You should not feel troubled, it seems to me, about the diversions in which you cannot avoid taking part. Many people want to make the worst of everything, and who are upset continually, increasing their loathing of the amusements which they have to endure. For myself, I confess that I could not agree with this rigidity. I prefer greater simplicity, 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. More severe, more constrained, less agreeable and disarming manners would only give a false idea of piety to the people of the world, who are already only too prejudiced against it, and who would think that a person can only serve God by a grim and gloomy life.
I conclude, therefore, that when God places us in certain positions which obligate us to take part in everything, as in the place where you are, the only thing to do is to live in peace without constantly quibbling about the secret motives which can unconsciously slip into the heart. We should never finish if we want to sound the bottom of our hearts constantly, and in wanting to escape from self in the search for God, we should be too preoccupied with self in such frequent examinations. Let us go in the simplicity of heart, in the peace, and the joy, which are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Whoever goes forward in the presence of God in the most trivial matters ceases not to perform God’s work, although he appears to do nothing important or serious. I suppose that we are always in the order of God and that we are following God’s rules for our condition in doing these trivial things.
Most people, when they wish to be converted or reformed, expect to fill their lives with especially difficult and unusual acts, far more than to purify their intentions, and to mortify their natural inclinations in the most usual acts of their condition. In this, they often badly deceive themselves. It would be much more valuable for them to change their actions less rather than their disposition, which makes them act. When one is already leading an honest and regulated life, it is far more important, to become a true Christian, to change the within rather than the without. 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.
Carry this very simple will, that we will be entirely be filled with that of God, wherever his Providence leads you. Seek God in the hours, which might seem so empty, and they will be full for you because God will sustain you in them. Even the most frivolous amusements will turn into good works, if you only enter into them with true discretion, and for the sake of following God’s plan. 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 as cheerfully. We enjoy what St. Francis de Sales calls “Joyeusetés.” Thus we refresh ourselves while refreshing others.
You will tell me perhaps that you would prefer to be occupied, more seriously, and importantly, 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, nor temperament, nor 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.
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.
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 which excites the mind, and which hurts that happy simplicity, which 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Christian Perfection Topics
Christian Perfection is the collection of short letters or essays written by Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon (6 August 1651 to 28 March 1720), better known as François Fénelon. In my opinion, these letters are some of the most helpful Christian writings that I have ever read concerning the way of spiritual maturity. I have taken from the translation of Christian Perfection made by Mildred Whitney Stillman and reworded sections to make things easier to glean what I believe was the intended meaning. You can click the link Christian Perfection above to read Mrs. Stillman’s translation for yourself, and I highly recommend you read the introduction by CHARLES F. WHISTON, The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, written in 1946.