Sunday, December 13, 2009

More on Fénelon

I’ve been reading the works of François Fénelon, a French archbishop and spiritual writer whose life straddled the 17th and 18th centuries. Although his spiritual writings were condemned by the western church, they have been widely and profitably read by both western and eastern (Orthodox) Christians even to today. In fact, I have been told, the prayer in most Orthodox prayer books that is attributed to St. Philaret of Moscow and is sometimes referred to as “the morning prayer of the Optina Elders” (“Grant me to greet the coming day in peace…”) was originally written by Fénelon and translated into Russian.

His work is full of practical wisdom and spiritual insight. An example of his practical wisdom is found in one of his letters entitled, “Bearing the Bad Opinions of the World.” In this letter he deals with the worlds seeming glee at the fall someone who had appeared righteous. (One cannot help but think of the latest fallen “angel” and the glee of the media over Tiger Woods’ marriage problems.) Fénelon says, “Let those who wallow in the mire not rejoice because they see one fall who seemed able to stand.” Those who have abandoned all hope of escaping the mire of their passions rejoice because in their minds the weakness of another justifies their continued willing enslavement to passions.

The almost universal excuse used when we find delight in the fall of another is the accusation of hypocrisy. Somehow by labeling others as hypocrites, we feel justified in enjoying their fall. But who is not a hypocrite? I know no one whose ideals are so low that they constantly live up to them. Some say, “At least I don’t claim to be perfect.” “Very good,” I respond. “But if you had bothered to ask those whose fall so delights you now if they thought they were perfect—even before their fall—they would have denied perfection also.” We are all hypocrites in one way or another. We all fail to live up even to our own standards, yet we have “good reasons” why our own failures are excusable while others’ are not. Integrity has nothing to do with our ability or inability to live up to our ideals. Rather, integrity is a matter of intentionality, on the one hand, and willingness to recognize one’s own fall as a fall, on the other hand. The real hypocrite (in the sense that Jesus uses the term) is not the one who intends to do well yet falls, but the one who intends to fall without getting caught—even by his own conscience. The real hypocrite is the one who pays attention to appearances, indulging the passions as much as possible secretly while intentionally maintaining a false appearance to others (well, only to the others whose opinion matter). The real hypocrite is the one who when caught justifies him or herself arguing that what may appear to be sin is not really sin in this particular case.

With so much false goodness in the world, it is easy to see why many despair to find genuine goodness anywhere. To return to Fénelon, “people are deceived by [hypocrisy] only through their lack of discernment or [lack] of experience in real virtue. People who do not understand diamonds, or who do not examine them closely, may take false stones to be real. But all the same there are such things as real diamonds, and it is possible to distinguish them.” As we practice integrity, not perfection, we develop the intuition to discern the real from the false, what is really hypocritical in ourselves from what is merely weakness, in spite of good intentions.

Another useful bit of practical advice from Fénelon is the following: “Despair of yourself as much as you please, but not of God.” That is, when confronted by something that seems impossible, we should “imitate the blessed Virgin, who, when what seemed completely impossible was set before her, answered unhesitatingly, ‘May it be to me according to your word.’” My weakness does not limit God’s strength; my inability does not limit God’s ability. I am free to acknowledge my weakness so long as I remember that God uses the weak to confound the strong, the foolish to confound the wise.

However, there are passages in Fénelon’s letters that are tainted by western theological suppositions and rational limitations that Orthodox Christians will find merely odd in some cases and in others almost heretical. For example, Fénelon quotes St. Augustine as saying, “Whatever we love outside God, so much the less do we love Him.” Fénelon goes on to explain that love is like a brook that if divided into steams “takes away that which belongs to God.” In his next letter, “The Danger of Compromise,” he extrapolates on the theme of undivided love for God based on the Great Commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. Again, his point is that to love others is to compromise one’s love for God. Orthodox Christians, however, generally see love very differently.

Love is not a zero sum game. Love is not finite, as though I have only so many “love coupons,” and to spend too much love on one person (a son, a husband, a mother) is to have fewer love coupons to spend on God. Fénelon forgets that Jesus says that the second commandment is “like unto” the first. To love ones neighbor a species of love for God because my neighbor is in God’s image. Similarly, St. Isaac the Syrian most famously points out that mature love for God is to love all of the creation so much that one cannot bear even to see lizards suffer. I think St. Augustine could be interpreted in such a way as to agree with St. Isaac, for I would argue that all love is within God, even if we are not always conscious of God’s presence. But Fénelon does not interpret St. Augustine so generously. Trapped in western rationalism, Fénelon can only read “either/or” in St. Augustine’s maxim.

Fénelon has been a blessing for me to read; I have been inspired by his insight that evidently comes from a deep mystical relationship with Christ. Nonetheless, I cannot generally recommend him. While many of his insights are wise and some even amazing, there is also a good deal of early Enlightenment rationalism applied to spirituality. It’s like pebbles mixed in with some very good beans. If you’re not very careful, you could crack a tooth on him.

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