Conversatio Divina

Part 17 of 18

Reflections: Suffering into Wisdom

Fénelon on Christian Perfection

Ken Boa

Editor’s note: The purpose of this column is to provide thoughtful reflections on classic literature, film or music as relevant to our issue theme and Conversations’ overarching theme of promoting Christian spiritual formation. In this issue, Ken Boa brings together the themes of contemplation and suffering in the work and life of François Fénelon.

François Fénelon was a seventeenth-century French Catholic priest who wrote and taught what has been termed “Semi Quietism,” a modified and less radical version of the original Quietism movement. Yet he, along with his friend Madame Guyon, stirred up significant theological controversy by promoting their unorthodox views. Fénelon’s theological position eventually cost him much personally. He was a man who grew to understand suffering, for he experienced a tremendous amount of loss and pain in his life, partly as a result of choices that he himself made.

In many respects, Fénelon really was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. As a follower of Christ, he was profoundly influenced by the love of God and came to understand that to know God’s love is the longing and quest of the human heart—the only means by which the heart will find rest.

There is a kind of spiritual direction and mentoring that takes place in Fénelon’s letters, and they have been compiled into a number of books because they are full of remarkable counsel and advice. The one I will be focusing on is called Christian Perfection, and it was published a few years ago by Bethany House. It is, unfortunately, now out of print. A few collections remain in print, however, and among them are Meditations on the Heart of God, Talking with God and The Seeking Heart.

It is unfortunate that many people in the modern Christian community have acquired an attraction to fluff and feel-good literature, simplistic works that contain very little substance. The vast bulk of such material will not even be around ten years from now, let alone a hundred. So, it is prudent to return to those classics that really nourish the soul, even though they sometimes seem remote to us. The old works often offer the very stuff that we need to be less parochial, less vulnerable to the prejudices and limitations of our own time. Frankly, despite the distance of several centuries, most people find that Fénelon is very accessible. His letters, generally speaking, are relevant and beneficial.

While Fénelon shared some of the Quietists’ views, he did not advocate a complete pacificism or tranquility. Instead he believed that there is an ideal state for the Christian where one seeks the love of God for its own sake, without any ulterior desires or impediments. He argued that the goal of the Christian life was to enjoy God while seeking nothing for self—self-abandonment. He further argued that this sort of self-abandonment involved being willing to relinquish all personal interests, desires and possessions. Meditative and contemplative prayer was a tool to help the Christian develop this self-abandonment and enjoy God.

François Fénelon was a man who suffered great rejection and grief and yet was somehow indifferent to the things that impressed other people. He could work well with people of position, prestige, intellect and power, but he also gave his heart and his life, especially in his last years, to the poor and the destitute. He could adapt himself without being condescending to people. Throughout his life, he was a man of great passion and purpose. Many of Fénelon’s letters deal with the issues of everyday living—temptations, distractions, prayer, worship, and the never-ceasing interior warfare of the soul. They deal with the conflicting claims of self and God, whether we are going to be theocentric or egocentric. This is always a challenge in our lives, is it not?

How do we bear our faults? How do we bear with the faults of others? How do we deal with the unexpected deprivations we encounter? What about the tainting power of selflove; or the need of purgation by God and God’s severe mercies? All of these are themes of Fénelon’s letters. Consequently, he is a man who forces his reader to think deeply. That is why his books aren’t popular in most book stores today. He forces us to think deeply on issues.

In some of his correspondence, Fénelon discusses the fact that God often chooses for you and me what we would not choose for ourselves. He explains that suffering and deprivations can be used by God to draw us, and even drive us, toward Him and that it is therefore important to understand that what appears to be bad to us is really something that we must receive from the hand of God. Fénelon asserts that the believer must, moment by moment, enter into God’s plans, and he references a “purity of intention” and a desire for a person to be consistent and pursue God with genuine intention and purpose.

Fénelon wisely encourages his reader to ask, “Who am I and why am I here? Where did I come from and where am I going?” He says, “Let us quiet all the movements of our hearts as soon as we see them agitating. Let us separate ourselves from all pleasure which does not come from God and cut off futile thoughts and dreams.” I would call this having fidelity in little things. Most of life is made up of little moments, and faithfulness in the small decisions of life is really what matters. Life holds only so many big mountaintop experiences, but there are millions of character-shaping moments. Fénelon goes on to say, “He is a jealous God who wants no reservations,” and “He commands us to love Him and if we don’t give Him everything He wants nothing.” Once again I would like to comment on our author’s view. It is true that we must surrender ourselves and our wills daily, but it is also important to remember that God doesn’t love and accept us on the basis of our degree of surrender; He loves and accepts us on the basis of Christ’s total surrender when we place our confidence in Him.

One of my favorite lines from Fénelon is this next one found in his letter concerning “little things.” He writes, “The most dangerous thing is that the soul, by the neglect of little things, becomes accustomed to unfaithfulness.” Here he makes an important observation. Over time and bit by bit, we become accustomed to unfaithfulness in small ways, and there is initially an almost imperceptible effect that eventually magnifies and affects major issues and decisions. This effect is illustrated by the anecdote about a concert pianist who said, “If I miss practice for one day, I can tell the difference. If I miss practice two days in a row, my critics can tell the difference. If I miss three days in a row, my audience can tell the difference.”

You see, a lack of fidelity in a seemingly insignificant area of life can lead to infidelity in a larger area, where it becomes noticeable. Likewise, faithfulness is also typically noticed and rewarded. This is part of the lesson of the parable of the talents. The men who were faithful in the small things their master assigned were then entrusted with matters of greater significance. This is affirmed in Matthew 25:21, which reads, “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things’” (NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (

Frankly, our lack of trust stems from a belief or fear that God is not fully good. If we really believed, as Scripture proclaims, that He is both sovereign and good, we would not second guess Him, disobey or mistrust Him. In our arrogance, we assume that we are capable of making better decisions than God, in His omni science and benevolence, would make for us. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain, we tend to ask, “God to love us less, not more,” when we fail to see His character properly, for we mistrust what He might do.

As he submitted his will to God, Fénelon was delivered from the tyranny of the opinions and the judgments of other people. That is why he could accept with equanimity being elevated to a high position of prestige or relinquishing a high position to take one of humble duties of caring for the poor and destitute within his own diocese, as was the case later in his life.

One of the themes of Fénelon’s later life was suffering, and so this topic also finds its way into his correspondence. In a number of letters, he writes about “suffering love” and “interior peace,” and he links these character qualities to confidence in God. He says, “This begetting of self is the most perfect penitence because all conversion only consists of renouncing ‘self’ to be engrossed in God.”

It is not merely a renunciation of the self but an engrossing interest in God—a focus away from the self, with all its illusions and follies—in order to enjoy the presence and power and peace of the living God. As Fénelon clearly states, “The vigilance which Jesus Christ commands is a faithful attention, always to love and do the will of God in the present moment, following the indications that we have of it. It does not consist, however, in upsetting ourselves, tormenting ourselves and being constantly preoccupied with ourselves rather than lifting our eyes to God.” The way to get our eyes off of ourselves is to focus on Christ. Fénelon’s correspondence reminds us that there is a better vision to pursue.

Let me close with this little one-liner from Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” That seems to have been the case in Fénelon’s experience. He acquired wisdom as he entrusted both success and failure to God, and in God’s grace, God transformed Fénelon’s suffering into wisdom.



Kenneth Boa is president of Reflections Ministries and is engaged in a ministry of teaching, mentoring, writing, and speaking. He holds a BS from Case Institute of Technology, a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, a PhD from New York University, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford in England. Recent publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, Face to Face, Augustine to Freud, Faith Has Its Reasons, Handbook to Leadership, and A Taste of the Classics. Kenneth Boa also writes a free monthly teaching letter called Reflections, and his website has numerous free resources.