We are remembering the guns of August 1914 and realizing how much, contrary to expectations, that global conflict continues to shape our world. Tomorrow (September 4) is the one hundredth anniversary of the death – at the Battle of the Marne – of one of the greatest Christian spirits of recent times, a genius, prophet, poet known to very few today: Charles Péguy.
Many bright young men from England, Germany, and France perished at the front during World War I. But Alain-Fournier, author of the classic French novel Le Grande Meaulnes, killed in combat two weeks after Péguy, expressed what many of his contemporaries felt: “I say, knowing what I am saying, that not since Dostoyevsky has there been a man who was so clearly a man of God.”
A somewhat odd destination for a man who began as an idealist and socialist, especially in a France sharply divided between secularists and believers – the “two Frances,” still in evidence even today. Péguy came to sharp differences with the Socialist party, not least because it practiced authoritarianism and partisanship like other political formations. But he became a Catholic again by what he called a mysterious “deepening” of the social vision that had driven his earlier life.
Not that long ago, people even in English-speaking countries, frequently quoted one of Péguy’s aphorisms: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” i.e., the real, life-giving energies of human life have deep roots in transcendent truths, whether of eternal or temporal applications. When the worldly movements those truths give life to abandon “fidelity” – a key term for him – to the original spirit, they betray their own reason for being.
That kind of honesty puts you outside the usual partisan structures, and Péguy paid dearly, in social and financial terms, for his fidelity. Though a passionate defender of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer falsely accused of betraying secrets to the Germans, Péguy was also a patriotic Frenchmen:
Some people want to insult and abuse the army, because it’s a good line these days. . . . In fact, at all political demonstrations it’s a required theme. If you don’t take that line you don’t look sufficiently progressive . . . and it will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking insufficiently progressive.
He carried this costly honesty into both life and work, including his fortnightly review Cahiers de la quinzaine where, to the annoyance of various parties, he allowed freedom, even publishing writers he disagreed with (and then, sometimes, vigorously rebutted). He remarked – something your humble editor-in-chief often recalls: “A review only continues to have life if each issue annoys at least one-fifth of its readers. Justice lies in seeing that it is not always the same fifth.”
But Péguy’s permanent importance lies in the ways he wrote of the life of the Spirit (see Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 100-page chapter on Péguy, which caps the volume “Lay Styles” in The Glory of the Lord.) As von Balthasar notes, Péguy’s mind moves at such great depths that he transcends the usual distinctions of left-right, progressive-reactionary, which is why all parties in Church and state have tried to claim him.
Charles Péguy by Jean-Pierre Laurens (1908)
He was a Paris-trained “intellectual” (bad word for him) in one sense, but still a son of the French people, la France profonde. In a slightly romanticized passage, he once claimed: “We have known a time when if a simple woman spoke a word, it was her race itself, her being, her people, that spoke, which came out. And when a workman lit his cigarette, what he was about to tell you was not what some journalist had said in that morning’s paper. The freethinkers of that time were more Christian than our devout people of today.”
His mother and grandmother re-caned chairs in their Orleans home, and in some of Péguy’s incantatory poetry, there’s almost an atavistic sense of the grace of sheer repetition. Andre Gide, no Christian, but a reader with a keen literary sense, said of Péguy’s Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc:
Péguy’s style is like that of very old litanies . . . like Arab songs, like the monotonous songs of the Landes; one could compare it to a desert; a desert of alfalfa, of sand, or of pebbles . . . each looks like the other, but is just a little different. . . the believer prays the same prayer throughout, or at least, almost the same prayer . . . .Words! I will not leave you, same words, and I will not acquit you while you still have something to say, “We will not let Thee go, Lord, Except Thou bless us.”
This may sound forbidding, but spiritual insight and even humor emerge along the way. The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue begins with God Himself speaking like a witty French peasant:
The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.Faith doesn’t surprise me.It’s not surprising.I am so resplendent in my creation. . . .That in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me. . . .These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another. . . .But hope, says God, is something that surprises me.Even me. . . .And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.
Péguy was killed instantly by a bullet through the head at the Battle of the Marne. Barely forty, he had anticipated his death in a passage later discovered in his epic-length poem Eve, now a staple in poetry anthologies:
Blessèd are those whom a great battle leaves
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.