Aspirations, prayers, and good thoughts.

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14 min • June 19, 2021

These simple tips from St. Francis de Sales are sure to vastly improve our prayer life.

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 66:

Chapter XIII.

Aspirations, ejaculatory prayers, and good thoughts.

We retire into God, because we aspire to Him; and we aspire to Him that we may retire into Him: so that the aspiring to God, and the spiritual retiring into Him, are the mutual supports of each other, and both proceed from the same source, namely, from devout and pious thoughts.

Aspire then frequently to God, Philothea, by short but ardent dartings of your heart; admire his beauty, invoke his assistance; cast yourself in spirit at the foot of the cross; adore his goodness; converse with Him frequently on the business of your salvation; give your soul to Him a thousand times a day; contemplate his clemency and his sweetness; stretch out your hand to Him as a little child does to his father, that He may conduct you; place Him in your bosom like a delicious nosegay; plant him in your soul like a standard; and move your heart a thousand times to enkindle and excite within you a passionate and tender affection for your Divine Spouse.

The making of ejaculatory prayer was strongly recommended by the great St. Augustin to the devout Lady Proba. Our spirit, Philothea, by habituating itself thus privately to the company and familiarity of God, will be altogether perfumed with his perfections.

Now, there is no difficulty in this exercise, as it is not incompatible with our occupations, without any inconvenience whatever, since, in these spiritual and interior aspirations, we only take short diversions, which, instead of preventing, rather assist us in the pursuit of what we are seeking. The pilgrim, though he may stop to take a little wine to strengthen his heart and cool his mouth, does not delay his journey by so doing, but rather acquires strength to finish it with more ease and expedition, resting only that he may afterwards proceed with greater speed.

Many have formed collections of ejaculatory prayers, which may be very profitable; but I would advise you not to conform yourself to any set form of words, but to pronounce, either from your heart or mouth, such as love may suddenly suggest to you; for it will furnish you with as many as you could wish.

It is, indeed, true there are certain words which have a peculiar force to satisfy the heart in this respect. Such are the aspirations interspersed so copiously throughout the Psalms of David; the frequent invocation of the name of Jesus; the ejaculations of love expressed in the Canticles, &c. Spiritual songs will also answer the same purpose, when sung with attention.

In fine, as they that love, in a human and natural manner, have their thoughts and hearts incessantly occupied with the object of their affection, and their mouth ever employed in its praise, in its absence they lose no opportunity to testify that affection by letters, and by cutting the name of their beloved on the bark of trees; even so, such as truly love God can never cease to think on Him, breathe for Him, aspire to Him, and speak of Him; and, were it possible, they would engrave the sacred name of Jesus on the breasts of all mankind.

To this all things invite them, as there is no creature that does not declare to them the praises of their beloved. Yes, says St. Augustin, after St. Anthony, everything in the world addresses them in a most intelligible, yet dumb kind of language, in favour of their love: all things excite them to good thoughts, which give birth to many animated emotions and aspirations of the soul to God. The following are some examples:

St. Gregory Nazianzen, walking on the sea shore, remarked how the waves, advancing upon the beach, left on it shells, sea-weeds, star-fishes, and such like things, and then, other waves returning, took part of them back, and swallowed them up again, whilst the adjoining rocks continued firm and immovable, though the billows beat against them with ever so much violence. Upon which he made the salutary reflection, that feeble souls, like shells and weeds, suffer themselves to be borne away, sometimes by affliction, and at other times by consolation, at the mercy of the inconstant billows of fortune, but that courageous souls continue firm and unmoved amid all kinds of storms. From this thought he proceeded to those aspirations of David (Ps. lxviii.) : “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in even to my very soul. O Lord, deliver me out of those deep waters; I am come into the depth of the sea, and a tempest has overwhelmed me.” At the time he was in affliction on account of the unhappy usurpation attempted by Maximus on his bishopric.

St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspa, being present at a
general assembly of the Roman nobility, when Theodoric, King of the Goths, made an oration to them, and beholding the splendour of so many great lords, each ranked according to his quality, exclaimed: “O God, how glorious and beautiful must the heavenly Jerusalem be, since earthly Rome appears in so much pomp! for, if in this world the lovers of vanity are permitted to shine so brightly, what must not that glory be which is reserved, in the next world, for those who love truth!”

St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, by whose birth our mountains have been highly honoured, was admirable in the application of good thoughts. A hare, pressed by hounds, as this holy prelate was proceeding on a journey, fearing death, took refuge under his horse; whilst the hounds, barking around, did not attempt to violate the sanctuary to which their prey had fled. A sight so very extraordinary made the whole company burst into a fit of laughter, whilst the saint, weeping and sighing, cried out: “Alas! you laugh, but the poor beast does not laugh; the enemies of the soul, having hunted, and driven her on, by divers turnings and windings, through all sorts of sins, lie in wait for her at the narrow passage of death, to catch and devour her, and she, being in so dreadful a plight, looks for succour and refuge on every side; and, if she does not find it, she is mocked and derided by her enemies.” When the saint had said this, he rode on sighing.

Constantine the Great, having written with great respect to St. Anthony, the religious about him were greatly astonished. “Why,” said he, “do you feel astonished that a king should write to a man? Be astonished, rather, that the Eternal God should have written down his law to mortal men; yea, more, should have spoken to them by word of mouth in the person of his Son.”

St. Francis, seeing a sheep alone amidst a flock of goats: “Observe,” said he to his companion, “the poor sheep, how mild it is amidst the goats; our blessed Lord walked thus meekly and humbly among the Pharisees.” At another time, seeing a lamb devoured by a wild boar: “Ah! little lamb,” said he, weeping, “how strikingly dost thou represent the death of my Saviour!”

An illustrious person of our age, St. Francis Borgia, whilst yet Duke of Candia, whilst engaged in the chase, used to make to himself a thousand devout reflections. “I admired,” said he afterwards, “how the falcons come to hand, suffer themselves to be hooded, and to be tied to the perch; and, on the other hand, how rebellious men are to the voice of God.”

The great St. Basil said, that the rose in the midst of thorns affords this beautiful instruction to men: “That which is most agreeable in this world, O ye mortals, is mingled with sorrow; nothing here is pure; regret is always at the side of mirth; widowhood at that of marriage; care at that of maturity; and ignominy at that of glory; expense follows honour; loathing comes after delight, and sickness after health. The rose is a beautiful flower,” said this holy man, “yet it makes me sorrowful, putting me in mind of sin, on account of which the earth has been condemned to bring forth thorns.”

A devout soul, standing over a brook on a very clear night, and seeing the heavens and stars reflected therein, exclaimed: “O my God, these very stars which I now behold shall be one day beneath my feet, when Thou shalt have received me into thy celestial tabernacles; and as the stars of heaven are thus represented on earth, even so are the men of this earth represented in heaven in the living fountain of divine charity.”

Another, seeing a river flow swiftly along, cried out: “My soul shall never be at rest till she is swallowed up in the sea of the divinity, her original source.”

St. Francisca, contemplating a pleasant brook, upon the bank of which she was kneeling at her prayers, being in an ecstasy, often repeated these words: “The grace of my God flows thus gently and sweetly, like this little stream.”

Another, looking on the tree in bloom, sighed and said: “Ah! why am I alone without blossom in the garden of the Church?”

Another, seeing little chickens gathered together under a hen, said: “Preserve us, O Lord, continually, under the shadow of thy wings.”

Another, looking upon the flower called heliotrope, which turns to the sun, exclaimed: “When shall the time come, O my God, that my soul shall faithfully follow the attractions of thy goodness?”

And seeing the flowers called pansies, fair to the eye, but having no smell: “Ah,” said he, “such are my thoughts, fair in appearance, but good for nothing.”

Behold, Philothea, how we may extract good thoughts and holy aspirations from everything that presents itself amidst the variety of this mortal life.

Unhappy they who use creatures differently from what their Creator intended, and make them the instruments of sin; and thrice happy they that turn creatures to the glory of their Creator, and employ them to the honour of his Sovereign Majesty; as St. Gregory Nazianzen says: “I am wont to refer all things to my spiritual profit.”

Read the devout epitaph composed by St. Jerome for St. Paula; how agreeable to behold it sprinkled all over with those aspirations and holy thoughts which he was wont to draw from all sorts of occurrences.

Now, as the great work of devotion consists in the exercise of spiritual recollection and ejaculatory prayers, the want of all other prayers may be supplied by them: but failing in them, the loss can scarcely be made good by any other means. Without them we cannot lead a good active life, much less a contemplative one. Then repose would be but idleness, and labour vexation. Wherefore I conjure you to embrace it with your whole heart, without ever desisting from its practice.

The editor of would like to add a recommendation to read (or listen to) the Bible, especially the New Testament, regularly. This will furnish us with plenty of material for our prayers when we don’t have the words (Romans 8:26).

For example, in times of distress, we may recall the words of the letter to the Hebrews, “For he has said: I will never fail you, nor forsake you; hence we can confidently say: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?”

Or when we notice our activities to be unprofitable to our salvation, we might remember St. Peter saying, “since all these things are to be burned up, therefore, what kind of lives ought you to be living in holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

Or when we notice how ungrateful to God we have been for our gifts, we can recall the words of Our Lord, who said “the ten were cleansed, where are the nine? Has only this foreigner returned?” And we can make his return our own, giving thanks to God for all his benefits, especially for being “kind to the ungrateful and selfish” as we consider ourselves to have been.

Or when we think that our punishment is too great to bear, we may remember that “the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives; it is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons!”

Or when we are tempted, and are surrounded on all sides by our spiritual enemies, we may recall that “with the temptation, he will give the way of escape,” and know that Jesus says to us just as to St. Paul: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

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