You understand that many faults are voluntary in different degrees, even though they are not committed with a deliberate intention of failing God. For example, one might reproach their friend for a fault which this friend has demonstrated expressly to shock him, but into which he let himself be drawn, even though he knew it was wrong. God knows the motive behind the fault but reproaches the perpetrator nonetheless because such actions do not spring from divine love. They are voluntary because even though they are not committed with reflection, they are nevertheless freely committed and done so against one’s own conscience, which should be enough at least to make one hesitate and to suspend action. These are faults that good souls often commit.
For the person that has entirely given themselves up to God, it is an extraordinary thing that they should fall into such voluntary faults. These little faults become great and monstrous in our eyes as the pure light of God increases in us. As one might see that as the sun rises, it shows us the size of objects which we only caught a hint of during the night. Understand that as the inner light increases, you will see your imperfections as being much bigger and more harmful than you perceived them in the past. Also, understand that you will see many other miserable imperfections within yourself, which you had never expected to find, but have never the less been hidden within your heart all along. You will find there also weaknesses which will cause you to lose your confidence in your inner strength, but this experience should not discourage you, as the death of self allows God to reform you in his image. Nothing will help you more than to see this inner wretchedness if it is seen without anxiety and without discouragement. It is this recognition of our true selves that marks the beginning of real spiritual growth into maturity.
I believe that the most productive road to spiritual maturity is for us to follow the example of the wise and diligent traveler who always keeps his eyes upon the part of the road directly in front of him and does not constantly turn around to examine every track. The more time you spend looking back, the less time you have for moving forward; such time is unproductive. The soul whom God is truly leading by the hand (understand that I am not speaking of those just learning to walk, and who are still looking for the correct road), ought to watch his path to be sure, but do so with a simple, serene vigilance, limited to the present moment, and unconcerned about self-love. It takes continual attention to God’s will to accomplish this in the moment, and strength of purpose not to turn back upon self to reassure ourselves of our condition. It is God’s desire that we flow along with him in full confidence trusting in him. This is why the Psalmist said, “My eyes are raised to the Lord, and it is he who will deliver my feet from the snares.”
Please note that even though the road is sown with snares, we are to look up to God and not down at our feet to examine every step. Truly we are never so safe as we are when we continually keep our eyes on God as we progress in our life, just as he commanded Abraham. And indeed, apart from traveling with God, what could all our vigilance amount to? That we should follow God’s will step by step is clearly what is best for us. The person who conforms to God’s will in all things watches over himse1f best and sanctifies himself in all things as well. If you never depart from the presence of God, then you never need to watch over yourself.
Walking with God with a simple, affectionate, serene vigilance is contrasted with the walking in self-interest, which produces an often sharp and/or uneasy fear. We must not walk in our own light as all we can then see is self-interest, but instead, when we are walking with God, it is he who sees the eternal way.
We cannot see his holiness without being horrified by the least of our own infidelities, which can frighten us to no end. But don’t let this frighten you away from drawing closer to God. You should examine your conscience and obey it as you trust in him who will not turn you away. Our examination of conscience is made easier and simpler when we walk without undue fear caused by a preoccupation with self. We should examine ourselves not to keep our attention on self but rather on God, who knows best how to keep us clean.
We must not fail to keep our attention on the presence of God, and the examination of conscience, according to our need, so that we do not relax to the point of forgetting the confessions we must make followed by repentances which keep us pure so that we can keep an easy manner far removed from all uneasy preoccupation with self. We examine ourselves, not for our own interest, but so that we can accomplish the pure will of God. The aim is not to free yourself from feelings of guilt, but rather so that God can truly clean you so that you can freely walk with him with a purity of heart.
To this end, we abandon ourselves in his hands, and we are as glad to know ourselves in the hands of God as we should be sorry to be in our own hands. We do not wish to see anything in ourselves, which it pleases him to hide. As we love him infinitely more than we love our own selves, we sacrifice ourselves unconditionally to his good pleasure. We only think of loving him and of forgetting ourselves. He, who thus generously loses his soul, will find it for the life everlasting.
Regarding temptations, I only know of two things to do. The first is to be faithful to the light within so that we can immediately cut off with no quarter, all that we are at liberty to cut off, and that can feed or reawaken the temptation. I say all that we are at liberty to cut off because our duties may prevent the removal of ourselves from some tempting circumstances. Temptations that are connected with the state in which Providence places us are not supposed to be in our power. The second rule is to turn to God when presented with a temptation, without being upset, without worrying as to whether or not we have given a half-consent to it, and without letting it block our direct approach to God. We should not run the risk of returning to temptation, by wanting to examine it too closely to see if we have committed any infidelity. But rather, we should act like a small child at the breast. The child, when shown a horrible beast, only recoils from it and buries himself all the deeper in his mother’s breast, so that he will see nothing.
To rush to the presence of God is the supreme remedy. It comforts, and it calms. We must not be surprised by temptations, even the most shameful. Scripture says, “Who knows anyone who has not been tempted?” and again, “My son, entering into the service of God, prepare thy soul for temptation.” We are only here in this human life to be tested by temptation. That is why the angel said to Tobias, “Because you were pleasing to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove you.”
Everything is a temptation on earth. Crosses tempt us by irritating our pride and prosperity by soothing it. Our life is continual combat, but combat in which Jesus Christ fights with us. We must let temptation rage around us and keep us from going forward; as a traveler, surprised by a great wind on a plain, wraps his cloak around himself and always goes on despite the bad weather.
As for the past, when we have satisfied a wise confessor who forbids us to return to it, there is nothing more to do but to throw all those sins into the endless depths of God’s compassion. There is even a special experience of joy in knowing that we only deserve eternal suffering, and yet because of the mercy and kindness of our good God, we are forgiven and cleansed. O the wonder of God to whom we shall owe all, without ever being able to receive any part of our eternal salvation to ourselves. When an involuntary memory comes to us concerning some past wretchedness, we only have to bury our face in the bosom of God, trusting that he as forgotten our past wretchedness, and thanking him for having done so.
Understand then that in one sense there is actually very little for us to do, and a prodigious amount to do in another sense, because we must never keep anything back, nor resist for a single moment this jealous lover who never stops purging from us, down into the deepest recesses of our soul, the least desires of our heart that God himself did not put there. But on the other side, it is not work that we must do, but rather it is only a question of not wishing for anything else, and of our willingly following and trusting God as he does the work. We must not hold tightly to self, but rather, we should embrace the cleaning that God is doing. We do this without restriction, without our having to choose it, of going boldly on in the joy of God on the day’s journey, as Providence leads us, not seeking anything, not refusing anything, finding everything in the present moment, letting him act who does all and allowing his will to work quietly within us. O, how happy we are in this condition! And how the heart is filled to overflowing, even when it seems empty of all!
I pray that the Lord God may open to you the whole breadth of his fatherly heart so he can plunge yours within it, so as to lose it there, and to make only one heart of his and yours. This is what St. Paul wished for the faithful when he longed for them in the bowels of Jesus Christ.
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.