PRAYER: Difficulty in Prayer, a letter from Francis de Sales

Letter to Mademoiselle de Soulfour

Mlle de Soulfour, whose father was an acquaintance of Francis de Sales through the “Cercle Acarie,” was a novice in a religious community in Paris at the time Francis wrote her the following letter.  Young, fervent, with high ideals of perfection, she had difficulty in accepting human frailty in herself and in the nuns with whom she lived.  She had confided her disillusionment and uncertainties to Francis and told him of her wish to enter the more strict Carmelite Order. While respecting her youthful idealism and her desire for the absolute, Francis directs the troubled young woman to a more realistic appreciation of her own limitations and the imperfections of others, and to greater trust in God’s providence.  She did enter the Carmelite monastery at the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris and persevered in her vocation until her death in 1633.

[1605 – 1608]

Mademoiselle,

Recently I received a letter from you which is very precious to me because it shows that you have confidence in my affection which certainly and without a doubt is all yours.  My only regret is that I hardly know how to answer what you ask me concerning the difficulty you are having in prayer.  Also, I know that you are in a place and among people where you lack nothing on this subject; but charity, which delights in mutual exchanges, prompts you to seek my opinion, just as you are sharing yours with me.  So I shall say a little something to you.

The uneasiness that you experience at prayer, together with your anxiety to find a subject that can captivate and satisfy your mind, is in itself enough to prevent you from finding what you seek.  When we are too intent in our search for something, we can look at it a hundred times without seeing it.

Such useless anxiety can only result in weariness of mind which in turn produces this coldness and numbness in your soul.  I don’t know what remedies you should apply, but I do think you would gain a great deal if you could keep from being so anxious, for that is one of the greatest obstacles to devotion and real virtue.  It pretends to incite us to good, but all it does is cool our ardor; it makes us run, only to have us stumble.  That’s why we have to be on guard against it at all times, especially during prayer.

And to help you be vigilant in this, remind yourself that the graces and benefits of prayer are not like water welling up from the Earth, but more like water coming down from Heaven; therefore all our efforts cannot produce them, though it is true that we must ready ourselves to receive them with great care, yet humbly and peacefully.  We must keep our hearts open and wait for the heavenly dew to fall.  Never forget to carry this thought with you to prayer: in prayer we approach God and place ourselves in His presence for two reasons.

The first is to render to God the honor and praise we owe Him, and this can be done without His speaking to us or our speaking to Him.  We can fulfill this duty by acknowledging that He is our God and we, His lowly creatures, and by remaining before Him, prostrate in spirit, awaiting His orders.  How many courtiers there are who go into the presence of the king over and over again, not to speak to him or listen to him speak, but just to be seen by him and to indicate by their regular appearance that they are his servants!  This aim we have in presenting ourselves before God simply to demonstrate and prove our willingness and gratitude to be in His service is excellent, very holy and very pure, and, therefore, a mark of great perfection.

The second reason why we present ourselves before God is to speak to Him and to hear Him speak to us through inspirations and the inner stirrings of our heart.  Ordinarily, we take great delight in doing this because it is very beneficial for us to speak to such a great Lord; and when He answers us, He pours out much balm, and precious ointment, and in this way fills our soul with tremendous consolation.

So, Mademoiselle, my dear daughter (since this is how you want me to address you), one or other of these two benefits can never be absent from your prayer. If we are able to speak to our Lord, let us do so; let us praise Him, pray to Him, listen to Him.  If we are unable to speak because our voice fails us, let us, nevertheless, stay in the hall of the King and bow down before Him; He will see us there, will graciously accept our patience, and look with favor on our silence.  Another time we will be very surprised when He takes us by the hand, chats with us, and walks with us up and down in His garden of prayer; and even if He never does this, let us be satisfied that it is our duty to be in His entourage and that it is a great grace and a still greater honor that He allows us to be in His presence.  In this way, we won’t be overeager to speak to Him because this other manner of being near Him is no less useful to us and, in fact, may be more so, although not so much to our taste.

So when you come before the Lord, talk to Him if you can; if you can’t, just stay there, let yourself be seen, and don’t try too hard to do anything else.  This is my advice.  I don’t know if it will work, but I’m not worried about that, for, as I’ve told you, you are in a place where much better advice than mine is available to you.

As for your fear that your father may cause you to lose you desire to be a Carmelite because he insists on your waiting so long before carrying out your wish, say to God: “O Lord, all my desire is before You,” and let Him do as He wills.  He will manage your father’s heart and will shape it to His glory and your profit.  Meanwhile, nurture your good desire and keep it alive beneath the ashes of humility and resignation to God’s will.

You have my prayers, as you ask, for I could not forget you, especially at holy Mass.  I trust that in your charity you do not forget me in your prayers either.

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