This and other postings in this series are taken from a day of recollection I did for the Daughters of St. Francis de Sales in 2016
As I wrote in an earlier posting, at times when Francis writes about affective and effective love he seems to be repeating what he said about complacent and benevolent love. At times, the two sets seem very similar. The difference, at least as I see it, is that the relationship of complacent and benevolent love I more dynamic than that of affective and effective love. As I said this morning, that we first love God with the love of complacence and that love leads us to the love of benevolence. It’s not a once and for all experience, to be sure; it is more of a cycle: Complacence leads to benevolence which leads to deeper complacence which in turn leads to deeper benevolence and so on. Francis sees that occurring most perfectly in the eternal happiness of heaven, but that ongoing dynamic relationship is found in our human experience of love as well. When we look at love as affective and effective, the relationship tends to be complementary, rather than progressive. Affective love can lead to effective love, but it is also possible to experience affective love – or at least what passes for affective love – without effective love following. And it is certainly possible to exercise effective love even though affective love is not experienced. So let’s look at what we mean by affective and effective love.
Affective love takes its name from the word “affection”. However, like the word complacence, “affection” in the way Francis uses it is very different from our contemporary English meaning. When we think of affection, we think of a warm kind of love. “A fond or tender feeling toward another” is the way the dictionary defines it. It can be the love between good friends, hopefully the love between parents and children, husbands and wives. While this type of love is not excluded from the term “affection” as Francis uses it, it is not the primary meaning.
For Francis, as for many classically trained philosophers and theologians, what we know by means of the intellect generates affections that move the will to act. Affections are similar to, but stronger than emotions. Like emotions, they are drives, but drives that we rational creatures experience, based on what we know. For example, we may know what having a large amount of money might mean for us and our families. Our affections, based on that knowledge could lead us to work hard in our career, buy stacks of Powerball tickets, or rob a bank. They can lead us to do something wonderful, to do something silly and irrational, or to do something obviously sinful. So you see, affections can be good or bad, depending on the direction in which they move us.
When Francis writes about the affective love of God, he is speaking about the love that generates the affections that in turn will prompt us to do things that are pleasing to God. Deciding to do what pleases God is what we call effective love and which we will discuss in the next post.
For Francis de Sales, affective love is experienced primarily in prayer. In prayer we experience the goodness of God and our love for God in a way that generates our affections towards God and his people. I suspect that understanding of prayer might sound strange to many of our contemporaries. Too often we think of prayer simply in terms of a duty, something we are supposed to do, a duty that if we don’t fulfil, becomes a sin. An obvious example of this attitude is the way too many Catholics view Sunday Mass. It is pretty clear to me, especially in many confessions I have heard over the years, that many people simply view Sunday Mass as something they “gotta do” as Catholics. When they don’t fulfill that duty, many confess it more out of guilt than regret for an opportunity missed. Similarly the practice that some Catholics have of regularly coming to Mass late and/or leaving right after communion suggests an attitude of doing what of what one has to do to meet an obligation. There does not seem to be much awareness of the beauty of entering into the mystery of the Eucharist.
Now, when he wrote the Treatise, Francis was presuming that he was writing to people who have moved beyond minimalist, duty-driven religion. He presumes that Theotimus is serious about growing in the love of God. And Francis sees prayer as a prime occasion of that growth. Francis had already treated several forms of prayer in the Introduction to the Devout Life and he presumes that Theotimus is familiar with them. In the Treatise he examines prayer in greater detail and specifically in the context of the affective love of God.
Prayer can be vocal, liturgical or mental. Writing as he was centuries before the liturgical renewal, Francis does not spend much time treating liturgical prayer in the Treatise. Even in the Introduction when he writes about “hearing” Mass, he does so as a kind of subset of meditation. In the ecclesial environment of the day, that seemed to be the best way for Philothea to actively participate in a liturgy that had almost no formal participation for the lay congregation. Today, in light of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, we look to the Mass as both the source and summit of the Christian life. And our full, active and conscious participation is clearly an act of affective love. Whether it be our participation in the Mass or in the Liturgy of the Hours.
We are all familiar with vocal prayer, the prayers that most of us learned as children. The advantage of prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Act of Contrition, or of more specialized prayers such as we find in prayer books or devotions is that good and holy words, thoughts and images are provided for us. We don’t have to search for them, and when we are tired, that can be very handy. They also lend themselves to prayer in common; everyone knows what to say. The obvious disadvantage of these prayers is that they can easily become routine. We can parrot them, saying the words without reflecting – at all – on what those words mean. It’s an easy trap to fall into. If we want these prayers to mean something, we need to take time – at least from time to time – to read or say the words slowly and reflectively, listening to what they mean and speaking them from our hearts.
The story is told of St. Teresa of Avila who was hauled in front of the Spanish Inquisition because she had dared to teach her Carmelite sisters how to meditate. The fathers of the inquisition knew that they couldn’t control what happens in meditation and were very nervous about women, even nuns, having that much freedom in their prayer life. Being an obedient religious, Teresa agreed to follow what the good fathers of the Inquisition were telling her to do. Instead of teaching the sisters how to meditate, she taught them how to pray the Our Father. Her teaching is one of the most profound pieces of spiritual writing the church has ever seen. I suspect none of us has the insights of this doctor of the church. But if we take the time to pray the Our Father — or any other prayer with which we are familiar – attentively and fervently, I think we will be astonished how it deepens the love we feel for God. And the chances are good that the next time we say that prayer, it will be with a deeper, more intentional devotion.
There is one vocal prayer that deserves special mention: the rosary. If you are able to attend to the words of all 6 Our Fathers, all 53 Hail Mary’s and all 6 Glory Be’s, praise God; that is a wonderful gift. I know I can’t — at least I haven’t be able to do so thus far. But I read an explanation many years ago that I have found to be very helpful. It was in a book by Gustave Weigel, a Jesuit theologian. He suggested that the rosary is actually a form of meditation. What he said is most important when we pray the rosary are not the Our Fathers and the Hail Maries, but the joyful, sorrowful, glorious (and now luminous) mysteries. The decade of an Our Father and 10 Hail Mary’s is basically a timing device. The point is to meditate on a mystery – for example the visitation or the crowning of thorns – for the length of time that it takes us to say one Our Father and 10 Hail Mary’s. Passing the beads through our fingers is an easy, physical – non-mental — way of keeping track of how many prayers we have said while reflecting on the mystery; we don’t have to keep count; we know that when we come to the end of the decade, it is time to move on to the next mystery. And the fact that we are repeating those vocal prayers while we meditate creates an environment that encourages the deeper prayer that the mysteries suggest, and the rosary is experienced as an act of affective love.
This consideration of the rosary makes a convenient transition from vocal to mental or interior prayer. It soon becomes clear to anyone reading the Introduction to the Devout Life that Francis places a high value on mental prayer. In light of our consideration of affective love, it is easy to understand why. When we engage in mental prayer, we turn our mind more deliberately to God. We gaze, as it were, upon God. That gaze upon God is the way we experience and encourage our affective love for him to grow.
Francis is often associated with the form of mental prayer known as meditation. In the first part of the Introduction to the Devout Life, he leads the reader, whom he names Philothea, through a series of meditations that are designed to heighten her affective love to a point where she is able to make a heartfelt protestation of her love for God. And when he treats of the topic of prayer in Part 2, he devotes 8 chapters to describing a method of meditation for Philothea to follow. Little surprise then that many people, especially those with a superficial knowledge of Salesian spirituality, typically associate Francis solely with this method of prayer. And surprising as it may be to us, Francis has been criticized for excessively promoting meditation or, as it is sometimes called, discursive prayer. There are several authors who have blamed Francis de Sales for a tendency in Western Catholicism to focus exclusively on an intellectual approach to prayer at the expense of a more contemplative, heartfelt expression.
It is true that in describing meditation, Francis, follows the insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola and invites his reader to use her imagination to picture an event from the gospels and then to reflect upon the event in order to generate affections. It is also true that the Introduction to the Devout Life was used in many seminaries and religious houses of formation to introduce men and women to mental prayer. Because of that it has played a significant role in establishing a style of spirituality in the Western church. However, those who criticize Francis on this account miss several significant factors. First, and perhaps most significant, as the name suggests, the Introduction to the Devout Life is not the sum total of Francis’ spirituality. It is a book for beginners, someone who wants to learn how to be devout. A person in that situation needs to be brought along gradually and directed, step by step in the process. This is what Francis set out to do in the Introduction. And so, in treating of mental prayer, he teaches meditation, which has a definite structure.
Secondly, even in the Introduction, Francis deals with other prayer forms. Chief among them are the brief mental retreats and spontaneous prayers and ejaculations that Philothea can make during the day. Since they are spontaneous, these come from the heart more than from the mind. Of them Francis writes:
“Since the great work of devotion consists in such use of spiritual recollection and ejaculatory prayers, it can supply the lack of all other prayers, but its loss can hardly be repaired by other means. Without this exercise we cannot properly lead the contemplative life, and we can but poorly ead the active life. Without it rest is mere idleness and labor is drudgery. Hence I exhort you to take up this practice with all your heart and never give it up.”
Finally, to get a complete view of his approach to mental prayer, we need to read what he has written about the topic in the Treatise. Although he acknowledges the importance of meditation, he goes on to compare it to contemplation. In doing so he uses a delightful image: Meditation is like eating a hearty meal. It is nourishing, but we have to spend time and energy chewing. Contemplation is like a refreshing drink of cool water or, as he later suggests, like sipping a fine liqueur.
So what exactly do we mean by contemplation? Francis describes it as “the mind’s loving, unmixed, permanent attention to the things of God.” It is not thinking about god, but more a case of being aware that we are in God’s presence and resting and rejoicing in that presence. It is an awareness of how real God is, how much God loves us, and then glorying in the fact. As such, contemplation does not require words. As St. John Vianney put it, “I look at God and God looks at me.”
Now although Francis does not make a clear distinction, there are two very different forms of contemplation: active and infused. In active contemplation, we take steps to put ourselves into a contemplative state. There are a number of techniques for doing this. One very simple but very effective way is to kneel in front of the blessed sacrament, whether it is in the tabernacle or exposed in a monstrance. Our faith in the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist makes it easier for us to be open to His presence and remain in it.
Another technique that has become very popular in recent years is lectio divina. The words mean a divine/sacred reading; it is a practice that originated with the early Benedictine monks centuries ago. It consists of reading and re-reading a passage from scripture until we own it – or more accurately, until it owns us. Our hearts are formed by the Word of God as we become aware of God’s presence in that word.
A beautiful variation of lectio divina is Taize prayer. Taize is an ecumenical monastic community in France that attracts pilgrims from all over Europe and the larger world. The method of prayer that originated at Taize is usually practiced with a group of people who listen to scripture readings and sing hymns that consist of refrains taken from scripture and which are repeated a number of times. You may be familiar with some of these hymns; “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” is often sung during holy week. Again, as in lectio divina, the power of Taize prayer lies in the repetition of God’s word, in this case set to repetitive music. Once again we move beyond thought to resting in God’s presence and loving him with affective love.
Another contemporary contemplative prayer practice is centering prayer. This form of prayer, which comes from the Trappist tradition, involves emptying the mind of conscious thought as much as possible, focusing on the presence of God’s spirit within us, and by repeating a word or phrase,doing our best to block conscious thoughts from invading our consciousness so we can focus on and love the spirit of God within us.
Finally, charismatic prayer can move us from discursive thought to exulting in the presence of the holy spirit in the individual and other members of the community.
The other type of contemplative prayer is called infused contemplation. We have little or no control over this type of prayer. It is a much more direct experience of God. Often those who experience it lose sense of the world around them. They are completely focused on the overwhelming reality of God who has presented himself to them. We don’t initiate infused contemplation; it just happens. Certainly those who practice other forms of prayer are more likely to experience infused contemplation than those who are less serious about their prayer life, but there is no direct correspondence between infused contemplation and other prayer practices. It can happen that someone whose prayer life is rather shallow is suddenly overwhelmed with the presence of God. And there are others who pray faithfully all their lives and never have an experience of infused contemplation. We don’t know why some people experience infused contemplation and others don’t. We simply trust that it is part of the loving providence of God
It is in the context of infused contemplation that Francis discusses ecstasies. Ecstasies and similar mystical experiences and states were a big deal in the 17th century and Francis has a very interesting – and informative – take on it. The first ecstasy that he describes is intellectual. It is the experience of being taken out of ourselves as we contemplate a truth or fact of reality. Obviously, as such, intellectual ecstasy need not be religious at all. I remember a number of years ago, I was fooling around with some data base programming; it was not uncommon that I would get so caught up in what I was doing that I lost all sense of time. I would hardly call that prayer. Even when the object being considered is a religious truth, this type of ecstasy may not be prayer at all. The criteria would be whether it generates affections of love for God. If not it can be mistaken for prayer and thus be very dangerous.
The second ecstasy that Francis describes is ecstasy of the emotions. I remember going to a production of Swan Lake many years ago. I don’t think I breathed throughout the second act, it was so beautiful. Ecstasy of the emotions, especially when focused on a religious reality can be very powerful, very wonderful, but again it can be very dangerous. Unless it generates authentic affections of love for God, it can be mistaken for love, when in fact it is simply an emotional high. You might remember in the early days of the drug revolution, there were those who mistook their drug-induced euphoria for prayer.
In Francis mind, the only significant ecstasy is the third, the ecstasy of work and life. This is when our love of God is so strong that it impels us lose ourselves in doing God’s will. This is an ecstasy of the will. Francis says that if ecstasy of the intellect, and ecstasy of the emotions are authentic, they will lead to this ecstasy. And if they do not culminate in this third ecstasy, they are highly suspect. He also says that there are a great many saints who have never experienced either ecstasy of the intellect or ecstasy of the emotions, but all have, by definition, experienced ecstasy of the will. He tells us, “They live not only a civilized, virtuous, Christian life, but a superhuman, spiritual, devout, ecstatic life, that is a life that is in every way beyond and above our natural condition.” And he goes on, “Many are the saints in heaven who were never in ecstasy or rapturous contemplation. How many martyrs and great saints, both men and women, appear in history who had no other privilege but that of devotion and fervor. There was never a saint who did not have ecstasy and rapture of life and operation by overcoming himself and his natural inclinations.”
The distinction Francis makes between the various states of ecstasy points us to our final face of love, effective love, which we will consider in the final posting of this series.
Fr. Donald Heet, OSFS