Faith Matters

Fr Paddy Delargy: Prayer makes a difference

In the first of an occasional series on prayer, Fr Paddy Delargy draws on insights from St Jane de Chantal and St Francis de Sales and explores how a prayerful life keeps us close to God

Fr Paddy Delargy

In this 18th century painting by Noël Hallé, St Francis de Sales is shown giving St Jane de Chantal the rule of the Visitation Order

We are to be the best we can be; a living prayer.

That is God's will.

Make a choice to empty yourself to be filled with God's love.

Follow Jesus more closely and learn from him to pray

from the heart.

God's love links all you do and pray and suffer.

FOR the saints Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales, prayer and daily life were intertwined inseparably so that their prayer influenced their life and daily living became a prayer.

Francis de Sales became the best he could be.

The son of an aristocratic family, he prepared for a distinguished career with a broad-minded education. His mind was further enlightened by studying Scripture on his own initiative.

He was taught by optimistic professors that a longing for beauty and love lies deep in the human heart.

He himself had an optimistic view of human beings, the created world and the human arts. He was a sportsman, a socialite and a talented speaker.

In his view all that is beautiful, harmonious, good, and graceful in the world participates in God, the greatest good.

He lived 400 years ago when Christian Europe experienced violence and religious intolerance.

De Sales dedicated himself to restoring peace to a war-torn Christian family and to building up a wide community of devout souls who would live out the life of Christian perfection in all their vocations.

He strove to be the best he could be. What was the result?

Francis de Sales, the well-educated aristocrat, became a missionary, then an energetic bishop, spiritual director, writer, preacher, correspondent with persons in all walks of life, reformer, advocate of lay devotion, preacher to the royal court and a devoted servant of God's will.

In all his writing Francis affirmed the innate dignity of the person created in the image and likeness of God.

From childhood Francis had enjoyed a radiant sense of loving and being loved by God and chose to follow Christ in the Church.

In Paris from 1586-87 Francis underwent a great spiritual crisis. Suddenly as an adolescent he experienced a devastating fear of separation from God.

It has been suggested that his anguish arose from discovering a weakness that upset his morally disciplined life.

This sudden recognition of human limitation may have fanned the fires of his doubt. What was he to do?

In response, Francis turned to prayer and abandoned himself unconditionally to the mercy of God.

More aware of his own inability to attain salvation he turned directly to Jesus, Church teaching and gospel teaching and discovered once again the unconditional love of God who creates, sustains, and desires to redeem all humankind.

Everyone is free to choose - or not to choose - to respond to God's love. God foresees our future and takes into consideration our efforts to cooperate with divine grace and to merit salvation.

He happily relied on God's mercy which is ultimately greater than the choices the human person may make.

He wrote: "The reason persons are in the world is to receive and carry the gentle Jesus on our tongue by proclaiming Him; in our arms by doing good works, on our shoulders by supporting the yoke of dryness and sterility."

Jane de Chantal also strove to become the best she could.

Jane Frances Fremyot, Baroness de Chantal, the daughter of a Dijon lawyer was a devoted wife and mother.

After the death of her beloved husband she became administrator of the family property, knowledgeable in financial, practical and legal affairs.

In March of 1604 Jane met Bishop Francis de Sales and they became close friends, sharing their inner life and their mutual quest for spiritual perfection.

With his support she chose to dedicate herself to the religious life, but only after completing her duties to her family.

In 1610 they co-founded the Visitation of Holy Mary in Annecy in Savoy, a congregation for women who felt drawn to a life of religious commitment.

It was a house founded for women and informed by a woman to enable women to achieve intimacy with Christ.

During the years that followed Jane de Chantal became superior of over 80 communities.

She became a masterful director of souls drawing on her experience of motherhood to guide her 'new children'.

Superiors were enjoined to be true mothers, attentive to nurturing those in their care in simplicity, gentleness and humility.

Her thoughts and advice on things of the spirit were down to earth, inspired by common sense including giving practical advice to her own natural daughter about marriage and family life.

St Francis and St Jane found true love by being close to God in Christ.

After years of co-operation they saw the publication of the Treatise on the Love of God.

God from all eternity desires to be in intimate communion with his creation.

God reaches into the heart of creation and offers it redemption through the loving sacrifice of the Son and gives to each creature sufficient grace to participate freely in his or her own salvation.

Jesus does not simply knock once. He continues to knock. He is rich in mercy and so he desires that all should be saved and none perish.

God touches each individual with grace. It is up to each person to respond. All were called - clerics, vowed religious, lay persons, men and women in all walks and states of life. The human person, made in the divine likeness and image is called to realise his or her fullest capacity for love of God.

The greatest insight of Francis and Jane is that one is closest to God by being close to the heart of Jesus.

The word 'heart' had a special meaning; it is the vital core of the entire personality drawing in God's goodness and life and breathing forth his praise.

In a truly prayerful life, heart speaks to heart and makes Jesus live. On the cross, the heart of Christ is on fire in loving surrender to his Father's will. The proper place for our devotion is kneeling at the foot of the cross.

Everyone has a choice: either to love in a selfish way for the self-satisfaction that love brings - which is not totally bad, but childish; or to love with a pure love, a love that is modelled on the unconditional love given to humankind by God in Jesus Christ.

It is wise to pray to choose well. Jesus is interested in what goes on between persons, in their relationships.

You do not find God apart from the persons around you but precisely through and with those persons. Francis and Jane's own relationship is a case in point.

He supported her desire to give herself utterly to God. But he also said that the situation in which she found herself - her widowhood, her family responsibilities - was, for the time being, the place in which she was called to love and know God.

There could be no undue yearning ahead of herself, no serious anxiety about not being somewhere else. You find God's gracious will in ordinary life (Matthew 11:26).

We should pray to persevere and to forgive. We are created with the desire for good and with an inner dynamic of love that helps us to do God's divine will.

But human nature is also wounded. To recover the ability to love purely is the essential task of human life.

Bishop Francis was famous for his generosity with time and advice. He found freedom to drop everything else to lead people closer to Jesus.

He could see God in all things. Nothing was to stand in the way of his love for God. Human persons are not to be possessed or used, but loved in such a way that they were freed to be fully themselves in God.

Though they shared many approaches of prayer, there were differences between the methods of St Frances and St Jane.

They believed that Jesus teaches us how to live and to pray. Begin prayer with faith, remain there in hope and go out by charity.

They both prayed for others with compassion.

Both saints asked for nothing except that God's will be accomplished whatever the personal outcome.

Jane was less optimistic than Francis about human nature due to her own inner tribulations, her difficulties with her headstrong son and her worldly daughter.

She seems to have had a gift for identifying with others' sufferings spending her energies in service to the poor and ill.

She prayed by silent adoration. She was drawn by God to a contemplative type of prayer which she referred to as the prayer of simple attentiveness - simply the presence of our spirit before God's Spirit and God's Spirit before ours - whether or not we have fine thoughts or feelings.

She often had a sense of darkness and of a distance from God, while to others her devotion was radiantly obvious.

Virtually all accounts depict her as the energetic, thoughtful, discerning mother superior, who was gentle, patient and absorbed in prayer.

Francis believed in praying out loud, in reading a bible passage and reflecting on it, making a good resolution and thanking God for the privilege.

Prayer is about integrating religious practices and aspirations with daily duties and responsibilities.

He believed that the living Jesus has as many and as varied faces and dwelling places as there are human hearts open to his presence.

Ordinary life and prayer are inter-linked - the love of God has two arms, prayer and loving actions to our neighbour.

Pray with the Church; pray for the Church. Pray to know and follow God's will firstly through what God says, directs, and inspires in Scripture, Church teaching, devotional literature, private and communal prayer, spiritual direction.

Pray for the guidance to make life choices, relying on your powers of judgment and movements of heart to detect what God's will might be and so work with God.

Make ordinary life a prayer. God's will is done where you find yourself, often when you cannot change the ways things are.

God's will is to be especially found in awkward situations or events that might seem to thwart the good person.

Patience, tolerance and accepting what is beyond your control is a mark of Christian character. You know how it should be, yet you accept the way it is, not being otherworldly nor fatalistic.

Where could we give better witness to our fidelity than in the midst of the ups and downs of life where God has planted you? You can bring compassion and competence into your work.

Francis de Sales's favourite biblical quotation was: "Come to me all you who labour... and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart."

Jesus now lives among people when we find gentleness, humility and simplicity.

We are to live in gentleness; gentleness means practising charity toward an unlikeable neighbour or curbing the immoderate impulses of one's own heart.

It is the light burden offered by Jesus to those otherwise heavy-laden.

We pray to be gentle, we pray when we are gentle.

He modelled gentleness personally during the strife of religious and political warfare, by prayer and fasting, by peacemaking in public quarrels, by his own personal struggle to transform anger into the peace of Christ.

We are to live in humility; humility is recognising human dependence upon God, the limitations of the individual person and society, and the danger of illusory human pride that strives to be like God.

Freedom is not a state of God-like omnipotence, a we-can-do-it-by-ourselves attitude. Freedom is choosing to love.

We pray to be humble; we pray when we are humble.

We are to live in simplicity; simplicity is keeping your focus on God regularly day by day.

Feminist theologians say that women habitually tend to see themselves through the eyes of others, to become obsessed with maintaining attractive inner or outer features.

Jane, a highly introspective personality, counselled her own spiritual daughters not to think about or talk about self too much and to avoid excessive self-consciousness.

We pray about ordinary things; we pray by turning to God always.

Francis had a gentle demeanour and a graceful way with words; Jane gave motherly guidance in an atmosphere of mutual charity; they united Christian living and prayer.

Their message to us is:

'Be the best you can be in the place God has called you.

Choose to forget yourself and trust in God's word.

Follow Jesus as you learn to pray from the heart.

Pray in the world and pray for the world.'

Fr Paddy Delargy is Parish Priest of Kirkinriola, the Catholic parish of Ballymena. His latest book is An Invitation to be Where Love is - A Journey in Faith in the Company of St Francis de Sales, published by Shanway Press

Fr Paddy Delargy

An Invitation to be Where Love is - A Journey in Faith in the Company of St Francis de Sales, by Fr Paddy Delargy, published by Shanway Press

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