Golden chains are no less chains, than are chains of iron. A person may be exposed to envy and deserves to be pitied for it. Your captivity is in no way preferable to that of a person held unjustly in prison. The one thing, which should give you real consolation, is that it is God that takes away your liberty; and it is indeed this same consolation which should sustain the innocent person in prison, of whom I have just spoken. Thus, you have nothing more than that prisoner except a phantom of glory, which, not giving you an actual advantage, puts you in danger of being dazzled and deceived.
But this comfort of finding yourself, by order of Providence, in this situation in which you find yourself, is an inexhaustible consolation. With it, you can lack nothing. By it, iron chains are changed; I do not say into chains of gold, because we have just seen how despicable chains of gold are, but rather into happiness and liberty. What benefit to us is this natural liberty of which we are jealous? This seaming liberty allows us to follow our natural impulses, impulses which hinder our self-control even in innocent things, impulses that inflate our pride, this pride which becomes intoxicating with independence, impulses to do as we please, which is the poorest use we can make of ourselves.
Happy then are those whom God takes away from them their own will to attach to his own! God is pleased to chain them with his own hands so that they can be as free and happy as those who chain themselves by their passions are miserable. In this apparent captivity by the will of God, they can no longer do what they wish. So much the better. They do from morning to night against their own inclinations, what God wants them to do. He holds them bound hand and foot by lines of his will. He never leaves them a single moment to themselves. God is jealous of this tyrannous “I,” which wants all for itself. He leads relentlessly from vexation to vexation, from importunity to importunity, and leads his children to accomplish his great plans by these conditions of boredom, with childish and idle conversations, of which they are ashamed. God presses the faithful soul, and no longer lets them get its breath. Hardly one annoying person goes away before God sends another to advance his work. We should like to be free to think about God, but we unite ourselves much better with him through his crucifying will than by consoling ourselves with sweet and loving thoughts of his goodness. We should like to be more with God by ourselves, not realizing that there is no worse way of being with God than being alone with him in our self-indulgences rather than to be with him in the presence of vexations. This “I” of the old man, in which we want to re-enter as we unite ourselves with God, is a thousand times further from him than the most absurd trifle. Because there is in this “I” a subtle venom that is so directly in opposition to a productive relationship with God.
We indeed ought to profit by all our free moments to disengage ourselves. Indeed, we must, before everything else, keep some hours to relax mind and body in a state of recollection. But for the rest of the day, when the torrent sweeps us away in spite of ourselves, we must let ourselves be carried off with no regret. You will find God in this sweeping away. You will find him in a purer way because you will not have chosen this way of seeking him.
The difficulty which we suffer in this state of subjection is due to a weakness in our nature in which we would like to be comforted, and it seems that the forces that are driving us have not been brought to us by the Spirit of God. We think we are missing our time with God, and yet it is self which we miss because what we find the hardest in this irritating and upsetting state is that we can never be free with to be with our own self. It is the desire of the “I,” which remains in us, and which would have for a more serene state, with which to enjoy ourselves with God, to enjoy our own sentiments and to glory in all our good qualities, in the presence of people who would think more highly of us than is good for us. Or else we would like to enjoy the silence of God and the sweetness of piety, instead of going against the grain and willing God to enjoy our growth in Him through his diverting us from our self-indulgent thoughts.
He leads others by the bitterness of privations, but for you, he leads through the burden of the enjoyment of empty wealth. He makes your state hard and painful, by making it seem, to the blind, the pleasantest in life. Thus, he brings two healthy things to pass in you. He teaches you by experience and makes you die by the things which maintain the corrupt and evil life of the rest of mankind. You are like a king who could touch nothing, which is not turned to gold under his hand. Such great riches made him unfortunate. As for you, you will be happiest in submitting to God’s ways of directing you to himself.
In thinking of the misery of your prestige, of the servitude in which you groan, the words of Jesus Christ to St. Peter come back to my mind. “Before this, you walked where you wished to, but when you are older, another stronger than you will guide you and will lead you where you do not want to go.”
Let yourself go and be led; do not hesitate on the way. You will go, like St. Peter, where nature, jealous of its life and liberty, does not want to go. You will go to pure love, to perfect renunciation, to the total death of your own will, while accomplishing that of God, who leads you according to his good pleasure.
You must not wait for freedom and a retreat, to detach yourself from everything, and to vanquish the old man. The dream of a free situation is only a lovely idea. Perhaps we shall never reach it. We must keep ourselves ready to die to self in the bondage of our state whatever state that might be. When God prevents our plans for a retreat, keep in mind that we do not belong to ourselves and that God only asks from us what we require. Consider the Israelites in Babylon who longed for Jerusalem, and how many there were who never saw it, and who finished their life in Babylon! What illusion, if they had always put off, until the time of their return to their country, giving faithful service to the true God, and perfecting themselves! We, like them, should not put off our obedience that leads to intimacy with God for that which we think will enrich us. Walk with God in whatever situation you might find yourself.
Christian Perfection Topics
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.