Some pages from Fénelon

On this page I expect to post occasional excerpts from an old translation, Selections from the Writings of Fenelon, with a Memoir of His Life. By a Lady (3rd ed.; Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins, 1831).

François Fénelon (1651-1715), today considered one of the major writers of the tendency of thought known as Quietism, was Archbishop of Cambrai from 1696 until the end of his life.


While we are so imperfect, we can understand only in part. The same self-love that causes our defects, injuriously hides them from ourselves and from others. Self-love cannot bear the view of itself. It finds some hiding-place, it places itself in some flattering light to soften its ugliness. Thus there is always some illusion in us, while we are so imperfect and have so much love of ourselves.

Self-love must be uprooted, and the love of God take its place in our hearts, before we can see ourselves as we are. Then the same principle that enables us to see our imperfections will destroy them. When the light of truth has risen within us, then we see clearly what is there. Then we love ourselves without partiality, without flattery, as we love our neighbor. In the mean time, God spares us, by discovering our weakness to us, just in proportion as our strength to support the view of it increases. We discover our imperfections one by one, as we are able to cure them. Without this merciful preparation, that adapts our strength to the light within, we should be in despair.

They who correct others ought to watch the moment when God touches their hearts; we must bear a fault with patience, till we perceive his spirit reproaching them within. We must imitate him who gently reproves, so that they feel that it is less God than their own hearts, that condemns them. When we blame with impatience because we are displeased with the fault, it is a human censure, and not the disapprobation of God. It is a sensitive self-love that cannot forgive the self-love of others. The more self-love we have, the more severe are our censures. There is nothing so vexatious as the collisions between one excessive self-love, and another still more violent and sensitive. The passions of others are infinitely ridiculous to those who are under the dominion of their own. The ways of God are very different. He is ever full of kindness for us, he gives us strength, he regards us with pity and condescension, he remembers our weakness, he waits for us. The less we love ourselves, the more considerate we are of others. We wait even years to give salutary advice. We wait for Providence to give the occasion, and grace to open their hearts to receive it. If you would gather the fruit before its time, you lose it entirely.

Our imperfect friends can know us only imperfectly; the same self-love that hides their defects, magnifies ours. They see in us what we cannot see, and they are acquainted with what we ourselves know. They are quick to discover what is disagreeable to them, but they do not perceive the defects that lie deep within, and that sully our virtues and displease God alone. Thus their best judgments are superficial.

My conclusion is, that we must listen to the voice of God in the silence of our souls, and pronounce for or against ourselves, whatever this pure light may reveal to us at the moment when we thus endeavor to know ourselves. We must often silently listen to this teacher within, who will make known all truth to us, and who, if we are faithful in attending to him, will often lead us to silence. When we hear this secret small voice within, which is the soul of our soul, it is a proof that self is silent, that it may listen to it. This voice is not a stranger there. God is in our soul, as our souls are in our bodies. It is something that we cannot distinguish exactly, but it is what upholds and guides us. This is not a miraculous inspiration, which exposes us to illusion and fanaticism. It is only a profound peace of the soul, that yields itself up to the spirit of God, believing his revealed word, and practicing his commands as declared in the Gospel.


I acknowledge that I am glad to see you oppressed with a sense of your defects and your inability to correct them. This despair of nature that leads us to trust only in God, is what he himself wills. It is then that he gives us the aid that we need.

It is true that you have a hasty and severe disposition, and a fretful character, that is too sensitive to the faults of others, and that renders it difficult to efface impressions which you receive. But it is not your natural temperament that God condemns; for this you have not chosen, and are not able to change. It may be the means of your salvation, if you bear it rightly as a trial. But what God requires of you, is, that you actually perform those duties for which his grace gives you ability. What is required, is, if you cannot be gentle in your exterior, to be humble in your heart; to restrain your natural haughtiness as soon as you perceive it; to repair the evil you have done, by your humility. The duty you are called to practice, is a real, genuine lowliness of heart upon all occasions, a sincere renunciation of self.

It is not surprising that the high opinion entertained by many persons of your decisions for so many years, has insensibly encouraged in you a secret confidence in yourself, and a hauteur of which you are not aware. The hasty expressions into which your temper sometimes betrays you, may perhaps reveal to you the haughtiness, that, without this natural frankness, you would not discover. But the source of the evil is within; it is this high opinion of yourself, that has lain hidden so long under some specious name. Be then as humble in the contemplation of your own defects, as you have been elevated by your office in judging the defects of others. Accustom yourself to see others neglect your opinion, and give up judging them. At least, if you say anything, let it be said in simplicity, not to decide or correct, but merely to propose a question and to seek for information.

In a word, the object is to place yourself upon a level with the lowest and most imperfect; to encourage in them a freedom, which must make it easy for them to open their hearts to you. If you have anything to bestow upon them, let it be consolation and support rather than correction.


One Response to “Some pages from Fénelon”

  1. Jim Says:

    These are beautiful, and helpful, passages. Thank you for posting them.


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