Recollections of My Youth/The Issy Seminary/Part I

The Issy Seminary/Part IEdit

The Petty Seminary of Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet had no philosophical course, philosophy being, in accordance with the division of ecclesiastical studies, reserved for the great seminary. After having finished my classical education in the establishment so ably directed by M. Dupanloup, I was, with the students in my class, passed into the great seminary, which is set apart for an exclusively ecclesiastical course of teaching. The grand seminary for the diocese of Paris is St. Sulpice, which consists of two houses, one in Paris and the other at Issy, where the students devote two years to philosophy. These two seminaries form, in reality, one. The one is the outcome of the other, and they are both conjoined at certain times; the congregation from which the masters are selected is the same. St. Sulpice exercised so great an influence over me, and so definitely decided the whole course of my life, that I must perforce sketch its history, and explain its principles and tendencies, so as to show how they have continued to be the mainspring of all my intellectual and moral development.

St. Sulpice owes its origin to one whose name has not attained any great celebrity, for celebrity rarely seeks out those who make a point of avoiding notoriety, and whose predominant characteristic is modesty. Jean-Jacques Olier, member of a family which supplied the state with many trusty servitors, was the contemporary of, and a fellow-worker with, Vincent de Paul, Berulle, Adrien de Bourdoise, Pere Eudes, and Charles de Gondren, founders of congregations for the reform of ecclesiastical education, who played a prominent part in the preparatory reforms of the seventeenth century. During the reign of Henri IV. and in the early years of the reign of Louis XIII., the morality of the clergy was at the lowest possible point. The fanaticism of the League, far from serving to make their morality more rigorous, had just the contrary effect. Priests thought that because they shouldered musket and carbine in the good cause they were at liberty to do as they liked. The racy humour which prevailed during the reign of Henri IV. was anything but favourable to mysticism. There was a good side to the outspoken Rabelaisian gaiety which was not deemed, in that day, incompatible with the priestly calling. In many ways we prefer the bright and witty piety of Pierre Camus, a friend of Francois de Sales, to the rigid and affected attitude which the French clergy has since assumed, and which has converted them into a sort of black army, holding aloof from the rest of the world and at war with it. But there can be no doubt that about the year 1640 the education of the clergy was not in keeping with the spirit of regularity and moderation which was becoming more and more the law of the age. From the most opposite directions came a cry for reform. Francois de Sales admitted that he had not been successful in this attempt, and he told Bourdoise that "after having laboured during seventeen years to train only three such priests as I wanted to assist me in re-forming the clergy of my diocese, I have only succeeded in forming one and-a-half." Following upon him came the men of grave and reasonable piety whom I named above. By means of congregations of a fresh type, distinct from the old monkish rules and in some points copied from the Jesuits, they created the seminary, that is to say the well-walled nursery in which young clerks could be trained and formed. The transformation was far extending. The schools of these powerful teachers of the spiritual life turned out a body of men representing the best disciplined, the most orderly, the most national, and it maybe added, the most highly educated clergy ever seen--a clergy which illustrated the second half of the seventeenth century and the whole of the eighteenth, and the last of whose representatives have only disappeared within the last forty years. Concurrently with these exertions of orthodox piety arose Port-Royal, which was far superior to St. Sulpice, to St. Lazare, to the Christian doctrine, and even to the Oratoire, as regarded consistency in reasoning and talent in writing, but which lacked the most essential of Catholic virtues, docility. Port-Royal, like Protestantism, passed through every phase of misfortune. It was distasteful to the majority, and was always in opposition. When you have excited the antipathy of your country you are too often led to take a dislike to your country. The persecuted one is doubly to be pitied, for, in addition to the suffering which he endures, persecution affects him morally; it rarely fails to warp the mind and to shrink the heart.

Olier occupies a place apart in this group of Catholic reformers. His mysticism is of a kind peculiar to himself. His Cathechisme chretien pour la Vie interieure, which is scarcely ever read outside St. Sulpice, is a most remarkable book, full of poesy and sombre philosophy, wavering from first to last between Louis de Leon and Spinoza. Olier's ideal of the Christian life is what he calls "the state of death."

"What is the state of death?--It is a state during which the heart cannot be moved to its depths, and though the world displays to it its beauties, its honours, and its riches, the effect is the same as if it offered them to a corpse, which remains motionless, and devoid of all desire, insensible to all that goes on.... The corpse may be agitated outwardly, and have some movement of the body; but this agitation is all on the surface; it does not come from the inner man, which is without life, vigour, or strength. Thus a soul which is dead within may easily be attached by external things and be disturbed outwardly; but in its inner self it remains dead and motionless to whatever may happen."

Nor is this all. Olier imagines as far superior to the state of death the state of burial.

"Death retains the appearance of the world and of the flesh; the dead man seems to be still a part of Adam. He is now and again moved; he continues to afford the world some pleasure. But the buried body is forgotten, and no longer ranks with men. He is noisome and horrible; he is bereft of all that pleases the eye; he is trodden under foot in a cemetery without compunction, so convinced is every one that he is nothing, and that he is rooted from among the number of men."

The sombre fancies of Calvin are as Pelagian optimism compared to the horrible nightmares which original sin evokes in the brain of the pious recluse.

"Could you add anything to drive more closely home the conception as to how the flesh is only sin? It is so completely sin that it is all intent and motion towards sin, and even to every kind of sin; so much so, that if the Holy Ghost did not restrain our souls and succour us with His grace, it would be carried away by all the inclinations of the flesh, all of which tend to sin.

"What is then the flesh?--It is the effect of sin; it is the principle of sin.

"If that is so, how comes it that you did not fall away every hour into sin?--It is the mercy of God which keeps us from it.... I am, therefore, indebted to God if I do not commit every kind of sin?--Yes ... this is the general feeling of the saints, because the flesh is drawn down towards sin by such a heavy weight that God alone can prevent it from falling.

"But will you kindly tell me something more about this?--All I can tell you is that there is no conceivable kind of sin, no imperfection, disorder, error, or unruliness of which the flesh is not full, just as there is no levity, folly, or stupidity of which the flesh is not capable at any moment.

"What, I should be mad, and comport myself like a madman in the highways and byways, but for the help of God?--That is a small matter, and a question of common decency; but you must know that without the grace of God and the virtue of His Spirit, there is no impurity, meanness, infamy, drunkenness, blasphemy, or other kind of sin to which man would not give himself over.

"The flesh is very corrupt then?--You see that it is.

"I cannot wonder therefore that you tell us we must hate our flesh and hold our own bodies in horror; and that man, in his present condition, is fated to be accursed, vilified and persecuted.--No, I can no longer feel surprise at this. In truth, there is no form of misfortune and suffering but which he may expect his flesh to bring down upon him. You are right; all the hatred, malediction, and persecution which beset the demon must also beset the flesh and all its motions.

"There is, then, no extremity of insult too great to be put up with and to be looked upon as deserved?--No.

"Contempt, insult, and calumny should not then disturb our peace of mind?--No. We should behave like the saint of former days, who was led to the scaffold for a crime which he had not committed, and from which he would not attempt to exculpate himself, as he said to himself that he should have been guilty of this crime and of many far worse but for the preventing grace of God.

"Men, angels, and God Himself ought, therefore to persecute us without ceasing? Yes, so it ought to be.

"What! do you mean to say that sinners ought to be poor and bereft of everything, like the demons?--Yes, and more than that. Sinners ought to be placed under an interdict in regard to all their corporal and spiritual faculties, and bereft of all the gifts of God."

A hero of Christian humility, Olier was acting as he thought for the best in making a mock of human nature and dragging it through the mire. He had visions, and was favoured with inner revelations of which the autographic account, written for his director, is still at St. Sulpice. He stops short in his writing to make such reflections as these: "My courage is at times utterly cast down when I see what impertinences I have been writing. They must, I think, be a great waste of time for my good director, whom I am afraid of amusing. I pity him for having to spend his time in reading them, and it seems to me that he ought to stop my writing this intolerable frivolity and impertinence."

But Olier, like nearly all the mystics, was not merely a strange dreamer, but a powerful organizer. Entering very young into holy orders, he was appointed, through the influence of his family, priest of the parish of St. Sulpice, which was then attached to the Abbey of Saint-Germain des Pres. His tender and susceptible piety took umbrage at many things which had hitherto been looked upon as harmless--for instance, at a tavern situated in the charnel-house of the church and frequented by the choristers. His ideal was a clergy after his own image--pious, zealous, and attached to their duties. Many other saintly personages were labouring towards the same end, but Olier set to work in very original fashion. Adrien de Bourdoise alone took the same view as he did of ecclesiastical reform. What was truly novel in the idea of these two founders was to try and effect the improvement of the secular clergy by means of institutions for priests mixing with the world and combining the cure of souls with the training of students for the Church.

Olier and Bourdoise accordingly, while carrying on the work of reform, and becoming heads of religious congregations, remained parish priests of St. Sulpice and Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet. The seminary had its origin in the assembling together of the priests into communities, and these communities became schools of clericalism, homes in which young men destined for the Church were piously trained for it. What facilitated the creation of these establishments and made them innocuous to the state was that they had no resident tutors. All the theological tutors were at the Sorbonne, and the young men from St. Sulpice and St. Nicholas, who were studying theology, went there for their lectures. Thus the system of teaching remained national and common to all. The seclusion of the seminary only applied to the moral discipline and religious duties. This was the equivalent of the practice now prevalent among the boarding-schools which send their pupils to the Lycee. There was only one course of theology in Paris, and that was the official one at the Faculty. The work in the interior of the seminary was confined to repetitions and lectures. It is true that this rule soon became obsolete. I have heard it said by old students of St. Sulpice that towards the end of last century they went very little to the Sorbonne, that the general opinion was that there was little to be learnt there, and that the private lessons in the seminary quite took the place of the official lecture. This organisation was very similar, as may be seen, to that which now obtains in the Normal School and regulates its relations with the Sorbonne. Subsequent to the Concordat the whole of the education of the seminaries was given within the walls. Napoleon did not think it worth while to revive the monopoly of the Theological Faculty. This could only have been effected by obtaining from the Court of Rome a canonical institution, and this the Imperial Government did not care to have. M. Emery, moreover, took good care never to suggest such a step. He had anything but a favourable recollection of the old system, and very much preferred keeping his young men under his own control. The lectures intra muros thus became the regular course of teaching. Nevertheless, as change is a thing unknown at St. Sulpice, the old names remain what they were. The seminary has no professors; all the members of the congregation have the uniform title of director.

The company founded by Olier retained until the Revolution its repute for modesty and practical virtue. Its achievements in theology were somewhat insignificant, as it had not the lofty independence of Port-Royal. It went too far into Molinism, and did not avoid the paltry meanness which is, so to speak, the outcome of the rigid ideas of the orthodox and a set-off against his good qualities. The ill-humour of Saint Simon against these pious priests is, however, carried too far. They were, in the great ecclesiastical army, the noncommissioned officers and drill-sergeants, and it would have been absurd to expect from them the high breeding of general officers. The company exercised through its numerous provincial houses a decisive influence upon the education of the French clergy, while in Canada it acquired a sort of religious suzerainty which harmonised very well with the English rule--so well-disposed towards ancient rights and custom, and which has lasted down to our own day.

The Revolution did not have any effect upon St. Sulpice. A man of cool and resolute character, such as the company always numbered among its members, reconstructed it upon the very same basis. M. Emery, a very learned and moderately Gallican priest, so completely gained Napoleon's confidence that be obtained from him the necessary authorisations. He would have been very much surprised if he had been told that the fact of making such a demand was a base concession to the civil power, and a sort of impiety. Thus things recurred to their old groove as they were before the Revolution, the door moved on its old hinges, and as from Olier to the Revolution there had not been any change, the seventeenth century had still a resting-place in one corner of Paris.

St. Sulpice continued amid surroundings so different, to be what it had always been before--moderate and respectful towards the civil power, and to hold aloof from politics.[1] With its legal status thoroughly assured, thanks to the judicious measures taken by M. Emery, St. Sulpice was blind to all that went on in the world outside. After the Revolution of 1830, there was some little stir in the college. The echo of the heated discussions of the day sometimes pierced its walls, and the speeches of M. Mauguin--I am sure I don't know why--were special favourites with the junior students. One of them took an opportunity of reading to the superior, M. Duclaux, an extract from a debate which had struck him as being more violent than usual. The old priest, wrapped up in his own reflections, had scarcely listened. When the student had finished, he awoke from his lethargy, and shaking him by the hand, observed: "It is very clear, my lad, that these men do not say their orisons." The remark has often recalled itself to me of late in connection with certain speeches. What a light is let in upon many points by the fact that M. Clemenceau does not probably say his orisons!

These imperturbable old men were very indifferent to what went on in the world, which to their mind was a barrel-organ continually repeating the same tune. Upon one occasion there was a good deal of commotion upon the Place St. Sulpice, and one of the professors, whose feelings were not so well under control as those of his colleagues, wanted them all "to go to the chapel and die in a body." "I don't see the use of that," was the reply of one of his colleagues, and the professors continued their constitutional walk under the colonnade of the courtyard.

Amid the religious difficulties of the time, the priests of St. Sulpice preserved an equally neutral and sagacious attitude, the only occasions upon which they betrayed anything like warmth of feeling being when the episcopal authority was threatened. They soon found out the spitefulness of M. de Lamennais, and would have nothing to do with him. The theological romanticism of Lacordaire and of Montalembert was not much more appreciated by them, the dogmatic ignorance and the very weak reasoning powers of this school indisposing them against it. They were fully alive to the danger of Catholic journalism. Ultramontanism they at first looked upon as merely a convenient method of appealing to a distant and often ill-informed authority from one nearer at hand, and less easy to inveigle. The older members, who had gone through their studies at the Sorbonne before the Revolution, were uncompromising partisans of the four propositions of 1682. Bossuet was their oracle on every point. One of the most respected of the directors, M. Boyer, had, while at Rome, a long argument with Pope Gregory XVI. upon the Gallican propositions. He asserted that the Pope could not answer his arguments. He detracted, it is true, from the significance of his success by admitting that no one in Rome took him au serieux, and the residents in the Vatican made sport of him as being "an antediluvian." It is a pity-that they did not pay more heed to what he said. A complete change took place about 1840. The older members whose training dated from before the Revolution were dead, and the younger ones nearly all rallied to the doctrine of papal infallibility; but there was, despite of that, a great gulf between these Ultramontanes of the eleventh hour and the impetuous deriders of Scholasticism and the Gallican Church who were enrolled under the banner of Lamennais. St. Sulpice never went so far as they did in trampling recognised rules under foot.

It cannot be denied that mingled with all this there was a certain amount of antipathy against talent, and of resentment at interference with the routine of the schoolmen disturbed in their old-fashioned doctrines by troublesome innovators. But there was at the same time a good deal of practical tact in the rules followed by these prudent directors. They saw the danger of being more royalist than the king, and they knew how easy was the transition from one extreme to the other. Men less exempt than they were, from anything like vanity, would have exulted when Lamennais, the master of these brilliant paradoxes, who had represented them as being guilty of heresy and lukewarmness for the Holy See, himself became a heretic, and accused the Church of Rome of being the tomb of human souls and the mother of error. Age must not attempt to ape the ways of youth under penalty of being treated with disrespect.

It is on account of this frankness that St. Sulpice represents all that is most upright in religion. No attenuation of the dogmas of Scripture was allowed at St. Sulpice; the fathers, the councils, and the doctors were looked upon as the sources of Christianity. Proof of the divinity of Christ was not sought in Mohammed or the battle of Marengo. These theological buffooneries, which by force of impudence and eloquence extorted admiration in Notre-Dame, had no such effect upon these serious-minded Christians. They never thought that the dogma had any need to be toned down, veiled, or dressed up to suit the taste of modern France. They showed themselves deficient in the critical faculty in supposing that the Catholicism of the theologians was the self-same religion of Jesus and the prophets; but they did not invent for the use of the worldly, a Christianity revised and adapted to their ideas. This is why the serious study--may I even add, the reform--of Christianity is more likely to proceed from St. Sulpice than from the teachings of M. Lacordaire or M. Gratry, and a fortiori, from that of M. Dupanloup, in which all its doctrines are toned down, contorted, and blunted; in which Christianity is never represented as it was conceived by the Council of Trent or the Vatican Council, but as a thing without frame or bone, and with all its essence taken from it. The conversions which are made by preaching of this kind do no good either to religion or to the mind. Conversions of this kind do not make Christians, but they warp the mind and unfit men for public business. There is nothing so mischievous as the vague; it is even worse than what is false. "Truth," as Bacon has well observed, "is derived from error rather than from confusion."

Thus, amid the pretentious pathos which in our day has found its way into the Christian Apologia, has been preserved a school of solid doctrine, averse to all show and repugnant to success. Modesty has ever been the special attribute of the Company of St. Sulpice; this is why it has never attached any importance to literature, excluding it almost entirely. The rule of the St. Sulpice Company is to publish everything anonymously, and to write in the most unpretending and retiring style possible. They see clearly the vanity, and the drawbacks of talent, and they will have none of it. The word which best characterises them is mediocrity, but then their mediocrity is systematic and self-planned. Michelet has described the alliance between the Jesuits and the Sulpicians as "a marriage between death and vacuum." This is no doubt true, but Michelet failed to see that in this case the vacuum is loved for its own sake. There is something touching about a vacuum created by men who will not think for fear of thinking ill. Literary error is in their eyes the most dangerous of errors, and it is just on this account that they excel in the true style of writing. St. Sulpice is now the only place where, as formerly at Port-Royal, the style of writing possesses that absolute forgetfulness of form which is the proof of sincerity. It never occurred to the masters that among their pupils must be a writer or an orator. The principle which they insisted upon the most earnestly was never to make any reference to self, and if one had anything to say, to say it plainly and in undertones. It was all very well for you, my worthy masters, with that total ignorance of the world which does you so much honour, to take this view; but if you knew how little encouragement the world gives to modesty, you would see how difficult it is for literature to act up to your principles. What would modesty have done for M. de Chateaubriand? You were right to be severe upon the stagey ways of a theology reduced so low as to bid for applause by resorting to worldly tactics. But what does one ever hear of your theology? It has only one defect, but that is a serious one; it is dead. Your literary principles were like the rhetoric of Chrysippus, of which Cicero said that it was excellent for teaching the way of silence. Whoever speaks or writes for the public ear or eye must inevitably be bent upon succeeding. The great thing is not to make any sacrifice in order to attain that success, and this is what your serious, upright and honest teaching inculcated to perfection.

In this way St. Sulpice with its contempt for literature is perforce a capital school for style, the fundamental rule of which is to have solely in view the thought which it is wished to inculcate, and therefore to have a thought in the mind. This was far more valuable than the rhetoric of M. Dupanloup, and the teaching of the new Catholic school. At St. Sulpice, the main substance of a matter excluded all other considerations. Theology was of prime importance there, and if the way in which the studies were shaped was somewhat deficient in vigour, this was because the general tendency of Catholicism, especially in France, is not in the direction of very high and sustained efforts. St. Sulpice has, however, in our time turned out a theologian like M. Carriere, whose vast labours are in many respects remarkable for their depth; men of erudition like M. Gosselin and M. Faillon, whose conscientious researches are of great value, and philologists like M. Garnier, and especially M. Le Hir, the only eminent masters in the field of ecclesiastical critique whom the Catholic school in France has turned out.

But it is not to results such as these that the teachers of St. Sulpice attach the highest value. St. Sulpice is, above all, a school of virtue. It is chiefly in respect to virtue that St. Sulpice is a remnant of the past, a fossil two hundred years old. Many of my opinions surprise the outside world, because they have not seen what I have. At Sulpice I have seen, allied as I admit, with very narrow views, the perfection of goodness, politeness, modesty, and sacrifice of self. There is enough virtue in St. Sulpice to govern the whole world, and this fact has made me very discriminating in my appreciation of what I have seen elsewhere. I have never met but one man in the present age who can bear comparison with the Sulpicians, that is M. Damiron, and those who knew him, know what the Sulpicians were. A future generation will never be able to realise what treasures to be expended in improving the welfare of mankind, are stored up in these ancient schools of silence, gravity and respect.

Such was the establishment in which I spent four years at the most critical period of my life. I was quite in my element there. While the majority of my fellow-students, weakened by the somewhat insipid classical teaching of M. Dupanloup, could not fairly settle down to the divinity of the schools, I at once took a liking for its bitter flavour; I became as fond of it as a monkey is of nuts. The grave and kindly priests, with their strong convictions and good desires reminded me of my early teachers in Lower Brittany. Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet and its superficial rhetoric I came to look upon as a mere digression of very doubtful utility. I came to realities from words, and I set seriously to study and analyse in its smallest details the Christian Faith which I more than ever regarded as the centre of all truth.


  1. I am speaking of the years from 1842 to 1845. I believe that it is the same still.