By Francois Fenelon
We are hardly to be persuaded of the goodness of God in loading those whom He loves with crosses. Why, we say, should He take pleasure in causing us to suffer? Could he not render us good without making us miserable? Yes, doubtless, He could, for all things are possible with God. He holds in his omnipotent hands the hearts of men, and turns them as He will; as the skill of the workman can give direction to the stream on the summit of a hill. But able as He was to save us without crosses, He has not chosen to do it; as he has not seen fit to create men at once in the full vigor of manhood, but has suffered them to grow up by degrees amid all the perils and weaknesses of infancy and youth. In this matter, He is the Master; we have only to adore in silence the depths of His wisdom, without comprehending it. Nevertheless, we see clearly that we never could become wholly good without becoming humble, unselfish, and disposed to refer everything to God, without any restless self-reflective acts.
The work of grace, in detaching us from self and destroying our self-love, could not be otherwise than painful, without a miracle. Neither in his gracious nor providential dealings does God work a miracle lightly. It would be as great a wonder to see a person full of self become in a moment dead to all self-interest and all sensitiveness, as it would be to see a slumbering infant wake in the morning a fully-developed man. God works in a mysterious was in grace as well as in nature, concealing his operations under an imperceptible succession of events, and thus keeps us always in the darkness of faith. He not only accomplishes his designs gradually, but by means that seem the most simple, and the most competent to the end, in order that human wisdom may attribute the success to the means, and thus his own working be less manifest; otherwise every act of God would seem to be a miracle, and the state of faith, wherein it is the will of God that we should live, would come to an end.
This state of faith is necessary, not only to stimulate the good, causing them to sacrifice their reason in a life so full of darkness, but also to blind those who, by their presumption, deserve such a sentence. They behold the works of God, but do not understand them; they can see nothing in them but the effects of material laws; they are destitute of true knowledge, for that is only open to those who distrust their own abilities; proud human wisdom is unworthy to be taken into the counsels of God.
God renders the working of grace slow and obscure, then, that he may keep us in the darkness of faith. He makes use of the inconstancy and ingratitude of the creature, and of the disappointments and surfeits which accompany prosperity, to detach us from them both; He frees us from self by revealing to us our weaknesses, and our corruptions, in a multitude of backslidings. All this dealing appears perfectly natural, and it is by this succession of natural means that we are burnt as by a slow fire. We should like to be consumed at once by the flames of pure love, but such an end would scarce cost us anything; it is only an excessive self-love that desires thus to become perfect in a moment and at so cheap a rate.
Why do we rebel against the length of the way? Because we are wrapt up in self; and God must destroy an infatuation which is a constant hinderance to his work. Of what, then, can we complain? Our trouble is, that we are attached to creatures, and still more to self; God prepares a series of events which gradually detaches us from creatures, and separates us from self. The operation is painful, but is rendered necessary by our corruption, and the same cause makes it distressing; if our flesh were sound, the surgeon would use no knife; he only cuts in proportion to the depth of the wound, and the diseased condition of the parts; if we suffer greatly, it is because the evil is great; is the surgeon cruel because he cuts to the quick? Nay, on the contrary, it is both love and skill; he would treat in the same way his only and well-beloved son.
It is the same with God. He never afflicts us, if we may so say, except against his own inclination; his paternal heart is not gratified by the sight of our misery, but he cuts to the quick, that He may heal the disease in our souls. He must snatch away from us whatever we cling to too fondly, and all that we love irregularly and to the prejudice of his rights. He acts in this as we do by children; they cry because we take away the knife, which was their amusement, but might have been their death. We weep, we become discouraged, we cry aloud; we are ready to murmur against God, as children get angry with their mothers. But God lets us weep, and secures our salvation; He afflicts only to amend; even when He seems to overwhelm, He means nothing but good; it is only to spare us the evils we were preparing for ourselves. The things we now lament for a little space, would have caused us to mourn forever; what we think lost, was indeed lost when we seemed to have it, but now God has laid it aside for us, that we may inherit it in the eternity so near at hand. He only deprives us of what we cherish, to teach us how to love it purely, solidly, and moderately, and to secure to us its eternal enjoyment in his own bosom; to do us a thousand times more good than we could ask or think of ourselves.
With the exception of sin, nothing happens, in this world, out of the will of God. It is He who is the author, ruler, and bestower of all; He has numbered the hairs of our head, the leaves of every tree, the sand upon the sea-shore, and the drops of the ocean. When He made the universe, his wisdom weighed and measured every atom. It is he that breathes into us the breath of life, and renews it every moment; He it is that knows the number of our days, and that holds in his all-powerful hand, the keys of the tomb to open or to shut.
What we admire, is as nothing in the eyes of God: a little more or less of life, is a difference that disappears in the light of eternity. What matter whether this fragile vessel, this clay tabernacle, be broken and reduced to ashes, a little sooner or later?
Ah! what short-sighted and deceitful views are ours! We are thrown into consternation at the death of a man in the prime of life. What a dreadful loss! exclaims the world. Who has lost anything? The dead? He has lost some years of vanity, illusion, and danger to his immortal soul; God has snatched him from the midst of his iniquities, and separated him from a corrupt world and his own weakness. The friends whom he has left? They are deprived of the poison of worldly felicity; they lose a perpetual intoxication; they get rid of the forgetfulness of God and themselves, in which they lay sunk--say, rather, they gain the bliss of detachment from the world, through the virtue of the cross. The same blow that saves the dying, prepares the survivors, by their suffering, to labor courageously for their own salvation. O! is it not true that God is good, tender, compassionate towards our misery, even when He seems to launch his thunders at us, and we are open-mouthed in our complaints of his severity!
What difference can we discover between two persons who lived a century ago? The one died twenty years before the other, but now they are both gone; the separation which then seemed so abrupt and so long, appears as nothing to us, and was, in fact, but short. Those things which are severed, shall soon be reunited, and no trace of the separation will be visible. We look upon ourselves as immortal, or at least as having a duration of ages. O folly and madness! those who die from day to day, tread upon the heels of those that are already dead; life flows like a torrent; that which is gone is but a dream, and even while we contemplate that which now is, it vanishes and is lost in the abyss of the past. So will it be with the future; days, months, and years, glide like the billows of a torrent, each hurrying along the other. A few moments more, and all is over! Alas! how short will that existence then appear, which now wearies us with its sad and tedious length!
The disgust of life is the result of the weakness of our self-love. The sick man thinks the night will never end, because he sleeps not, but it is no longer than others; we exaggerate all our sufferings by our cowardice; they are great, it is true, but they are magnified by timidity. The way to lessen them is to abandon ourselves courageously into the hands of God; we must suffer, but the end of our pain is to purify our souls, and make us worthy of Him.