On Suffering, Faith, Sanctity I – Léon BloyNovember 28, 2011
“Bloy is quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, and in the essay “The Mirror of Enigmas”, by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who acknowledged his debt to him by naming him in the Foreword to his short story collection “Artifices” as one of seven authors who were in “the heterogeneous list of the writers I am continually re-reading”. In his novel The Harp and the Shadow, Alejo Carpentier excoriates Bloy as a raving, Columbus-defending lunatic during Vatican deliberations over the explorer’s canonization. Bloy is also quoted at the beginning of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and there are several quotations from his Letters to my Fiancée in Charles Williams’s anthology The New Christian Year.
Bloy was born in Notre-Dame-de-Sanilhac, in the arondissement of Périgueux, Dordogne. He was the second of six sons of Voltairean freethinker and stern disciplinarian Jean Baptiste Bloy and his wife Anne-Marie Carreau, pious Spanish-Catholic daughter of a Napoleonic soldier. After an agnostic and unhappy youth in which he cultivated an intense hatred for the Roman Catholic Church and its teaching, his father found him a job in Paris, where he went in 1864. In December 1868, he met the aging Catholic author Barbey d’Aurevilly, who lived opposite him in rue Rousselet and became his mentor. Shortly afterwards, he underwent a dramatic religious conversion.
Bloy’s works reflect a deepening devotion to the Catholic Church and most generally a tremendous craving for the Absolute. His devotion to religion resulted in a complete dependence on charity; he acquired his nickname (“The Ungrateful Beggar”) as a result of the many letters requesting financial aid from friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers, all the while carrying on with his literary work, in which his eight-volume Diary takes an important place.
Bloy was a friend of the author Joris-Karl Huysmans, the painter Georges Rouault, and the philosopher Jacques Maritain, and was instrumental in reconciling these intellectuals with Roman Catholicism. However, he acquired a reputation for bigotry because of his frequent outbursts of temper; and his first novel, Le Désespéré, a fierce attack on rationalism and those he believed to be in league with it, made him fall out with the literary community of his time and even many of his old friends. Soon, Bloy could count such prestigious authors as Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Renan, Alphonse Daudet, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Bourget and Anatole France as his enemies.”
From the Wikipedia article on Léon Bloy
The following quotes are taken from Jacques and Raissa Maritain’s tribute to Bloy Pilgrim of the Absolute.
[SUFFERING.] Freedom, that prodigious, incomprehensible, indescribable gift by means of which we are given the power to vanquish the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, to kill the incarnate Word, to stab seven times the Immaculate Conception, to excite at a single word all created spirits in the heavens and in hell, to hold God’s Will, Justice, Mercy and Pity in abeyance on His Lips and to prevent them from flowing down upon His creation; this inexpressible freedom is nothing but this: the respect God has for us.
Let us try to picture it a little to ourselves: God’s respect! And so great is this respect that never, since the law of grace, has God spoken to men with absolute authority. On the contrary, He has ever spoken with the timidity, the gentleness, I would even say the obsequiousness, of a poor petitioner whom no affront could rebuff. By a highly mysterious and inconceivable decree of His eternal will, God seems to have condemned Himself until the end of time never to exercise over man any immediate right of master to servant, of king to subject. If He desires to have us, He must seduce us, for if His Majesty does not please us, we can throw it from our presence, buffet it, scourge it and crucify it to the applause of the vilest rabble. God will not defend Himself with His power, but only with His patience and His Beauty.***
Between man involuntarily clothed in his freedom, and God voluntarily stripped of His power, it is normal that there be an antagonism; attack and resistance reasonably balance each other, and this perpetual combat between human nature and God is the gushing fountain of inexhaustible Suffering.
Suffering! Here then is the key word! Here the solution for every human life on earth! the springboard for every superiority, the sieve for every merit, the infallible criterion for every moral beauty! People absolutely refuse to understand that suffering is needful. Those who say that suffering is useful understand nothing about the matter. Usefulness always supposes something adjectival and contingent, and Suffering is necessary. It is the backbone, the very essence of moral life. Love is recognized by this sign, and when this sign is lacking, love is but a prostitution of strength or of beauty. I say that someone loves me when that someone consents to suffer through or for me.***
Well, we are — what, Lord God? — yes, we are the MEMBERS of Jesus Christ! His very members! Our unutterable wretchedness comes from our continually taking for figures or inanimate symbols the clearest and most living assertions of the Scriptures. We believe, but not substantially. Ah! the words of the Holy Ghost should enter and flow through our souls as did molten lead in the mouth of a parricide or a blasphemer. We do not understand that we are the members of the Man of Sorrows, of the Man who is supreme Joy, Love, Truth, Beauty, Light and Life solely because
He is the Lover eternally stricken with the supreme Suffering, the Pilgrim of the last torment, who, to endure it, rushed up through infinity, from the far deep of eternity, and on whose head have been heaped in an appallingly tragic unity of time, place and person, all the elements of torture, collected from every human act performed during each second, over the whole surface of the earth, for the length of sixty centuries! ***
We can use this as a starting point to measure all things. In declaring us members of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit clothed us with the dignity of Redeemers, and, when we refuse to suffer, we are straitly guilty of simony [vocab: Simony is the act of paying for sacraments and consequently for holy offices or for positions in the hierarchy of a church, named after Simon Magus (Also, Simon the Sorcerer), who appears in the Acts of the Apostles 8:9-24. Simon Magus offers the disciples of Jesus, Peter and John, payment so that anyone on whom he would place his hands would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the origin of the term simony; but, it also extends to other forms of trafficking for money in "spiritual things.”] and betrayal of trust.
We have been made for that, and for that alone. When we shed our blood it flows on Calvary, and from thence over the whole earth. Woe to us, therefore, if this blood be poisoned! When we shed our tears, which are “the blood of our souls,” they fall on the heart of the Virgin, and from there onto all living hearts. Our standing as members of Jesus Christ and sons of Mary has made us so great that we can drown the world in our tears. Woe, then, and three times woe upon us, if these tears are poisoned!
Everything in us is identical with Jesus Christ, to whose likeness we have been naturally and supernaturally shaped. So when we refuse suffering, we adulterate as much as we are able our own substance; we cause to enter into the very Flesh and even the Soul of our Head, a profanating [vocab: to profanate = to profane] element which He must afterwards cast from Himself and all His members by an inconceivable redoubling of torment.
Is all this clear? I have no idea. The gist of my thought is that in this tumbling world, all joys burst forth in the natural order, and all suffering bursts forth in the divine order.* * *
The Saints have sought the society of Jesus’s Passion. They believed the saying of the Master when He said that he possesses the greatest love who gives his life for his friends. [John 15, 13] In all ages, ardent and magnificent souls have thought that in order to do enough, it was absolutely necessary to do too much, and that thus did one ravish the Kingdom of the Heavens…
[PARADISE LOST.] Look about you on the distant mountains, on all the balconies of the horizon; look at those panic-stricken heads, those millions of faces taking on expressions of horror and grief as soon as the Fall and the lost Paradise are mentioned. Here is the universal testimony of men’s consciences: the deepest, the most invincible testimony.
There is but one sorrow and that is to have lost the Garden of Delights, and there is but one hope and one desire, to recover it. [There is but one regret…there is but one sorrow…Bloy seems to like this pattern. It’s a powerful one. dj]The poet seeks it in his own way, and the filthiest profligate seeks it in his. It is the only goal. Napoleon at Tilsit and a foul drunkard picked up in the gutter have precisely the same thirst. They must have the water from the Four Rivers of Paradise. All know instinctively that it cannot be bought too dearly. The ditch digger and the tinker spend their fortnight’s salary on it, and Napoleon, four million men.
Empti estis pretio magno (You have been bought at a great price). That is the key to everything, in the Absolute. When you know this, when you see it and realize it, you are like a God and ceaselessly do you weep. Your wish to see me less unhappy, kindly Raissa, is a thing that was in you, in your substantial being, in your soul which prolongs God, long before the birth of Nachor, who was Abraham’s grandfather. Strictly speaking, your desire is the desire for the Redemption accompanied by the presentiment or the intuition of what it cost Him who could pay. It is Christianity, and there is no other way of being a Christian. Kneel then at the edge of this fountain and pray for me thus:
“My God who has bought me at a great price, I most humbly beg You to make me at one in faith, hope and love with this poor man who is suffering in Your service, and who is perhaps suffering mysteriously for me. Set him free and set me free for the Eternal life which You have promised to all those who would hunger for You.”
Here, my most dear and blessed Raissa, is what a man truly sorrowful is able to write you today, but a man filled with the most sublime hope for himself and for all those he bears in his heart.”
[FAITH.] To Jacques Maritain:
You are seeking, you say. O professor of philosophy, O Cartesian, you believe, with Malebranche, that truth is something one seeks! You believe that the human mind is capable of something! You believe — in other words — that with a certain degree of effort a person with black eyes could manage to acquire green eyes spangled with gold! You eventually understand that one finds what he desires only on that day when he has most humbly renounced seeking what lay under his hand, unbeknown to him. For my part, I declare that I never sought or found anything, unless one wishes to describe as a discovery the fact of tripping blindly over a threshold and being thrown flat on one’s stomach into the House of Light. [Guess that takes care of Jacques’ pretentions…dj]
[THE FRIEND OF GOD] … At bottom, what should you do to avoid being an idiot or a swine? Merely this: you should do something great, you should lay aside all the foolishness of a more or less long existence, you should become resigned to the fact that you will seem ridiculous to a brace of janitors and a notary if you are to enter the service of Splendor. Then will you know what it is to be the friend of God.
The Friend of God! I am on the verge of tears when I think of it. No longer do you know on what block to lay your head, no longer do you know where you are, where you should go. You would like to tear out your heart, so hotly does it burn, and you cannot look upon a creature without trembling with love. You would like to drag yourself on your knees from church to church, with rotten fish strung from your neck, as said the sublime Angela da Foligno.
[I AM A PILGRIM WHOM THE VERY SUN DISSATISFIES.] To Henriette Charasson [Henreitte was part of a stable of writers who wrote for The Monthly Magazine, founded by Jean Daujat in 1933 and published until 1939. In addition to its own articles and those of Yvonne Estienne, there were many prestigious authors who wrote for the magazine, such as Father Garrigou-Lagrange, Mgt Ghika, Father Lallement, Jacques Maritain, Henri Gheon, Charles Du Bos, Stanislas Broth, Robert of Harcourt, Gustave Thibon, Henriette Charasson, Olivier Lacombe, Merleau-Ponty, and Jacques Madaule. dj]:
You say you are “anaesthetized,” which is the ugliest way of being dead. Why could you not be mistaken? Your love of the Beautiful shows you to have a lack of certainty which cannot help make you suffer. You have too much insight to hope that works of art will be able to satisfy your heart. You know very well that beyond the masterpieces there is a burning hearth of Love from which artists must necessarily draw their inspiration, without ever becoming satisfied, and that they cannot, even with genius, give more than a very faint echo, a most pallid reflection of that thunder and that furnace.
“You do not know,” says Ruysbroeck the Admirable, “the delights God gives, and the delicious taste of the Holy Spirit.” You know what that means. You must have lodged in your past, prior to the disaster that has befallen your faith, some remembrance of the joy of love, of the dazzlement of which he speaks; and the feelings or stirrings you have experienced over beautiful human works must have seemed little, compared with that wondrous moment.
“Talent does what it wants, genius does what it can,” is Hello’s magnificent statement. The more a man has genius, the more he gives evidence of his incapacity. Here is what deep souls feel. An artist of talent shows all there is to be seen; an artist of genius imparts the desire for what cannot be seen, and so the matter stands. I am one of those whom nothing can satisfy, I am that pilgrim in La Femme Pauvre “whom the very sun dissatisfied.” How could I not have pity on you? The greatest poet, the greatest musician in the world is a beggar, a pitiable ragamuffin, a man dying of hunger and thirst, whom your alms of admiration is prodigiously, ridiculously incompetent to assuage. I have believed I saw a soul within you, and that is why I am writing you these things.
“When the first doubts pierced me,” you have written me, “I was stricken with horror because I thought that there was the breath of the Devil.” You were right, but this devil would certainly and on the spot have lost all his power had he told you his name: “I am the devil of the Hackneyed.” Everything you tell me is worn utterly threadbare. “I spent hours before my crucifix in order to find the truth … I could not accede to intellectual dishonesty, I could not practice when I no longer believed . . . I had acted as I thought I ought to.” Poor pensive lamb, who would have no further dealings either with grazing or with shepherd! “I no longer had a God, but I had the hope that someday I should cease being.” As though this frightful hope were a conceivable thing! And to this loss and hope you add “the love of the Beautiful”! But child though you are, how can you not have been aware that all this was hideously commonplace and mediocre, that the ringing of this change is to be found in every cheap novel? …
God refuses His grace to no one. If He has withdrawn it from you for a time, which I do not know that He has, it is because there lies within you some obstacle unknown to me, but which your conscience must surely point out to you. You speak of dishonesty, as if it could ever be dishonest to obey! To practice when one no longer believes! You are very wide off the mark and the meaning of the words escapes you. Here is simply a case of seasickness. One day I was on the Baltic, making my first sea voyage. As I stepped aboard, I decided I should not be seasick — an ailment as ridiculous as it is painful. An hour later I felt it coming on. My will to resist thereby grew all the firmer, and I began to walk about like a wild man, telling myself that I would not give in. Complete victory, dizziness and nausea disappeared, and my joy at having triumphed over them was a delight.
Well, my poor little one, you are doing the exact opposite; though you know better, you cowardly retreat before phantoms. Pretty and clever, either by choice or by laziness you pledge your troth to ugliness and folly. What a future is ahead of you! A sophist against yourself and a sentimentalist against God, it is all too easy for me to challenge you to scorn that which I adore.
As much as I reread your letter, I do not find a single intellectual objection in it, a single argument, even though specious. Nothing but literary cant phrases. Make a clean breast of it; confession frightens you, pure and simple obedience revolts you, and the Hail Mary or the Our Father seem less beautiful to you than a poem by Baudelaire. How you must suffer at having come down to so low a level!
This morning at mass I was reading the liturgical words of the day’s communion: “Qui manducat meam carnem … He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me, and I in him.” I thought of you, of others who are dying of hunger and thirst, and tears welled up within me. These inexpressibly holy and mysterious words became a gulf of splendors for me. I shall try to translate this into a book which I have tremblingly in mind. Trembling from what I see, trembling from what I know, trembling from what I do not know. More and more I work in this way. I go to mass, I go to communion. I say the rosary with the joy or the hope of being with the simple and the little ones, to whom belongs the “kingdom of heaven.” The vast door, then, half opens … I come back twice as strong, often heaped with delights, having God in me.