The return of Charles Péguy
On 5 September 1914 one of French poetry’s greats lost his life in the Battle of the Marne. A century later his Christian experience finds a strong echo in Pope Francis’ teachings
my source: GIANNI VALENTE ROME in Vatican Insider
“The privileged place for an encounter with Christ are our sins,” Pope Francis said at yesterday’s morning mass in St. Martha’s House. “It is the power of God’s Word that brings about a true change of heart.” The “encounter between [our] sins and the blood of Christ is the only salvific encounter there is.”
The Jesuit Pope’s words would not have slipped past Charles Péguy, the great poet from Orléans who passed away a hundred years ago today. It was 5 September 1914 and the Battle of the Marne had only just began when a bullet went straight through his head. He became one of the early victims of the First World War after volunteering for military service. He was enrolled as a reserve lieutenant. Towards the end of his life, his unusual journey as an “irregular” Christian led him to experience the things Francis described in yesterday’s homily on a number of occasions. In fact he described this experience in his work Descartes and Cartesian Philosophy published after his death, in 1924.
An Italian translation of the text was recently published by Edizioni Studium. The translation, by Cristiana Lardo, a researcher in Italian literature, reads: “The healings, the successes and the rescuing acts of grace are extraordinary; it brought victory and salvaged what was or seemed to have been lost.” “The most terrible miseries, miserliness, turpitudes and crimes, including sin, are often chinks in human armour which grace can penetrate through, overcoming human toughness.” Meanwhile, “everything slides over the inorganic armour of habit, the tip every sword is blunt.” Over a century ago, Péguy wrote: “the do-gooders, those who like to be called as such, have no chinks in their armour. They have no wounds.” “There is no way in for grace, sin is essentially the way in.” These people’s sense of morality understood as the ability for self-sufficient coherence becomes “an impenetrable layer that makes humans impervious to grace.” “Not even God’s charity can cure those who do not have wounds.” “Those who have never fallen will never be pulled back up and those who are not dirty will never be cleaned up.”
The intuited Christian mystery which Péguy professed in the unique conditions he found himself is echoed in many ways in Pope Francis’ pastoral approach and sensitivity. Péguy, a Republican, a socialist and a Dreyfusard who grew up among anarchist unionists and agnostic intellectuals – who considered the Church as a piece of scrap left over by the Ancien Regime or as a support pillar of the capitalist bourgeoisie – rediscovered the Christian faith at the age of 35, during his civil marriage to an atheist woman. Péguy’s newfound faith was like entering a new life of grace and consolation in the midst of so many complications, the illnesses of his three children and his desperate efforts to make ends meet and prevent his ailing literary magazine – the Cahiers de la Quinzaine – from failure.
Péguy felt the hardships of the everyday life of lay Catholics, of father and mothers with families, on his own skin. These are the very people Pope Francis constantly refers to in his homilies and speeches, as ordinary members of “sainthood’s middle class”. These people’s daily lives are an adventure like no other. They are bound by certain conditions and obligations that make it harder to distort the Christian experience and turn it into self-satisfied spiritualism. “According to Péguy there is only one true adventurer in the world, especially in today’s world and that is the father.” “Even the worst adventurers are nothing” compared to him. This is because “they risk nothing whatsoever” in comparison to him. Others “suffer only for themselves.”Only a father or a mother suffers for others. A father “holds hostage his wife and his child and sickness and death can creep up on all members.” Everyone else, including clergymen, can always find a way out and take a detour because they “have no baggage.” But fathers and mothers with families “must bear suffering, misery and responsibility on all fronts; they are like leaders with responsibilities and burdens, they are responsible for a group of prisoners, while being prisoners themselves, weighed down, they are responsible for a group of hostages whilst they themselves are hostages.” (From Véronique: Dialogue de l’Histoire et de l’âme Charnelle” – “Veronica: Dialogue of the history and the carnal soul”)
Péguy saw faith as a new life of grace, in a political and social context in which many official Catholic scholars nurtured antiquated utopias or were associated with the anti-modernist battles which were to gather consensus about a year later under the leadership of Action Française, led by the avowed atheist Charles Maurras. Pius XI condemned Action Française in 1926. But Péguy had contracted a civil marriage with an atheist woman who would not consent to her children being baptised. Under these conditions Péguy was unable to approach the sacraments.
He therefore lived his entire life on the Church’s doorstep as it were; “the starting point, where the pagan becomes a Christian,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in reference to him. As a “beginner” Péguy found himself in the precarious condition: he was a “sinner who attended Sunday mass in the local parish” and was always led back to the apparent fragility of the early blossoming of Christian hope. In the final years of his life, Péguy had to put up with the pressure from some friends (priests and scholars from the official world of Catholicism, including Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa) who accused him of moral laxity because of his hesitations in bringing his family into the faith and ensuring it was in conformity with the requirements of canon law. They mocked him as being someone who deluded himself “that salvation was easy” and who didn’t accept “the intellectual yoke of faith, without which there can be no tru faith” (Maritain). Some suggested he should leave his wife if she did not give in.
The intemperance of what Péguy called the “devout party” can also be seen in the attitudes of today’s clergy and the “pastoral customs” which Francis has so often preached against. It is precisely this inspector-like attitude which makes the people of God feel on edge and turns everyone else away from the faith.
Péguy’s physical and spiritual attachment to his wife and children became a reason for clerics and scholars to blackmail him. These men had no real ties with anything. “The aim of these comments” he wrote, alluding to these individuals, “is to hinder the action of grace and to persistently attack it. They trample on the gardens of grace with a brutality that is frightening. It is as though their only aim is to sabotage these eternal gardens. And so, priests busy themselves demolishing the little that remains. Above all, when God works on people’s souls through his ministry of grace, these good priests never cease to believe that God thinks only of them and works only for them.”
Péguy’s “devout” friends mocked his humble hopes of passing on the faith through his friendships with people who were distant from the Church. But the prayers he expressed in painful silence in the final years of his life eventually came true: in the mid 20’s, Mrs. Péguy and three of their four children (the last was born after Charle’s death) were baptised in the Catholic Church. Their firstborn was baptised in a local Protestant Church.
THE LOVE AND MERCY OF GOD
|“The way to God lies through the love of people”
St Mary of Paris, killed in Ravensbruck.
martyr of charity
“In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple peasant farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, ‘I too respect God who created this world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it out under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He’s very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk is left in the bowl.’ Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk.
But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly watch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree. No sooner said than done. When the night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves some distance from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up to the bowl and lapped up all the milk till the bowl was empty. ‘Indeed!’ the peasant sighed disappointedly. ‘Now I can see it wasn’t God!’ The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.
The monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking his path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him: ‘That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will say that doubtless you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, oh learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.’” (Archimandrite Tikhon(Shevkunov), Everyday Saints and Other Stories, p 209)
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