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Francois Fenelon

May 03, 2010
Francois Fenelon

How would you react if your uninsured home burned down and you lost all your tools and your work? In 1697 the episcopal palace at Cambrai burnt to the ground. This was a cruel blow to archbishop Francois Fénelon. Lost in the blaze were his precious library and the manuscripts on which he was working. His friend, Abbé Langeron, found Fénelon in calm conversation. Tactfully he started to break the news to him. But Fénelon had heard already. "I had rather that the fire had seized my house than a poor man's cottage," he replied. To understand this magnificent reply, we must turn back the pages of his life.

Fénelon was born in 1651, heir to seven centuries of noble ancestry. At a young age he submitted to Christ. After that his one aim was to be like Jesus. "Let me follow in thy footsteps, O Jesus! I would imitate thee, but cannot without the aid of thy grace!" He trained at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice. Full of zeal, he wanted to carry the gospel to the Native Americans, but his superiors said no; nor would they let him go to Greece. Fénelon obeyed, reasoning that if the Lord controls the details of our lives, the legitimate commands of superiors are his orders.

Assigned to Paris to educate young Huguenot girls, Fénelon lovingly studied the children and sought the best methods of instructing them. He wrote a book on his methods Instructions for the Education of a Daughter, which might well have been subtitled Persuasion rather than force. Its kindly advice was much in advance of the era and showed a real knowledge of children. Everyone spoke of the author as a man with grace beyond his years. Bishop Bossuet took notice of him. Fénelon became a favorite of Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV's wife.

King Louis, powerful and despotic, ordered Fénelon to the Huguenot districts of Poitou and Saintonge to convert the Calvinists back to the Catholic faith. Fénelon set two conditions; he must be allowed to select the missionaries who went with him, and the dragoons who tormented the Huguenots must be withdrawn. "The work of God is not effected in the heart by force; that is not the true spirit of the Gospel."

Louis agreed but urged Fénelon to take guards. Catholic violence against the Huguenots and revocation of their rights had aroused their fury.

"Sire," replied Fénelon, "ought a missionary to fear danger?. . . I would rather perish by the hands of my mistaken brethren than see one of them exposed to the inevitable violence of the military." Fénelon's behavior converted many Huguenots and forged him a national reputation.

Tutor to a Little Terror
Louis assigned him a more daunting task: preceptor to the duke of Burgundy, heir to the throne. Fénelon undertook the Duke's education with his habitual carefulness. The Duke was notorious for rages. Fénelon ordered that the child be ignored during these fits. He impressed upon the boy how silly he appeared to others and appealed to his pride. By treating the lad with firmness, patience, and love he tamed him.

Imagine having a teacher who wrote books just for you. Fénelon wrote his pupil a novel, Télémaque. Its hero experienced many adventures which taught kingly behavior. The Duke developed deep love for Fénelon. Pupil and teacher were soon separated, however.

Madame Guyon, a widow thirsting to know Christ, taught that we should abandon ourselves completely to God. Fénelon sympathized and became her close friend. Bishop Bossuet condemned Guyon and demanded Fénelon do the same. Since Guyon's principle fault was some exaggeration of language, and because he owed much of his own spiritual development to Guyon, Fénelon refused. Instead he compiled The Maxims of the Saints, which showed that saints of all eras had held views similar to Madame Guyon's.

Louis developed a dislike for Fénelon, whose spirituality grated upon his materialism. Using the Guyon controversy as an excuse, Louis banished Fénelon to Cambrai. The King forbade the Duke of Burgundy ever to visit his teacher or even to receive letters from him.

The King did not stop at separating the two. With the aid of Bossuet, who was jealous of Fénelon, he sought to brand him a heretic. At this critical moment, Fenelon's unpublished novel Télémaque was betrayed to Louis. It fixed the King's enmity; Fenelon's utopian advice directly opposed the principles on which Louis was busily ruining France.

After much arm twisting, Louis forced the pope to issue a mild rebuke of a few passages in the Maxims. The news reached the author as he prepared to preach a sermon. Briefly he buried his face in his hands. Then he rose, changed his text and preached that we must yield to the legitimate decisions of our superiors. Today Fénelon's writings are reckoned by Protestant and Catholic alike as among the finest ever penned.

Until death, Fénelon showed himself a hardworking archbishop. No one was ordained in his diocese until personally interviewed by the archbishop several times. His fame increased. So highly was he regarded that during the wars of succession over the Spanish crown, both sides protected him. He walked the battlefields succoring friend and foe alike.

During those wars, Fénelon proved his mettle again. Louis was desperate for grain. Fénelon sent the King his own large store and refused a penny in return. Such was his revenge.

How would you react if you lost your treasures in a fire? Fénelon responded as he had all his life, accepting his loss joyfully as from the hand of the Lord. He even exceeded all expectation and rebuilt the episcopal palace at his own expense.


1. The Presence precedes the plan.
For years younger people have asked me how they could know God's plan for their life. While reading Fénelon and other saints, I find they are not concerned with that question. Their concern is not with the plan but with the Presence. When we have a guide, we don't need a map. Without the Presence we attempt work for God instead of letting God work through us. Fénelon said: Put aside your self-interest and simply let God's will unfold around you. Everything he does for you is for your good. Worship him without having to know and see everything. Continue doing the good things that you do since you feel that you should and you can do them so easily. Be careful that all your extra energy does not lead you into trouble and, above all, live in the present moment and God will give you all the grace you need. He continues, Live your daily life out in the presence of God. He will give you all that you need. God's glory and his purpose are the end of all things. You will find happiness and salvation there but not as an end in itself. It is all for God.

2. Self-love is subtle.
"You will be tempted to speak out in a humble tone of voice to tell others of your problems. Watch out for this. A humility that is still talkative does not run very deep. When you talk too much, your self-love relieves his sense of shame a little."

Fénelon goes on to say: "Self love is proud of its spiritual accomplishments. You must lose everything to find God for himself alone. You won't begin to let go of yourself until you have been thrown off a cliff. He takes away to give back in a better way." "Self-interest and pride cause you to reject the gifts of God, because they do not come in a way that suits your taste. He asks for nothing but death, and you desire nothing but life." "Selfishly loving yourself shunts your spirit. You put yourself in a straitjacket when you are enclosed in self. When you come out of that prison you experience how immense God is and how he set his children free. Be humble. Do not trust the old nature."

He probes even deeper: So to strip self-love of its mask is the most humiliating punishment that can be inflicted. You see that you are no longer as wise, patient, polite, self-possessed, and courageous in sacrificing yourself for others as you had imagined. You are no longer fed by the belief that you need nothing. . . . You no longer think that your greatness and generosity deserve a better name than self-love. However, you are further tormented because you also weep and rage that you have cried at all. What your old nature fears the most is necessary for its destruction.

3. Suffering is useful.
Fénelon speaks of suffering as God's exercise program, his gymnasium: Suffering is necessary for all of us. You will be purified by dying to see your own desires and will. Let yourself die. You have excellent opportunities for this to happen. Don't waste them. . . . God never makes you suffer unnecessarily. He intends for your suffering to heal and purify you. The hand of God hurts you as little as it can. The yoke that God gives is easy to bear if you accept it without struggling to escape.

4. One test of relation with God is peace.
Fénelon recommended Guyon: "Encourage peace, become deaf to your overactive imagination. Your spinning imagination will harm your health and make your spiritual life very dry. You worry yourself sick for no good reason. Inner peace and the sweet presence of God are chased away by restlessness."

Or, consider, "Peace and comfort are to be found only in simple obedience. Remain at peace, for peace is what God wants for you no matter what is happening. There is in fact a peace of conscience which sinners should enjoy as they are repenting. Suffering should be peaceful and tempered with God's comfort."

And regarding the future: "Live in peace without worrying about the future. Unnecessary worrying and imagining the worst possible scenario will strangle your faith."

He warned "there never is peace in resisting God . . . . Allow yourself to be humble. If you are silent and peaceful when humiliating things happen to you, you will grow in grace." And "The point of trusting God is not to do great things that you can feel good about, but to trust God from a place of deep weakness. Here's a way to know if you are actually trusting God with something. You will not think about the matter any longer nor will you feel a lack of peace."

5. Silence brings blessings.
Fénelon: "Try to practice silence as much as general courtesy permits. Silence encourages God's presence, prevents harsh words, and causes you to be less likely to say something you will regret. Silence also helps you put space between you and the world. Out of the silence that you cultivate you will get strength to meet your needs."

6. Growth and change are the work of the cross.
Fénelon has helped me to think of the work of the cross--redemption--as the constant tension of growth and change as the old nature gives way to the new. It is a process that starts with the new birth and ends at the close of our earthly journey, by which time we are hopefully more mature in the likeness of Christ.

Fénelon said to Mme. Guyon, "Bear your cross. Do you know what this means? Learn to see yourself as you are and accept your weakness until it pleases God to heal you. If you die a little every day of your life, you won't have too much to worry about on your final day."

Then with assurance he says, "You and I are nothing without the cross. I agonize and cry when the cross is working within me, but when it is over I look back in admiration for what God has accomplished. Of course I am then ashamed I bore it so poorly."

7. The focused life is the simple life.
"Our hidden agendas can poison the simplicity of a situation. The desire to do a work for God is simple enough, but I greatly complicate it when I add the hidden agenda of wanting to be recognized and appreciated while doing it."

8. Give grace to yourself and others.
I can almost hear Fénelon say, "Lighten up." He wrote: "Do not be surprised to find yourself overly sensitive, impatient, proud, and self-willed. Realize that this is your natural disposition. Bear with yourself, but do not flatter yourself into thinking you are better than you are but wait on God's timing to transform it. Stop at once when your activities become too hurried."

Madame Guyon, a rich and beautiful widow and close friend of Fénelon, woke many souls to share her love for God. For this she was vilified, harassed, imprisoned, and her writings condemned. Fénelon stood by her at great personal cost.


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