The Direction of Intention
Rev. Edward Ogden, OSFS
Story: The Starfish Thrower
An old man was walking along a beach after a big storm. Fifty yards ahead of him was a young woman. She was picking up starfish that the storm had stranded on the beach, and was throwing them back into the sea. When the old man caught up with her, he asked her what she was doing. She replied that the starfish would die unless they were returned to the sea before the sun began beating down on them.
The old man said, “But the beach goes on for miles and miles, and there are thousands of stranded starfish. How can your small effort make a difference?” Picking up a starfish and holding it lovingly in her hands, she said, “It makes a big difference to this one.” And with that, she returned it to the sea.
The spirit of that young woman is the kind of spirit St. Francis de Sales invites us to strive to imitate and he provides us with the means to achieve it, namely, the direction of intention. When we feel that we cannot make a difference in the work to be done, with our friends, or in overcoming temptation, De Sales tells us that by calling to mind God’s presence before all our actions can transform ordinary actions into sacred acts.
The Direction of Intention in the Writings of Francis de Sales
Our human nature is unique in that we alone have the ability to interiorize our life: we remember, we ponder, we reflect, we decide. As such, progress on the spiritual journey is first and foremost a matter of intentionality. How and why we do things is important.
Because the spiritual journey is a matter of traveling away from self-love and toward divine love, Francis counsels us to practice the Direction of Intention. Thus brief, prayerful consideration focuses our attention on the presence of God in all things and channels our intentions with great psychological effectiveness. It reminds us that what we do is of only relative importance because God alone is ultimate. It projects our desire for spiritual growth away from our own self-sufficiency and brings our action into the realm of God’s grace. And, in the end, it transforms our desire for self-gratification into a willing acceptance of God’s own good pleasure. In this way, we are able to make holy all that we say and do (from Praying with Francis de Sales by Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS).
In the Spirituality Directory of St. Francis de Sales, he writes:
They who wish to thrive and advance in the way of our Lord should, at the beginning of their actions, both exterior and interior, ask for his grace and offer to his divine Goodness all the good they will do. In this way, they will be prepared to bear with peace and serenity all the pain and suffering they will encounter as coming from the fatherly hand of our good God and savior. His most holy intention is to have them merit by such means in order to reward them afterward out of the abundance of his love.
They should not neglect this practice in matters, which are small and seemingly insignificant, nor even if they are engaged in those things, which are agreeable, and in complete conformity with their own will and needs, such as drinking, eating, resting, recreating and similar actions. By following the advice of the Apostle, everything they do will be done in God’s name to please him alone (pp. 23-240.
What St. Francis says here in his advice on the direction of intention is often seen as the heart of his spirituality in general. He himself insists that its practice will help one “to thrive and advance” in sanctity. What is it exactly? It is simply a practice of prayer whereby we consciously direct to God what we are about to do. The action itself becomes sacred. Take his article on rising as an example. We would rise anyway. But by consciously directing our rising to God we transform it into a religious exercise and, thus, into a means towards holiness. Eating, working, going to class, driving children to school, playing a basketball game—all such actions, given the direction of intention, can have sacred meaning. They can be means—readily at hand—to sanctity. Do not be fooled by the simplicity of the direction of intention. Its faithful practice led Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, Margaret Mary and countless others to deep and heroic holiness.
(from “Reflections for the Laity” by Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS)
The actual direction of intention need not be long or formal. In fact, it need not be said at all. One simply and briefly intends the deed for God and his glory and determines to accept whatever happens in the performance of the deed as coming from his fatherly and kind hand. Here is an example of the direction of intention:
“My God I give you this action, please give me the grace to conduct myself in a manner most pleasing to you. May God be blessed.”