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Christian Counsel: 12: On Wandering Thoughts and Dejection

By Francois Fenelon

      1. Two things trouble you; one is, how you may avoid wandering thoughts; the other, how you may be sustained against dejection. As to the former, you will never cure them by set reflections; you must not expect to do the work of grace by the resources and activity of nature. Be simply content to yield your will to God without reservation; and whenever any state of suffering is brought before you, accept it as his will, in an absolute abandonment to his guidance.

      Do not go out in search of these crucifixions, but when God permits them to reach you without your having sought them, they need never pass without your deriving profit from them.

      Receive everything that God presents to your mind, notwithstanding the shrinking of nature, as a trial by which He would exercise and strengthen your faith. Never trouble yourself to inquire whether you will have strength to endure what is presented, if it should actually come upon you, for the moment of trial will have its appointed and sufficient grace; that of the present moment is to behold the afflictions presented tranquilly, and to feel willing to receive them whenever it should be the will of God to bestow them.

      Go on cheerfully and confidently in this trust. If this state of the will should not change in consequence of a voluntary attachment to something out of the will of God, it will continue forever.

      Your imagination will doubtless wander to a thousand matters of vanity; it will be subject to more or less agitation, according to your situation and the character of the objects presented to its regard. But what matter? The imagination, as St. Theresa declares, is the fool of the household; it is constantly busy in making some bustle or other, to distract the mind which cannot avoid beholding the images which it exhibits. The attention is inevitable, and is a true distraction, but, so long as it is involuntary, it does not separate us from God; nothing can do that but some distraction of the will.

      You will never have wandering thoughts if you never will to have them, and may then say with truth that you have prayed without ceasing. Whenever you perceive that you have involuntarily strayed away, return without effort, and you will tranquilly find God again without any disturbance of soul. As long as you are not aware of it, it is no wandering of the heart; when it is made manifest, look to God at once with fidelity, and you will find that this simple faithfulness to Him will be the occasion of blessing you with his more constant and more familiar indwelling.

      A frequent and easy recollection is one of the fruits of this faithful readiness to leave all wanderings as soon as they are perceived; but it must not be supposed that it can be accomplished by our own labors. Such efforts would produce trouble, scrupulosity, and restlessness in all those matters in which you have most occasion to be free. You will be constantly dreading lest you should lose the presence of God and continually endeavoring to recover it; you will surround yourself with the creations of your own imagination, and thus, the presence of God, which ought, by its sweetness and illumination, to assist us in everything which comes before us in his providence, will have the effect of keeping us always in a tumult, and render us incapable of performing the exterior duties of our condition.

      Be never troubled, then, at the loss of the sensible presence of God; but, above all, beware of seeking to retain Him by a multitude of argumentative and reflective acts. Be satisfied during the day, and while about the details of your daily duties, with a general and interior view of God, so that if asked, at any moment, whither your heart is tending, you may answer with truth that it is toward God, though the attention of your mind may then be engrossed by something else. Be not troubled by the wanderings of your imagination which you cannot restrain; how often do we wander through the fear of wandering and the regret that we have done so! What would you say of a traveller who, instead of constantly advancing in his journey, should employ his time in anticipating the falls which he might suffer, or in weeping over the place where one had happened? On! on! you would say to him, on! without looking behind or stopping. We must proceed, as the Apostle bids us, that we may abound more and more. (1 Thess. iv. 1.) The abundance of the love of God will be of more service in correcting us than all our restlessness and selfish reflections.

      This rule is simple enough; but nature, accustomed to the intricacies of reasoning and reflection, considers it as altogether too simple. We want to help ourselves, and to communicate more impulse to our progress; but it is the very excellency of the precept that it confines us to a state of naked faith, sustained by God alone in our absolute abandonment to Him, and leads us to the death of self by stifling all remains of it whatever. In this way we shall not be led to increase the external devotional practices of such as are exceedingly occupied, or are feeble in body, but shall be contented with turning them all into simple love; thus, we shall only act as constrained by love, and shall never be overburdened, for we shall only do what we love to do.

      2. Dejection often arises from the fact that, in seeking God, we have not so found Him as to content us. The desire to find Him, is not the desire to possess Him: it is simply a selfish anxiety to be assured, for our own consolation, that we do possess Him. Poor Nature, depressed and discouraged, is impatient of the restraints of naked faith, where every support is withdrawn; it is grieved to be travelling, as it were, in the air, where it cannot behold its own progress towards perfection. Its pride is irritated by a view of its defects, and this sentiment is mistaken for humility. It longs, from self-love, to behold itself perfect; it is vexed that it is not so already; it is impatient, haughty, and out of temper with itself and everybody else. Sad state! As though the work of God could be accomplished by our ill-humor! As though the peace of God could be attained by means of such interior restlessness!

      Martha, Martha! why art thou troubled and anxious about many things? One thing is needful, to love Him and to sit attentively at his feet!

      When we are truly abandoned to God, all things are accomplished without the performance of useless labor; we suffer ourselves to be guided in perfect trust; for the future, we will whatever God wills, and shut our eyes to everything else; for the present, we give ourselves up to the fulfillment of his designs.

      Sufficient for every day is the good and the evil thereof. This daily doing of the will of God is the coming of his kingdom within us, and at the same time our daily bread. We should be faithless indeed, and guilty of heathen distrust, did we desire to penetrate the future, which God has hidden from us; leave it to Him: let Him make it short or long, bitter or sweet; let Him do with it even as it shall please Himself.

      The most perfect preparation for this future, whatever it may be, is to die to every will of our own, and yield ourselves wholly up to his; we shall in this frame of mind, be ready to receive all the grace suitable to whatever state it shall be the will of God to develop in and around us.

      3. When we are thus prepared for every event, we begin to feel the Rock under our feet at the very bottom of the abyss; we are ready to suppose every imaginable evil of ourselves, but we throw ourselves blindly into the arms of God, forgetting and losing everything else. This forgetfulness of self is the most perfect renouncement of self and acceptance of God; it is the sacrifice of self-love; it would be a thousand times more agreeable to accuse and condemn ourselves, to torment body and mind, rather than to forget.

      Such an abandonment is an annihilation of self-love, in which it no longer finds any nourishment. Then the heart begins to expand; we begin to feel lighter for having thrown off the burden of self, which we formerly carried; we are astounded to behold the simplicity and straightness of the way. We thought there was a need of strife and constant exertion, but we now perceive that there is little to do; that it is sufficient to look to God with confidence, without reasoning either upon the past or the future, regarding Him as a loving Father, who leads us every moment by the hand. If some distraction or other should hide Him for a moment, without stopping to look at it, we simply turn again to Him from whom we had departed. If we commit faults, we repent with a repentance wholly of love, and, returning to God, he makes us feel whatever we ought. Sin seems hideous, but we love the humiliation of which it is the cause, and for which God permitted it.

      As the reflections of our pride upon our defects are bitter, disheartening and vexatious, so the return of the soul towards God is recollected, peaceful and sustained by confidence. You will find by experience how much more your progress will be aided by this simple, peaceful turning to God, than by all your chagrin and spite at the faults that exist in you. Only be faithful in turning quietly towards God alone, the moment you perceive what you have done; do not stop to argue with yourself; you can gain nothing from that quarter; when you accuse yourself of your misery, I see but you and yourself in consultation; poor wisdom that will issue from where God is not!

      Whose hand is it that must pluck you out of the mire? Your own? Alas! you are buried deeper than thought, and cannot help yourself; and more, this very slough is nothing but self; the whole of your trouble consists in the inability to leave yourself, and do you expect to increase your chances by dwelling constantly upon your defects, and feeding your sensitiveness by a view of your folly? You will in this way only increase your difficulties, while the gentlest look towards God would calm your heart. It is his presence that causes us to go forth from self, and when He has accomplished that, we are in peace. But how are we to go forth? Simply by turning gently towards God, and gradually forming the habit of so doing, by a faithful persistence in it, whenever we perceive that we have wandered from Him.

      As to that natural dejection which arises from a melancholic temperament, it belongs purely to the body, and is the province of the physician. It is true that it is constantly recurring, but let it be borne in peace, as we receive from his hands a fever or any other bodily ailment.

      The question is not, what is the state of our feelings, but what is the condition of our will. Let us will to have what is the condition of our will. Let us will to have whatever we have, and not to have whatever we have not. We would not even be delivered from our sufferings, for it is God's place to apportion to us our crosses and our joys. In the midst of affliction we rejoice, as did the Apostle; but it is not joy of the feelings, but of the will. The wicked are wretched in the midst of their pleasures, because they are never content with their state; they are always desiring to remove some thorn, or to add some flower to their present condition. The faithful soul, on the other hand, has a will which is perfectly free; it accepts, without questioning, whatever bitter blessings God develops, wills them, from them, and embraces them; it would not be freed from them, if it could be accomplished by a simple wish; for such a wish would be an act originating in self, and contrary to its abandonment to Providence, and it is desirous that this abandonment should be absolutely perfect.

      If there be anything capable of setting a soul in a large place, it is this absolute abandonment to God. It diffuses in the soul a peace which flows as a river, and a righteousness which is as the waves of the sea. (Isaiah xlviii. 18.) If there be anything that can render the soul calm, dissipate its scruples and dispel its fears, sweeten its sufferings by the anointing of love, impart strength to it in all its actions, and spread abroad the joy of the Holy Spirit in its countenance and words, it is this simple, free, and child-like repose in the arms of God.

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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


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