We support our Publishers and Content Creators. You can view this story on their website by CLICKING HERE.

What mattered to writer Charles Péguy was the future and restoring the Christian mystique, “a mystical spring flowing, a source of love, of life, of grace, an eternal spring, inexhaustible, nourishing the world, overflowing onto the age, inundating the world, an eternally mystical spring temporally in the world.”

And once more he went down and wrote with his finger in the sand. —John 8: 4-5

I. But why should I punish her…? —Hosea 4:14

Jesus Speaks:

O my Mother born beyond the first garden,
You no longer know of the kingdom of grace,
From the basin and spring to the high starlit place
And the virgin sun that unveiled the first morning.
—Charles Péguy, Eve 

It’s part of the biblical repository and what Charles Péguy would call the “Christian Mystique.” Jesus has come down from the Mount of Olives to teach. The scene is the temple compound; there’s a rude interruption by Scribes, religious experts, copiers of the law, who drag a woman into the midst of the group. They fire sarcastic questions. Jesus answers by writing in the dust.

There is no manuscript history, no parchment, no velum, no beloved passage on a cocktail napkin. But it speaks to the problem of guilt and innocence, and the Scribes, the bludgeoners of the law, and Jesus a law giver but a different sort. For the Scribes, sins are written in stone and require punishment transcribed in law: stoning for adultery. Jesus writes in the dust: a displacement scuffs out the penalty, forgiveness and mercy making sin transient like dust and erased. But interesting synoptical comparisons, God speaking on Mount Sinai writing in stone; Jesus teaching in the temple compound writing in sand, God speaking, God writing.

In both instances a revelation; God writing and speaking a language that carries a rhythm of thought and of simple majesty and, to coin a metaphor, mysteriously to carry us toward and through a portal of hope.

The latter two words, portal and hope, are used with passion by Charles Péguy—largely in eclipse for some time. To read him is to find one’s self in contact with a great spirit who deserves a better hearing especially his rooted fealty to transcendent truths and that mystique is the source for legitimate authority best expressed as embracing sacrificial love.

There are difficulties in reading Péguy; largely the lack of good translations which is the case of his long poem Eve, and because his method is fragmentary and incrementally repetitious. To read The Mystery Of The Holy Innocents is remindful of Kierkegaard, his own Fragments.

Furthermore, to understand his overall “balance,” it’s wise to survey a prose piece, Clio I, where Péguy makes the distinction between mystique and politique. His argument begins with the statement that the ancients were right when they realized that a “city was a being, a living being, and that its foundation was no ordinary action, but a religious action, something out of the ordinary, worthy of solemnization, sacred, not only in a ritual sense… but in a deeper human sense.” [1]

His name for those ancient cities born of faith was mystique, the practical purpose of which was to link the eternal and temporal spheres which is the sole guarantee of freedom. When he wrote such ideas one might feel a tremor from his hand to the paper; in his own time he believed the church was failing in its office which was to ensure that the Christian mystique continued as a source of inspiration; the tremor occurs with the failure of Catholicism in the modern world, the French Church having become de-Christianized and existing merely as a sterilized politique.

What mattered to Péguy was the future and restoring the Christian mystique, “a mystical spring flowing, a source of love, of life, of grace… an eternal spring… inexhaustible, nourishing the world, overflowing onto the age, inundating the world, an eternally mystical spring temporally in the world.” And his hope was that the two mystiques, the Christian and the Republican would flower again and at the same time and as part of the same “fermenting” movement. It would be a long journey; the first forty years might be the worst since in France there were prior historical bloc-like waves of crisis: 1789-1815, 1830, 1848, and so on. But the essential thing was that the politique should never devour the mystique which is what gave it birth. If that became the case, Péguy argues, there would be parallel degradation of both Republicanism and Monarchism.[2]

II. The Broken World Of Charles Péguy: On The Threshold Of The Church

He was born on September 7, 1873, and died on September 5, 1914, a bullet in his forehead at the First Battle of the Marne which marked the end of an attempt by the German army to defeat the French. Péguy had become an officer and supported the French Socialist Party which was neither revolutionary nor radical but reformist and anti-war.

The mid-1890s were years of military obligation and education at Sainte-Barbe’s, a college of the University of Paris, where Péguy and a variety of loyal friends idealistically thought of themselves as future saviors of French culture. They were also serious-minded although the college itself was a sort of lay seminary albeit informed by a kind of Franciscan spirituality. He attended philosophy classes taught by Romain Rolland which inspired Péguy’s enthusiasm for the Medieval Period and later Henri Bergson who began teaching at the old college in 1897 and whose influence would become profound. Péguy defended Bergson when his books were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. [3]

There was time a for his own imaginative work which would reflect his French nationalism and French Catholicism as we will come to see. Joan of Arc was analogically walking by his side helping him to see his broken world which seemed on the verge of perishing as was St. Joan’s world. Péguy’s belief in social justice led him to an association with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He visited the homes of the poor where he came to believe that mere compassion was not enough to effect an antidote to the distress.

We know from Yvonne Servais’ biography of Péguy that in 1909 after a long and gloomy night when “his heart was assailed by a sense of emptiness,” and “having touched such depths of despair,” Péguy “rediscovered the religion of his childhood.” Over the intervening thirty-six years, he had found himself in what he came to believe were false and distressing positions including an ardent Dreyfusard and socialism of a sort since he believed socialism sought real brotherhood. [4]

But for years he had stood only at the gates, not because of disbelief in Christian doctrine but with French Catholicism at the time a distrust of priests and his belief that the Church was “political” by which he meant siding with the capitalist French class which he thought was selfish hypocrisy. The revolutionary in him, with his passion for liberty, objected to any external restraints. And there was his irritation with the contemplative orders, Servais writes, men and women “who turned aside from struggling humanity to lose themselves in the vision of the heavenly city.” [5]

The historical context supports Péguy’s consternation since in the seventy years of the Third Republic, there were arguments in the French Catholic Church pitting Republicans, Monarchists and Authoritarians against each other. Most of the French clergy supported the Monarchists whereas the majority of Catholic parishioners supported the Republicans and viewed the differences as a “political” threat. Pope Leo XIII intervened with an encyclical but deep-seated suspicions remained. There is argument suggesting the consequence was the defeat of French Catholicism: parochial schools were closed at the direction of the prime minister, church property confiscated, the religious were no longer paid by the state, and if statistics hold, the Church lost half its clergy.

One might wonder how the Church survived such times but since the state no longer had a choice in choosing bishops, and with an interesting twist the consequence was liberation from control by civil authorities. History records that after the “Great War” what one could describe as the French national spirit revived around French Catholic history and traditions which led to an event in 1920 and a ceremony in Rome: the canonization of St. Joan of Arc.

One might argue, then, that given those decades of French history, Péguy’s The Mystery Of The Charity Of Joan Of Arc was meant as an aid to the French in discovering the saint’s soul and with the discovery an ardent and lucid faith and spiritual power for French Catholics.

III. A Girl Of Our Own Stock, A Girl Of France, A Daughter Of Peasant Folk

Péguy’s life began in humble beginnings and he often referred to himself as a peasant born in Orleans. There was also his deep sentiment for the poor to whom he gave away what little he possessed; his early interest in Joan of Arc led to his 1897 version of her story drawn from his Catholic education and largely concerning the war between France and England. It went unsold and far different than the later mysteries with their lengthy monologues. There are more characters and scene changes, less psychological interiority, but as has been suggested by her biographers a dramatic work of classical dimensions.

A more recent biographer Matthew W. Maguire puts it this way: “It is not simply that Jeanne is a saint or a hero but that for [Péguy] she is both a saint and a hero, and thus occupies ‘a unique point in the history of humanity.’” In other words, “[t]he abiding question that Péguy explored through Jeanne’s life can be put this way: How can sanctity and heroism be embodied in a painfully flawed world that includes predictable iterations of evil, including on one’s own side?” [6] The results are Péguy’s mysteries, his mystiques, which together are a wide-ranging attempt to restore an authentic spiritual life for his French countrymen from the incrustations that over decades had made difficult. His passion, his “hope,” was for the French Catholic church would stop becoming a temporal party but enter the new century with a new renaissance which meant fidelity to the Gospels, honor and tenderness to the poor, a mystique rather than a politique.

Thus to place Péguy’s intentions in context, The Mystery Of The Charity Of Joan of Arc is the first part of an intended trilogy, the second and third The Portal Of The Mystery Of Hope, and the magnificent The Mystery Of The Holy Innocents.

As for his story of “The Maid of Orleans,” Péguy published his reprise, the second version, in 1910, one year after his return to the church and four years before his death.[7] While in Paris, the peasant Péguy noticed that the population seemed divided between classes, luxury and destitution, and the latter largely mute and hidden by shame. He saw the poverty as a possible source for moral and spiritual riches if the destitution that enslaves and degrades could be relieved by a clear-sightedness, veracity, and daring. It was a dream fostering a desire while bringing to the forefront that little girl from Domrémy who fought similar battles believing she was acting under divine guidance. At the mere age of thirteen this St. Joan wishes for the sun of justice to rise lest the will of God become more despised. Temptations besiege the French; perhaps something new is needed: “What we need, God, what we finally need is a woman who could be a saint… and who would succeed.” [8]

His program was in keeping with his early socialist views but also Christian by retiring to the Middle Ages with what he believed was a “collectivist” vision of salvation. The poem raises some interesting questions since it owns a preoccupation with what might best be called “rousseauistic optimism” in a city of material and spiritual grandeur. For the patient reader there are fine moments in the poem which take place the length of an afternoon during which Jeannette, a friend Hauviette, and a nun, Madame Gervaise engage in dramatic dialogue but also with stretches that are less so and more akin to monologue. Here’s Jeannette alone and speaking at the beginning in a lamenting soliloquy:

Our father, our father who art in heaven, how far is your name from
being hallowed; how far is your kingdom from coming.

Our father, our father who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of the earth.

Our father, our father who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of France.

Our father, our father who art in heaven, how far is your will from
being done; how far are we from being given our daily bread.

How far are we from forgiving those who trespass against us and not
succumbing to temptation; and being delivered from evil. Amen (4).

It’s midsummer and “Jeannette” is thirteen-and-a-half and seated at her spinning wheel. She’s watching and tending her father’s sheep; in the background is the River Meuse flowing through meadows and vineyards; the wheat fields are yellow.

Her friend, Hauviette, is ten years old. Madame Gervaise, a nun, does not enter until a quarter of the way into the poem.

Jeanette makes the sign of the cross, turns toward a church in the distance, and begins speaking the words that are spoken at the beginning of every Mass: “In the name of the Father; and of the Son; and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.” She then recites the “Our Father,” then a “Hail Mary,”and then two appeals to her patron saints, St. John and St. Joan (3-4).

What follows is a lengthy interior rumination by Jeannette remarkable for such a young person. It’s an interrogation in which Jeannette laments that perhaps Christ came in vain since it looks to her as if the reign of Christendom is passing away, all that is enunciated in the Lord’s Prayer far from being done. “Never has your name been so blasphemed. Never has your will been so despised. Never has there been such disobedience” (5).

Christians are trespassing against Christians and the world seems to have fallen into a kingdom of temptation. And then this: “If there have not yet been enough saints, men and women, send us some more, send us as many as will be needed, send us so many that the enemy will get tired” (7 ).

The time is 1425 but for Péguy the time is also 1910 which is becoming “de-Christianized,” a term he uses in the essays published as Temporal and Eternal. The solution is to “re-Christianize” France but requires platoons, brigades, regiments of saints, and again “as many as will be needed.”

The phrase portends since martyrdom will happen to Jeannette.

As part of its interiority the poem leads the reader yp reflect on topics which lie at the heart of the Christian Mystique; Jeannette’s passion for God and imploring Him to put an end to the wretchedness which is around all of us is an expression of mankind’s continuing anxiety. Her youthful passion reveals her ardent and lucid faith, hope and courage, which lead us into reflection on the mystique of Christ’s own passion. Apart from what we know of Péguy’s younger political passions, the poem is background to the time when he again believed himself to have been deeply under the influence of dogmas and doctrines untenable and the source of de-Christianizing.

It’s clear that Péguy finds inspiration in the Christian Mystique which makes his The Mystery Of the Charity Of Joan Of Arc an example of someone who could serve as a French national icon but also a future saint who represented the peasant people against exploiting “class” interests including clerics, learned persons, and politicians.

Thus she is recognizable and as Matthew Maguire writes to prepare for his 1897 and 1910 versions of his Joan of Arc story Péguy aimed at historical accuracy. She is, Maguire writes, “respectful but vinegary to her judges…[but] very reluctant to talk about the particulars of the voices she heard.” Her spiritual and moral heroism is meant by Péguy to be a searing brand to the conscience of his own age. [9] It’s also a statement as to how Péguy understands faith as a living and embodied relation between a temporal present and eternity.

What’s further clear in the first third or so of the story is the contrast between Jeannette and Hauviette who regards herself as a clear-sighted girl but is obstinate. With their first exchange, Jeannette notes that she had just seen two “little children go by, two urchins…. They were weeping…. I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry.” Hauviette responds that “The smaller one was probably three. Brats, urchins. I know your nurslings very well (17-18). Jeannette has given them all her bread, her midday meal, and her four o’clock meal. Hauviette’s response is that Jeannette’s sadness is invented.

One wonders, then, in whom do the three cardinal virtues reside, Jeannette or Hauviette? Who of the two embodies mystique and who embodies politique?

“Charity,” Péguy writes early in The Portal Of The Mystery Of Hope is “an ardent mother, she who gives of herself during centuries and centuries, she who unbends during centuries, a little sister of the poor, who nurses the sick, who nurses the wounded, who gathers up all the miseries of the world and shelters all the woes of the world or says God who sees all the faithful uttering with one voice and around Charity all the poor sitting in a circle around the fire, holding out their palms to the heat of the hearth.” [10]

The reader can begin to understand the differences between the two by comparing Hauviette’s obstinacy and fatalism with Jeannette’s seeking solace. Should one take life as it comes since suffering is suffering and is God’s will? Hauviette is passive and goes so far as to argue that if she were somehow aware the day of judgement was going to happen in a half an hour she would go on spinning.

Jeannette is opposed since Hauviette is content with the way things are, but questions why suffering should be allowed and why God has not answered her prayers; her deep agony about Christ’s suffering is unassuaged.

Something must be done about it.

Hauviette begins to exit not to return but it’s clear Jeannette has sent for Madame Gervaise believing that God has revealed Himself to her, “granted [her] a private” revelation. Hauviette argues that there “is no such thing as private revelations” (31). But since Madame Gervaise is in a convent, Jeannete believes she must know why God allows so much suffering to exist; so much suffering and so much perdition. She went into a convent, after all, when Madame Collette, “who is a saint,” converted her. Hauviette suspects that Jeannette might be planning the same and argues that one must not fly to a convent to save one’s soul. [11] “Goodbye,” Hauivete says, “my pretty one…“ (47).

After a long interior monologue by Jeannette, Madame Gervaise arrives to help Jeannette with her unhappiness. The conversation that ensues between the two is theological, sometimes orthodox, sometimes idiosyncratic. Hauviette has offered common sense explanations about God and faith. Madame Gervaise represents official Catholic teaching which one should expect of a nun.

Jeannette is concerned that for the last forty years French people by the droves have lost their souls and now no longer is there an idea that at one time life in this world made one ready for hell or for heaven; but now hell itself is overflowing on earth. She questions what God is doing for His Christian people and whether sending Jesus has been in vain, his death in vain. “Jesus, Jesus, will you ever be present to us…. If you were here, Lord, things just wouldn’t happen the way they are happening now. They never would have happened that way” (65 ). But the people are content and she confesses to Madame Gervais that her own life has become “all hollow within me” (87).

Madame Gervaise responds:

He is here.
He is here as on the first day.
He is here among us as on the day of his death.
He is here forever among us just as much as on the first day.
Forever every day (66).

There are more long monologues in the poem interspersed with stage directions when Jeannette pauses and then resumes speaking as if in a vision. She laments how Jesus’ life, the one great event that means anything, went by so quickly and “will not occur again” and even if so would there be anyone who could be there to help him bear his cross, “a heavy cross, his real cross, that heavy wooden cross, made of real wood, his cross of torment, a heavy, well-constructed cross” (57).

It’s clear that Péguy understood Jeannette’s actual history and not a fanciful character which suggests that Péguy was bookending Medieval history with his own history, a point made in the essay Clio I in Temporal and Eternal where he writes that his own day and age required rehabilitation lest the processes of de-Christianizing result in complete severing of the temporal with the eternal. But to transfigure the world with love is an extraordinary burden more so when the British soldiers, as Jeannette says, “feed their horses oats on the altar” (71). Details accumulate concerning the blaspheming soldiers about whom Madame Gervaise responds that our “sins insult [Christ] and strike [H]im in the face every day” (71).

Jeannette wonders whether people are not at their wits end; Madame Gervaise responds that “damnation arises like a swelling tide in which souls are drowned” (76).

Jeannette, whose soul is sorrowful unto death, argues in turn that we see all this going on under our eyes and are content at present with empty charities” (76). If we do not wish to prevent war we are accomplices, and when we let soldiers do what they wish we profane the imperishable body of Jesus. It’s cowardice to boot. Madame Gervaise offers an argument at some length that Jeannette’s feelings are warped but that one hope remains: perhaps the day has come, the hour when Jeannette will receive “communication from the body of Our Lord.

We know from history that she will hear voices.

But the two are at loggerheads.

In the pages that follow, Jeannette is mute while Madame Gervaise sermonizes in what might be described as formal, high Catholic liturgy but in informal language. It’s not a peon to corruption and suffering but more an extended meditation on the mysteries.

Here’s Madame Gervaise at some length:

He alone could mutter the superhuman cry
He alone then knew that superhuman distress….

And he uttered the cry that will sound forever,
eternally forever, the cry that will eternally never be

In any night. In any night of time and eternity….

What mattered to him the thrust of the Roman spear;
What mattered to him the strain of nails and the hammer;
The piercing of nails, the piercing of the spear;
What mattered to him the nails in the hollow of the hand;
The piercing of nails in the hollow of both of his hands;
His aching throat.
Tearing apart.
His parched throat all athirst.
His parched gorge.
His gorge athirst.
His left hand that burned.
And his right hand.
His left foot that burned.
And his right foot.
Because his left hand was pierced.
And his right hand.
And his left foot was pierced.
And his right foot.
All of his four limbs.
His poor four limbs.
And his hands and his side that burned.
His pierced side.
His pierced heart.
And his heart that burned.
His heart consumed with love.
His heart devoured with love (110-111).

Her point through these pensées with their austerity and insightfulness is to suggest that Jeannette’s torment is an obsession she needs to let go since by comparison her torment is hardly the same. Madame Gervaise suggests that Jeannette wishes to be more of a savior than Jesus. But such is not Jeannette’s point. If there is suffering in the world and souls damned to hell, if we permit evil to exist, such as the evil of war, then by doing nothing we collaborate. Jeannette speaks to what one might best call Christian frustration. She acknowledges that God sent us His Son who suffered so much and then died but nothing has changed. Years have gone by, saints have come and gone with death and preaching but what seems to reign on the face of the earth is perdition.

Madame Gervaise continues her biblical exegesis as a summary of the life of Christ and those around Him and those who murdered Him while explaining to Jeannette that Jesus has to be understood as the first among the saints, the greatest of the saints because He is “the author of redemption,” the “inaugurator of salvation / Over the inaugurator of perdition” (178).

A good point.

Jeannette is silent at her spinning wheel until Madame Gervaise proposes a direct question: “Why, sister, should you want to save from eternal hell / the dead who are doomed, should you want to save / better than Jesus the Savior?” (183)

Jeannette stops spinning but then makes the argument that if she had been present during the time of Christ’s passion she would not have fled like the disciples fled. She would not have forsaken Him.

Madame Gervaise cautions Jeannette to keep herself from the sin of pride. Jeannette patriotically argues that the French people who were at one time happy would not have forsaken Him but would have stood and absorbed blows. She recites a list of French saints who knew how to do service. Anger wells up in Madame Gervaise. “Old pride is watching, child. Be careful that old / pride is watching” (216).

 Jeannette’s worries are Péguy’s worries: France is in danger and like Jeannette hopes God will send a leader capable of renewing the spirit of the nation. Madame Gervaise’ concerns are for the eternal mystique; such is the price of history. The politique is not redemptive.

The subtle point in The Mystery is for the reader to understand what Jeannette was like before her later visions and why she attracted God’s attention. We know Jeannette will in time be willing to suffer but also to act assertively in our flawed and ambiguous world. Hating war she will go to war and commit violence on behalf of the French people. It will weigh upon her which is clear in The Mystery; often in the poem she seems on the verge of accusing God; but it’s important to return to that single sentence she speaks while spinning: “What we need God, what we finally need is a woman who would be a saint… and who would succeed.”

Of course the good nun understands Christianity better than Jeannette whose retorts to Madame Gervaise suggest something of an anticlerical spirit. In Jeannette’s own life her prayer was answered with her martyrdom and sainthood. What she gave to France was the re-Christianizing uniqueness of a spiritual moment that began with the Incarnation and then the Crucifixion forward in time where thy mystery of sacramental love and charity became part of her deepest sympathy. She waited and attended to her spinning. Madame Gervaise exits for a few moments but then returns to stand apart from Jeannette.

She returns as the narrator in the next of Peguy’s long poems, The Portal Of The Mystery Of Hope which offers the good nun as an interlocutor, her voice merging with God’s voice, speaking,in a manner that would impel the reader to understand the true way of holiness.

IV. The Mystery Of The Portal Of Hope

Péguy’s biographers agree that his intention was to write fifteen long “mystery” poems which would leave a legacy and a comprehensive theology of compassion for the weak and humble. The Mystery Of The Portal Of Hope was published in 1911. It’s devoted to the Christian mystique and Catholic piety. The length might be a deterrence for many readers and also elicit diverse judgments for its “auroral” language and whether its prose or poetry. Gide, for example, never spared his reservations; Proust, on the other hand, favored the visceral language of the countryside.

What’s missing is critical consideration of the mysteries as one synonymous piece owning a forward motion toward the divine infinity of The Mystery Of The Holy Innocents.

The Jeannette we meet earlier is prideful but her dialogue with Madame Gervaise is latent with a certain anxiety that suggests a prelude to the loss of hope. But the good nun is aware that history seems to example failures of hope with a dispiriting constancy but Christian hope lives for a reconciliation with God beyond history. All else is mistaken, is a wrong reckoning, a false accounting, and the wrong way toward holiness. There are temporal goals about which failure is akin to a sort of imprisonment and suggestive that one has arrived nowhere since injustice persists. Madame Gervaise will incrementally work to convince Jeannette that God works in a dimension of transcendent time, beyond the past, the present, and the future Her thesis concerns the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity all framed as a rebuttal of modernism’s rendering the body spiritless. Maguire adds that Péguy argued that modernism’s “metaphysical positions… denuded [the modern body] of its distinctive dignities, absurdities, faith, pains, and joys” (123).

Of those three virtues, Madame Gervaise will argue that indeed Faith and Charity are indispensable but Hope, which can deceive us, is the most vital of the other two since Hope is what sustains our relation to a living eternity.

Another good point.

The poem begins with the phrase “Madame Gervaise re-enters.” That being the case, the suggestion is that Jeanette is also present although silent. There are sprinkled moments, however, and likely with Jeannette still spinning that Madame Gervaise addresses Jeannette directly:

In these carnal hearts, this, my child, is what the angels do not

It’s for this, my child, just for this,
(Are you still with me, you haven’t lost your place),
It’s for this that France, that Christianity must go on;
So that the eternal word doesn’t fall into dead silence,
Into a carnal void (62).

Thus, there are also two issues to consider. She is the same twenty-five year old Franciscan nun Péguy created for The Mystery Of The Charity Of Joan Of Arc in 1910 with her lengthy speeches on the Passion and one might suspect a teacher responsible for instructing Jeannette in the Christian mysteries. There’s also a good likelihood that Péguy is referencing an influence from Edmund de Goncourt and the novel published in 1869 and written in small chapters which offer brief moments of sensibility, little expressive instances presumed to be a metaphorical light on the soul. Her role in The Mystery Of The Portal Of Hope is to listen and record or paraphrase God speaking; the interlocutory begins with “The faith that I love the best, says God, is hope” (3).

The soliloquies, then, the interior monologues, are acts of speaking but unlike The Mystery Of The Charity Of Joan Of Arc which owns an exterior setting the issue in The Mystery Of The Portal Of Hope is the setting found in Madame Gervaise’ heart. Theologically it’s comprehensive and ordered around the three theological virtues but especially around what the nun believes is the more neglected virtue of “hope.”

There’s a caveat that might be helpful here: Peguy’s biographers agree that he intended to write his own “Confessions” which would “unveil” the innermost depths of his soul. Those confessions would read like a conversation but one that vectors its way along like a Platonic dialogue and not mere chatter. We do not have those confessions but we have the mysteries with their mystical values and metaphysical probings. To read The Mystery Of The Portal Of Hope is thus not to read assertive arguments but attempts to speak to the dim mysteriousness such mysteries provoke. If the poem were more pedantic it would lose all its unusual richness and distinctive flavor:

Thus the soul, this beast of burden, and of an earthly burden,
Of a carnal burden,
Not only must this soul drive itself and carry itself upon its four virtues,
Pull itself and drag itself.
But it must also drive and must also carry,
It must still pull and must still drag
This body thrust into the earth that tills the clods of earth behind it.
This inert body, lifeless without the soul
Inert without it, industrious with it,
Animated by the soul, the hardworking body is able to till this soul.
Succeeds in tilling…. And she must also bring her salvation to him
who will be resurrected (50-51).

“Faith doesn’t surprise me,” Madame Gervaise states as God’s point of view which suggests it’s not the frailest of the three virtues. And the faith that God loves best is hope. “It’s not surprising” because God is so “resplendent” in His Creation: the sun, the moon, the stars, the fish in the sea, “And especially in children” who are more God’s creatures than men are. “They haven’t yet been defeated by life” (3).

What continues throughout the poem are extended meditations on Faith and Charity, older than hope which shines forth unexpectedly surprising even God because even in the face of tragedy is the sense that tomorrow will be better. [12]

How to explain this, however, is suggested in the metaphor that hope is the river flowing through creation but can only do so by the abundance of grace rooted in Christ. Hope is that little flame in the sanctuary which burns eternally in the faithful lamp, “One trembling flame that has endured the weight of worlds” (7).

But hope is not obvious. Hope does not come on its own.
to hope, my child, you would have to be quite fortunate, to have
obtained, received a great grace.

It’s Faith that is easy and not believing that would be impossible. It’s
Charity that is easy and not loving that would be impossible.
But it’s hoping that is difficult.

ashamedly and in a low voice.

And the the easy thing and the tendency is to despair and that’s the great temptation.

The little hope moves forward in between her two older sisters and one
scarcely notices her.
On the path to salvation, on the earthly path, on the rocky path of
salvation, on the interminable road, on the road in between
Her two older sisters, the little hope

Pushes on (10).

For hundreds of lines, Madame Gervaise speaks unapologetically about the supernatural dimensions of Christianity. And we know that Jeannette will come in time to act on behalf of hope boldly confronting the evils of her own age. Patience, however, is also a virtue since according to Péguy it must reckon with the power and the failure of hope which does so with dispiriting constancy, sin and evil remaining monotonously the same. Hard, then to understand except to note that for Péguy hope is personified as a little girl holding the hands of Faith and Charity which otherwise would fall into politicized frustration and abnegation. That little girl hope continually opens herself to what is good and just and lovable but also in the great dark of night which at times seems global and uncontrolled even in our own century. Madame Gervaise, however, tells Jeannette that when Christ was on the cross the whole of the past was present to him as was the whole future, all history together and separately, the whole reeking with pain. The difference is in Christ’s passion which opened the way to redemption. “Everything that was necessary,” Madame Gervaise explains near the poem’s conclusion. “The incredible adventure” of Christ into the world tied God’s hands for all eternity but also untying God’s hands for His mercy eternally: “And against my justice, inventing a new justice. A justice of love. A justice of hope. Everything was finished” (136). There are few books with such striking insights into God’s heart.

V. The Mystery of the Holy Innocents 1912

It’s a story that leaves tooth marks in the heart and a concern for Jeannette. It can stand alone but better in context with the previous mysteries. One can also assume that Jeannette still has questions, pertinent and poignant. One should also note that Madame Gervais speaks in her own style but one should also assume that she’s the mouthpiece for God suggesting that she is a sort of media or conductor for the voice of God with insights, or rather communications, and as if God were addressing her mind directly: oddly revealing, and a far remove from the complexity one finds in Eliot, or Hopkins, and surely Pound. To move, however, from one page to the next is to confront complexity in simplicity and with more penseés spoken by God who believes, if that’s the right word, or more likely defines for Jeannette what Faith and Charity and hope happen to be:

Faith is a church, a church rooted in the soil of France.
Charity is a hospital, an alms-house which gathered up all the
wretchedness of the world.
But without hope it would be nothing but a cemetery (70 ).

Péguy might be something of a free-thinker here but of the three virtues hope is emphasized and re-emphasized. Without hope which is the promise of a bud which shows itself at the very beginning of April and without which those buds coming from the tree from which they spring would not exist. Those thousands of buds hold the tree in place; life springs from tenderness but without those buds which look like nothing and which seem like nothing, “the whole thing would be only dead wood. / And dead wood will be thrown in the fire” (72). Or make a cross of dead wood.

It’s a start in Madame Gervaise’ attempt with force and clarity to express her comprehension of the massacre of the holy innocents without cleverness and the number of which the poem suggests is well over “one hundred thousand.”

The Gospels treat the story in this way: Matthew 2:16 reports that Herod became furious and had all male children under the age of two executed. To do so was to fulfill what was spoken by Jeremiah: “weeping and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children because they were not more.” Mark is silent on the issue since his Gospel begins with John the Baptist preparing the way. Luke records the birth of Jesus but nothing of the flight to Egypt. John also is silent on the issue. We know that the murder of those children was an attempt by Herod to kill the infant Jesus. The early Catholic Church regarded the slain children as the first martyrs.

The exact numbers vary from 65,000 to 150,000 but it’s important to remember that Bethlehem was a small town; thus even if the numbers are 20 to 40 it’s still a ruthless holocaust act. To think of the atrocity as a command, however, is one way of thinking also of abortion as sanctioned by decree, murder also as killing in “the bud.” the first flowers of Christianity, thousands sacrificed for One: Childermas as an interesting comparison to Christmas. And we assume, theologically, that although the Holy Innocents did not know Jesus their sacrifice saved Jesus. They would have been from very poor families but the paradigm, if that’s the right word, enables us to understand the subtle points often typologically made in the Bible, Moses spared from the slaughter of the Hebrew infants and living to liberate his people from slavery and Jesus, too, liberating his people from sin. But the allusions, although significant, lack the cry of lament for innocent children who died for Christ and also in place of Christ.

But how to give Faith and Charity and hope to such a story that seems to suggest the death of many to save one? Interesting also to remind ourselves that at least according to Abelard, Herod the king also murdered his own son. We know also that the Church venerates these unknowns as representatives who died for his Christ in His stead who in turn dies for everyone else in their stead. Even so the martyrdom is a hideous tale about what was fulfilled which makes the whole into a haunting tune even if such acts of cruelty are part of the daily news these days, tyranny, the unbridled thirst for power, mothers bewailing the death of their children such that Christmas is, as Pope Francis says, accompanied, whether we like it or not, by tears.

And Jeannette in her discourse on suffering would have questions wondering why God, if God were God, would be so callous to allow such suffering. One might think that the purpose of the poem would be to place God on trial but the poem does not. Rather, God speaks. What was sacrificed had to be sacrificed:

Do you believe that I am going to amuse myself by laying tricks
on you like a barbarous despot?
Do you believe the I pass my life setting snares for you and
rejoicing to see you fall into them? (85)

God always acts straight-forwardly and what was done was done under the rule of His mercy. God does not play heads you lose, tails He wins (97).

The grandest works of Jesus are found in the Gospels and it’s been granted to the Saints to Iive and utter the words of Jesus in imitations and honor of Jesus and to undergo a death for the sake of Jesus. It’s there that the poet and Madame Gervaise make the argument that the murder of the Holy Innocents is an example of eternal sanctity, not unworthy of the Gospels and even before Jesus’ life and death some thirty years later. It’s the story of how salvation is gained and appropriate for the innocents since they lived before swallowing the nasty mouthfuls of adult life. They were without blemish and the first martyrs who then produced others martyrs, these early children who are the childhood of Christianity.

It seems rare, however, to find a poet able to expend 163 pages on such a subject of consequence. And yet Péguy does so even if the result has been of small critical consequence. One suspects, however, that such is also the fate of the convert in the modern world. But as in the previous two mystiques, as Péguy’s intentions flowered so did his imagination “release.” But if for modernism faith is a private affair, for Péguy his faith is in his appropriation of the mysteries at the “epic” basis of Christendom. The result, furthermore, is not plagued by intellectualism.

Similar, then, to the previous two mysteries, The Mystery Of The Holy Innocents is once again spoken by Madame Gervaise whom we can imagine is still covering a wide range of subjects with Jeannette. The good nun speaks with the voice of the Father: “I am,” the first line reads with an interesting association, followed by “Master of the Three Virtues.” But this is an “I am” who also allows heart-rending cries of pain in own our world and lives but seems to ignore the suffering. Such is Jeannette’s conundrum.

Even so, The Mystery Of The Holy Innocents combined with the previous two mystiques, will offer the patient reader a comprehensive theology ordered around the three virtues of Faith, Charity, and hope, the latter again uncapitalized since for Péguy the image is that of a “very little girl” who “gets up every morning” and says “good-day to us.”

But again this third mystery is either Madame Gervais speaking or God speaking which for some might disqualify Péguy at the start but for others, to quote Alexander Dru who argues that Péguy—barely a name today— is an eccentric outside the French literary tradition but is easy to label: “There can be no doubt where he belongs, with his Mysteries, his Tapestries, his saints and his pilgrimages. The atmosphere is all too familiar: the deliberately archaic world of a stylized, medieval Catholicism, the refuge of the convert in reaction against the modern world, returning in his poetry to the true fold of the past” (7).

Perhaps so, but the consequence in this still new century is to find a “means” to offer Péguy an encomium and invoke him as a modern master.

The trouble may be Péguy’s method of composing and his polemics which seem to suggest a certain indifference to normal or usual prosody.

And I tell you, God says, without that burgeoning at the end of

April, without those thousands, without that unique little
burgeoning of hope, which obviously everybody can break,
without that tender downy bud, which the first comer can
nip off with his nail, all my creations would be nothing… (32).

Of course a reader should not critique a poet as to how he handles his material unless the conclusion is that the author has nothing important to say. The character of Péguy’s writing is surely unique but with a voice that’s lyrical, and less metrical and more a habit, shall we say, of lacing lyrical expostulations, “breath units,” with considered arguments, God the polemisist and each “breath unit” stated with prophetic intelligence and orthodox Catholicism. With such a “form,” which is hardly pedestrian, the reader can find a capaciousness and spiritual earnestness if not religious ferocity and a fusing as it were of poetry and prose which one might hope would resonate today.

And there must be something in Péguy’s poems that inspired Geoffrey Hill to write his superb They Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, a 100 quatrain long poem which would seem to offer evidence of Peguy’s influence if the reader can cope with Péguy’s incandescent Catholicism and poems with intimidating length which has cast doubt on his reputation. Likewise s it’s important to note Péguy’s influence on Graham Greene who cited Péguy with an epigram from Péguy’s Basic Verities in his novel The Heart of the Matter: “The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity. Nobody is so competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. Nobody, except the saint.”

It depends upon the logic of the imagination and what one can find that influences the work, among whom Henri Bergson, a Péguy favorite.

His French reputation persisted over the decades on into the 1940s largely because the works of his maturity are profoundly meditative and devotional resulting again in long poems detailing the human condition from the perspective of Catholic Christian revelation.

To that end, as the poem develops, Péguy adds that Faith “holds fast through century upon century.” But it’s “Charity who gives herself through centuries of centuries.” The poem then accumulates by adding that “Faith is a soldier…. On the marches go Gascony on the marches of Lorraine.” Charity is a doctor… who nurses the wounded.” But it’s “my little hope / Who says good-day to the poor man and the orphan.”

Every unit in the beginning is punctuated by the incremental repetition “I am, God say, the Lord of the Virtues.” But this is also the God of historicism aware that marches to Gascony were part of the Hundred Years War and a French defeat; likewise the marches of Lorraine where eonce again the armies of France and Germany collided with nearly 70,000 total casualties out of which nearly 22,000 dead over three weeks in August and September 1914.

The poem continues:

And all my creation would be nothing but an immense cemetery.
And my Son said to them: Leave the dead to bury their dead.

Which leaves the “I am” to ruminate:

Alas my son, all my Son, alas my Son;
My Son who on the Cross had a skin as dry as bark;
a faded skin, a wrinkled skin, a tanned skin;
a skin which cracked under the nails
my Son had been a tender milky child
a childhood, a burgeoning, a promise, an engagement’
an attempt; an origin, a beginning of a Redeemer;
a hope of salvation, a hope of redemption….

And that poor dirty beard, all soiled with dust and blood
That ruddy forked beard.
And that soiled hair in disorder that I would have kissed again
and again.
That beautiful ruddy hair, still bloodstained from the crown of
All soiled, all clotted together. All was accomplished (74 ).

I referred earlier in this essay that Péguy’s Catholicism was “incandescent.” Placing the adjective in front is suggestive but what I’m arguing is Péguy’s enthusiasm is for an igniting outburst from a culture that had become ossified; a seismic force, even, but longer standing rather than a random now and agin eruption. If there’s apathy against that the poem exudes passion.

I have carved time out of eternity, God says,
Time and the world of time.

And what of the martyred innocents, first victims for Christ?

I believe they play at hoops, God says, and perhaps at quoits
(at least I believe so, for do no think
that they ever ask my permission)
And he palm forever green they use apparently as a hoop-stick (165 ).

God happily leaves them to their play. And perhaps what Jesus was writing in the sand, Jesus, through whom all was accomplished, or as the poem argues, (This is going to scandalize our Pharisees again)….(121).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] See “Clio I” in Temporal and Eternal, a Liberty Fund and Harville Press publication, 1958, p. 102. The essay is a monologue by Clio, the muse of history. Clio sees an imbalance in modernism’s superficial view of history compared with the more infinite Christian view of history beginning with Genesis which sets the stage for the Incarnation. To read the essay and its accompanying “Memories of Youth” is to engage personally with Péguy’s spiritual earnestness and rhetorical ferocity. His argument is not whether the ancient regimes were better or worse which would suggest an argument between two orders of greatness. HIs intention was cooperation.

[2] Temporal and Eternal, p. 111.

[3] Rolland is best known for his novel Jean-Christophe but also a short biographical sketch on Péguy.

[4] Yvonne Servais, Charles Péguy, Cork University Press, 1953, p 354.

[5] Servais, p. 147.

[6] Matthew W. Maguire, Carnal Spirit, The Revolutions of Charles Péguy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019, p 184.

[7] The 1897 version appeared a decade before Péguy’s return to the church and portrays Joan’s militarism and includes dialogue that reads like transcripts from her trial as Servais notes. Péguy was working at a book store at the time with stacks of his book for sale.

[8] Charles Péguy, The Mystery Of The Charity Of Joan Of Arc, Cluny Media, 2019, p. 8. All subsequent citations are from this edition and noted by page number.

[9] Carnal Spirit, p. 186.

[10] Charles Péguy, The Portal Of The Mystery Of Hope, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996, pp. 7-8.

[11] This would be Collette of Corbie who formed the “Colletine of the Poor Clares,” a Franciscan order who died in 1447, beatified in 1740, canonized in 1807, the history of which would not have been known to Jeannette but would have been known by Péguy,

[12] Péguy’s translators are not remiss in usually capitalizing Faith and Charity but more often than not do not capitalize hope which more often than not was Peguy’s intent, the former virtues owning the character of abstract nouns while the latter a verbal desire for certain things to happen.

The featured image is a portrait of Charles Péguy by Jean-Pierre Laurens, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email