François Fénelon: A Biography—the Apostle of Pure Love
by Peter Gorday
Paraclete, 258 pages, $24.99
As is usual in religious struggles, François Fénelon lost the battle in the early-modern debate over mystical prayer but is winning (for now) the war. Censured by the pope for some of his views regarding “pure love,” he has sometimes been cast as the naïve dupe of the illuminist widow Madame Guyon (“whom I have revered as a saint,” he wrote to a friend), cautiously defending her “torrential” writings on “passive” prayer and union with God.
The pendulum of reputation has swung in his favor. In theological circles, his nemesis, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the formidable bishop of Meaux, seems to today’s power-sensitive an example of institutional tyranny and intellectual bigotry, while Fénelon is the humble defender of the insights of marginalized adorers of God. In popular religion, his spiritual writings have always sold well, even among Protestants, where he proved a mentor to certain strands of experiential Evangelicalism. Today, plenty of books are sold on “contemplative prayer,” and churches of all kinds offer classes on it. While Bossuet’s funeral orations are still read by French high-school students studying seventeenth-century rhetoric, it is Fénelon who is read by Christians who pray.
Fénelon has always held a vital place, respected or notorious, among French religious intellectuals. In his lifetime, he had a formative role in disciplines from political and educational theory to patristic spirituality and was dramatically at the center of several key ecclesial episodes. Peter Gorday’s is the first serious, comprehensive study of Fénelon in English in over half a century, and it is written with an attractive and informed ease that makes it a winning and crucial volume to read.
Fénelon was of the high nobility and eventually became the personal tutor to Louis XIV’s grandson, for whom he wrote his still-read political novel Telemachus, a critique of absolute power very popular in the eighteenth century. And for all his eventual troubles with the royal court and the Vatican, he ended his life peacefully in 1715 as the archbishop of Cambrai. Whatever the nature of his theological struggles with Bossuet, he shared his opponent’s establishment commitments and was hardly one to upset the status quo of either court or church.
One reason for Fénelon’s obscurity in English-language scholarship perhaps lies in the seemingly arcane intellectual categories within which his controversial writings were framed. Against the Jansenists, he deployed the murky semantics of grace, “efficacious” and “congruent,” and delved into the controverted writings of the Jesuit theologian Molina, through whose “middle knowledge” the mysteries of predestination might be parsed. In defending elements of contemplative prayer associated with Guyon, he distinguished between “active” and “passive” states of consciousness before God and between the “continuity” and “discontinuity” of “faith acts.”
Hardly terms that resonate with most readers today, even those theologically schooled. Gorday, an Episcopal priest who has written much on biblical interpretation, does a remarkable job of explaining the details in careful and comprehensible ways.
And the details are important. At issue, in Gorday’s view, was how an intrinsically egotistical self can know God. It is still a question. Fénelon, in fruitful conversation with Guyon, whom he first met in 1688, provided a simple answer: We know God only by getting our own selves “out of the way” so fully that we can love God “purely.” This can be achieved as a kind of “continuous” state of perpetual adoration, wherein the self has lost all sense of particular needs and exists in a condition of un(self)conscious union with God’s grace.
There are many ways to articulate the complete “disinterest,” void of all self-referral, entailed in pure love. Gorday’s version “for today” is an ethical one. “To be freed from the ‘me,’” he writes, “is equivalent to being freed from the enervating ‘what’s in it for me?’. . . from the stifling egocentrism and complacent materialism of class-conscious vanity. . . . [Fénelon’s] way of putting the matter is that freedom from self-absorption is freedom for service.” His coherent and consistent commitment to the practical ideal of “pure love” eventually blossomed into a remarkable pastoral ministry within his archdiocese.
Guyon’s writings, like her Short and Easy Method of Prayer, proved extremely popular. But she quickly became the victim of ecclesial interrogation, censure, and finally imprisonment. Fénelon became involved in her examination at Issy in 1694 and 1695 and provided a rearguard defense while working with Bossuet on her case. Although he signed on to the famous “Articles” that sought to define Guyon’s errors, he would later engage in a losing argument with Bossuet over the actual meaning of their decision, defending the integrity of “pure love” on the basis of patristic tradition.
Out of this debate came his crowning legacy, the Maxims of the Saints, published in 1697. But two years later, several dozen propositions from it were condemned by Innocent XII in a papal brief. Gorday writes as an advocate: Fénelon was mistreated, bore it humbly, and became a witness to the very principles he had so carefully upheld in writing, proving that it is indeed possible to love God so selflessly that one’s life itself becomes a coherent offering of disinterested devotion.
Obviously, narcissistic self-regard has no place in Christianity. But did Bossuet’s case against Guyon in fact represent, at least potentially, a betrayal not only of his friendship with Fénelon but also, more importantly, of the Church’s devotional tradition that he, Bossuet, claimed to defend?
Here I would take issue with Gorday’s reading of the classic debate. For Bossuet’s concern was more than anything to safeguard the Church’s proclamation of a historical gospel, one in which the Incarnation found its fullest expression and in which the Scriptures themselves provided its liveliest witness.
If the self is to be saved from its fallen pride, it is only by an encounter with this particular Lord in his historical contours that it will happen. Guyon’s (and Fénelon’s) notion of “pure love,” Bossuet insisted, must eventually mask this fact, for love is “pure,” in Guyon’s teaching, only insofar as it is unencumbered by such incarnational sensibility.
The dilemma is traditional: God is beyond distinction and hence cannot be properly grasped by the particulars that language describes. For Guyon, this meant that the Christian must aim at a form of life or consciousness that is all-inclusive and not specific. Discrete acts, such as contrition and repentance in confession, are superfluous if God is properly approached in a movement of subsuming adhesion. She preferred terms for divine love like “engulfing” and “swallowing,” where distinctions disappear in a great unity. Her disdain for petition, intercession, specific liturgical devotions, and even Scripture reading all derived from this principle and, not without reason, laid her open to accusations of Quietist error.
Bossuet, by contrast, understood love as an act that deals with separated and particular subjects and objects—it is not a union, let alone a unity, but a communion among differences. “Pure love,” as he defines it, can never engulf particularities but preserves them. It must involve hoping and asking for salvation—the encounter with the historical form of the crucified of Nazareth, and a persistent chain of choices for and with Christ.
God’s “continuous” reality lies only in these divinely established particulars, not in some single universalizing and inclusive presence. To bypass the particulars, to go after some essence more profound than their forms, is to pry loose from the Christian gospel the very realities that sustain it.
This is familiar territory. Today we see it in widespread dismissals of the necessarily formalized mediations of divine life and truth, like the Scriptures and, for that matter, the Church’s own tradition. God is said to be “beyond” such constraining distinctions, and a truly “spiritual” person will move beyond them too.
Bossuet accepted that the contemplative prayer of the kind that Fénelon recommended was permissible for some people some of the time. But it could never define the whole of the Christian life in any ideal way, for that would be to deny the permanent features of the gospel as they were given to the world.
Fénelon himself wrote little about the Bible, and his devotion to Christ, in comparison with someone like Bossuet (or the Jansenists, whom he roundly attacked), was generalized and moralistic. Gorday has little to say about any of this and, like his subject, seems more comfortable talking about God as “the Absolute” than about the particular contours of Jesus’ scripturally rendered existence.
And it is perhaps no surprise that Fénelon himself argued strongly against the use of the vernacular Scriptures: The majority of the Church, he wrote, had lost their elevated faith from the early Bible-reading days of the Fathers and were unable to discriminate among the welter of scriptural detail. Nor could most rely only on the direction of their superiors. “Pure love” could provide a safer alternative to such potentially dangerous and confusing practices as Scripture reading. Just as Guyon had hoped, such prayer would be an “easy” method for Christian perfection.
Fénelon’s most significant influence, after some brief interest on the part of John Wesley and the poet Cowper, came in nineteenth-century America, where his and Madame Guyon’s writings were taken up and popularized by Protestant holiness writers. Some, like A. W. Tozer, embraced a view not unlike Gorday’s ethical gloss of Fénelon.
This stream of application would no doubt have rattled Fénelon but would have left Bossuet sadly unsurprised. The debate over Fénelon functions as an illuminating parable for the fate of modern popular Christianity. Gorday’s judgments about its meaning are not my own. But his book is a lucid presentation of the theological dramatis personae and of the central debate over God’s scriptural specificity, a debate that continues to trouble the Christian church.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, and a member of First Things’ advisory council.