Recollections of My Youth/The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part IV

The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part IVEdit

Such were these two years of inward labour, which I cannot compare to anything better than a violent attack of encephalitis, during which all my other functions of life were suspended. With a certain amount of Hebraic pedantry, I called this crisis in my life Naphtali,[1] and I often repeated to myself the Hebrew saying: "Napktoule elohim niphtali (I have fought the fight of God)." My inward feelings were not changed, but each day a stitch in the tissue of my faith was broken; the immense amount of work which I had in hand prevented me from drawing the conclusion. My Hebrew lecture absorbed my whole thoughts; I was like a man holding his breath. My director, to whom I confided my difficulties, replied in just the same terms as M. Gosselin at Issy: "Inroads upon your faith! Pay no heed to that; keep straight on your way." One day he got me to read the letter which St. Francois de Sales wrote to Madame de Chantal: "These temptations are but afflictions like unto others. I may tell you that I have known but few persons who have achieved any progress without going through this ordeal; patience is the only remedy. You must not make any reply, nor appear to hear what the enemy says. Let him make as much noise at the door as he likes without so much as exclaiming, 'Who is there?'"

The general practice of ecclesiastical directors is, in fact, to advise those who confess to feeling doubts concerning the faith not to dwell upon them. Instead of postponing the engagements on this account, they rather hurry them forward, thinking that these difficulties will disappear when it is too late to give practical effect to them, and that the cares of an active clerical career will ultimately dispel these speculative-doubts. In this regard, I must confess that I found my godly directors rather deficient in wisdom. My director in Paris, a very enlightened man withal, was anxious that I should be at once ordained a sub-deacon, the first of the holy orders which constitutes an irrevocable tie. I refused point-blank. So far as regarded the first steps of the ecclesiastical state, I had obeyed him. It was he himself who pointed out to me that, the exact form of the engagement which they imply is contained in the words of the Psalm which are repeated: "The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup; thou maintainest my lot." Well, I can honestly declare that I have never been untrue to that engagement. I have never had any other interest than that of the truth, and I have made many sacrifices for it. An elevated idea has always sustained me in the conduct of my life, so much so that I am ready to forego the inheritance which, according to our reciprocal arrangement, God ought to restore to me: "The lines are fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly inheritance"

My friend in the seminary of St. Brieuc[2] had decided, after much hesitation, to take holy orders. I have found the letter which I wrote to him on the 26th of March, 1844, at a time when my doubts with regard to religion were not disturbing my peace of mind so much as they had done.

"I was pleased but not surprised to hear that you had taken the final step. The uneasiness by which you were beset must always make itself felt in the mind of one who realizes the serious import of assuming the order of priesthood. The trial is a painful but an honourable one, and I should not think much of one who reached the priestly calling without having experienced it.... I have told you how a power independent of my will shook within me the beliefs which have hitherto been the main foundations of my life and of my happiness. These temptations are cruel indeed, and I should be full of pity for any one who was ever tortured by them. How wanting in tact towards those who have suffered these temptations are the persons who have never been assailed by them. It is no wonder that such should be the case, for one must have had experience of a thing thoroughly to understand it, and the subject is such a delicate one, that I question whether there are any two human beings more incapable of understanding one another than a believer and a doubter, however complete may be their good faith and even their intelligence. They speak two unintelligible languages, unless the grace of God intervenes as an interpreter. I have felt how completely maladies of this kind are beyond all human remedy, and that God has reserved the treatment of them to himself, inanu mitissima et suavissima pertractans vulnera mea, to quote St. Augustin, who evidently speaks from experience. At times the Angelus Satanae qui me colaphizet wakes up. Such, my dear friend, is our fate, and we must abide by it. Converte te sufra, converte te infra, life, especially for the clergy, is a battle, and perhaps in the long run, these storms are better for man than a dead calm, which would send him to sleep.... I can hardly bring myself to fancy that within a twelvemonth you will be a priest, you who were my schoolfellow and friend as a boy. And now we are halfway through life, according to the ordinary mode of reckoning, and the second half will probably not be the pleasanter of the two. This surely should make us look upon passing ills as of no account, and endure with patience the troubles of a few days, at which we shall smile in a few years' time, and not think of in eternity. Vanity of vanities!"

A year later the malady, which I thought was only a fleeting one, had spread to my whole conscience. Upon the 22nd of March, 1845, I wrote a letter to my friend which he could not read, as he was on his deathbed when it reached him.

"My position in the seminary has not varied much since our last conversation. I am allowed to attend all the lectures on Syriac of M. Quatremere, at the College de France, and I find them extremely interesting. They are useful to me in many ways; in the first place by enabling me to learn much that is useful and attractive, and by distracting my mind from certain subjects.... I should be quite happy if it were not that the painful thoughts of which you are aware were ever afflicting my mind at an increasingly rapid rate. I have quite made up my mind not to accept the grade of sub-deacon at the next ordination. This will not excite any notice, as owing to my age, I should be compelled to allow a certain interval to elapse between my different orders. Nor, for the matter of that, is there any reason why I should care for what people think. I must accustom myself to brave public opinion, so as to be ready for any sacrifice. I suffer much at times. This Holy Week, for instance, has been particularly painful for me, for every incident which bears me away from my ordinary life, revives all my anxious doubts. I console myself by thinking of Jesus, so beautiful, so pure, so ideal in His suffering--Jesus whom I hope to love always. Even if I should ever abandon Him, that would give Him pleasure, for it would be a sacrifice made to my conscience, and God knows that it would be a costly one! I think that you, at all events, would understand how costly it would be. How little freedom of choice man has in the ordering of his destiny. When no more than a child who acts from impulse and the sense of imitation, one is called upon to stake one's whole existence; a higher power entangles you in indissoluble toils; this power pursues its work in silence, and before you have begun to know your own self, you are tied and bound, you know not how. When you reach a certain age, you wake up and would like to move. But it is impossible; your hands and arms are caught in inextricable folds. It is God Himself who holds you fast, and remorseless opinion is looking on, ready to laugh if you signify that you are tired of the toys which amused you as a child. It would be nothing if there was only public opinion to brave. But the pity is that all the softest ties of your life are woven into the web that entangles you, and you must pluck out one-half of your heart if you would escape from it. Many a time I have wished that man was born either completely free, or deprived of all freedom. He would not be so much to be pitied if he was born like the plant family, fixed to the soil which is to give it nourishment. With the dole of liberty allowed to him, he is strong enough to resist, but not strong enough to act; he has just what is required to make him unhappy. 'My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?' How is all this to be reconciled with the sway of a father? There are mysteries in all this, and happy is he who fathoms them only in speculation.

"It is only because you are so true a friend that I tell you all this. I have no need to ask you to keep it to yourself. You will understand that I must be very circumspect with regard to my mother. I would rather die than cause her a moment's pain. O God! shall I have the strength of mind to give my duty the preference over her? I commend her to you; she is very pleased with your attentiveness to her. This is the most real kindness you can do me."

NotesEdit

  1. Lucta mea, Genesis xxx. 8.
  2. His name was Francois Liart. He was a very upright and high minded young man. He died at Treguier at the end of March, 1845. His family sent me after his death all my letters to him, and I have them still.