Patience of the Poor

From the Archives, 1943
Still from the film Mouchette (Criterion Collection)

I believe that the world will be saved by the Poor, and indeed by that very species of the Poor which the world looks upon as incurable, which the world suspects of having been born proof against the Virgilian "cursed greed for gold," just as goats are proof against tuberculosis. Such Poor exist, of course, but we know little about them, if only because they know very little about themselves. In no sense have they taken vows of poverty; rather God has taken these vows in their place, without their knowledge; He has made sieves of their hands so that they can hold onto nothing.

We should be deeply mistaken were we to confound these people with spenders, with wasters, with the careless. The very sign of their mysterious vocation is not that they scorn money—in fact they sometimes get to the point of thinking that they love money as much as the rest of us. But if they do love money, they do not truly desire it; rather they dream about it, and we may well wonder whether they believe in it any more seriously than children believe in ogres and fairies. God keeps them in this state of innocent curiosity regarding that monster whose thirst could not be quenched by all the blood of the human race. I say that such Poor will save the world. And they will save it without wishing to; they will ask for nothing in return, simply because they will be unaware of the value of the service they will have rendered. They will carry out this stupendous task, and they will not win a farthing in reward. They will continue just as before to argue with the drugstore proprietor, the baker, the grocer, the landlord; they will continue each month to go through their financial sleight-of-hand and high strategy; they will bend their every energy to state with precision problems more absurd than that of squaring the circle; and, imagining that they are solving them, they will waste their time thinking them solved—dreaming, for instance, that they pay their debts, that, as they themselves would put it, they are "starting off on the right foot" at last. Unfortunately this is the sort of foot they never have, and what is more they get along very well without it, for they have no real urge to run too fast after fortune. They do not want money for today; they prefer to hope that it will come tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, and it is this hope which is what they really love.

Hope. That is the word I have been wanting to get to. The rest of the world desires, covets, demands, requires, and the world calls all these things hope because it has neither patience nor insight nor honor; all it wants is pleasure, and pleasure cannot be awaited, hoped for, in the true sense of the word; waiting for pleasure cannot be described as any form of hope, but rather of frenzy, of agony.

Whatever you knock down, they will rebuild behind your back—the poor will do it once, ten times, a hundred times.

Moreover the modern world lives much too fast, the world no longer has time for hope, the inner life of modern man in our days has too quick a rhythm to allow the formation and ripening of so burning and tender a feeling; the modern man shrugs his shoulders at the very idea of so chaste a betrothal to the future. The world no longer has time to hope, or to love, or to dream. Rather it is the poor who hope in the world's place, exactly as the saints love and expiate for all of us. The tradition of hope lies in the hands of the poor, just as the ancient lace-makers of Bruges have a secret technique which mechanical processes will never succeed in imitating.

You may answer me that the Poor, since they needs must live on hope, have not much more merit in hoping than in living. True enough. You might even add that the harder their life becomes, the more they should hope by way of compensation. Do you believe that the labors of these busy honey bees, the honey which seeps from their hives, might possibly be lost forever? Of certainly, no one really asks himself this question, since the earth is still possessed by the masters of modern industrialism. But the day will come—is not that day already near at hand? Do you not feel upon your forehead, upon your hands, the first freshness of its dawn?—the day will come when those who now, as though hypnotized, chase after their pitiless masters, the bloodthirsty masters who lavish human life as though it were some worthless raw material, who stuff their furnaces and their forges with human lives...when those who chase thereafter will stop short upon the road which leads nowhere...Well, then, the Word of God shall perhaps be accomplished; the Poor shall possess the earth, simply because they will not have lost the habit of hope in a world of the hopeless.

I realize perfectly that such a hypothesis will seem trifling to realistic political thinkers. "Whoever controls the whole of public opinion truly possesses the earth," they will answer me, "and since the Poor will never have enough money to control the first, they will never possess the second."

Yes, yes, you think that you are the masters of all public opinion, but you have only explored that part of public opinion which is most ready to your hand. You have summoned the peoples to profit, as you are now calling them to arms, and the squirming and grimacing multitudes have hidden the horizon from your eyes; their cries have filled, covered, submerged the silence of millions. But now you must act. You realists have promised the liquidation of a society whereof, moreover, you brashly wasted the resources, and silly fools are still trying to figure out the profits of such an operation, whereas you yourselves already know that all it will do is leave us a tremendous capital debt. So now you must create something.

We have seen you proudly boasting of a philosophy of man which attributes to this biped but one motive power—self-interest—but one god—force—and but one inner urge—instinct. We shall learn by experience what this philosophy is worth. Deign, realists, to understand me; don't take all this as some trifling witticism. You have been able to tear down a society, but you will never build up a new one with men formed after your pattern. To build is always a task of love. Sooner or later you shall have to make an appeal to a humanity which you do not know at all well, that you even refuse to know, because its existence would make your theses crumble, a humanity which is not realist in the meaning you give to the word. Another humanity, another species of men, who you believe will never demand anything, because they do not need the same things as you do.

Perhaps they will demand nothing; perhaps they will draw up no list of grievances. But—and mark my word—you will never get the best of their patience, of their holy patience. Whatever you knock down, they will rebuild behind your back—they will do it once, ten times, a hundred times. Tirelessly they will pick up everything that you have let fall, and they will hand it back to you, with a smile. The picture of life which you paint in your own mind is so gross that you believe you have found in violence the ultimate secret of domination, whereas experience daily teaches us that the humble patience of man has constantly, and through millenia without number, put in check the wild forces of evil. When you believe that you have beaten everything down, enslaved everything, you will still not have triumphed over the patience of Jesus Christ. "The patience of the Poor shall not perish, forever."

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Books
Collections