St. Francis of Sales, in his introduction to the Devout Life, greatly extols the practice of holy aspirations, interior recollections, and good thoughts; and says that we are powerfully assisted by them to commence, to advance, and to complete the work of our perfection.
Aspirations are certain dartings of the spirit towards God, and the more ardent they are the better. This kind of prayer was most familiar to the Saints, who found in it the sweetest pleasure and delight. As the lovers of worldly vanities are continually thinking of and sighing after the wretched objects of their love, so those fervent lovers of God felt a continual attraction towards their most beloved and sovereign Lord, and made it their constant practice to think of them, and aspire after them with great fervour and effusion of heart.
It is related of St. Francis of Assisium that he would pass whole nights, repeating over and over again, with the warmest feeling and most ardent love, those sublime words, 'My God and my all! my God and my all!' The great St. Augustine would often say, 'Let me rather die, 0 Lord, than sin again.' Of St. Ignatius we read that, whenever the clock struck, he raised his heart to God, and would say, 'Give me, O Lord, Thy love with Thy grace,' or, 'To Thy greatest glory, O Lord,' or some other like aspiration. We read the same of St. Vincent of Paul, who, at each sound of the hour, bowed his head and pronounced some pious ejaculation. St. Thomas of Aquin practised the same kind of prayer when he was at his meals, and when studying, or passing to and from his cell, and in all the spare moments of his time. The blessed Leonard was accustomed to repeat, with the deepest feeling, those words, 'My Jesus, mercy!' Cassian relates of the monks of Egypt, that they very frequently made use of ejaculatory prayers, full of humility and confidence, and would often say, 'O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.'
Interior recollections are glances of the soul to God, and properly consist in building up, in the recesses of our own hearts, that sacred interior cell which is so highly praised by the Saints, as being wonderfully calculated to help us to advance in perfection. 'Disengage thyself awhile,' says St. Augustine, 'from every earthly care, and give thyself for a time to think of God, and to repose a little in Him. Enter into the closet of thy heart, and banish thence all things else except thy God, or what may aid thee in finding Him. Then, having closed the door, say to Him, with all the affection of thy soul, O Lord, behold I am in quest of thy lovely countenance, teach thy poor servant how to find it.' St. Francis of Sales used to call the centre of his soul the sanctuary of God; this was the place to which he so frequently retired in the midst of his exterior occupations. And hence he gained the great purity, simplicity, humility, and perfect union with God, which reigned there. The practice of these sacred retreats is most necessary to the interior life i and no man will ever become truly spiritual unless he is well exercised in them. They are the particular means by which the Christian attains to that solid interior beauty, which, dwelling in the centre of the soul, makes it so pleasing to God, who is the searcher of the hearts. Omnis decor ejus ab inlus. Those persons who, from the circumstance of their station, or from some other reasons, are generally engaged in exterior duties, should strive to imitate St. Catherine of Sienna, who, being prevented from regular prayer by being employed in all the domestic offices of the family, formed a cell in her own heart, into which she constantly retired amidst her most distracting occupations, to contemplate God, and to hold familiar intercourse with Him; and she thus maintained a firm and constant union with her heavenly Spouse, and used to say that the hearts of men are the true kingdom of God, and that there He fixes His seat. Oh, what rapid advances have those souls made in Divine love, who have formed for themselves such cells, and frequently retired into them to adore God and converse with Him affectionately and lovingly !' Those,' says St. Teresa, 'who can enclose within the little paradise of the soul Him who created heaven and earth, may well believe that they are in a good road, and that they shall not fail to arrive at length at the fountain of life, because they will make a great progress in a short time.'
The practice of good thoughts consists in deriving matter for pious reflections from the various objects which present themselves before our attention, and from the several events which accompany our life. Thus St. Fulgentius, on beholding the glory and splendour of the nobility of ancient Rome, exclaimed, 'Oh, how glorious must be the heavenly Jerusalem, if terrestrial Rome is so splendid!' St. Francis of Assisium seeing a lamb, would burst into tears, thinking of the immaculate Lamb of God, who was slain for our sake. Some, in viewing a garden, have compared it to the soul of a just man, which is adorned with the beautiful flowers of virtue; and others, whilst regarding a river, would say, 'So is the life of man, who is continually advancing towards the ocean of eternity.' When lying down to rest, some dwelt in thought on the hour when they shall be laid motionless on the bed of death; and when rising and putting on their clothes, others would remember their blessed Saviour, who was most cruelly stript of His clothes, and fastened naked to an ignominious cross.
Be careful, devout soul, to habituate yourself to the practice of these pious exercises, which will greatly assist you to increase the fervour of piety, and to advance in the interior life. It is hardly possible to conceive the wonderful power which these kinds of prayer possess to assist us in the performance of our duty, to support us under temptations, to raise us when we have fallen, and to unite us closely to God; and as we can make them at all times, in all places, and with the greatest facility, they ought to be as frequent to us as to breathe. When engaged in external duties we should imitate our blessed Lady, who, during the performance of her domestic concerns, never forgot her beloved Jesus; and whilst her hands were employed in external works, she would often cast a glance upon her dear Son, whilst her heart was continually glowing with love towards Him.