Not Every Recreation is Evil
As a Christian, you should not feel guilty about spending time in what I call Christian recreations if it cannot be avoided. Many people like to beat themselves up over the littlest things. People in their zeal for God frequently upset themselves and increase their loathing of innocent amusements and idle recreations to the point of distracting themselves from their true duty to God. For myself, I confess that I can not agree with this self-imposed rigidity, preferring a greater simplicity of being instead, and I believe that God himself much prefers it. When pleasures are harmless in themselves, and when we take part in them because of the obligations of the state into which Providence has called us, then I believe that it is enough to take part in them with moderation and in the sight of God. Being overly severe and constrained, and having disagreeable social manners gives a false idea of true devotion to God to the worldly people that are observing us, and only reinforces their prejudice against an obedient life towards God.
So Be Content in Whatever Situation That You Find Yourself
When God places us into certain positions that obligate us to take part in innocent social events, we should, therefore, happily participate so that we can be at peace with those in authority above us and with our fellow man. We should not quibble about our own secret motives, which may or may not have slipped into our hearts. What I mean is this: we might even like going to these social gatherings, and the fact that we like going is not reason enough not to go. It can be a bottomless pit to look too carefully at all the motives of one’s own heart when you are trying to escape from self for the sake of God. Therefore, we should not be too preoccupied with self in such frequent examinations. Rather, we should go in the simplicity of heart in a state of peace and joy, which are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Do Everything in the Presence of God
Whoever goes forward in the presence of God in the most trivial matters is actually doing God’s work, although he appears to do nothing important or serious. If we are walking with God, then whatever we are required to do is his will, provided it is not blatantly wrong. So even if these social requirements seem trivial, they are nonetheless required by God too.
New Converts Expect Difficult Things Are Required of Them.
Most people, when they first come to God, expect that things will be very difficult to do, but really what God requires of us is easy and light. What God wants most for is that we get out of our heads and to listen to our hearts, where he resides. This erroneous expectation can badly deceive a person. It is more helpful for them to change their disposition more and their actions less, which are what is driving their actions in the first place. When one is already leading an honest and regulated life, it is far more beneficial in becoming a true Christian to change the within rather than the without.
What God Wants
God is not satisfied by the sound of our lips, nor the position of our bodies, nor external ceremonies. What he asks is a will which will no longer be divided between him and any creature, a will pliant in his hands, which neither desires anything nor refuses anything, which wants without reservation everything which he wants, and which never, under any pretext, wants anything which he does not want. Always keep this thought at the forefront of your mind, that you be entirely filled with the presence of God wherever his will leads you. Seek God in the hours which might seem so empty to you, and those hours will then be fruitful to you because God will sustain you in them. Even the most frivolous amusements will turn into good works, is you will only enter into them with true discretion, and for the sake of following God’s plan for you.
The Expansive Heart
How the heart is enlarged, when God opens this way of simplicity! We walk like little children, whom the mother leads by the hand, and who allow themselves to be led without worrying about where they are going. We are happy to be tied down. We are happy to be free. We are ready to speak. We are ready to be silent. When we cannot say anything worthwhile, we say nothings cheerfully. We enjoy what St. Francis de Sales calls “Joyeusetés.” Thus we refresh ourselves while refreshing others.
The Obedient Path
Perhaps you would prefer to be more seriously and importantly occupied rather than attending required social events, but God does not prefer it for you since he has chosen what you would not choose. You know that his taste is better than yours. You would find more satisfaction in the serious things for which he has given you the inclination. And it is this satisfaction which he wants to take away from you. It is this inclination which he wants to mortify in you, although it may be a good and healthy one. The virtues themselves need to be purified in their exercise by the disappointments which Providence makes them undergo, to detach them more completely from all self-will. When it is based on the fundamental principle of the will of God, without regard for taste, or temperament, or the spurts of excessive enthusiasm, O, how simple and serene piety can be! How likable, discreet, and sure in all its proceedings! One lives much as other people do, without affectation, without any show of austerity, in an easy and sociable way, but continually bound by all of one’s duties, but with an unrelenting renunciation of all which does not, moment by moment, enter into God’s plans, in short with a pure vision of God to which one sacrifices the irregular impulses of human nature. This is the worship in spirit and in truth, which Jesus Christ and his Father seek. All the rest is only a religion of ceremony, and the shadow rather than the truth of Christianity.
Your Soul Be on Guard
You will doubtless ask me how you can succeed in keeping yourself in this purity of intention, in a life which is so public and which would seem so frivolous. It is hard enough, you will say, to protect your heart from the emotional floods and the bad examples of society, when you are watching yourself every instant. How then can you hope to sustain yourself if you are exposed so easily to the diversions which corrupt or which at least so dangerously weaken a Christian soul? I admit the danger, and I believe it to be even greater than may be expressed. I agree with the necessity of taking precautions against so many pitfalls, and I should reduce those precautions to these.
1) Read the Scriptures Prayerfully
First, I believe that you should place the greatest emphasis on reading and prayer. I am not talking here of reading for curiosity to make you wise on the questions of religion. Nothing is more vain, more indecent, or more dangerous. I recommend simple reading, far removed from the least subtleties, limited to things of practical help, and which all tend to feed the heart. Avoid all that excites the mind, but hurts the happy simplicity that makes the soul quiet and submissive to all, which the Church teaches. When you read not to know more, but to learn better, how to distrust your own self, then the reading will all turn to profit. Add to the reading prayer; when you meditate in deep silence, some great truth of religion may blossom within your heart. You can do this by concentrating on some deed or some word of Jesus Christ. After being convinced of the truth, which you would like to consider, you then make a serious and exact application of that truth to your own faults, in detail, making your resolutions before God, and ask him to strengthen you to accomplish what he has given you the courage to promise him. When you see your mind wandering during this exercise, bring it back gently without being upset, and without ever being discouraged by these distractions which are stubborn. On the contrary, they will help you more than a prayer which brings with it very evident comfort and fervor, because these distractions will humble you, mortify you, and accustom you to seek God purely for his own sake, unmixed with any pleasure.
The Antidote for Spiritual Distraction
If you are faithful in saving regular times, evenings, and mornings, to practice these things, you will see that they will serve you as an antidote for the dangers which surround you. I say evening and morning because we must, from time to time, renew the nourishment of the soul as well as that of the body, lest it fails by being used up in human contacts. We must never allow ourselves to be swept away by outward affairs, however good they may be, to the point of not finding the time to take our own nourishment.
2) Take Time to Center Yourself
The second necessary precaution is for us to take when we are free and feel the need, certain days entirely for withdrawal and recollection. It is thus that at the feet of Jesus Christ, we heal all the wounds of our hearts secretly, we wipe off all the bad imprints of the world. This even helps our health, because, if a person knows how to make simple use of these short retreats, they rest the body no less than the spirit.
3) Focus on What You Must Do
Thirdly, I take for granted that you will limit yourself to the diversions consistent with the profession of piety which you are making, and to the good example which society expects of you. For the world, worldly as it is, wants those who despise it to be sincere in the scorn which they have for it, and it cannot keep from respecting those by whom it sees itself despised in good faith. You understand well enough that the true Christians ought to rejoice that the world is so strict a critic, for they should rejoice to be for that reason more strongly compelled to do nothing unworthy.
4) Follow Frivolity Only as You Must
Finally, I think that you only ought to enter into the frivolity at court out of friendliness, and only as you are asked to do so. Thus, whenever you are not invited or needed, you must never appear, nor try indirectly, to get an invitation. In this way, you will give to your domestic affairs and to your religious exercises all that you are free to give to them. The public, or at least the people who are reasonable and not cynical, will be equally satisfied to see that you are careful to keep in retirement when you are free and sociable enough to join the permissible pleasures when you are invited.
I feel sure that in keeping these simple rules, you will draw great blessings upon yourself. God, who leads you by the hand among these diversions, will sustain you through them. You will be conscious of him there. The joy of his presence will be sweeter than all of the pleasures which you will be offered. You will be moderate, discreet, and recollected without constraint, without affectation, without any irritating sharpness. You will be as St. Paul said, “In the midst of these things as though you were elsewhere,” and nevertheless showing gay and agreeable humor, you will be all things to all people.
If you find that boredom is getting you down, or that joy is vanishing, you should come back quietly and easily to the breast of the heavenly Father, who holds you constantly in his arms. You should look to him for joy and freedom of spirit in sadness, for moderation and recollection in joy, and you will see that he will let you lack nothing. A look of confidence, a simple turning of your heart to him will renew you, and although you often feel dull and discouraged, yet every moment during which God asks you to do something, he will give you the ability and the courage according to your need. This is the daily bread which we ask for hourly and which will never fail us. For our Father, far from abandoning us, seeks only to find our hearts open to overflow them with floods of grace.
This article was a letter originally written by Francois Fenelon some 300 years ago as part of his collection of letters later published under the name of Christian Perfection and was edited by Mark Heaney. A copy of Christian Perfection that was translated from the French by Mildred Whitney Stillman can be read here and was the translation that I worked from. Christian Perfection was, to me, one of the most practical Christian writings I have ever read, and so I thought that I might edit the phrasing to make it easier for people to understand.