For the Bookshelf: The Complete Fenelon
December 10, 2018—Francois Fenelon was born in France in 1651. Fenelon pursued a career in the church. He completed his doctorate and was ordained at the age of twenty-six. He began preaching and writing. Fenelon became influential as a tutor to the king’s grandson and spiritual director for a duke and a duchess. He became an archbishop at age forty-four.
It was a time when Europe was recovering from the Thirty Years War. Britain was struggling with internal conflict, which left France as the leader in intellectual, philosophical, and artistic domains. Great scientists and philosophers in this time period were very influential with changes in thinking. These changes were challenging in the life of the church. Fenelon became influenced by Quietism (mysticism). This practice led to conflict within the French Court and resulted in Fenelon’s ultimate exile. He continued to minister to people during his exile and to enrich the spiritual life of those whom he contacted.
The Complete Fenelon is made up of four different books. The first is The Royal Way of the Cross. This book is comprised of fifty-two letters by Fenelon. The second is Talking with God. In this book, another fifty-one letters have been included. The third is Meditations on the Heart of God. This is made up of meditations by Fenelon based on eighty-five scriptures. The fourth is a compilation of meditations specific to important days and seasons for the church. It is God of My Heart: Meditations on Feast and Fasts. Many of Fenelon’s ideas and topics are repeated across the four books. I am considering the devotional aspects of the first two books.
Fenelon realized the benefits of devotional time spent with God. We need to set aside time for communing with God. “You greatly need certain free hours to be given to prayer and recollection .” But we must also struggle to maintain connection to God throughout our days. “You cannot take too many pains to subdue your natural temperament by prayer, and by a frequent renewal of God’s presence throughout the day.” He said “Prayer is so necessary and is the source of so much blessing, that when once the soul has realized its gifts, it will hardly fail to seek them over and over as often as it is free to do so.” God will honor the time we spend in devotion. God will be faithful to those who seek him. “Be sure that God will grant you whatever time you need to reach him.”
He suggested that during time of prayers, a person should confess, ask for their needs, and offer thanksgiving for the guidance of the scriptures. He said, “It would be well to humble yourself and confess that you have not heeded his teaching…“ Fenelon felt that we are not able to please God by our own efforts, but that “We ought to be asking God to give us the means to please him.” And concerning scriptures, “You would do well to thank him for his Word…” Reading was an important devotional practice for students of Fenelon. He offered this guidance, “Proceed to read over the subject of your meditation, either in Holy Scripture or in whatever book you may be using. Pause after a verse or two, to follow out such reflection as God may put into you mind.”
Like most of the devotional writers, Fenelon stressed the importance of humility before God. Through our efforts in humility, we come to feel our debt to God. He said, “Yet all the while our whole interior progress consists in losing, sacrificing, decreasing, humbling, and stripping self even of God’s own gifts, so as to be more completely his.” Adopting the position of humility is easy, “Two things produce humility… the sight of the bottomless gulf of wretchedness… the presence of that God who is All.”
Our greatest concern for effective devotional time should be our distractions. “If they [imaginations] come at a time of meditation or prayer, such idle thoughts should be treated as distractions.” If only we could understand that God is always with us. “We suppose ourselves to be alone in the inner sanctuary, when God is more intimately present there than we are ourselves.” Both internal and external distractions can be impediments to our devotion. “God does not cease to speak, but the noise of the world outside us, and the noise of our passions within, prevent our hearing him.” How encouraging to know that God is always with us.
Our own anxiety, “Anxiety comes from not sufficiently accepting whatever happens as coming from God. From the moment you give up all self-will,.. you will be free from all your restless anxiety…” The peace we seek is always available to us through Christ. “A word from the Lord stilled the raging of the sea, and a glance from us to him and from him to us, will do the same in our daily life.” Perhaps we will come o believe like Fenelon, “Illumined by God’s holy light, I resolve to stop worrying and to do every moment, with all the strength of my mind and body, whatever God in his providence places in my path.”
I found the writings of Fenelon to be helpful for insights into good devotional attitudes for those who wish to grow closer to God. In spite of his leaning toward mysticism, he offers information that is useful for anyone seeking to improve their own personal devotional practices.
Fénelon, François de Salignac de La Mothe. The Complete Fénelon. Edited and translated by Robert J. Edmonson and Hal M. Helms. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2008.
Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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