Back in August I wrote briefly about The French poet and essayist Charles Péguy in the post A God Dumbfounded by Humanity's Hope. A couple of months ago I was reading a short book by Jesuit Father Gerald O'Collins, a series of reflections on the 'Our Father' called The Lord's Prayer. In his introductory paragraph, he spoke of Charles Péguy's special insight into the words Jesus taught us:
The river Marne which flows north-west across central France was the scene of an epic battle at the start of World War I when the German forces were halted and repelled as they advanced rapidly on Paris. Among the thousands of soldiers who died in the early days of the Battle of the Marne was a prophetic thinker and great poet, Charles Peguy (1873-1914). An atheist from the age of twenty, Peguy returned to his Catholic faith six or seven years before he died. St Joan of Arc was his lifelong heroine, as he struggled with the sufferings that human beings endure and the hope that they can find through the divine love. In ‘A Vision of Prayer’, one of the plays found in Peguy’s Basic Verities, it is God who comments at length on the words of the Lord’s Prayer. God introduces the opening words of the parable of the prodigal son, and closes by declaring: ‘It always ends with embraces, and the father crying even more than anyone else’. Progressive, chant-like repetition turns God’s words into an astonishing tribute to the tender love at the heart of the “Our Father’.
Peguy stands with these innumerable others who for two thousand years have cherished, prayed, proclaimed, translated, interpreted and embellished the Lord’s Prayer. It has proved a living text for public and private use, endlessly rich for everyone in its meaning and power. It is a perfect example of what Gregory the Great said about the scriptures in general: “they provide water in which lambs may gambol and elephants swim’ (Moralia, dedication, 4) .
Here is the text Fr. O'Collins was referring to:
A Vision of Prayer
God Speaks: "I am their father, says God. Our Father who art in Heaven.
My son told them often enough that I was their father.
I am their judge. My son told them so. I am also their father.
I am especially their father.
Well, I am their father. He who is a father is above all a father.
Our Father who art in Heaven. He who has once been a father can be
nothing else but a father.
They are my son's brothers; they are my children; I am their father.
Our Father who art in Heaven, my son taught them that prayer.
Sic ergo vos orabitis. After this manner therefore pray ye.
Our Father who art in Heaven, he knew well what he was doing that day,
my son who loved them so.
Who lived among them, who was like one of them.
Who went as they did, who spoke as they did, who lived as they did.
Who suffered as they did, who died as they did.
And who loved them so, having known them.
Who brought back to heaven a certain taste for man, a certain taste for the earth.
My son who loved them so, who loves them eternally in heaven.
He knew very well what he was doing that day, my son who loved them so.
When he put that barrier between them and me, Our Father who art in
Heaven, those three or four words. That barrier which my anger and perhaps my justice will never pass.
Blessed is the man who goes to sleep under the protection of that outpost,
The outpost of those three or four words.
Those words that move ahead of every prayer like the hands of the suppliant if front of his face.
Like the two joined hands of the suppliant advancing before his face and the tears of his face.
Those three or four words that conquer me, the unconquerable.
And which they cause to go before their distress like two joined and invincible hands.
Those three or four words which move forward like a beautiful cutwater fronting a lowly ship.
Cutting the flood of my anger.
That, actually, is the way I see them, says God…
Because of that invention of my Son’s, thus must I eternally see them
(And judge them, How do you expect me to judge them now, after that?)
Our Father who art in Heaven, my son knew exactly what to do
In order to tie the arms of my justice and untie the arms of my mercy.
(I do not mention my anger, which has never been anything but my justice.
And sometimes my charity.)
And now I must judge them like a father. As if a father was any good as a judge. A certain man had two sons.
As if he was capable of judging. A certain man had two sons.
We know well enough how a father judges. There is a famous example of that.
We know well enough how the father judged the son who had gone away and came back.
The father wept even more than the son.
That is the story my son has been telling them. My son gave them the secret of judgment itself.
And now this is how they seem to me; this is how I see them.
Just as the wake of a beautiful ship grows wider and wider until it disappears and loses itself…
And the ship is my own son, laden with all the sins of the world.
More information about Charles Péguy can be found in an article by Robert Royal titled The Mystery of the Passion of Charles Péguy. Extended excerpts:
French troops on line in the First Battle of the Marne, September 1914
Like many other pre-Vatican II figures, Péguy 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. In fact, Péguy’s life gives moving witness that a great spirit and heart outweigh even genius. If he ever gets a fair hearing, Péguy may one day be recognized as a figure on the order of Kierkegaard or Newman, and perhaps something more besides.
Péguy was born in 1873 near Orléans, Joan of Arc’s birthplace, and grew up with a mother and grandmother who were basically illiterate. … Though he showed great gifts the moment he entered school, Péguy was as close to a peasant as any major literary figure who ever lived.
The genius of Péguy lies mainly in the ways he tried to bring simple truths to bear on the whole modern world. Sheer intellect would take him to the Ecole Normale Superieure and the Sorbonne, the twin summits of the French educational system. But except for some activity in political causes, he would live a largely uneventful life — at least in the way most people conceive of events…
Péguy was killed by a bullet through the head during the Battle of the Marne in 1914. He had anticipated his death in a poem:
Blessèd are those whom a great battle leavesIt was a dramatic end to a heroic life. He was barely forty.
Stretched out on the ground in front of God’s face,
Blessèd the lives that just wars erase,
Blessèd the ripe wheat, the wheat gathered in sheaves.
In a different age, Péguy 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...
As a young man in Orléans, Péguy 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.”
Though Péguy 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.”
Péguy’s talk of his peasant world and workers’ virtues harmed his reputation in some quarters. Like Nietzsche (though with even less justice), Péguy was portrayed by a few Nazi sympathizers during World War II as an advocate of a kind of popular French nationalism and racism. The Nazi version of the Volk and Péguy’s appeal to the peuple could not have been more different: The first sought exclusion and racial distinctions, the second inclusion and human brotherhood... All this has been exposed beyond dispute by scholars. But while Nietzsche, who has certain uses in today’s academy, has been given a free pass despite his Nazi admirers, Péguy, clearly because of his Catholicism and embrace of the old world, remains in limbo…
Péguy never finished his university studies because he was repeatedly sidetracked by situations demanding charity and action. He had sticks broken on his back in demonstrations. He broke with allies who struck dishonorable compromises. If he had wanted to play along with what was already becoming a corrupt system and corrupting alliance between politicians and intellectuals, he could have had a secure existence as a university professor. Instead, he chose the path of truth — along with poverty and isolation.
Amid various struggles for workers’ rights and relief efforts, Péguy 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. But he intuited the true spirit behind socialist movements when he came into contact with actual socialist practice. Péguy 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 Péguy: “Everything begins in mysticism (le mystique) and ends in politics.” This formula summed up more than twenty years of political experience...
Somewhere along this path of betrayal by the socialists and Dreyfusards, Péguy returned to the Church. A friend stopped in to see Péguy when he was sick in bed at home. After a long conversation, Péguy 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, Péguy 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. Péguy 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...
Once he embraced them fully, fidelity and abandonment to the divine will started to become a full-time job. When Péguy’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, Péguy would make a walking pilgrimage between Notre Dame in Paris and Notre Dame in Chartres, a good sixty miles. Marcel recovered and Péguy kept his vow. He would later repeat the pilgrimage for other causes. In the interwar years, as the cult of Péguy grew in France, thousands of people reenacted this concrete devotion yearly. Even today, when hardly anyone reads Péguy anymore and many ancient devotional practices have all but disappeared, large groups of fidèles make the trek out of solidarity with Péguy...
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. Péguy 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 Péguy.