St. Francis De Sales, "THE KINDS OF PRAYER"



Sermon given on April 5, 1615, concerning the prayers
of sinners, what to ask God for, vital prayer, vocal prayer, obligatory and non-obligatory prayers, and the Divine Office.

We have shown that the end of prayer is our union with God, and that all
who are on the way to salvation can and ought to pray. But there remained
to us a difficulty in our last exhortation, namely, whether sinners can be
heard. For do you not see that the man born blind who is mentioned in the
Gospel [Cf. Jn. 9:31], and whose sight Our Lord restored, said to those who
questioned him that God does not hear sinners? But let him say it, for he
was still speaking as a blind man.

We must realize that there are three kinds of sinners: impenitent sinners,
penitent sinners, and justified sinners. Now, it is an assured fact that
impenitent sinners are not heard at all, seeing that they wish to wallow in
their sins; moreover, their prayers are an abomination before God. He
Himself made this clear to those who said to him: Why do we fast and
afflict ourselves and You take no note of it? [Cf. Is. 58:3]. Answering
them, God said: Your fasts, your mortifications, and your festivals are an
abomination to Me, since in the midst of all these things your hands are
stained with blood. [Cf. Is. 58:3-5; 1:13-15; 59:3]. The prayer of such
sinners cannot be good, because "no one can say: 'Jesus is Lord,' except in
the Holy Spirit" [1 Cor. 12:3], and no one can call God "Father" unless he
has been adopted as His son. [Cf. Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5-6]. The sinner who
wishes to remain in his sin is unable to pronounce the sovereign name of
Our Lord because he does not have the Holy Spirit with him, for the Holy
Spirit does not dwell in a heart stained with sin. [Cf. Wis. 1 :4-5]. Do
you not know, moreover, that no one comes to the Father but in virtue of
His Son's name, since He Himself has said that whatever we ask His Father
in His Name we shall obtain? [Cf. Jn. 14:6, 13; 16:23]. The prayers of the
impenitent sinner, then, are not agreeable to God at all.

Let us come to the penitent sinner. Without doubt we are wrong to call him
a sinner, for he is no longer so, since he already detests his sin. And if
indeed the Holy Spirit is not yet in his heart by residence, He is there
nevertheless by assistance. For who do you think gives him this repentance
for having offended God if not the Holy Spirit, since we would not know how
to have a good thought toward our salvation if He did not give it to us?
[Cf. 2 Cor. 3:5]. But has this poor man not done anything on his part? Yes,
most certainly he has. Listen to the words of David: Lord, You looked upon
me when I was in the quagmire of my sin. You opened my heart and I did not
close it. You have drawn me and I have not let go. You have urged me and I
have not turned back. [Cf. Ps. 102:18, 20-21; 103:3-4 and Is. 50:5]. We
have plenty of proof that prayers of penitent sinners are agreeable to the
Divine Majesty. But I shall content myself with citing the example of the
publican who went up to the Temple a sinner and came down from it
justified, thanks to the humble prayer he had made. [Cf. Lk. 18:10-14].
Let us go on now to the "matter" of prayer. I shall say nothing of its end,
for I shall speak of that next Sunday. The matter of prayer is to ask of
God all that is good. But we must understand that there are two kinds of
goods, spiritual goods and temporal or corporal goods. In the Song of
Songs, the spouse praised her Well-Beloved, saying that His lips were
lilies which drip choice myrrh [Cf. Song 5:13], to which her [Divine]
Spouse replied that she had honey and milk under her tongue. [Cf. Song

I know indeed that these words are interpreted in this sense, namely, that
when preaching to the people, preachers have honey under their tongue, and
when speaking to God in prayer on behalf of the people, they have milk
under their tongue. According to a second interpretation, preachers have
milk under their tongue when preaching on the virtues of Our Lord as Man:
His gentleness, mildness and mercy; and they have honey under their tongue
when speaking of His Divinity. There are many who are mistaken in thinking
that honey is made only from the juice of flowers. Honey is a liquor which
falls from the heavens amidst the dew. In falling upon flowers, it takes
their flavor, as do all liquors which are put into vessels which contain
any kind of flavor. Honey thus represents the divine perfections, which are
entirely celestial.

Let us apply these words of the [Divine] Spouse to our prayer. We have said
that there are two kinds of goods which we may ask for in prayer: spiritual
goods and corporal goods. There are two kinds of spiritual goods. One kind
is necessary for our salvation; these we ought to ask God for simply and
without condition, for He wants to give them to us. The other kind,
although spiritual, we ought to ask for under the same conditions as
corporal goods, that is, if it is God's will and if it is for His greater
glory; with these conditions we may ask for anything.
Now the spiritual goods which are necessary for our salvation, signified by
the honey which the spouse has under her tongue, are faith, hope and
charity, as well as the other virtues which lead to them. The other
spiritual goods are ecstasies, raptures, spiritual comforts and
consolations, none of which ought we to ask of God except conditionally,
because they are not at all necessary for our salvation.

There are those who think that if they were gifted with wisdom they would
be much more capable of loving God, but that is simply not so. You will
remember, indeed, that Brother Giles once went to St. Bonaventure and said
to him: Oh, how happy you are, my Father, to be so learned, for you can
love God far better than we who are ignorant. Then St. Bonaventure told him
that knowledge did not help him at all in loving God, and that a simple
woman was capable of loving Him as much as the most learned man in the

But who does not see the delusion of those who are always after their
spiritual Father in order to complain that they experience none of these
tender feelings and consolations in their prayers? Do you not see that if
you had them you would not be able to escape vainglory, nor would you be
able to prevent your self-love from being pleased with itself because of
them, so that you would end in amusing yourself more with the gifts than
with the Giver? Thus it is a great mercy to you that God does not give you
them at all. And you must not lose courage on that account, since
perfection does not consist in having these spiritual consolations and
affections, but in having our will united to that of God. It is this that
we may and ought to ask from the Divine Majesty unconditionally.
Tobit, being already old and wishing to set his affairs in order, commanded
his son to go to Rages to get a sum of money which was owed him. For this
purpose he gave him a signed document with which the money could not be
refused him. [Cf. Tob. 4:21-22; 5:3-4]. We must do likewise when we wish to
ask of the Eternal Father His Paradise, or an increase of our faith, or of
His love all of which He wishes to grant us, provided we bring His Son's
signed document, that is to say, provided that we always ask in the Name
and through the merits of Our Lord.


This good Master has shown us very clearly the order that we must follow in
our petitions, enjoining us to pray to the Father, "Hallowed be Thy Name,
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done." We ought accordingly to ask first that
His Name be hallowed, that is to say, that He may be acknowledged and
adored by all; after which we ask what is most necessary for us, namely,
that His Kingdom come for us, so that we may be inhabitants of Heaven; and
then, that His will be done. And after these three requests we add, "Give
us this day our daily bread." Jesus Christ makes us say, "Give us our daily
bread," because under this word "bread" are included all temporal goods.
We ought to be very moderate in asking for these goods here below and we
should fear much in asking for them, because we do not know whether Our
Lord will give them to us at all in His anger. This is why those who pray
with perfection ask for very few of these goods, remaining rather before
God like children before their father, placing in Him all their
confidence--or indeed, like a valet who serves his master well, for he does
not go every day and ask for his food, knowing that his services claim it
well enough for him. So much for the "matter" of prayer.

The ancient Fathers note that there are three kinds of prayer, namely,
vital prayer, mental prayer, and vocal prayer. We shall not now speak of
mental prayer, but only of vital prayer and vocal prayer. Every action of
those who live in the fear of God is a continual prayer, and this is called
"vital prayer." It is said that St. John [the Baptist], while in the
desert, lived on locusts [Cf. Matt. 3:4] or grasshoppers, and cicadas, that
he ate no grapes, nor drank ale or anything which could intoxicate. [Cf.
Lk. 1:15]. I shall not dwell on all that, but only on the fact that he ate
nothing but locusts, or grasshoppers.

No one knows whether locusts are of Heaven or of earth for they dart
continually toward Heaven, but they also fall to the earth sometimes. They
are nourished by the dew which falls from Heaven and they are always
singing, and what is heard is nothing other than a reverberation or
twittering which is made in their breasts. With good reason did the blessed
St. John nourish himself with grasshoppers, since he was himself a mystical
grasshopper. No one knows whether he was of Heaven or of earth, for
although he sometimes touched earth in order to attend to his needs, he
rose up suddenly and darted heavenward, nourished more by heavenly than by
earthly meats. Do you not see his great abstinence? He ate only locusts and
drank only water, and then only moderately. He also sang the praises of God
almost continually, for he himself was a voice. [Cf. Jn. 1:23]. In short,
his life was a continual prayer. Likewise we may say that those who give
alms, who visit the sick, and who practice all such good works, are
praying, and these same good actions call to God for a reward.
Let us go on now to vocal prayer. To mutter something with the lips is not
praying if one's heart is not joined to it. To speak, it is necessary first
to have conceived interiorly what we wish to say. There is first the
interior word, and then the spoken word, which causes what the interior has
first pronounced to be understood. Prayer is nothing other than speaking to
God. Now it is certain that to speak to God without being attentive to Him
and to what we say to Him is something that is most displeasing to Him.
A holy person relates that a parrot or popinjay was taught to recite the
Ave Maria. This bird once flew off, and a sparrow hawk pounced upon it; but
when the parrot began repeating the Ave Maria, the sparrow hawk let it go.
It is not that Our Lord listened to the prayer of the parrot; no, for it is
an unclean bird [Cf. Lev. 11:19], which was therefore unfit to be offered
in sacrifice. Nevertheless, He permitted this to show how pleasing this
prayer is to Him. Prayers of those who pray like this parrot are loathsome
to God, for He tests more the heart of him who prays than the words which
he pronounces. [Cf. Is. 1:13 and Prov. 24:12].

It is necessary for us to know that vocal prayer is of three kinds: Some
are commanded, others recommended, and still others are completely
optional. Those which are commanded are the Our Father and the Creed, which
we ought to recite every day, something which Our Lord made very clear when
He said, "Give us this day our daily bread." This shows us that we must ask
for it every day. And if you tell me that you have never prayed daily, I
shall answer you that you resemble beasts. The other prayer which is
commanded for those of us who are of the Church is the Office, and if we
omit any considerable part of it, we sin. Those which are only recommended
are the Our Fathers or rosaries which are prescribed for the gaining of
indulgences. If we omit saying these, we do not sin, but our good Mother
the Church, to show us that she wishes us to say them, grants indulgences
to those who do recite them. Optional prayers are all those which we say
other than those of which we have just spoken.

Although the prayers that we say voluntarily may be very good, those
recommended are much better because the holy virtue of compliance comes
into play in praying them. It is as if we were to say: You desire, my good
Mother the Church, that I do this, and though you do not command me to do
so, I am very glad to do it to please you. There is already a little of
obedience in this. But the prayers which are commanded have a different
value altogether on account of the obedience attached to them, and without
doubt there is also more charity in them.

Now among these, some are community prayers and others are private.
Community prayers are Mass, the Office, and prayers which are recited in
times of calamities. O God, with how much reverence ought we to assist at
these services, but prepared quite differently than for private prayers,
because in the latter we treat only of our own affairs before God, or if we
pray for the Church, we do so in charity. But in community prayers we pray
for all in general. St. Augustine relates that once while he was still a
pagan he entered a church where St. Ambrose was having the office chanted
alternately [by two choirs ], as it has been done since then. He was so
enraptured and ecstatic that he thought he was in Paradise. Many persons
assert that they have oftentimes seen troupe after troupe of angels coming
to assist at the Divine Office. With what attention then ought we not to
assist at it, seeing that the angels are present and repeat on high in the
Church triumphant what we are saying here below!

But perhaps we will say that if we had seen the angels at our Office, we
would bring more attention and reverence to it. Ah, no, pardon me, but
there would certainly be nothing of the kind. For even if we had been
snatched up with St. Paul to the third Heaven [Cf. 2 Cor. 12:2], even if we
had dwelt 30 years in Paradise, if we were not rooted in faith, all that
would mean nothing. I have often pondered over the fact that St. Peter, St.
James and St. John, even after having seen Our Lord in His Transfiguration,
did not fail to desert Him in His Passion and Death.

We ought never to come to the Office, especially we who chant it, without
making an act of contrition and asking the assistance of the Holy Spirit
before beginning it. Oh, how happy are we to begin here below what we shall
do eternally in Heaven, where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit lead
us. Amen.

1. St. Francis de Sales is referring to the obligation of all priests and
of some members of religious orders to pray the Divine Office daily. The
Mass and the Divine Office constitute the official prayer of the Church .