Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon (who, with your pardon, we’ll refer to simply as “Fenelon”), was born in 1651 and grew up in frail health. Shortly after his ordination, he acted as Superior of the “Nouvelles Catholiques,” a community founded to instruct and confirm in the Roman Catholic faith women who had previously been converted by the Protestants. Among Fenelon’s first works was a treatise on the education of females.
Fenelon became well-known as a skilled spiritual counselor (to adults and youth) and soon found himself charged with educating and reforming Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. This might at first sound like a great honor—and in truth it was—but it was also a great challenge. The young Duke was described by a contemporary as “born terrible, and in his early youth he made everyone tremble. Hard and irascible to the utmost passion, incapable of bearing the slightest resistance without flying into a rage… obstinate… passionately fond of every kind of pleasure…”
Modern wisdom might tell us to send such a youth to military training and let strict discipline bring his life into order. Fenelon, however, pursued a different approach. He was gentle, believing that a teacher must “mingle teaching and play; let wisdom show herself to the child only at intervals, and with a smiling face. If he forms a sad and gloomy conception of virtue, all is lost.”
Fenelon’s method must have worked, for the same person who gave us the earlier description of the Duke described the transformation this way: “The marvel is that in a very short space of time, devotion and grace made quite another being of him, and changed his many and dreadful faults into the entirely opposite virtues. From this abyss a Prince was seen to issue, at once affable, gentle, humane, generous, patient, modest, humble, and severe towards himself.”
Fenelon was named Archbishop of Cambrai on Feb. 4, 1695. He became highly influential, due in large part to his association with the aforementioned duke (who was next in line to be king of France).
In the midst of his call to reform others, Fenelon remained very much aware of his own failings. The man who offered so much spiritual advice to others wrote of himself, “I am to myself…the whole of a great diocese, more burdensome than the outside one, and a diocese which I am incapable of reforming.”
Fenelon stressed an authentic internal devotion. He wrote and spoke out against “pharisaic righteousness.” In a scathing rebuke he writes, “They fast and give alms, but without love of God, humility, or sacrifice of selfÉ. Another defect of pharisaic righteousness is that a man comes to lean upon it as upon his own strength. He takes a great delight in considering his own uprightness, in being conscious of his own powers, and in mirroring himself in his virtue, as a vain woman does in her looking glass.”
Fenelon’s role as a spiritual director and pastor had the fortunate result of making his writings particularly practical. He urged those under his care to be diligent about their spiritual life while not taking it “too far.” Those with excessive scruples might lapse into a “spiritual hypochondria” that Fenelon found to be most unhelpful.
When Fenelon was in his early sixties, the duke whom he had largely raised fell ill with spotted liver and died. In that age, to be the friend of a former ruler was often seen to be a competitor to the new one, and Fenelon quickly fell out of favor.
To make matters worse, Fenelon became a strong supporter of (Madam) Jeanne Guyon, another classic Christian writer, who wrote a treatise on Quietism variously called Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer. Though the following description doesn’t do it justice, quietism essentially taught a complete detachment from the things of this world. As part of his defense of Guyon, Fenelon wrote Maxims of the Saints in 1697. This book was condemned by Pope Innocent XII, practically forcing King Louis to banish Fenelon from the court, and returning Fenelon to a smaller diocese, where he excelled as a pastor.
Perhaps because Fenelon lived in and wrote to the upper strata of French society, his writings remain remarkably relevant to contemporary Christians, addressing issues such as amusement and the use of leisure time. The temptations faced by the French elite several hundred years ago are amazingly similar to those faced by middle class evangelicals today. Fenelon’s Christian Perfection, a collection of various letters and addresses that were gathered over time, is one of the most helpful spiritual classics I’ve ever read; it’s one you may want to read over and over.
Of course, the quietistic elements of his writing lead to an undue emphasis on humankind’s passivity. Both Guyon and Fenelon took passivity and surrender to such an extreme that they believed we must arrive at a place where we do not even care about our own salvationÑa state that can be reached only through prayer (which, ironically, may not always seem like such a passive activity). The worst elements of quietism extended this out to suggest that, since the quietist has no will of his own, even if he commits actions that would be sins if others committed them, they are not sinful for him (The thinking being that if you don’t have a will, you can’t be blamed for doing anything, sinceÑostensibly—you are operating solely on the will of God). It was this line of thinking that led the pope (and evangelicals) to reject the more extreme forms of quietism.
Fenelon died in relative obscurity in 1715.