instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, February 29, 2008

Fenelon for today

Winn Collier is a Christian pastor and a devotee of Francois Fenelon, the 17th Century French bishop and writer. He is particularly keen on Fenelon as spiritual guide, a side of the bishop that comes out in letters he wrote to the many young French aristocrats who turned to him for advice.

Collier has selected and paraphrased forty-some of Fenelon's letters in his recent book Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fenelon. The letters are arranged in eight "conversations," each of which begins with a brief essay by Collier. The conversations are on these questions:
  • Why is God so peculiar?
  • How do I pursue spiritual maturity?
  • How do I hear God?
  • What do I do when I'm broken down?
  • How do I cultivate a quiet soul?
  • How can I live in community?
  • What do I do when life is dark and bleak?
  • What do I need to change?
These are just the sorts of questions disciples of Christ ask -- although that first one could stand some context. In a letter Collier titles "To a Delightfully Impoverished Friend," Fenelon writes:
God's romance is peculiar, requiring us to go against our instincts. We give everything we are and have to God; we give way to complete poverty. Yet, even as we do what seems foolish, we find God being amazingly generous, filling us back up.
God is "peculiar," then, in the same sort of way it's peculiar to die in order to live.

Fenelon is squarely in the "Abandonment" tradition, best known today, perhaps, from de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence. The letters in Let God constantly sound the theme of dying to self and letting God cut everything sinful out of our lives. "God's stab goes deep," as Fenelon puts it, "and it leaves nothing untouched that needs his knife."

This is good, traditional spiritual direction, expressed in a stern but pastoral tone made more casual and contemporary by Collier's paraphrasing. He occasionally veers away from casual and into trendy -- "Tone down your feverish pace and your uber-activity" may be the worst example -- but most of today's Catholic bishops do, too, I suppose, so those missed notes can be forgiven.

In his framing material, Collier stresses the point that Fenelon is writing, not as a spiritual friend, but as a spiritual guide, and that Christians nowadays greatly need such guidance.

This is true, but I wonder whether, in a sort of subtle irony, Fenelon's guidance itself requires a guide. Consider this, from a letter "To a Weak Christian":
I am asking you to fully abandon yourself to God. I know that we tend to think that humility and weakness somehow interfere with this kind of absolute abandonment to God. We thing of abandonment as a heroic act of epic love that makes stunning, courageous, grand sacrifices to God. It's actually a lot simpler than that. True abandonment just gives itself over, just rests in God's care and love, like a baby in its mothers arms. Here's the tricky thing: true abandonment has to abandon even its abandonment. We have to give up our self-inflated sense of what a big sacrifice we are making. We need to give up on ourselves without even thinking much of it.
As a weak Christian, I think this sounds true and wise. But I can also see all sorts of ways that acting upon this can lead a weak Christian into big trouble. A few sentences later, Fenelon writes:
Abandonment is peaceful. If we are anxious about whatever it is we have abandoned, then we can't really call it abandonment, can we?
Again, true -- but isn't it sure to make people anxious about following the prior advice?

I think the way to read this book -- and I do recommend reading it; I'll probably transcribe some nuggets in a future post -- is as matter for meditation and prayer, rather than as immediate guidance. These are letters, after all, written to specific persons in specific circumstances. Then the fruits of reading can be shared, with a guide if you happen to have one, but at least with friends who can help you integrate Fenelon's wisdom, which is really one stream of the Holy Spirit's wisdom, into your life.

(I don't mean to suggest, by the way, that Collier would disagree with this.)

(I should also mention, by way of full disclosure, that mine is a review copy. So yes, I'm recommending you buy a book that I didn't.)