Imagine if a biography weren’t stuffy. Now, picture a book of theology that was more narrative than discourse. Put them together, and Peter Gorday’s Francois Fenelon: A Biography is born. While being rather dense for a two-hundred page book, Gorday, a scholar of Church History and an Episcopal Priest from Georgia, unfolds the very complicated life of Saint Fenelon with alacrity and salience.
As someone who knew of Francois Fenelon from a great distance, the book was a delight to read. While treating the reader as though they are already familiar with Fenelon and the controversy that surrounded him (and Madame Guyon, of course), Gorday presents such a thorough and clear picture that one can easily pick up any of the missing pieces on their own. Fenelon, one of the last significant Catholic theologians prior to the French Revolution, was a polarizing figure who embraced “pure love,” a mystical concept that began and ended with loving God. Gorday does an excellent job of weaving this theological construct into the life of Fenelon, making the mystic and the practice seem inseparable. While I will leave it to the reader to decide for themselves whether or not Fenelon’s “pure love” is an attainable goal, the practice itself is presented as clearly as such a concept can be, and I heap praise upon Gorday for doing so. It is not easy to boil down something ineffable (just as the Psalmist), but Gorday speaks in simple terms while maintaining the necessary intellectual stimulation for this sort of exercise.
Despite Gorday’s soothing interaction with his readers, this is probably not a book I would recommend to all. I think any Church Historian, Christian or otherwise, would be well recommended to read this book. Fenelon’s contributions to French Theology have been sorely overlooked in my limited experience. I would also recommend this to those who are naturally inclined to the more mystical aspect of Christianity. While not a mystic, I have a great appreciation for the great spiritual leaders of Christianity and I have grown to treasure their efforts are communicating their genuine experiences with God. Fenelon can now be counted among their numbers, in my mind. However, for the more casual reader, this book may deal in issues that are above the average level. More than likely, if this book sounds like something worth reading, then it is probably right up your alley.
I echo the words of Dorothy Day, used to approximate Fenelon’s own theology:
Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams (p. 207).
Approach Fenelon’s “pure love” with caution. Once this kind of love has been kindled in your heart, there is nothing left to do but act upon it.