Tag Archives: Love

Do They Love Us?

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The Nine Muses

 

Thinking on Hesperides, Muses

and Graces,

A growing doubt put me through my paces:

Do they love us,

And our pretty faces?

 

For we men are prone to idolatry,

And of that they ask no apology.

See any array of feminine statuary,

They seem content with their mythology.

 

And I would remind the men that marry,

That our brides make no sculptuary,

For the tribe of Tom, Dick or Harry.

Nor do they personify, the virtues masculine

of Guy or guy, in figures legendary.

 

There are no Gracos, Musers or Hesperados,

Our sisters sing no hymns to such desperados.

And while they have many talents to discover,

When will they paint the Mona Lisa’s brother?

 

I wonder.

And why no verse and oratory

To the universe of our glory?

What’s the story,

are we so ordinary?

My reply is negatory.

 

There is no need to bronze a paragon like Ron,

To carve a steed named Hugh into a statue,

Or marble Dave, already suave in his man-cave,

And launch a thousand ships, to bring back Skip.

 

Our poetesses need no such excesses.

For every man is grand,

and when a woman takes his hand,

She is flown to Shang-Ri-Land,

His well earned reward are her caresses.

 

So dear women, do not apologize,

For your failure to mythologize.

For in our natural state,

There is nothing much to hate.

‘Tis your fate to be tongued-tied,

When you contemplate your mate.

 

And so I close this song of Orpheus,

For fear of an approaching chorus,

Some reproach by a throng of Maenads,

Who appear to be quite mad … Egad!

 


Yes, this does rely on some made up words, and incorrect pronunciations. “Guy” should be the French version too.

Here lies my poor homage to Robert Herrick. And my apologies for departing from poems about a more worthy Subject. However, when I read a poet, I find I want to write a poem like they did. When I read Peguy, I tried writing poems like Peguy … And now I am reading Herrick.  And I can’t move onto my next poem until I get an idea out of my system.

Herrick was very witty, and though a minister, he liked to write about the battle of the sexes. So I wrote a poem he might like, if he was around now. I agree with the advice of the poetry teachers I am reading that you shoud read from a great variety of poets. Imitation is a good learning method.

Herrick is very readable, and his entire output, over 1000 poems, is collected in Hesperides and Noble Numbers. They are available in ebook form on Kindle or at iBooks. I would recommend the 1898 combined edition, Volume 1 and 2, with the preface by Swinburne at the iBooks store. That one is free, and has notes to explain archaic words.

 

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Eyelids

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Ford Madox Brown, Parisina’s SleepStudy of a Head for Parisina’s Sleep (Public Domain)

 

Will our eyes grow weary,
Of staring at your glory?
I think not, but if I did,
I’d wonder on the humble lid.
When you rose and played the host,
Your friends saw you and not a ghost.
They did not cry, and run or hide,
In fear of man with no lid of eye.
In this dream I find some comfort,
That in our mansions we may slumber.
For it is fine to feast, and play and pray,
But I think I’d miss the end of day,
To feel some weakness in my bones,
And sigh, and stretch and head for home.
I would climb up to my royal room,
Where awaits our friend the groom,
Who speaks the name that no one knows,
The stone a rose our hearts disclose,
And drift away as eyelids close,
To blessed darkness, sweet repose.

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An Ode for the Rhapsode

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The Muse, Gabriel De Cool

Here bloomed a rare poet
I groomed for no deceit.
I would play him like a cello,
And sway him to sing
Of the rage of Achilles,
While there calmly sitting
With unfair, wily Socrates,
Ensnared under an olive tree
Already lost in some debate.

You thought to put him to the test,
This child my mind had blessed.
He waited patient on your con
And played along without protest.
Your method led to trouble later on,
But you were gentle with my friend, Ion.

Yes, I am the guilty one.
He was a pretty Grecian urn
Into which I’d pour my wine.
Then I would let poor Ion burn
And turn his song to Helen.
Her pure form alone was fair
As the towers of topless Ilium.

For a poet is a winged being
That flies in proper season.
The spirit starts them singing,
In rhythm to my breathing,
And any hidden, lyric purpose,
You may not parse or reason.

And when you shake and start
Then reach for pen or lyre
It is done by my desire.
There is no shame in that.
For I undress your heart
And set your soul afire.

So be a son like wise Ion,
Who as a guileless child
Enjoys full pardon
Heaven and this smile.
Now he sings of glory,
Not of kings or rage,
With his friend Socrates,
On the eternal stage.

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The Mystery of America

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General George Washington at Prayer at Valley Forge, by James Edward Kelly

 

“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” said my friend.

But the body politic is not my body.

I am the Mystical Body, the E Pluribus Unum,

A heavenly internationale of brotherhood.

 

I am the head and your people are my bones, flesh and blood.

They are the sign of my kingdom to come.

As I wait, I listen to your hymn, a divine prelude,

Of endless skies and graceful harvests.

 

You are my brave little solider, forged for a purpose.

A nation of Joans that fear the fires,

Yet always answers honor’s summons.

Heed only my word, and do not listen to the flames.

 

But you are mischievous children,

Stealing my praise and carving it on coins,

Playing like caesars, while you play innocent with me.

You would eat your cake and keep it too if I let you!

 

You are a sign of contradiction, a teacher’s pet,

Strutting about in your coat of many colors,

Proclaiming my commands,

While forgetting your lessons.

 

I know all your tricks, my clever copycats.

You plucked my eyes for your stars,

And drank my blood and water for your stripes.

(My back was striped too)

 

When you leave me for those cold toys,

I grow angry, but then you surprise me,

By running back with great hot tears,

And my love I cannot deny thee.

 

You are my last child, the one that stayed young

For so long.

Do not forget me as you grow old…

…if you must age, but do not grow cold.

 

For your gates are mine, you poor, miserable ones.

I would free you from sin to see and breathe my glory.

I am standing at your door and knocking,

But only the flame bearing virgin is there to greet me.

 

Yet your mercy is a bother to all the world.

While the elder brothers seek your death,

You give scandal and stay the sword hand.

I love this shameful weakness best.

 

So there will always be a room in my unruly house for you.

And a place at my table, my darling child.

When I ring the bell, I hear your running feet from a long way off.

I will come out to meet you and gather you inside.

 

There I long to hear you pray the blessing,

The words you know by heart.

My youngest child of the nations, forget me not,

And never shall we part.

 

 

 

 

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Sinner and Poet: The Diamond Tears of Charles Péguy

 

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Charles Peguy by Jean-Pierre Laurens

“I am a sinner, but there is no sin in my work.” – Charles Péguy

This guy. But since he was French, he might have been this “Guy.” But rather, his name is Charles Péguy.

Be careful with this guy, cause if you read him, you might actually start writing poetry. I know nothing about poetry, but after reading him, I was inspired to write some of my own. As I said, I know nothing about poetry, but some people who do think he might be the best Catholic poet of the last few hundred years. Those who like Gerard Manley Hopkins would probably disagree. Hopkins was a genius, and smart people who truly understand poetry can explain why he was. I am not a genius or a poet, so don’t ask me to explain Hopkins.

Péguy perhaps was a peasant genius. He wrote in free verse, with little to no rhyme or consistent meter. His poems were long, used simple vocabulary, and much repetition. If this were Seinfeld, he would be Charles Festivus, the “Poet for the Rest of Us”, the 99%. His work is accessible.

But he is largely unknown right now.

Why? He had too much integrity. He came from very modest beginnings, and when he grew older became a socialist and agnostic. He was a very much a defender of Dreyfus, a famous French Jew wrongly accused of treason. However, he fell out with most of his friends on the Left over time due to what he perceived as their pursuit of political advantage over the truth. “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics” is a famous quote of his.

He came to occupy a lonely place, neither trusted nor wanted by the Left or the Right. He was a patriot, and a French nationalist, and his basic politics was one of solidarity with the common man. Unfortunately for his reputation, and despite his defense of Dreyfus, the fascists of the 30s and 40s later tried to claim him as a patron for their twisted politics. And when you put God first, you eventually realize that there is no ideology or political party that can really express what you want. So you hang there, suspended between two thieves, one on the right and another on the left.

But he had integrity, and so when the Great War came, he enlisted, even though he was 41 years old, married and his wife pregnant with their fourth child. He was a little guy too. Because while he was a French nationalist and a patriot, he was not going to let some 18 and 19-year-old kids do the dying for him. And so he died for them, leading from the front, shot through the forehead in 1914.

But the politics are less interesting  than the faith. When he married he did not believe, but by 1908 he had come back to the Catholic faith of his baptism. But his wife was an atheist, and refused to allow their children to be baptized. And because he was not married in the Church, his conscience did not allow him to receive the Sacraments, ever. And out of solidarity with his family, he did not go to Mass.  But that did not stop him from making a forty mile pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of Chartres in thanks to Our Lady when his son recovered from an illness. Integrity.

A man in such a situation can get lonely. And you might find yourself falling in love with the young Jewish girl (and she with you) who works at your literary journal. But a man with integrity doesn’t have an affair. Instead, like Péguy , you play matchmaker and find her a husband.

All this pain and sadness generated great diamond tears of words, a series of poems and plays written during the five years before his death. Much of it is out of print, of course, because that’s the way things are right now. The real treasures of the past have to be unearthed.  I am going to copy a few excerpts of his poems in some future posts (My understanding of U.S law is that there is no copyright for the works of foreign authors who died before 1923).

Oh yes, his family … His wife converted after he died, and had their children baptized. As it will always be, a man and father will die for the sake of his people.

 

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God’s Calling Card

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I took a walk yesterday with two of my female friends during our lunch break. It was a beautiful day, but a front was moving through the area. The wind was playing havoc with their hoodies, and whipping that glorious hair of theirs all around. They were laughing at the sight of themselves, and a woman’s happy laughter is a special kind of music that I think only a man can fully enjoy.

I had been teasing them about showing up for work on Wednesday, in spite of it being “A Day Without Women”, and asked if they should turn in their “Woman Cards.” One half-jokingly wished that she did have a woman card to pull out from time to time. We laughed some more and finished our walk.

The wind was blowing, but I had not been listening closely enough. If I had, what I hoped I would have said was: “You don’t need one. You are God’s calling card.”

Genesis describes God as sending woman to be man’s, and by extension the world’s, helper, and that she was the last thing that was made. She was God’s calling card to the world and endowed with that special genius for love.

Sin forces us to live on our surface, and its often hard to see the true image of what we are meant to be beneath another’s face. Through the mystery of Charity women have the ability, on some level conscious or unconscious, to see underneath, much of the time. It’s a love I see whether they are taking care of a sick child home from school, or a dying relative in a nursing home. Love overcomes any repulsion for sickness and death. I certainly don’t have that natural inclination. Or it shows in the often very tedious and unglamorous work that happens behind the scenes at your church or a local charity. Their heart sees the image in people they may never actually lay eyes on.

And its a love that let’s a woman see the true image of a man beneath the broken shards on the surface. I’m sure many a man has thought, bewilderingly, what does she see in me? Especially, when one may not even be physically attractive.  How am I good enough for her?  I thought that way much of my life, and missed many opportunities for love. What I missed was that woman was a living symbol that love is greater than any flaw or sin. (It can also cause a little frustration, when a woman naturally wants to help a man “change” and fulfill the great potential she sees inside. Some progress is possible, but the final transformation will only happen after death. Patience is a virtue!)

Paul said that “Woman is the glory of man,”  in that sometimes controversial letter of his. I am not sure exactly what he meant, but I like Adam’s reaction to his first sight of Eve:

Adam is talking to himself … out loud. And he says more than one word, like a few sentences actually…

We don’t do that a lot. There are a lot of adjectives that probably exist only to describe the behavior of men: aloof, reticent, dour, taciturn, reserved, stoic, etc.

Adam was dazzled by this “glory” from God.

Women, thank you for being you.

 

 

 

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The Mystery of Beauty

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Christ and Two Marys, William Holman Hunt

“Beauty will save the world!” the old man said.

But my son did not pray for the world.

Its stones, crowns and kingdoms held no light for him.

My only son, my beautiful son.

Who looked like Mary his mother, an echo of Eve,

She who was never marred by sin.

Like lightning striking a fig tree,

he could root you to the earth with a look.

He did not call down fire from Heaven,

for he was the fire, and those who drew near were scorched by his beauty.

And never was he more beautiful than on that one day, that singular day,

when he opened himself to the world, the world he did not pray for.

There was no beauty to be found for three days after,

for he was wandering the lands of the dead, looking for your new face.

Like Psyche, he returned with a prize, and he had saved the world

and your race, while finding Beauty.

And then he came back to me, the son who I had missed for so long.

But first he gave Beauty to the world,

and she came forth, veiled, from the Tomb in a new gown.

An unstained garment.

“You are beautiful,” he said, “But you will serve your sisters.”

And there he made the fateful introduction, for standing on either side of him

were Truth and Goodness.

They were not afraid of her, nor jealous, nor covetous.

Having Charity, they loved her, having Faith, they never doubted her,

and having Hope, they would never give up on her.

These three girl cousins, who walked the road with the newly acquainted sisters,

who have their own story, gave the new one their blessing.

This beautiful new sister.

She is the bold one, Beauty, though she is veiled.

She is the first one to greet you, the first one you see,

though you will never see her face till you enter her home,

where she lives with her sisters, my son and his mother.

There she will possess you and be possessed by you in a lasting embrace,

and no veil will divide her from you, or you from my son.

(My beautiful son, who saved the world).

But you cannot cling to her now, only after you ascend to me, your Father.

This is my will for you and her, my dutiful daughter, Beauty.

She is beautiful because she points away from herself,

to Truth and Goodness.

That is why she captures your eyes, and makes them hers.

Yet she frees them, and when she turns her head,

you must follow the path of her gaze, which leads to her sisters.

If you cling to her, Beauty fades and withers.

She is delicate as a breeze, a scent, or a whisper.

Her gown softly rustles as she approaches,

she likes to come upon you unawares, when you are defenseless.

Treat her well, this dutiful daughter of mine,

who helps my son to save the world.

 

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A Quiver Full of Glory

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St. Therese as Joan of Arc

Three sisters stand around a table.

It is quiet but for the the tap tap tapping

shoe of the little one.

Three glasses in a line across the table. A very large one in the middle.

A smaller one to the right, and a child’s one to the left.

The eldest pours water into each.

“You see, each is full of glory.”

The three little sisters grow up to be Sisters

who do not wear shoes.

In time the youngest becomes the greatest. She stayed little.

She says: “When I die, I will work even harder. I will rain down a shower of roses from heaven.”

And she dies. Everyone looks up.

 

It is now my time to die.

The old rose-bush is cut down by the gardener.

The withered branches, leaves and flowers go into the bonfire.

The thorns crackle as they burn.

One rose remains.

I am planted in the garden of Our Lady, one of many.

Red rose martyrs, innocent whites, mystics in blue.

A flower is small, quiet and still. Obedient.

A flower knows how to listen,

and accepts the light and water without complaint. It grows.

It is a place of rest.

In the cool of the day the Child Jesus plays in the garden.

Sometimes he plucks me with some others, and makes a crown for his Mother.

On some days a bouquet. When they are done playing he puts me back in the soil.

A flower does not protest.

One day the Child Jesus brings a friend to the garden, a young lady in armor.

“Gather your arrows” he says,

And presents her with a bow and quiver.

“Am I to be your Cupid?” she asks.

“No, my Eros.”

For the Greeks were nearer to his Heart than the Romans.

(He had longed to sail for Greece.

“Come over here and help us,” said the man in the dream.

Another would make the journey.)

And so the Little One gathers the roses into her quiver.

We are a little Communion of Saints. We are sharp,

though we have lost our thorns.

He points, and she draws me from the quiver.

She listens with the ear of her heart for the prayer. Loose!

A rainbow parabola,

The arc of history bends from Heaven to Earth.

That flutter in your heart is me striking home.

And when you pray, or hope, or love, you send me

winging skyward.

For the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence.

 

For the Little Therese, and with apologies to 

Charles Peguy.

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Under Satan’s Sun by Georges Bernanos

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With this post I continue my reviews of stories written by non-English speaking Catholics which may be unfamiliar to an Anglophone audience. Here I review Georges Bernanos’ novel Sous le soleil de Satan, which was translated from French into English as Under Satan’s Sun (some translations use Under the Sun of Satan). It was Bernanos’ first novel, and published in 1926.

Most of the translated versions of Bernanos’ work are out of print, and will not be found at your local library or bookstore.  Unless you want to buy a used copy for $100 on Amazon, you may need to make use of the “interlibrary loan” process, in which you can ask your local lending library to request his books from a university library. This is a free service, and I have found it to work quite well.

I.

In Under Satan’s Sun, Bernanos explores what a real saint might think and experience. This is not a dry, matter of fact or even reverent biography of a saint we have probably all read at one time or another.  Rather, Bernanos tries to imagine the interior suffering and day to day experience of a saint, their flaws and even their mistakes. The role of the saint in the world and Church was an endlessly fascinating subject for Bernanos, and the topic of several long essays.

The protagonist of the book is Father Donissan, a priest living in the French countryside. No dates are given, but the events of the book roughly overlap the late 19th century and early 20th century. Donissan is of peasant background, and somewhat rough around the edges in appearance and personality. He struggled in the seminary, and is having difficulty in his first assignment.  Bernanos very loosely based him on John Vianney and, to a lesser extent, Therese of Lisieux, who along with  Joan of Arc, were probably Bernanos’ three favorite saints.

However, Donissan is not present in the book’s first act, which instead tells the story of Germaine Malorthy, later nicknamed “Mouchette” (meaning “little fly”). “Malorthy” appears to be a made-up last name, perhaps suggesting both “sick” (Mal in French) and “straight” (from the Greek Orth). Bernanos may have intended to allude to the concept of original sin with this name.

Mouchette is both antagonist and victim.  As antagonist, Bernanos illustrates the banality of evil, and how a series of mistakes, misunderstandings, and emotional turbulence can lead one to a very dark place. It is intended to be a compassionate portrait, and it is Bernanos speaking when he later has Donissan tell her  that her great crime was no sin in God’s eyes, because her freedom had been compromised by Satan.

But she is also a victim of Satan, the clown prince of the world, and a real presence in the book.  Bernanos accepted that the devil was real, and an omnipresent foe of humanity. The idea may seem strange to the contemporary reader, but the suffering of Donissan, much less the mystery of evil in the world, doesn’t make much sense without this. If I may borrow from the language of software, Satan is a bug, not a feature.  Bernanos’ Satan primarily manifests as a mental presence weighing the soul down at every turn. This is not The Exorcist, and Bernanos’ Satan wages a campaign of interior, spiritual warfare to lead his enemy, us, into doubt, despair and self-hate. Satan is eager to intervene during Mouchette’s confrontation with Donissan:

But then help – a help never sought in vain – came to her from a master who grows more attentive and harder with every day that passes; a dream she could scarcely distinguish from other dreams, a scarcely more bitter desire, a companion and tormentor now real and living, in turn plaintive and languid, the source of tears, more pressing, brutal, and eager to compel, and then, at the decisive moment, cruel and ferocious, fully present in a laugh full of pain, bitter, once a servant and now a master.

Mouchette is sixteen, and sort of an infernal version of the Virgin Mary. She is a savage child, striking out at everyone in her spiritual revolt. Bernanos describes her as a “bride of hell” in the making, and I will simply say it is a photo finish as to whether she consummated her nuptials with God or the Devil.

II.

But the key spiritual struggle is between Donissan and Satan, which is begun during the second act of the book, titled “The Temptation of Despair.”  The two have an encounter of sorts during a long walk Donissan makes on a cold and miserable night to a remote parish. If you have ever had one of those sleeps where you wake up ten or more times, and seem to drift from one dream fragment to the next in a night that does not end … well that’s what happens to Donissan in a way.

Donissan has been gifted with the supernatural charism known as cardiognosis, or the reading of people’s hearts. St. John Vianney apparently had this, and became a famed confessor because of it. Because of his gift, Donissan is subjected, or allows himself to be subjected, to a particular temptation: despair. The weight of seeing so many people’s sins and their lack of repentance torments him. He makes a wager of sorts, offering his happiness and even salvation in an effort to save souls.  Donissan is also overly scrupulous and prone to unnecessary acts of mortification and penance. His opponent plays on this and his combative nature to draw Donissan away from reliance on God’s mercy into a cycle of self-hate, despair and doubt. Thus an interior tug of war begins that will last his whole life:

What he was about to turn against so foolishly, however, was the mysterious joy still awake in his mind, a small, clear flame scarcely flickering in the wind. His arid soul, which had never known any other consolation than a mute and resigned sadness, was first astonished, then frightened, and finally irritated by the inexplicable sweetness. At the first stage of ascension, vertigo strikes, and the fledgling mystic struggles with all his might to break out of the passive contemplation and inner silence, disturbed by its apparent idleness … The Other, who had interposed himself between Donissan and God, concealed himself with utmost skill, advancing, withdrawing, advancing again, carefully, sagaciously, and attentively leading him on.

Donissan is not a follower of Therese’s “Little Way.” He chooses to meet his foe head on.

If you yourself have tendencies to scrupulousness, you might see yourself in him, and have a new insight as to where these feelings come from … not somewhere good.  For self-hate is really another form of pride, an unwillingness to humbly accept whatever flaws or limitations God has allowed us to endure. There was much of the young Bernanos in this book and character, and the older man later reflected on overcoming this in his usual, very quotable way:

The hard thing is not loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s loving yourself enough so that the literal observance of the precept will not do harm to your neighbor.

III.

The third act, titled “The Saint of Lumbres”, takes place some years after the conclusion of the second act. Donissan has been placed in charge of a small parish in a rural part of France, and is no longer a young man. Like John Vianney, he has acquired a reputation as a gifted confessor and miracle worker.  Bernanos uses this part to illustrate how a saint must walk much the same the same path that Jesus did while on earth.  Donissan is besieged by parishioners and visitors, like Jesus was surrounded by crowds.  He is looked at with skepticism and suspicion by the Church, much like Jesus was doubted and questioned by the religious authorities of the day. Donissan, tired and worn down by the unending demands and sins of others, undergoes one last, severe crisis of faith near the end of the book, like Christ on the Cross asking if God had abandoned him.

In terms of style, I find that Bernanos writes in a way very different from contemporary authors. There are long, discursive paragraphs of dialogue or a character’s thoughts. I think much of it is quite beautiful, but one may find him, justifiably, long-winded at times.

In later years, Bernanos referred to the novel as the “fireworks display” of a young man. While this book portrayed the saint as a hero, his later works presented the saint as a more ordinary sort of fellow who is fully cooperative with God’s grace. The confrontation between good and evil is less dramatic, and more in line with the normal day-to-day choices and temptations of the typical person.

IV.

The novel was adapted into a movie by Director Maurice Pialat, and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Gerard Depardieu played Father Donissan. It was well reviewed, but I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed with the film. But I usually am with adaptations of books I like. The director clearly had a respect for the source, and the adaptation is reasonably faithful to the plot. However, given that half the book or more is about what’s going on inside people’s heads, I found it somewhat fragmentary.  The actress who played Mouchette, who was 20, also seemed too old for the part of a sixteen year old girl.

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Donissan and Mouchette. Under the Sun of Satan (1987).

If you read it and like it, a far more insightful and in-depth of treatment of the book is given in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life, in which Hans Urs Von Balthasar reviews and analyzes the spiritual themes of his entire bibliography.

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The Marriage You Save May be Your Neighbor’s

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Poster of the 1959 film version

 

I just read Georges Bernanos’ screen play,  Dialogues of the Carmelites, which was also his last work. It is a fictional account of the lives of the Martyrs of Compiegne in the years and months leading up to their execution during the Reign of Terror.  The characters are very loosely based on the actual nuns.  I found it to be well written and enjoyed it very much.  Francis Poulenc later adapted the screen play into the better known opera, and it has got me thinking about marriage and divorce, which may seem an odd connection to make.  Thus this post.

The protagonist is Blanche De La Force, the young daughter of a French nobleman whose wife died giving birth to her. Blanche seeks the Lord, but has a serious flaw in her temperament: she is afraid of the world and its dangers to a marked degree. She takes the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, a foreshadowing of the particular nature of her suffering. Blanche wishes that the cup of martyrdom pass her by, like Christ asked that his own cup pass him by during his Agony in the Garden.  It is Blanche’s mission in life to share in this agony of fear and doubt.

The theme of the story is that Blanche, on her own, is not strong enough to pass the test. It takes the sacrifice of three other of her fellow sisters to give her the strength to make the walk to the scaffold. First, the Prioress who accepts her entrance into the convent suffers an unexpectedly painful and emotionally turbulent death. Next, her best friend, Sister Constance, allows herself to be publicly humiliated to conceal Blanche’s cowardice from the other nuns. Finally, the subprioress, Marie de L’Incarnacion is separated from her sisters while searching for Blanche (who has fled the convent) and misses out on their martyrdom, which causes her great spiritual suffering.

Bernanos’ argument is that we are witnessing a mysterious performance of a communion of Saints in the making. These three sisters who had been gifted with greater strength of character have taken on a portion of Blanche’s fear, humiliation, and shame. By doing this, they allow Blanche to respond to the Lord’s call to martyrdom with courage and a song at the scaffold of the guillotine.

This particular operation of the Communion of Saints is described as “vicarious representation and substitution” by Cardinal Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his analysis of Bernanos’ life and works. Blanche is not solely a beneficiary however, as her own natural weakness and the corresponding suffering is a ransom paid for other members of the Body of Christ.

So it is that Blanche is carried over the threshold by the willingness of these three nuns to take her place… However, none of this should make us forget that all these works of willing, vicarious substitution have found their foundation in Blanche’s weakness and derive their efficacy and power precisely from the way Blanche herself represents the essential weakness of all men before the ultimate challenge: Blanche drinks the cup of fear to the dregs both for herself and in substitution for all others.

“Communion of saints” happens when every member of the Body surrenders his whole being and opens it to becoming but a part of the whole, when he allows his integrity to suffer wounds that make possible the passage through him of the Blood circulating throughout the whole.

Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1996).

The Carmelite nuns who were martyred had intentionally offered their lives to God in atonement for the Terror and for the restoration of peace to France.  The Reign of Terror did end ten days after their executions, and even secular historians have acknowledged that their great courage and docility made an impression on the public.

Turning to marriage, I once read a post by a religious describing how marriage is truly a martyrdom on its own.  It often is “for worse”, but we like to forget that. We all know of or have experienced (or are experiencing?) marriages that seem to be cursed by the world: poverty, health problems, infertility, difficult in-laws, etc. Some of these marriages fail, and we might ask, why did God allow it to be so hard for that couple? Some particularly good and strong couples endure hardship after hardship.  If we find ourselves in a difficult marriage, we might be inclined to give up. What does it matter anyway we might say.

And yet, the data suggests that divorce is contagious. If your friends and neighbors get divorced, its more likely you will too. In his Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos wrote that a communion of sinners exists side by side with a communion of saints.  Might our sins against marriage make it harder for others to persevere? By withdrawing, do we prevent the Blood of Christ from circulating to all members of his Body?  But if that is so, then our obedience might in some way help others endure, like Blanche’s sisters helped her to stay true to Christ to the very end.

If you are in a marriage that is hard, seems pointless, or is burdened by great hardships, one way to find meaning is to accept that you may be going through it for someone else in the Mystical Body of Christ. Like the Martyrs of Compiegne, you can offer up your suffering for other married couples, like Sister Blanche, who might not have a natural disposition towards strength and endurance of hardship. If you seem to gifted with great reservoirs of strength, like Blanche’s sisters, it may be to bear the burdens of others, even if you will never meet them in this life.

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