Editor's note:

With inim­itable wis­dom and grace, Fenélon, the 17th cen­tu­ry French arch­bish­op and author, writes to a spir­i­tu­al son who has fall­en ill. His advice? Allow phys­i­cal weak­ness to bring aware­ness of spir­i­tu­al weak­ness, an aware­ness that will result in being strength­ened by God. He also dis­cour­ages get­ting puffed up with spir­i­tu­al knowl­edge. Learn, yes, but more impor­tant­ly put the learn­ing into practice.

—Brian Morykon

Excerpt from Let Go

I am told, my dear child in the Lord, that you are suf­fer­ing from sick­ness. I want you to know that I suf­fer along with you, for I love you dear­ly. But I can­not but adore our won­der­ful Lord who per­mits you to be tried in this way. And I pray that you will adore Him along with me. We must nev­er for­get those days when you were so live­ly and ener­getic, and there is no doubt this was hard on your health. And I rather think that the suf­fer­ing you are going through now is the nat­ur­al con­se­quence of your high-pres­sured living.

In this time of phys­i­cal weak­ness, I pray that you may become more and more aware of your spir­i­tu­al weak­ness. Not that I want you to remain weak. For while the Lord min­is­ters heal­ing and strength to your body, I pray that he will also min­is­ter strength to your soul, and that weak­ness will final­ly be con­quered. But you need to under­stand that you can­not become strong until first you are aware of your weak­ness. It is amaz­ing how strong we can become when we begin to under­stand what weak­lings we are! It is in weak­ness that we can admit our mis­takes and cor­rect our­selves while con­fess­ing them. It is in weak­ness that our minds are open to enlight­en­ment from oth­ers. It is in weak­ness that we are author­i­ta­tive in noth­ing, and say the most clear-cut things with sim­plic­i­ty and con­sid­er­a­tion for oth­ers. In weak­ness we do not object to being crit­i­cized, and we eas­i­ly sub­mit to cen­sure. At the same time, we crit­i­cize no one with­out absolute neces­si­ty. We give advice only to those who desire it, and even then we speak with love and with­out being dog­mat­ic. We speak from a desire to help rather than for a desire to cre­ate a rep­u­ta­tion for wisdom.

I pray God that he may keep you faith­ful by His grace, and that He who has begun a good work in you will per­form it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philip­pi­ans 1:6). Yet, we must be patient with our­selves (but nev­er flat­ter­ing), unceas­ing­ly using every means of over­com­ing self­ish thoughts and the incon­sis­ten­cies we have with­in us. In this way, we shall become more sus­cep­ti­ble to the Holy Spir­it’s guid­ance in the prac­tice of the gospel. But we need to let this spir­i­tu­al work be done in us qui­et­ly and peace­ful­ly, not as though it could all be accom­plished in a sin­gle day. 

Fur­ther­more, we need to main­tain a bal­ance between learn­ing and doing. We ought to spend much more time in doing. If we are not care­ful, we will spend such a large seg­ment of our lives in gain­ing knowl­edge that we shall need anoth­er life­time to put our knowl­edge into prac­tice. We are in dan­ger of eval­u­at­ing our spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty on the basis of the amount of knowl­edge we have acquired.* But the fact is that edu­ca­tion, instead of help­ing self to die, only nour­ish­es the old man by mak­ing him proud of his intel­lec­tu­al attain­ments. So if you want to make some great strides toward spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty, then do not trust in your own pow­er or your own knowl­edge. Humil­i­ty before God and dis­trust of your old self, with an open sim­plic­i­ty, are fun­da­men­tal virtues for you.


* Note from Book Edi­tor: This seems to be one of the most com­mon as well as the most seri­ous mis­takes which Chris­t­ian peo­ple are liable to make. God is the giv­er of knowl­edge and He desires to have us put it into prac­tice. But the moment we get knowl­edge, we get so car­ried away with the delight of hav­ing it that we for­get there is any­thing else to be done. But the fact is we have very lit­tle rea­son to rejoice until we put our knowl­edge into oper­a­tion in life. Jesus says, Ye see, but do not per­ceive — ye hear but do not under­stand.” Food, lying undi­gest­ed in the stom­ach, is not only of no ser­vice to the body, but if not removed, will become harm­ful. It is only when it is assim­i­lat­ed and min­gled with the blood and works itself out in our hands, feet, and head that it can be said to have done us any good. So to have an under­stand­ing of Bib­li­cal truth in the intel­lect is a mat­ter of Thanks­giv­ing. But it will only result in our con­dem­na­tion if it is not cher­ished in the heart and act­ed out in life. Always remem­ber that it is not knowl­edge of the way that God desires of us, but the prac­tice of it. Not light, but love. For though I under­stand all mys­ter­ies and all knowl­edge — but have not love — I am noth­ing (1 Corinthi­ans 13:2).

From Let Go, a col­lec­tion of let­ters by François Fénelon. © 1973 Whitak­er House.

Originally published January 1973

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