A God Who Trembles

Fear & Hope in the Poetry of Péguy
Portrait of Charles Péguy, by Jean-Pierre Laurens, 1908 (detail)

Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe salvi, published a year ago, is magnificent as a theological lesson on the virtue of hope, drawing on Scripture and the church fathers to challenge the misplaced hopes of the modern world.

Nearly a century prior to Benedict’s letter, Charles Péguy (1873–1914) published The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue—also a meditation on hope, but this one by a poet and unlikely mystic in the middle of a harrowing personal drama. Where Benedict speaks to the intellect, Péguy speaks to the heart; where Benedict strives for clarity, Péguy hints at mystery, and does so with an irresistible tenderness.

Charles Péguy was born in Orléans, the son of a carpenter. His father was killed in the Franco-Prussian War when Charles was ten months old. His mother supported herself and her child by mending chairs. Charles received the customary religious education, made his first Communion, and excelled in his studies. In 1895, he enthusiastically “converted” to socialism and became a militant atheist. In 1897, he married Charlotte Baudouin, the sister of a close friend who had died prematurely. With her dowry, Péguy founded a socialist publishing house. While still believing firmly in the socialist ideal, Péguy became disillusioned with socialist politics and its compromises—especially during the Dreyfus Affair. When he lost control of the publishing house, through what might be called a “hostile takeover,” he founded a journal called Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, in which he could express himself more freely. That put him in a political no man’s land. He was considered a traitor by the Left for his refusal to toe the party line, while the Right wanted nothing to do with him because of his socialist ideals. Both considered him an enemy. This ideological isolation continued throughout his lifetime and followed him after his death.

In 1908, after a serious illness and a period of extreme distress, Péguy returned to Catholicism. His was the church of Joan of Arc and the cathedral-builders, of a time when France was the church’s beloved elder daughter, pure and firm in its faith, when society lived according to the pulse of the liturgy, when God was quite naturally everywhere and in all things. Péguy’s conversion was absolute and all-absorbing, as is evident in his postconversion writings. Yet he had not been married in the church, and his wife wanted no part of it—nor would she tolerate the idea of baptizing their three children. Charles Péguy thus found himself a “public sinner” in the church he so loved, cut off from the Eucharist and the rest of the sacraments. Moreover, he had fallen in love with Blanche Raphael, one of his associates at the Cahiers, and that passion was a further humiliation and contradiction, though Péguy successfully resisted the temptation and maintained his fidelity to his family. Raïssa Maritain describes Péguy praying with tears on the tops of omnibuses, entrusting his family to the Virgin. (After his death, his wife and children converted.) It was in the context of this personal anguish that he wrote his astonishing hymn to hope, The Mystery of the Porch of the Second Virtue. As a lieutenant in the army reserves, Péguy was mobilized at the outbreak of World War I. He was killed by a single bullet to the head in the Battle of the Marne.

Péguy’s style is simple, lapidary, and, in some ways, biblical. Like the psalmists, he proceeds slowly, using rhythmic repetitions and slight variations to examine a theme in all its implications. It is contemplative poetry at its best, provoking prayer because it is imbued with prayer. Peter Maurin’s prose style, in his Easy Essays, has often been compared to that of Péguy—though Maurin always denied that Péguy had any influence on him. Some of Péguy’s works were translated into English in the 1940s, many of them by Julian Green, but translations are now difficult to find.

The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue is the second part of a trilogy, sandwiched between The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. All three are long poems in the form of dramatic plays. The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc takes place before Joan is visited by her “voices.” The dialogue involves three characters: Joan herself, who represents prophetic wisdom and impatience; Hauviette, a slightly older fellow shepherdess, who represents the wisdom of the world; and Madame Gervaise, a twenty-five-year-old Franciscan nun, who represents the wisdom of the church. The poem is a long meditation on the mystery of suffering. In one very poignant passage that has always haunted me, Hauviette discovers that Joan has nothing to eat for lunch. When pressed, Joan confesses that she had given the lunch her mother had prepared for her to two passing children who were fleeing the English invaders. The children had lost their parents and everything else; they did not know where they were going, and they were hungry. Hauviette reproaches Joan bitterly. What has she accomplished? The children will continue their aimless journey and will soon be hungry again, and now Joan, too, will be hungry. So three people will be hungry instead of two. According to Hauviette, Joan only makes herself suffer more by worrying about the children. Their misery reminds her of all who are hungry and miserable, of all who are neither fed nor consoled, and of those who no longer want to be consoled and despair of God’s goodness. She makes herself suffer more than those who suffer these things. Joan can only repeat, “But they were hungry and were crying.” Madame Gervaise offers the classical explanations but doesn’t really solve the dilemma, or satisfy Joan. She speaks of the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of his mother.

In The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue, Madame Gervaise, the sole protagonist, returns and addresses herself again to Joan. The anguished tone of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc has been replaced by a divine serenity. Madame Gervaise speaks in the name of God from the opening line: “The Faith that I like best, says God, is Hope.” Hope is a little girl, apparently insignificant, who constantly astonishes God. Faith and charity one can understand. How can anyone who has seen the wonders of nature not believe? And charity is almost natural: to be distressed by the sufferings of others is part of our makeup. But hope is unexplainable. How can anyone, seeing how things have gone today (and the day before and the day before that) still go to bed thinking that all will be different tomorrow? Hope is God’s greatest miracle; it astonishes even him. Faith sees things as they are, charity loves things as they are, but hope sees and loves what will be.

Most Christians pay a lot of attention to faith and to charity. They are like hope’s two elder sisters, the practical ones who have business to attend to, who seem to be dragging their insouciant little sister along. Hope’s focus is elsewhere, but in reality it is she who is dragging her sisters along, for without her they would be nothing but a couple of old women going nowhere. Like a child, hope runs back and forth along the road, always going to the same place and making her sisters follow her. One would think that all the days and all the roads are the same, that the tracks of yesterday are erased by those of today and those of today by those of tomorrow. But for hope, every day is really a new adventure, the road is always new. The footprints are not effaced but put end to end, and they lead to eternity.

In one of his more audacious moves, Péguy attributes hope to God himself. “All the sentiments, all the movements we should have for God, God had them first for us.” Not only did God love us first, before we loved him. He hoped in us first, so that we might hope in him. He had confidence in us, so that we might have confidence in him. Madame Gervaise, addressing herself to Joan the shepherdess, naturally invokes the parable of the Good Shepherd. There will be more joy in heaven for the one lost sheep than for the ninety-nine that were not lost—for these remained in faith and love. But the lost sheep caused God to be afraid and awoke hope in the heart of Jesus, the heart of God himself. God was afraid that this sheep might be definitively lost, and this fear made his love tremble. God was afraid that he might have to condemn this strayed one. Thus it was that the heart of Jesus and the heart of God trembled with fear and hope. And when the lost sheep was found, God, like the father of the prodigal son, experienced a new sentiment, a joy, a renewal, “as though he were a new God, eternally new.” God has made himself dependent on the most miserable sinner because he hopes in him. He has put himself into the hands of the worst of us. He is afraid of the sinner because he is afraid for the sinner.

This brings us back to our hope in God. He who hopes in God is made pure, however soiled he may have been before. The miracle of hope makes clean the impure water; it is the fountain of youth and rebirth. It is easy enough to draw pure water from pure sources, but hope draws pure water from contaminated sources. Péguy certainly considered himself impure. All he dared ask of Our Lady of Chartres was “the last place in Purgatory.”

The final pages of The Porch of the Second Virtue are dedicated to night—the time when men cease to act and God works in peace. Night is given to us so that we might abandon ourselves to God. Finally, the poem narrows this theme down to one particular night, the night of Good Friday, when darkness descends

and with a great shroud buries the centurion and his Roman men,
the Virgin and the Holy Women,
and this mountain and this valley,
and my people Israel and the sinners and together him who was dying and him who was dead for them,
and the men of Joseph of Arimathea were already drawing near, bearing the white shroud.

Here Péguy opens the way toward a total theology of hope. He dares to speak in the name of God. He contemplates God’s work in the hearts of men and women. One of the most striking features of Péguy’s religious poetry is that he never calls attention to himself; in fact, there is a complete and eloquent self-effacement. His entire focus is on God and his creation—and Péguy’s God is very convincing. He knows very well of what clay he made us, yet that doesn’t prevent him from sometimes being very surprised by what we can do with our gift of liberty, both in the way of holiness and of stupidity. Above all, the God of Péguy is a loving father to his coeternal son, and to his other sons and daughters in whom he sees his only-begotten:

So true it is, so real it is, that he became one of them
And that he bound himself to their mortal fate
And that he became one of them, as it were, at random,
Without any limitation or measure
For before this perpetual, this imperfect
This perpetually imperfect Imitation of Christ
Of which people are always talking
There had been that very perfect imitation of man by Jesus Christ
That inexorable imitation by Jesus Christ
Of the mortal mystery and condition of man.

Péguy turns a lot of conventional wisdom on its head, by trying to imagine things from God’s point of view. This passage is, I think, a healthy counterweight to our modern temptation to regard God as so totally “other” that he becomes vague, alien, and unavailable—the temptation to look down at popular piety as childish and anthropomorphic. Péguy reminds us that we are able to imitate Christ because he first “imitated” us in becoming human. He who had made us in his image also assumed the whole human condition to reclaim and redeem it.

In Péguy’s great poems, hope is something passed on from generation to generation, as holy water used to be passed from fingertip to fingertip. Hope is itself a participation in the communion of the saints. In his own way, Péguy here echoes the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who defined hope generically as a good difficult to obtain but made possible through the help of one’s friends. Our foremost and greatest friend is the Blessed Trinity, but after that there are our other friends—the Virgin Mary, the angels and those saints of Paradise, known or unknown to us, with whom we have a mysterious affinity. We are also helped by the hope of those we have known in the flesh, those whose words and example sustain us in times of discouragement. These friends are the guarantee of the invisible but very real grace that keeps us going. They make our hope possible, as we make theirs, and so renew the face of the earth.

Published in the 2008-12-19 issue: 

Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.

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