Catholics discouraged by the sexual-abuse scandal and by declining vocations to the priesthood should take a look at the work of Jean Sulivan, the French novelist and essayist who died in 1980.
In his spiritual journal, Morning Light (1976), Sulivan conceded: “Like the storm clouds of the Exodus, the church’s face is more luminous today than when it seemed to rule. It has found glory in its humilation.”
Sulivan was a diocesan priest of peasant background who did not publish his first book until he was forty-five. “I write,” he said, “in order to lie a little less.” After the success of his third novel, The Sea Remains, which won the Prix Catholique in 1964, Cardinal Clément Roques of Rennes approved Sulivan’s request to be relieved of priestly duties in order to devote his time to writing. Regularly critical of institutional religion, Sulivan described the style of the gospel as “just the opposite of a message that tries to control our lives with slogans and principles.”
Sulivan moved to a run-down neighborhood in Paris and wrote tirelessly, completing book after book before dying in an automobile accident at the age of sixty-seven. Earlier he was called back to Rennes by his mother’s hospitalization, the central subject of his powerful memoir, Anticipate Every Goodbye. Her agonized death, rejecting the “priestly consolation” of her son, forced him to reexamine his own faith more minutely, searching for “the God beyond God.”
Sulivan’s next novel, Eternity My Beloved, his only book in print in the United States, was chosen by the Dictionary of Contemporary Catholic Literature to represent his work. It tells the story of Strozzi, a maverick priest during the German occupation in World War II, who became de facto chaplain to the streetwalkers of Paris’s notorious Pigalle district.
Sulivan apparently got to know the real Strozzi. His book’s narrator is a skeptical journalist who keeps questioning the priest’s distinterestedness. Accustomed to explaining human motivation in terms of desire, he finds it hard to accept Strozzi’s virtue. But when Pãquerette suddenly blurts out that she is a prostitute, Strozzi registers no shock. Together they have a drink and go to see Les enfants du paradis. In the theater, the priest rests his hand on the woman’s shoulder for a moment: “The first man with whom she had ever walked and talked who did not brush against her, did not try to deceive her, and did not lecture her-which is really just another way to touch and deceive you and treat you like an object.” Sulivan understands Strozzi’s nonjudgmental openness in terms of the divine self-emptying revealed in the Incarnation.
Later, the narrator pursues Strozzi, resenting his serenity. “Tonzi, are you a man? What about ‘the near occasions of sin’? How do you account for your virtue?”
“I see that you still remember the old vocabulary,” Strozzi teases. He laughs, not the kind of laugh someone uses when trying to be evasive, but “the hearty laugh of a completely free man.” Then, suddenly, Strozzi seems to shift ground. “Perhaps I do need women. I think that a man, in order to be a man, has to meet a woman who will bind him to the world.”
The narrator begins to exult, but Strozzi’s next words are not what he expects: “Why does it have to be knowing in the flesh? You’d like it if I’d say...Well yes, I have felt some—what do you call them, desires, impulses?—ike everyone else. Only, there has always been something stronger than desire, a question: How could I, Strozzi, be of service to all the others? Don’t laugh—one woman isn’t enough for me. That’s it—I want to be available, free. For me, you see, the sexual relationship has a metaphysical value. It’s a pledge, a commitment. It’s not a moral idea, not a law, but a basic fact.”
The depth with which the author presents Strozzi echoes the way Sulivan constantly complained of the reduction of Christianity to ideology. In his spiritual journal, Morning Light, he made clear that the gospel is the opposite of a message that tries to control our lives with rules and precepts. To those caught up in the illusions of a post-Christian world he offers this paradoxical counsel: “If you’re lost in the labyrinth of conflicting truths, overwhelmed by the law, restrained by fear—stop this game, free yourself from faith itself. Live the joyous life of today. Nothing is worse than boredom and sadness. Faith will not abandon you so easily; it’s as persistent as crabgrass.”
Related: Joseph Cunneen's translation of Jean Sulivan's short story "Misery Will Never End" (December 18, 2009).