God is ingenious in making us crosses. He makes them of iron and of lead, which are heavy in themselves. He makes them of straw which seems to weigh nothing, and which are less difficult to carry. He makes them of gold and of precious stones, which dazzle the spectators and excite the envy of the public, but which crucify no less than the crosses which are most despised. He makes them of all the things which we like the best and turns them into bitterness. Favor brings trouble that presses upon us. It gives what we do not want and takes away what we should like.
A poor person who lacks bread has a cross of lead in his extreme poverty, but God knows how to season the greatest wealth with equal misery. They are, in their prosperity, starving for freedom and consolation, as the desperately poor person is for bread. At least the starving person can, in his unhappiness, can beg in the street or knock at every door and stir some degree of compassion of every passer-by. But the person of means is of the shame-faced poor. That person dare not ask for pity, nor seek any comfort. God is often pleased to join physical or mental weakness to the “great” person of status to keep him or her grounded. Nothing is more useful than these two crosses together. They crucify the person from head to foot. The person feels his weakness, and the uselessness of all that he possesses and his great wealth and or power cannot bring peace to him, which he wants most desperately. The world does not see that sort of cross, because it only considers it a slight annoyance softened by wealth and power, and a slight indisposition which it suspects of overindulgence. But, the person of means and power sees only bitterness, dryness, boredom, captivity, discouragement, pain, impatience. Everything that dazzles the spectators disappears in the eyes of the person who possesses it, and God crucifies him while all the world envies his good fortune.
Thus, Providence knows how to give us all sorts of trials in all sorts of conditions. We must not shrink from the duties of power and wealth, knowing that we can drink this bitter cup without tripping and falling to our destruction. We drink it to the bitterest dregs in cups of gold, which are served at the table of kings, seeking God all the while. God takes pleasure in thus confounding human power, which is only a weakness in disguise. Happy the man who sees these things through eyes lighted from his heart, of whom St. Paul speaks. Prestige, which you see and feel, gives no true consolation. It cannot do anything against the ordinary evils of nature. It adds plenty of new and very severe trials and tribulations to those of nature itself, which are already miserable enough. The difficulties of prestige are more painful than those of rheumatism or a migraine headache. But the devout can profit by all the cares of greatness if they accept the bondage as having come from God. It is in the love of this bondage that one finds freedom as real as it is unknown to man.
We must not find any good in prosperity except that which the world cannot recognize there, I mean the cross. Being in a state of favor does not spare any of the pains of nature. It adds great ones, and it prevents us from taking comforts, which we could take if we were in disgrace. At least in disgrace, or during illness, we could socialize with whomever we pleased, we would then not hear any complaint, but for the “great” person that has no good excuse, the cross must be complete. We must live for others when we need to be by ourselves. We must have no need, feel nothing, wish for nothing, be inconvenienced by nothing, and be pushed to the end by the hardships of our positions of great responsibility. It is because God wants to make what the world most admires ridiculous and frightful. It is because he treats without pity those whom he raises without measure, to make them serve as an example. It is that he wants to make the cross complete, by placing it in the most dazzling honor, to dishonor worldly prestige. Let me say again; happy are they who in this state consider the hand of God, which crucifies them through unhappiness. How beautiful it is in the eyes of God that we accept our purgatory in the place where others seek their paradise without being able to hope for another after this so short and so difficult a life!
In this state of human suffering, there is hardly anything to be done. God does not need us to say many words to him, nor to think many thoughts. He sees our hearts, and that is enough for him. He sees our suffering very well and our submission. We have only to repeat continuously to the God we love, “I love you with all my heart.” Frequently it happens that we go a long time without thinking that we love him, and we love him no less during this period than in those periods in which we make him the most tender protestations. True love rests in the depths of the heart. It is simple, peaceful, and quiet. Often, we deafen ourselves in multiplying conversations and reflections. This experience of love is felt only in a heated imagination.
Suffering then is only a matter of suffering and being silent before God. “I am still,” said David, “because thou hast acted. It is God who sends the absurdities, the fevers, the mental torments, the weaknesses, the exhaustion, the insistent demands, and the annoyances. It is he who sends even the grandeur with all its torments and its cursed accompaniments. He also makes us aware of the dryness within, the awareness of our impatience, of our discouragements, and he brings to our attention humiliations caused by things that tempt us; he does all these things to show us our continual need for his grace. We have only to see him and to adore him and embrace him in all of our troubles.
We must not be in a hurry to obtain an artificial presence of God and his truths. It is enough to live simply in this disposition of heart; to wish to be crucified by him and through our troubles, we should live a simple life, an effortless life, in which we are renewed every time we are turned from it by some memory or other, or by some person or other, or by some circumstance or other.
Thus, the difficulties of “being the popular one,” or being a person of influence or having worldly power, all must be endured peacefully embracing our littleness, which acts as an antidote to a state which is in itself so dangerous for us. And, in our weakness, when suffering the pains of illness or personal loss, we should embrace our difficulties as gifts that have come to us from God. In apparent prosperity, there is nothing good except the hidden cross. O cross! O good cross! I embrace you. I adore in you the dying Jesus, with whom I must die.
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.