We do not always need to follow the spirit of mortification and recollection, which tends to withdraw us from social relationships, and we do not always need to pursue our zeal to lead others to God. Then what do we need? We need to divide ourselves between these two duties, so as not to neglect our own needs while devoting ourselves to the needs of others, and not to neglect the needs of others because we are overly engrossed in our own needs.
A rule for finding the right balance depends on the inner and outer state of each person, and so a general rule is not possible because such a rule would depend upon too many variables. We must measure our selves by our weaknesses, and so identify when we need to be on guard and measure the depths of our inner compunction, and by the signs of Providence, by the time we have to spend, by the state of our health; there are so many factors. Each person should try to determine their abilities and capabilities, seeking advice from a pious and experienced person, so that they do not overextend themselves in trying to do overmuch. We should begin with the needs of the mind and the body first so that we can reserve enough hours for both. For the rest of the time, we must still examine thoroughly the duties of the place in which we are, the real good which we can do there, and that which God gives us for our success there, we should not plunge ahead in blind zeal.
As an example, we should not stay with one person to whom we can be of no use when we could be meeting others productively, at least this is so if we have no debt concerning that person, such a family relationship, or a very old friendship or courtesy, any of which obligates us to stay with the first person. Otherwise, we should move on from that person, after having done what is proper to treat them honorably. The argument of self-mortification ought not to apply in these cases, for we all have certain obligations. We will find enough to mortify ourselves by dealing honorably with those with whom we would rather not have to deal with, and by being held captive by all the other duties and obligations of home and job.
When you are at Saint-Cyr, you must neither be sociable or withdrawn, for self-centered motives. It is enough to do what you believe to be God’s will for you to do even though there is some small degree of self-interest. Whatever we can do, self-interest is always there in possibility, but we should not let that guide us in anything, and not let it hold us back from doing what we should do. I should think that, when you are at Saint-Cyr, you ought to rest your body, refresh your mind and recollect it before God, as much as you can. You are so annoyed, so harassed, and so wearied at Versailles, that you have such great need of a free solitude at Saint-Cyr, with which to feed and rejuvenate your inner life. However, I don’t want you to fail to meet the pressing needs of the house unless you are the only one that can do it.
I should rather have you suffer less and love more. Seek in church a posture which does not strain your delicate health, and which does not prevent you from being restored, provided that this posture is in no way presuming or domineering, nor should you recuperate in secret so that others do not see you doing so; your motives should be pure and transparent. Because of your responsibilities, you will always have enough other mortifications; neither God nor people will let you escape them. So refresh yourself. Feel at liberty, and think only of nourishing your heart, to be in a better state to suffer what is to follow.
I have no doubts about your obligation to avoid everything which you have found affects your health, like the sun, the wind, certain foods, etc. This care of your health will doubtless spare you some suffering, but that is only going to sustain you, not to spoil you. Besides, this regime does not demand great delicacies and the enjoyment of luxuries. On the contrary, it demands sober, simple conduct, and consequently mortification in every detail. Nothing is less helpful and prudent than always to want to choose what mortifies us in everything. By doing so, a person would soon ruin their health, their business, reputation, and relations with there relatives and friends; in fact, it can ruin every good work which Providence gives him.
Your eagerness to mortify yourself should never turn you from solitude, nor tear you away from external affairs. You must show yourself or seclude yourself in turn, and at the appropriate time, speak or be silent. God has not placed you under a bushel, but on a candlestick, so that you may light all those who are in the house. So, you must shine in the eyes of the world, all the while curbing your self-love to let God be the one shining through you. You should reserve hours for reading, prayer, and resting your mind and body in the presence of God, lest the attention deceives you.
Do not anticipate crosses. You would perhaps seek some which God would not want to give you, and which would be incompatible with his plans for you. But embrace unhesitatingly all those crosses which his hand offers. The crosses that God does give to us are a necessity of life. They are the daily bread which feeds the soul, and which God never fails to distribute to us. If you were in a more free state, a more serene and unhampered state, you would have more to fear in too soft a life. But your position at court will always have its traces of bitterness, so long as you are faithful.
I beg you emphatically to stay in peace regarding this honest and simple conduct. In depriving yourself of this liberty by straining after far-fetched mortifications, you would lose the benefits of those which God is preparing for you, and you would harm yourself under the pretext of spiritual growth. Be free and gay, simple as a child. But be a sturdy self-assured child, who fears nothing, who speaks out frankly, who lets God lead them, a child who God carries in his arms; in a word, one who knows nothing, can do nothing, can anticipate and change nothing, but who has a freedom and a strength forbidden to the great. This childhood baffles the wise, and God himself speaks by the mouth of such children.
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.