[first published September 4, 2015]
"Faith is a great tree, an oak tree rooted deep in the heart of France." (Péguy)
On the fourth day of September, in the early weeks of the Great War, Lieutenant Charles Péguy was killed.
(His father, a cabinet maker, had died in 1874 as a result of wounds received during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. His mother then returned to her work as chair-seat maker to support her family.)
Here are excerpts from a review by Robert Royal:
"When a true genius is born, nothing in the family or its circumstances allows us to predict the new arrival. Something mysterious and sovereign suddenly erupts with genius. That’s all there is to say." Among this century’s Catholic geniuses, no clearer instance of this mystery exists than the brilliant French poet and essayist Charles Peguy.
Like many other pre-Vatican II figures, Peguy has been in eclipse the past few decades, even in France. The secular world neglects him for complicated religious and political reasons. But gifted minds in their own right as different as the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the British poet Geoffrey Hill have tried to bring us back into contact with his great spirit...
Peguy was born in 1873 near Orleans, Joan of Arc’s birthplace, and grew up with a mother and grandmother who were basically illiterate. They earned a bare living recaning chairs sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Peguy learned the trade and also helped out, well into his teens, with the annual harvests in the region. Though he showed great gifts the moment he entered school, Peguy was as close to a peasant as any major literary figure who ever lived.
The genius of Peguy lies mainly in the ways he tried to bring simple truths to bear on the whole modern world... His activity consisted in a wide-ranging attempt to retrieve an authentic spiritual life from the various incrustations that were making it difficult to find, even for simple people. Despite the underlying simplicity of his words, they have a brilliance and authority that revitalize politics, mysticism, war, peace, love, honor, and death. In him, the timeless depths of the classical and Christian past suddenly find a new voice that is also a prophetic and urgent message to the present.
Peguy was killed by a bullet through the head during the Battle of the Marne in 1914. He had anticipated his death in a poem:
Blessed are those whom a great battle leaves
Stretched out on the ground in front of God’s face,
Blessed the lives that just wars erase,
Blessed the ripe wheat, the wheat gathered in sheaves.
It was a dramatic end to a heroic life. He was barely forty.
In a different age, Peguy might have founded a religious order. As it turned out, he did something even more difficult: He lived a life of complete intellectual and spiritual integrity in the modern world.
Peguy is never a mere writer—what he called an intellectual—i.e., someone who stands outside life as an observer. He risked himself, his wife and children, and “the first of treasures . . . peace of heart” for the truth. Once, when someone was making a point, he interrupted: "You’re right, but you have no right to be right unless you are willing to pay the price of demonstrating the rightness of truth." Even eighty years after his death, for those who know him, Peguy remains a real presence. When you read him, your eyes don’t merely follow a string of words, you enter a passionate current of life.
As a young man in Orleans, Peguy gravitated toward simple workers and peasants who were interested in freedom and learning, even if they had to pursue them in the evening after long hours at work: "I consider it a personal blessing to have known, in my earliest youth, some of those old republicans; admirable men; hard on themselves; and good for events; I learned through them what it means to have a whole and upright conscience." Several sober intellectuals have disputed whether this exuberant portrait of the old France is accurate. Peguy was as skeptical as anyone of romantic fantasies, but he is there to witness that such people existed.
Many people today blithely invoke civil society as a counterweight to much that is wrong in the modern world. Peguy would have agreed, but for him popular virtues had deep roots in classical and Christian culture. Without that living support, even the peasants and workers became corrupt. By around 1880, he would argue, the old pride in hard work, productivity, and craftsmanship was beginning to pass.
Though Peguy was an activist for workers, he deplored the new attitude among labor groups of demanding the largest compensation for the least work and even, something unthinkable in the old system, of destroying tools and machinery during strikes. In the old days, there had been more independence and simple virtue: "When a worker lit a cigarette, what he was going to tell you was not what some journalist had said in the morning newspaper. The free-thinkers in those days were more Christian than pious people today."
Both the Church and the republic, he claimed, had contributed to this disaster in their mistaken attacks on one another. (Remnants of these attitudes surfaced when John Paul II visited France earlier this year: Five thousand people demonstrated when the pope praised the ancient king, Clovis, as if his visit were a prelude to restoring the ancien regime). For Peguy the true Catholic and true republican virtues were parallel achievements, producing saints on the one hand and heroes on the other. The decline of Christianity, he warned, was part of the same evil spirit leading to the decline of the republic, a lesson we still have not absorbed...
Jacques Maritain worked for Peguy as a young man in Paris. He spoke both from personal acquaintance and a just appraisal of Peguy’s heroic spirit when he addressed France as "ancient land of Joan of Arc and Peguy" and the French as "companions of Joinville and Peguy, people of Joan of Arc." In London, DeGaulle made similar appeals...
In 1952, Alexander Dru, the translator of Kierkegaard, published extended segments from two of Peguy’s greatest essays [see this review of Temporal and Eternal]. Several of the longer poems have been translated in full. But we still need a good-size anthology of Peguy’s prose in English. His reading of history and analysis of the real roots of our spiritual crisis alone would make such a volume invaluable. It would also reveal Peguy’s most salient trait—an unflagging passion for justice and truth whatever the cost...
Amid various struggles for workers’ rights and relief efforts, Peguy became a socialist of sorts because he believed that true socialism sought real brotherhood and respect among men. He was young, and the world had not yet seen any socialist regimes... Peguy was by nature incapable of the kinds of lies and partisanship that make up most party politics. His verdict about such things is a phrase known to many people who have otherwise never heard of Peguy: "Everything begins in mysticism (le mystique) and ends in politics." This formula summed up more than twenty years of political experience.
Peguy the socialist also became a supporter of Dreyfus, the French Jewish officer wrongly accused of spying for Germany. He started a journal, the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, to defend these and other just causes because he discovered at an international convention that the socialists practiced the same kind of partisan lying and injustice that he had associated with bourgeois conservatives...
For Peguy, the root of any mystique was remaining fidele (faithful) to truth and justice despite party commitments. He would refuse to impose an orthodoxy even on writers for the Cahiers: “A review only continues to have life if each issue annoys at least one-fifth of its readers. Justice lies in seeing that it is not always the same fifth.”
... He even came to feel himself at odds with the Dreyfusards. They had begun in a mystical, idealistic mode, fighting for three mystiques: the Jewish mystique, with its long history of suffering for the right since Old Testament times (the Nazi collaborators were careful to hide this pro-Jewish Peguy); the Christian mystique, founded by a just man wrongly accused; and the French mystique, which in both its republican and Christian forms believed in justice for all. For Peguy, being a Dreyfusard meant the spiritual and moral defense of all three.
Unhappily, Peguy detected within the Dreyfusards, too, impure political elements at odds with its mystique. The socialist Combes government, for example, used the emotional repercussions of the Dreyfus case to close Catholic schools and monasteries (Catholics had largely supported the military and the charges against Dreyfus). As a man who valued discipline, courage, and the right use of military power in just causes, Peguy particularly detested what he saw as an anti-French, anti-military, near traitorous element among some Dreyfusards:
“Some people want to insult and abuse the army, because it’s a good line these days. . . In fact, at all political demonstrations it is a required theme. If you don’t take that line you don’t look sufficiently progressive . . . and it will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking insufficiently progressive.”
Somewhere along this path of betrayal by the socialists and Dreyfusards, Peguy returned to the Church. A friend stopped in to see Peguy when he was sick in bed at home. After a long conversation, Peguy merely remarked as the friend was leaving, "Wait. I haven’t told you everything. I’ve become a Catholic." No great explanations were later forthcoming. On the few occasions when he wrote of the conversion, Peguy didn’t even use the word, preferring to speak of the "deepening" of his passion for truth, justice, and brotherhood, which found its fullest scope in Catholicism.
But he did not find that the Catholic parties were doing much better than the others in keeping their politics from overwhelming their mystique. The Catholic Church seemed to have betrayed its mystique by becoming a temporal party in France and elsewhere. Peguy thought that if it dropped clerical politics and returned to its spiritual greatness and concern for the poor, the Church would enter into a period of massive renaissance. Fidelity to the Gospel, which in the realm of mystiques did not exclude what was noble and good in other traditions, now became the overruling passion of his life.
Peguy’s conversion brought with it not only spiritual renewal but fresh literary inspiration as well, including a turn to poetry. In 1909, he wrote his book-length poem The Mystery of the Charity of Jeanne d’Arc, a stunning evocation of Joan’s youth in Peguy’s own Orleans, which shows the peasant roots of her charity and how the story of Christ Himself needs to be seen in its simple, passionate, popular elements...
In God’s providence, Peguy found himself subject to new trials of passion and fidelity around 1910 when—without any previous warning—he fell deeply in love. Madame Genevieve Favre, Jacques Maritain’s mother, was close to Peguy at the time and has left a lengthy record of the "terrible hurricane" that struck him. For many years, the identity of the woman was kept confidential because of the various actors still living, including Peguy’s wife. We now know that she was Blanche Raphael, a young Jewish friend of Peguy’s since his university days and a collaborator in several projects. Once that passion ignited, it became, like everything else in Peguy’s life, as much an eternal as a personal question.
Unlike many men who undergo similar experiences at his age, Peguy remained perfectly fidele—to everyone—and therefore suffered immensely. He wanted to respect all elements of the reality that had been presented to him. He could not think of being unfaithful or breaking with his wife, even though he might have gotten an annulment because they had been married outside the Church. But neither would he simply ignore his feelings for Blanche, which he regarded as a reality to be acknowledged. For the four years until his death, therefore, even after Blanche’s marriage to another man, Peguy would struggle with himself and with God.
Most Catholics repeat, "Thy will be done," every day without noticing what they are saying: Peguy learned the cost of such prayers...
Once he embraced them fully, fidelity and abandonment to the divine will started to become a full-time job. When Peguy’s son Marcel fell seriously ill, he turned the son over to the protection of the Virgin and "walked away," promising that if Marcel recovered, Peguy would make a walking pilgrimage between Notre Dame in Paris and Notre Dame in Chartres, a good sixty miles. Marcel recovered and Peguy kept his vow. He would later repeat the pilgrimage for other causes. In the interwar years, as the cult of Peguy grew in France, thousands of people reenacted this concrete devotion yearly. Even today, when hardly anyone reads Peguy anymore and many ancient devotional practices have all but disappeared, large groups of fideles make the trek out of solidarity with Peguy.
|part of the interior of Chartres Cathedral|
It was also around the time of Marcel’s illness that Peguy wrote one of the greatest and most unjustly neglected poems of the century, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. For Peguy, both fidelity and hope are not static habits or concepts, but dynamic, living forces. It was an insight he had learned and developed from an early friend, Henri Bergson. Mere abstract doctrines of fidelity or hope may themselves become obstacles to the spirit. By contrast, real hope is the forward thrust of life; someone who is in despair, literally without hope, cannot be argued back into another attitude. Hope can only be received from God; it reconnects the hopeless person "to the source, to a reawakening in him of the child."
In the poem itself, which recently has been ably translated by David L. Schindler Jr., hope is portrayed as a little child, but a child of greater immediate urgency than her serious older sisters faith and charity. Besides, says Peguy (or rather, says God: Peguy is not afraid to put words in the Deity’s mouth), hope is one of the most remarkable things in the world:
The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.
Faith doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising
I am so resplendent in my creation. . . .
That in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.
Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another.
How could they not love their brothers.
How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by.
And my son had such love for them. . . .
But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
That is surprising.
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.
That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I’m surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.
Among many other firsts, Peguy may be the only writer in history to have God pronounce something "unbelievable," the even greater irony being that it is the force of his own grace that God finds so...
We have lost or mislaid a great portion of the riches of the Catholic faith in recent years. Some of it is so far gone that it will take an immense effort of preparation to put us in a state to recover it again. Peguy has been one of the partial casualties of that history. But unlike many other figures, he speaks with a directness and vitality about things quite close to our own experience. To reconnect with him we do not need anything other than eyes to see and ears to hear. This century has been a mess, and still worse for failure to heed prophetic voices like his. If we are looking for a Catholic renaissance and a restoration of our civic virtues in the new millennium we will find them only by recovering the work and imitating the lives of men like Charles Peguy.
UPDATE: Take a look at this stirring testimony of how Monsieur Peguy's book compelled a "New Age" man to radically change.