Introductory Note:

With inimitable wisdom and grace, Fénelon, 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.

Text First Published January 1973