Sections

Canfield, Benet of

Benet of Canfield

Life

Around 1609-10 André Duval put in the hands of Vincent de Paul the work La Règle de Perfection (The Rule of Perfection) by Benet of Canfield. Vincent was to be strongly influenced by this work in his dealings with and attitude towards André Duval, and in his own language and spirituality concerning the Will of God and Providence.

Benet of Canfield was born William Fitch in 1562, in the Essex village of Little Canfield about 56 kilometres northeast of London. He was the third of four sons of his father's (William Fitch) second marriage. He had three brothers Thomas, William (another William who died in infancy) and Francis. Around 1579 he began his studies in London, firstly at New Inn, one of the eight Inns of Chancery, and then at Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. At the Middle Temple, it would have been expected that his studies would take about seven years. In regard to his religious persuasion, Fitch was a Protestant (Anglican), but he also came into contact with Calvinism at the Temple Church. In 1585, over a period of eight days, as a result of reading The First book of Christian Exercises appertaining to Resolution by Robert Parsons SJ, several religious experiences, and many conversations which his friends, he became a Catholic.

In 1587, he joined the Capuchin Order in France where the Catholic Religion was freely practiced. He took his vows in the Capuchins in 1586 and was given the religious name of Benoît de Canfeld. Benoît is of course the French form of Benedict, but in English he actually used the older form Benet. From this time on, he was known as Benet of Canfield. After finishing his novitiate (with all sorts of mystical experiences on the way) he completed his theological studies in Italy.  In 1599, he returned to England as a priest, thereby being guilty of treason, and for which he was immediately imprisoned. He remained imprisoned until 1602 or 1603, when as result of the efforts of Henry IV (France) he was released by order of Queen Elizabeth I and banished to France. He was Guardian of the Convent and Master of Novices at Rouen in 1608, and became well known in the French Court. He died in Paris in 1611.

The Rule of Perfection

By 1592, Benet had put his work The Rule of Perfection (The Spiritual Life reduced to a single point, the Will of God) into writing. This was done while he was in Italy. He himself says that he was personally practising what he wrote from the time of his entry into the Capuchins in 1587. The Rule of Perfection was divided into Parts I, II, and III, which appeared at various times in both approved and unapproved editions and manuscripts. Parts I and II were also published in English, and there were editions in Latin and French. A letter of approbation printed at the beginning of The Rule of Perfection is signed by a number of doctors of the Sorbonne, including André Duval. Fr André Dodin CM (RIP) concludes that André Duval introduced Vincent de Paul to The Rule as soon as the 1609 edition came out.

Vincent de Paul and The Rule of Perfection

As indicated above, The Rule of Perfection is divided into three major parts. Part I deals with the Exterior Will of God. It is for 'Beginners' in the way of perfection, and focuses on the active life, that is the ascetic rather than the contemplative aspect of spiritual life. This involves mortification, rooting out defects, the practice of virtues, discursive prayer and ejaculatory prayer. For Benet of Canfield, the necessity of these means is known from the law of God or from reason, that is, the exterior will of God.

Part II of The Rule of Perfection deals with what Benet of Canfield calls the Interior Will of God, and is intended for those who have made some progress in the spiritual life. The Interior Will of God is the 'divine pleasure' known to us by interior knowledge in contemplation.

Part III treats of the the Essential Will of God for those well advanced in the way of perfection. It concerns the Supereminent Life - that is the Divine Essence in so far as it can be known by human beings in an immediate and continual way without any image supplied by the senses, and comes from God's grace. God empties the soul of all shapes and images and gives it a new capability for seeing spiritual things.

We know that the Will of God, which was the focus of the three parts of The Rule of Perfection, was an essential part of Vincent de Paul's spirituality. This is clearly shown in the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission, and in Vincent's letters and conferences.

The practice of certain virtues as in Part I of The Rule of Perfection  was also part of Vincent's Way and is in the Common Rules. Vincent chose the virtues of Meekness, Humility, Simplicity, Mortification and Zeal for Souls as his stepping stones in developing the Christian life. 

Trying to eradicate defects in one's life is part of the Vincentian Way, and this is in Part I of The Rule of Perfection. Examen (of conscience) was one of Vincent's active ways of working at this.

The Spiritual Exercises or activities that Vincentians were and are encouraged to carry out in order to live an 'ascetic' life are laid out in the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission. Part I of The Rule of Perfection speaks of the activities that one should engage in in order to develop the spiritual life.

Finally, there is Vincent's attitude to Providence in general, and the avoidance of 'treading on the heels of Providence', a phrase well known to members of the Congregation of the Mission. This particular phrase, using the French enjambement - encroaching on, occurs only in Part III of Benet of Canfield's work, and only in a faulty version of Part III which was appended to Parts I and II in 1609. The faulty version of Part III was replaced in the following year by the authorised version which did not contain the particular phrase. This is the evidence that André Dodin CM used to conclude that Vincent de Paul may have had access to The Rule of Perfection as early as 1609.

A number of Vincentian writers, including André Dodin CM (RIP) and José-Maria Román CM (RIP) have maintained that Benet of Canfield's The Rule of Perfection  was the work that most influenced Vincent de Paul's thinking on, and practice of, spirituality. 


FURTHER RESOURCES

BOOKS AND PERIODICALS

Brousse, Jacques, The Lives of Ange de Joyeuse and Benet Canfield. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1959).

Davitt CM, Thomas, "An Introduction to Benet of Canfield", Colloque, 16 (1987): 268-282

Orcibal, Jean (Ed), "Benoît de Canfield - La Règle de Perfection, The Rule of Perfection", Sciences Religieuses, LXXXIII (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982)

WEB LINKS

English Ancestors of the Fitches of Colonial Connecticut, Fitch Family History and Genealogy

Fytche Arms - Fitch of Little Canfield ~ Part III, Baronage

William Benedict Fytch, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia,