“A Christian child”, wrote Charles Péguy, “is nothing but a child to whom the childhood of Jesus has been presented a thousand times before his eyes”. He, the great French poet who was able to narrate and confess with unparalleled intimacy the occurrence of the Christian mystery in the heart of “Christian” modernity, was born in Orléans exactly 150 years ago, on January 7, 1873. He opened his eyes in a world where the works and days of the men and women of the time still appear to be sprinkled with traces and moods of French Christianity, made up of poor people “who stuffed chairs with the same spirit with which they sculpted their cathedrals”. But his short and intense life largely unfolds among people and contexts that seem to have dismissed the Church and Christian doctrine as vestiges of a bygone past, fossils of the Old Regime. He lives among the generation of those he himself will describe as “the first, after Jesus, without Jesus”.
A young republican and socialist activist, after freeing himself as a teenager from the legacies of his first Christian education, he spent his season of volcanic commitment among atheists, agnostics and free thinkers, those who frequented the intellectual cenacle of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, the magazine he founded. It was there, immersed in this world, that he rediscovered the Christian faith as a pure gift of grace. A new departure that he himself will never live as an abjuration and a denial of his past life until then “in partibus infidelium”. It is also for this reason that, exactly 150 years after his birth, the unequaled traits of his existential adventure can offer precious cues of comfort to all who care about the mission of confessing the name of Christ at the present time, especially in lands where – like Pope Benedict XVI said – “faith is in danger of being extinguished like a flame that finds no more nourishment”.
From non-Christian land
At seventeen, Péguy was no longer a Christian. He wrote at the time: “All my companions got rid of Christianity like me. The thirteen or fourteen centuries of Christianity implanted in my ancestors, the eleven or twelve years of teaching and sometimes of Catholic education sincerely and faithfully received have passed on me without leaving a trace”. His generous temperament ignites myths of revolutionary republican faith, to lead to a mystical socialism. As a young university student, he married Charlotte Beaudin, 18, a member of a family clan living in the myth of the Paris Commune.
It was to this non-Christian land, which considered Christianity as a past that did not concern it, that Péguy belonged when, ten years later, he rediscovered by grace the golden thread which united his life to Jesus and to his Salvation.
For Péguy, the reappearance of the Christian faith was a new beginning of grace, the miraculous blossoming of a bud in the desert of an exhausted life. A fact that was not understood by his wife and family, who dismissed it as a case of “religious crisis”. This places Péguy in a singular condition: married to an atheist woman, with three unbaptized children, Péguy cannot approach the sacraments. He becomes a Christian placed by statute “on the threshold” of the Church. His civil marriage and the non-baptism of his children constitute a serious omission of his duties as a Christian husband and parent. A condition made all the more painful by the attacks and accusations of Catholic intellectuals who reproach him for not going so far as to clash with his wife to obtain the regularization of their union and the baptism of their offspring.
The mystery and the action of grace
It is precisely from this state of affairs that emanate the works in which Peguy, unequaled, recounts the root and features of the modern oblivion of Christianity, and how, at the heart of this oblivion, Christianity can flourish again.
Since God became man, repeats Péguy, faith has recognized that the “very technique” of the Christian event consists in “binding together the eternal and the temporal”. A “graft of the eternal in time” accomplished in the mystery of the incarnation of Our Lord, and which manifests itself in the temporal reappearance of grace, in the continuous carnal “restarts” of grace over time, the “new beginnings” of the action of Christ himself and his Spirit in the life of individuals, communities and peoples. What caused the modern loss of Christian memory, the “renouncement of the world of all Christianity” – repeats Péguy – are not primarily external philosophical and political influences: at the root of the disaster is rather an “error of mysticism”, consisting in no longer waiting, in no longer recognizing the action of grace in time. A desire to suppress and conceal “the mystery and operation of grace”: Apart from this dynamism – warns Péguy – nothing remains of Christianity, only “infamous parodies” of it remain, which make “excellent teaching material” at best. And the main responsible for this “error of mysticism” are not the unbelievers or the indifferent, but the two “gangs of clerics” who also condition the course of the Church in modernity: the “lay priests”, who deny the ‘eternal of the temporal’, and the ‘cleric priests’, who deny ‘the temporal of the eternal’.
To save the Church and the people of God, even from the “errors of mysticism” of the clerical elites – suggests Péguy – are not organized strategies of cultural counter-offensives, but only entrusting oneself to the reappearance of grace, which can always be asked for in prayer. Leaving it to the Lord to heal hearts and protect his own.
“He was supposed to be three years old”, writes Péguy about the public life of Jesus “and he did his three years. But he did not waste his three years, he did not use them to whine and to invoke the evils of time. However, there were the evils of the time, of his time. (….). He did not incriminate, he did not accuse anyone. He saved.
He did not incriminate the world. He saved the world.
These others vituperate, reason, incriminate. Insult the doctors who attack the sick. They accuse the sands of the century, but even in the time of Jesus, there was the century and the sands of the century. But on the dry sands, on the sands of the century, flowed a source, an inexhaustible source of grace”.
Péguy, who comes from the country of Christianity, also perceives in his personal history that the correct reaffirmation of Christian truths is not enough in itself to germinate a small real, “carnal” hope. Like his Joan of Arc, he realizes that twenty centuries of Christianity that flourished in history in works of charity and holiness are not enough in themselves to make the hearts of men and women happy in the present time, unless something new happens, the encounter with a living, carnal and visible sign of the same Presence. And this new beginning of grace (“a new grace. And if I may say, a youthful grace. Because eternity itself is in the temporal. And there are new graces and graces that would seem to have aged”) by its nature cannot be expected, one can only wait and beg. Still less can it be imposed on others, on one’s atheist wife, on Christian friends and on the readers of the Cahiers. Such a demand would only increase the suspicion that Christianity is an exhausting “intellectual yoke” to which one must submit by order imposed by law or cultural hegemony.
In the always breathless condition in which he finds himself, also marked by the pain of not being able to approach the sacraments, Péguy does not seek persuasive speeches, strategies or methods to “realign” his family and destiny companions to his inner journey. Instead of worrying, he asks and waits for thanksgiving to come back to shine in the happy and sad daily circumstances – the difficulties of work, the controversies, the illnesses of his children – giving comfort and humility. And he entrusts this daily request to the most usual gestures that the Church has always taught her children: he asks the help of the saints, he goes on pilgrimage to Chartres, he repeats his prayers to Mary like a sinner: “I am one of those Catholics who would give all Saint Thomas for the Stabat, the Magnificat, the Hail Mary and the Salve Regina”. He calls them “spare prayers”. There is not one in the whole liturgy that the miserable sinner cannot truly say. In the mechanism of salvation, the Hail Mary is the last resort. With that, you can’t get lost”.
Péguy refrains from putting pressure on others. He patiently waits and asks for the grace of Christ to touch his skin, as it did to him. He stands at the threshold and waits for the Lord to move, bringing others to the same threshold, to the same new beginning. Some Catholic intellectuals reproach him for his choices, taking them for laxity, an inert wait-and-see attitude. “The characteristic of these interventions, writes Péguy in the work Véronique, published after his death, is to always hinder the action of grace: to always take it by surprise, with a kind of formidable patience. They trample the gardens of grace with frightening brutality. One could say that they were intended only to sabotage the eternal gardens. Thus the curates work to demolish the little that remains. And especially when God, through the ministry of grace, works on souls, they never fail to believe that God thinks only of them, works only for them».
On the eve of his death as a soldier on September 5, 1914, on the first day of the Battle of the Marne, Péguy spent the whole night laying flowers at the foot of a statue of Notre-Dame which had escaped the destruction of the Jacobins and had since remained in a barn converted into a chapel, near Vermans. This must have been the last opportunity to entrust loved ones to the Mother of God. The pleas expressed in painful silence for years will be answered. Between 1925 and 1926, his wife and his four children (the last born after his death) were baptized.
«Péguy» wrote the great theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar «is indivisible, and therefore both inside and outside the Church, he is the Church “in partibus infidelium”, therefore where he should be. It is thanks to its rootedness in the depths, where the world and the Church, the world and grace meet and penetrate each other to the point of becoming indistinguishable” the “starting point where the pagan becomes a Christian”.»