, people felt they didn't know how to pray. Today, we live in the most secularized of all ages. It is easy to turn to things, not so easy to turn towards God. A million distractions beset us. Indeed, more than a secular age, ours might be characterized as a distracted age.
Still the human heart, yearning as it does for infinity, is tied to the earth. That is true in all epochs. So in his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis not only wanted to encourage people to pray, he felt he must give them a method.
Prayer is necessary, he wrote. "Nothing else so effectively purifies our intellect of ignorance and our will of depraved affections.
"It is a stream of holy water that flows forth and makes the plants of our good desires grow green and flourish and quenches the passions within our hearts."
Francis' method of prayer is straightforward and made up of six parts:
First, to pray properly — that is with one's mind and heart open to God — one should not simply kneel down and begin to rattle off well-known prayers. Rather, one should take a moment to centre oneself in the presence of God and call on him for assistance in prayer.
There are several ways to put oneself in God's presence. One is to focus on the fact that God is in all places and in all things. He is present everywhere, especially in this moment.
Or, one may focus particularly on God's presence in your heart. Another way is to consider God looking upon humanity from heaven. Or again, you may think of Jesus as being humanly present in front of you.
It may seem as though these methods of putting oneself in God's presence are acts of mere imagination. But they are based on fact. You really are in God's presence at all times and in many ways. The first part of prayer is attending to that fact.
Second, the invocation is a moment of bowing before God in your heart in humble reverence. Acknowledge God in his awesomeness and humble yourself before him. Perhaps use one of the many verses in the Psalms that invoke God: "O God, you are my God, I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Psalm 63.1).
Third, use your imagination to place yourself in the mystery from Scripture that is the subject of your meditation. You might place yourself on Calvary at the foot of the cross or at Cana among the wedding guests. Perhaps, you are with Moses on Mount Nebo looking into the Promised Land.
Reflect on what you see before you, smell the smells, hear the sounds and talk with others in the scene. Stay with your meditation as long as you are able. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the mystery on which you are reflecting.
Fourth, you are likely to find surprises in your meditation. It will connect you with your own life, with joys and sorrows stemming from your experiences or your own actions. St. Francis says, "Imitate the bees, who do not leave a flower as long as they can extract some honey from it."
Fifth, you may experience a yearning for heaven, a zeal to bring the Gospel to others or a desire to imitate Christ. Form a resolution to act based on your meditation. Such resolutions are necessary, Francis says, in order to correct your faults and draw nearer to the Lord. Emotions and imaginings alone will not get you there.
Sixth, conclude your prayer. Thank God for being with you and inspiring you in your time of prayer. Implore him to give you the necessary graces to carry out the resolution you have made. Finally, make what Francis de Sales calls "a spiritual bouquet" — select two or three of the most beautiful flowers, the most beautiful moments, of your meditation to carry with you. "Think frequently about them and smell them spiritually during the rest of the day."
When you have concluded your time of prayer, do not rush back into the affairs of the day. Be silent for a moment or two and cherish the feelings you have experienced.
Then, once you have left your prayer, be sure to put your resolution into effect that same day. "This is the great fruit of meditation and without it meditation is often not only useless but even harmful," says Francis. We can easily get puffed up with our own holiness when in fact we have done nothing to become holy.
Of course, not every time of prayer is a time of bliss. Sometimes, it is extremely hard to place oneself into the meditation or one feels no consolation whatsoever. Sometimes, it's hard enough just to stay awake once you have stilled your soul.
However, Francis says the most important thing is perseverance. Try to retain a devout posture in your soul throughout your prayer time, no matter how you feel. Do not desert your time of prayer. "We ought to approach holy prayer purely and simply to do our duty and testify to our fidelity." God will notice our fidelity and he will give us the help that we need to carry out his will. Prayer is the sure pathway to walking in God's love.