You're here: » Articles Home » Francois Fenelon » Christian Counsel » 10: On Self-Abandonment

Christian Counsel: 10: On Self-Abandonment

By Francois Fenelon

      If you would fully comprehend the meaning of self-abandonment, [1] recall the interior difficulty which you felt, and which you very naturally testified when I directed you always to count as nothing this self which is so dear to us. To abandon one's self is to count one's self as nought; and he who has perceived the difficulty of doing it, has already learned what that renunciation is, which so revolts our nature. Since you have felt the blow, it is evident that it has fallen upon the sore spot in your heart; let the all-powerful hand of God work in you as he well knows how, to tear you from yourself.

      The origin of our trouble is, that we love ourselves with a blind passion that amounts to idolatry. If we love anything beyond, it is only for our own sakes. We must be undeceived respecting all those generous friendships, in which it appears as though we so far forgot ourselves as to think only of the interests of our friend. If the motive of our friendship be not low and gross, it is nevertheless still selfish; and the more delicate, the more concealed, and the more proper in the eyes of the world it is, the more dangerous does it become, and the more likely to poison us by feeding our self-love.

      In those friendships which appear, both to ourselves and to the world, so generous and disinterested, we seek, in short, the pleasure of loving without recompense, and by the indulgence of so noble a sentiment, of raising ourselves above the weak and sordid of our race. Besides the tribute which we pay to our own pride, we seek from the world the reputation of disinterestedness and generosity; we desire to be loved by our friends, although we do not desire to be served by them; we hope that they will be charmed with what we do for them without any expectation of return; and in this way we get that very return which we seem to despise: for what is more delicious to a delicate self-love, than to hear itself applauded for not being self-love?

      You may have seen some one who seemed to think of every one but himself, who was the delight of good people, who was well disciplined, and seemed entirely forgetful of self. The self-oblivion is so great that self-love even would imitate it, and finds no glory equal to that of seeming to seek none at all. This moderation and self-renunciation which, if genuine, would be the death of nature, become, on the other hand, the most subtle and imperceptible food of a pride which despises all ordinary forms of glory, and desires only that which is to be secured by trampling under foot all the gross objects of ambition which captivate ordinary minds.

      But it is not a difficult matter to unmask this modest arrogance--this pride which seems no pride at all, so much does it appear to have renounced all the ordinary objects of desire. Condemn it and it cannot bear to be found fault with; let those whom it loves fail to repay it with friendship, esteem, and confidence, and it is stung to the quick. It is easy to see that it is not disinterested, though it tries so hard to seem so: it does not indeed accept payment in as gross coin as others; it does not desire insipid praise, or money, or that good fortune which consists in office and dignities. It must be paid, nevertheless; it is greedy of the esteem of good people; it loves that it may be loved again and be admired for its disinterestedness; it seems to forget self, that, by that means, it may draw the attention of the whole world upon self alone.

      It does not, indeed, make all these reflections in full detail; it does not say in so many words, I will deceive the whole world with my generosity, in order that the world may love and admire me; no, it would not dare to address such a gross and unworthy language to itself; it deceives itself with the rest of the world; it admires itself in its generosity, as a belle admires her beauty in a mirror; it is affected by perceiving that it is more generous and more disinterested than the rest of mankind; the illusion it prepares for others extends to itself; it passes with itself for what it passes itself upon others, that is, for generosity, and this is what pleases it more than anything else.

      However little we may have looked within to study the occasions of our pleasure and our grief, we shall have no difficulty in admitting that pride, as it is more or less delicate, has various tastes. But give it what taste you will, it is still pride; and that which appears the most restrained and the most reasonable is the most devilish; in esteeming itself, it despises others; it pities those who are pleased with foolish vanities; it recognizes the emptiness of greatness and rank; it cannot abide those who are intoxicated with good fortune; it would, by its moderation, be above fortune, and thus raise itself to a new height, by putting under foot all the false glory of men; like Lucifer, it would become like to the Most High. It would be a sort of divinity, above all human passions and interests, and it does not perceive that it seeks to place itself above men by this deceitful pride which blinds it.

      We may be sure, then, that it is the love of God only that can make us come out of self. If his powerful hand did not sustain us, we should not know how to take the first step in that direction.

      There is no middle course; we must refer everything either to God or to self; if to self, we have no other God than self; if to God, we are then in order, and regarding ourselves only as one among the other creatures of God, without selfish interests, and with a single eye to accomplish his will, we enter into that self-abandonment which you desire so earnestly to understand.

      But let me say again, that nothing will so shut your heart against the grace of abandonment, as that philosophic pride and self love in the disguise of worldly generosity, of which you should be especially in fear, on account of your natural disposition towards it. The greater our inherent endowment of frankness, disinteredness, pleasure in doing good, delicacy of feeling, love of honor, and generous friendship, the more lively should be our distrust of self, and our fear lest we take complacency in these gifts of nature.

      The reason why no creature can draw us out of ourselves is, that there is none that deserves to be preferred before ourselves. There is none which has the right so to detach us, nor the perfection which would be necessary to unite us to them without reference to ourselves, nor the power to satisfy the soul in such an attachment. Hence it is that we love nothing out of ourselves, except for the reference it has to self; we choose under the direction of our coarse and brutal passions, if we are low and boorish, or under the guidance of a refined desire for glory, if we are so delicate as not to be satisfied with what is gross and vulgar.

      But God does two things, which He only has the power to do. He reveals himself to us, with all his rights over the creature, and in all the charms of his goodness. Then we feel that, not having made ourselves, we are not made for ourselves; that we are created for the glory of Him whom it has pleased to form us; that He is too great to make anything except for Himself, and that thus all our perfection and our happiness should be to be lost in Him.

      This is what no created thing, dazzling though it may be, can make us realize in respect to itself. Far from finding in them that infinity which so fills and transports us in God, we discover only a void, a powerlessness to fill our hearts, an imperfection that continually drives us into ourselves.

      The second miracle which God works is, to operate in our hearts that which He pleases, after having enlightened our understanding. He is not satisfied with having displayed his own charms; He makes us love Him by producing, by his grace, his love in our hearts; and He thus himself performs within us, what He makes us see we owe to Him.

      You desire, perhaps, to know more in detail in what this self-abandonment consists. I will endeavor to satisfy you.

      There is little difficulty in comprehending that we must reject criminal pleasures, unjust gains, and gross vanities, because the renouncement of these things consists in a contempt which repudiates them absolutely, and forbids our deriving any enjoyment from them; but it is not so easy to understand that we must abandon property honestly acquired, the pleasures of a modest and well-spent life, and the honors derivable from a good reputation, and a virtue which elevates us above the reach of envy.

      The reason why we do not understand that these things must be given up, is, that we are not required to discard them with dislike, but, on the contrary, to preserve them to be used according to the station in which the Divine Providence places us.

      We have need of the consolation of a mild and peaceful life, to console us under its troubles; in respect to honors, we must regard "that which is convenient," and we must keep the property we possess to supply our wants. How then are we to renounce these things at the very moment when we are occupied in the care of preserving them? We are, moderately and without inordinate emotion, to do what is in our power to retain them, in order to make a sober use of them, without desiring to enjoy them or placing our hearts upon them.

      I say, a sober use of them, because, when we are not attached to a thing for the purposes of self-enjoyment and of seeking our happiness in it, we use only so much of it as we are necessarily obliged to; as you may see a wise and faithful steward study to appropriate only so much of his master's property as is precisely requisite to meet his necessary wants.

      The abandonment of evil things then, consists in refusing them with horror; of good things, in using them with moderation for our necessities, continually studying to retrench all those imaginary wants with which greedy nature would flatter herself.

      Remember that we must not only renounce evil, but also good things; for Jesus has said, "Whatsoever he be of you that forsaketh not all he hath, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke xiv. 33.)

      It follows, then, that the Christian must abandon everything that he has, however innocent; for, if he do not renounce it, it ceases to be innocent.

      He must abandon those things which it is his duty to guard with the greatest possible care, such as the good of his family, or his own reputation, for he must have his heart on none of these things; he must preserve them for a sober and moderate use; in short, he must be ready to give them all up whenever it is the will of Providence to deprive him of them.

      He must give up those whom he loves best, and whom it is his duty to love; and his renouncement of them consists in this, that he is to love them for God only; to make use of the consolation of their friendship soberly, and for the supply of his wants; to be ready to part with them whenever God wills it, and never to seek in them the true repose of his heart. This is that chastity of true Christian friendship which seeks in the mortal and earthly friend, only the heavenly spouse. It is thus that we use the world and the creature as not abusing them, according to Saint Paul. (1 Cor. vii. 31.) We do not desire to take pleasure in them; we only use what God gives us, what he wills that we should love, and what we accept with the reserve of a heart, receiving it only for necessity's sake, and keeping itself for a more worthy object.

      It is in this sense that Christ would have us leave father and mother, brothers and sisters, and friends, and that he is come to bring a sword upon earth.

      God is a jealous God; if, in the recesses of your soul, you are attached to any creature, your heart is not worthy of Him: He must reject it as a spouse that divides her affections between her bridegroom and a stranger.

      Having abandoned everything exterior, and which is not self, it remains to complete the sacrifice by renouncing everything interior, including self.

      The renouncement of the body is frightful to most delicate and worldly-minded persons. They know nothing, so to speak, that is more themselves than this body, which they flatter and adorn with so much care; and even when deprived of its graces, they often retain a love for its life amounting to a shameful cowardice, so that the very name of death makes them shudder.

      Your natural courage raises you above these fears, and I think I hear you say, I desire neither to flatter my body, nor to hesitate in consenting to its destruction, whenever it shall be the will of God to waste and consume it to ashes.

      You may thus renounce the body, and yet there may remain great obstacles in the way of your renouncing the spirit. The more we are able, by the aid of our natural courage, to despise the clay tenement, the more apt are we to set a higher value upon that which it contains, by the aid of which we are enabled to look down upon it.

      We feel towards our understanding, our wisdom, and our virtue, as a young and worldly woman feels towards her beauty. We take pleasure in them; it gives us a satisfaction to feel that we are wise, moderate, and preserved from the excitement which we see in others; we are intoxicated with the pleasure of not being intoxicated with pleasure; we renounce with courageous moderation the most flattering temptations of the world, and content us with the satisfaction derived from a conviction of our self-control.

      What a dangerous state! What a subtle poison! How recreant are you to God, if you yield your heart to this refinement of self-love! You must renounce all satisfaction and all natural complacency in your own wisdom and virtue.

      Remember, the purer and more excellent the gifts of God, the more jealous He is of them.

      He showed mercy to the first human rebel, and denied it to the angels. Both sinned by the love of self, but as the angel was perfect, and regarded as a sort of divinity, God punished his unfaithfulness with a fiercer jealousy than He did man's disobedience. We may infer from this, that God is more jealous of his most excellent gifts than He is of the more common ones; He would have us attached to nothing but Himself, and to regard his gifts, however excellent, as only the means of uniting us more easily and intimately to Him. Whoever contemplates the grace of God with a satisfaction and sort of pleasure of ownership, turns it into poison.

      Never appropriate exterior things to yourself then, such as favor or talents, nor even things the most interior. Your good will is no less a gift of God's mercy, than the life and being which you receive direct from his hands. Live, as it were, on trust; all that is in you, and all that you are, is only loaned you; make use of it according to the will of Him who lends it, but never regard it for a moment as your own.

      Herein consists true self-abandonment; it is this spirit of self-divesting, this use of ourselves and of ours with a single eye to the movements of God, who alone is the true proprietor of his creatures.

      You will desire to know, probably, what should be the practice of this renouncement in detail. But I answer that the feeling is no sooner established in the interior of the soul, than God himself will take you by the hand, that you may be exercised in self-renunciation in every event of every day.

      Self-abandonment is not accomplished by means of painful reflections and continual struggles; it is only by refraining from self-contemplation, and from desiring to master ourselves in our own way, that we lose ourselves in God.

      [1] The terms abandonment, annihilation and death of itself, and the correlative expressions, union with God, oneness, and others of similar import, are frequently used by writers on the higher life, as a most concise and convenient form of designating a state of experience indicated throughout the New Testament, by such texts as the following: "Wherefore, if ye be dead with Christ," etc. (Col. ii. 20.) "If ye then be risen with Christ, etc. (Col. iii. 1.) "For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God." (Col. iii. 3.) "And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." Gal. v. 24.) "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Phil. ii. 13.) "That they all may be one: as Thou, Father, art one in me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us." (John xvii. 21.) It has been objected by some, that this abnegation of self, recommended in such glowing terms by these pious authors, involved two exceedingly dangerous errors. That on the one hand it necessarily implied an abandonment and loss of our identity, by a sort of Pagan transfusion into God, and on the other , that it bordered upon, if it did not constitute, a very pernicious form of perfectionism, in that it made God the author of all our willing and doing whatever their moral character. It can scarcely be necessary to say to any one who has made himself familiar with the subject, that such doctrines would be a melancholy perversion of the teachings of the writers in question. By the death of self, and annihilation of the will, they simply mean to express, in the strongest manner possible, that the soul, on every occasion, and under all circumstances, wills only what God wills, retaining perfectly its identity, and of course, its power to will. By union with, or absorption into God, they intend to convey the idea of the state of Oneness referred to by Christ, wherein the soul is made partaker of the perfect Holiness of God; but none are more earnest in insisting that the smallest appearance of evil is unanswerable evidence that such an attainment is still at a distance. By their fruits ye shall know them, is constantly asserted to be the inexorable standard of judgment for this, as for all other states of experience.-Editor.

Back to Francois Fenelon index.

See Also:
   1: Of the Little Knowledge of God there is in the World
   2: Of the Necessity of Knowing and Loving God
   3: On Pure Love
   4: On Prayer and the Principal Exercises of Piety
   5: On Conformity to the Life of Jesus Christ
   6: On Humility
   7: On Prayer
   8: On Meditation
   9: On Mortification
   10: On Self-Abandonment
   11: On Temptations
   12: On Wandering Thoughts and Dejection
   13: On Confidence in God
   14: In What Manner We are to Watch Ourselves
   15: On the Inward Teaching of the Spirit Of God
   16: On Daily Faults and the Toleration of Ourselves
   17: On Fidelity in Small Matters
   18: On Transitory Emotions, Fidelity, and Simplicity
   19: On The Advantages of Silence and Recollection
   20: Privation and Annihilation, A Terror Even to the Spiritually-Minded
   21: On The Proper Use of Crosses
   22: On the Interior Operations of God to Bring Man to the True End of His Creation
   23: On Christian Perfection
   24: The Way of Naked Faith and Pure Love is Better and More Certain than that of Illuminations and Sensible Delights
   25: On the Presence of God
   26: On Conformity to the Will of God
   27: General Directions for Attaining Inward Peace
   28: Pure Love Only Can Suffer Aright and Love its Sufferings
   29: Interested and Disinterested Love Have Each its Appropriate Season
   30: On True Liberty
   31: On the Employment of Time


Like This Page?

© 1999-2019, All rights reserved.