In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis spoke of himself as a dinosaur, that is, as a “specimen” of the “Old Western order.” He was only partly jesting. Lewis considered England in 1954 to be separated from the ages of Arthur, Chaucer, and even of Dr. Johnson by a great “chasm” that opened in the time of Jane Austen and Walter Scott. To understand the world before Ivanhoe and Persuasion, he warned, one needed to “suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits” that one acquires by “reading modern literature” and inhabiting the modern world. It was precisely because he belonged to that older world as a native son, Lewis said, that he would at least be useful to his contemporaries as a specimen, if not as an authority.
If ever there were a representative of the Old Western order in its specifically Catholic form, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) would seem to be the man. When he’s known at all, it’s for what he opposed: political liberalism, Biblical criticism, the new spirituality of Fénelon and Madame Guyon, even the ultramontane interpretation of the papal office. Tonsured while still a boy, he lived entirely within the Church and northern France; he seems never to have traveled far enough to see the ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. A small-town bishop with decidedly traditional views, he has sometimes been called a “founder of the Counter-Enlightenment.” How could his innermost thoughts and aspirations possibly be of use to us?
The answer is that Bossuet’s mind was a model of judiciousness and balance. He combined excellences only rarely brought together in one person. As a preacher, he was both learned as well as fiery and dialectically sharp. As a courtier, he was both discreet and principled. Trusted as the tutor to Louis XIV’s son, he also rebuked the Sun King in veiled terms from the pulpit and with bold directness in private letters. He was a competent administrator but no plodding bureaucrat. No less a critic than Paul Claudel once said that his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688) was the book he would choose if only one could be saved to “bear witness to the world of the French language and spirit.”
In my case, the road to appreciating Bossuet began in an unlikely place, with the study of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, which again and again pointed to him as the one man who typified everything that annoyed Voltaire, Diderot, and Robespierre. As I started to read his works, I came to see that he had much more to offer than negation. There is warmth united to brilliance in a way that I had rarely seen. The deal was sealed when a chance meeting with a Belgian priest led to my being treated to a recitation of the sonorous opening lines of his funeral oration of Henriette-Marie, the widow of King Charles I of England. There are other great masters of the French language, but to a Catholic, the spell of Bossuet is especially captivating.
Portrait of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1702)
As every Catholic should know, there are no coincidences. So it must have been a nudge of Providence that a friend picked up an old copy of Bossuet’s Méditations sur l’Évangile and saved it to give to me when next we met. In its pages, I found the same ardor and illumination that I had earlier discovered in his sermons. He wrote them late in his life, for a convent of nuns in his diocese in northern France, and they bear the imprint of two great saints: Vincent de Paul and Augustine. Both of his spiritual masters were keen to get to the point and to establish right order. But both also understood, and deeply, that we are but poor creatures who desperately need to be restored to the embrace of our Heavenly Father.
However much we may have learned from the modern ecclesial renewal, we still have much to gain from listening to voices from the world on the other side of Lewis’s great divide. Here is Bossuet pleading his own case:
And you, whoever you may be, to whom Divine Providence should bring this book, be you great or small, poor or rich, wise or ignorant, priest or layman, monk or nun: go now to the foot of the altar and contemplate Jesus there, in the sacrament where he hides. Remain there in silence. Say nothing to him. Look upon him and wait for him to speak to you in the depths of your heart. I have died, he says, and my life is hidden in God until I appear in my glory to judge the world. Hide yourself in God with me, and do not think of appearing until I appear. If you are alone, I will be your companion. If you are weak, I will be your strength. If you are poor, I will be your treasure. If you are hungry, I will be your food. If you are afflicted, I will be your consolation and your joy. If you are bored, I will be your delight. If you are falling, I will hold you up. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20) I do not wish for a third: none other but you and me. . . . So may it be, O Lord, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.