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Archbishop Fenelon and Great Lent

March 20, 2014 Length: 18:21

Fr. Thomas talks about the writings of Archbishop François Fénelon, a Roman Catholic writer from the 17th century. Fr. Tom was particularly taken with Fénelon's spiritual writings surrounding Lent.

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There is a spiritual writer in Western Christianity, in the Roman Catholic Church, that I really, really love and really appreciate his teaching. His name, full name, was François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon: F-e-n-e-l-o-n. This Archbishop Fénelon was born in 1651 and died in 1715, and he was persecuted by the archbishop of Paris in France, and he was denounced as a heretical writer. A case was made against him by the Vatican. It seems like the pope himself at the time was highly respectful of him, but still he was compelled by Louis XIV and this other Archbishop Bossuet in Paris, and he was confined to his diocese. He was accused of 22 points of wrong teaching or something like that. This Fénelon, he answered back by quoting Church Fathers, and claimed that he was not teaching anything other but what the Church Fathers traditionally were teaching, including such Fathers as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, the Western Fathers.

But in any case, he was confined to his diocese, which is in Cambrai in France. It seems like they really needed him there because there was a great Protestant Huguenot center in that diocese, and Fénelon dealt with the Protestant people very well and tried not to persecute them but to dialogue with them, to talk with them, to explain the traditional Roman Catholic faith to them. He was a great man. His writing is considered classic in the French language, and he’s now a French hero, actually, in Paris in Saint-Sulpice, right in the opposite square, there’s a big monument to Fénelon, where he’s sitting on a chair and it’s very large and actually very beautiful. I’ve been there; I’ve seen it.

But I was introduced to this writer years ago in St. Vladimir’s by a Dr. Nicholas Arseniev, who taught us about spirituality, Eastern Orthodox and then Western and then non-Christian, even. He was teaching about the mystical and spiritual life and the spiritual writers. I really came to really love and respect Fénelon. His writings that he has that are available… And the Paraclete Press in Massachusetts publishes a rather thick book called The Complete Fénelon. It was published in 2008. Well, it’s not complete at all, because he wrote so many things, but it is the extracts and the put-together of many of his teachings that were primarily teachings given to lay people, about being Christian and living according to the Gospel and keeping the Christian faith.

One interesting thing about this Archbishop Fénelon is that he was known by St. Philaret of Moscow, and there are two prayers of Fénelon that St. Philaret translated into Russian and became very popular. And these two prayers became very popular in America. In the SBCK Orthodox Prayer Book, for example, you have… They are attributed to St. Philaret of Moscow, however, these two prayers. They’re called “Prayers of Philaret of Moscow,” but in fact Philaret did not write them; Fénelon did. And Philaret took them over, totally intact, word for word, and he published them in [the] Russian language for the Russian people to pray these prayers. So this man has the endorsement of the great saintly and canonized saint, Philaret of Moscow, the predecessor as the metropolitan of Moscow before our American St. Innocent from Alaska became the metropolitan of Moscow.

So this Fénelon was known in the Russian Church and was propagated by no one less than St. Philaret of Moscow. But he suffered for his faith in the West. He was persecuted. He was not allowed to teach outside his diocese. He was not allowed to travel. But he stayed there with his people, and he taught them until his death in 1715.

Among his writings that are available… And they’re printed in this book called The Complete Fénelon that’s published by Paraclete—I would highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in Christian spiritual life, especially life that is taught to lay people, to regular Christian members of the Church and not in a monastic setting, because so much of our Eastern Orthodox Christian spiritual writings are produced in a monastic setting, and those of us who are not monastic have to kind of translate them how they could be applied to us in our daily life who are not living in monasteries. But Fénelon wrote for those not in monasteries, and it’s a wonderful collection of writings. I highly recommend it.

What I would like to do right now is a very simple thing. I want to read, I want to read to you who care to hear the lenten meditation of Archbishop Fénelon, this man who was born in 1651 and died in 1715, persecuted by his colleagues and by the Vatican, and yet he kept the faith and was obedient unto death, stayed within his diocese and counseled and guided his people. So this is what he says in this lenten meditation. I’m going to read it all. He says:

Dear God, I have now entered a time of privation and abstinence. But it serves no purpose to fast from food, which nourishes the body, if we do not also fast from everything that serves to nourish the love of self. Divine spouse of souls, give me the inner chasteness, the purity of heart, the separation from every created thing, the soberness that your apostle spoke of—soberness that consists not only of the sparing use of food and drink, but also the cultivation of an earnestly thoughtful character marked by temperance, moderation, and seriousness. When practicing soberness (sobriety), we use created things only out of necessity. It is a blessed fast when the soul holds all the senses in a state of being deprived of anything that exceeds what is sufficient and necessary. It is a holy abstinence when the soul’s hunger is filled by God’s will and never feeds on its own will. Like Jesus, such a person has another food on which it feeds. Lord, give me that bread that is above every substance, the bread that will satisfy the hunger of my heart forever. Give me that bread that puts out the fires of every desire, the bread that is the true manna and that takes the place of everything else.

Here I just will stop to comment: That bread is the bread of life who is Christ himself. And it’s interesting that Fénelon, when he says, “Lord, give me that bread that is above every substance,” he is quoting the original Latin translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which in Greek says, “Give us today the epiousios artos,” which doesn’t seem to be just regular bread. This supersubstantial bread, this bread that is beyond is supersubstantial, and that’s how it was translated in Latin: supersubstantialem, and that’s the translation that Fénelon used and that he had. So its original, literal translation from the Greek, which then later was changed to “daily bread”—“Give us this day our daily bread”—but originally it said: “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread—Ton arton ēmōn ton epiousion dos ēmin sēmeron.” So he prays, and I will continue reading to the end now without interruption.

Lord, give me that bread that is above every substance, the bread that will satisfy the hunger of my heart forever. Give me that bread that puts out the fires of every desire, the bread that is the true manna and that takes the place of everything else, the bread of life who is Christ himself.

Dear God, let all created things keep silence before me, and let me keep silence before them in this holy season of Lent. Let my soul be fed in silence by fasting from all vain conversation. Let me feed on you alone and on the cross of your Son, Jesus.

But must I be in continual fear of breaking this inner fast through consolations that I might enjoy on the outside? No, dear God, you do not want that kind of anguish and worry. Your Spirit is a spirit of love and freedom, not a spirit of fear and servitude (slavery). Therefore, I will renounce everything that is not in your order of things for me. I will renounce everything that I experience that diverts me too much from my true purpose. I will renounce everything that people who are leading me to you deem that I must indeed set aside. Finally, I will renounce everything that you yourself will take away from me through the events of your divine providence.

I will peacefully bear all these privations. And here is what I will add to them: in every innocent and necessary conversation, I will cut out what you cause me to feel inwardly to be nothing other than seeking myself. When I feel myself brought to make some kind of sacrifice over and above that, I will do it cheerfully (joyfully). Furthermore, dear God, I know that you desire that hearts that love you should keep a wide berth from things of this world.

I will behave with confidence and trust, like a child that plays in its mother’s arms. I will rejoice before the Lord. I will do my best to give joy to others. I will pour out my heart without fear in the company of God’s children. All I want is forthrightness, freedom from guile, and the joy of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, dear God, keep far away from me that sad and fearful understanding that is always gnawing on itself, that is always holding scales in its hands to weigh the tiniest thing, out of fear of breaking that inner fast! It does you an injustice not to behave simply with you, like a child. That kind of harsh inflexibility is unworthy of your fatherly compassion. You want us to love you alone—that is what is meant by your being a “jealous God.” But when we love you, you allow love to behave freely, and you see quite well what truly comes from love.

In other words, Fénelon teaches here, our scruples, our self-consciousness about our fasting and our abstinence are actually an insult to our loving God. So he continues:

All I want is forthrightness, freedom from guile, and the joy of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, dear God, keep far away from me that sad and fearful understanding that is always gnawing on itself, that is always holding scales in its hands to weigh the tiniest thing, out of fear of breaking that inner fast! It does you an injustice not to behave simply with you, like a child. That kind of harsh inflexibility is unworthy of your fatherly compassion. You want us to love you alone—that is what is meant by your being a “jealous God.” But when we love you, you allow love to behave freely, and you see quite well what truly comes from love.

Therefore, dear God, I will fast from every movement of the will that is not yours. But I will fast out of love, in the freedom and in the abundance of my heart. How unhappy is the soul that is shrunken and dried up upon itself, that is afraid of everything, and that, because of its fear, has no time to love and to run generously after the divine Bridegroom! How strict is the fast that you cause the soul to undergo, yet without torturing it. Nothing remains in the heart except the beloved, leaving the soul only fainting and ready to expire with love.

This is the great fast, when mortals see their poverty completely exposed, when the slightest vestige of their life in themselves is torn out by the roots. Who can understand that great fast of pure faith? Where is there a soul that has enough courage to accomplish it? What limitless privation that is! What renouncing of ourselves as well as of the most vain things outside ourselves! What faithfulness of a soul that leaves itself behind in order to follow you out of a jealous love, without shrinking back, allowing everything to be taken away from it!

Lord, this is the sacrifice of those who worship you in spirit and truth. It is out of these trials that we become worthy of you.

Go ahead, Lord: make my soul empty, hungry, and fainting. Do with me according to your good pleasure. I will keep silence, I will worship you, and I will keep saying, “Your will be done.” And not mine. You are all that I desire, dear God.

Isn’t that magnificent? Fénelon: perhaps you might look into his writings.


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