Monday, August 04, 2008

The Curé D'Ars

The Curé D'Ars

This is GKC's preface to The Secret of the Curé d'Ars (translated by F. J. Sheed), by Henri Ghéon. Messrs. Sheed & Ward, 1929; the preface was collected in G.K.C. as M.C.

I thought it would be appropriate to read this today.

--Dr. Thursday

The Catholic Church is much too universal to be called international, for she is older than all the nations. She is not some sort of new bridge to be built between these separated islands; she is the very earth and ocean-bed on which they are built. Nevertheless, as she has always been able to work through variety as well as uniformity, she is now able to appeal to the nations as nations, but to appeal to them rather to learn from each other than to lie about each other. The Catholic nations are very national; but each has specialized in some spiritual truth, rather as each of the Catholic Guilds specialized in some technical trade. So the fullness and kindliness of the Faith has abounded in Flemish art and folk-lore; so the fire and chivalry of it in Polish history and tradition. The Spaniard has splendidly maintained in poverty that human dignity which he never wholly lost even under the load of wealth. The Irish have kept a clear space for that strange purity of the mind, in which even hatred has become something clean and translucent, compared with the loves of other lands. In the same fashion, French Catholicism gathers up and gives expression to the vital virtues of France, of which (needless to say) it was the creator in the dim and turbulent age when Gauls and Franks became a nation. And it is of the very nature of France that the French Catholic should emphasize the fact that the Church is a challenge.

In this case we feel at its worst the weakening of the word 'apologetics' for the defence of Christian dogma, and the verbal degeneration by which the defiant thing once called an apologia has dwindled to the feeble thing called an apology. In fact, of course, an apologia is almost the opposite of an apology. But it is true, and it may in some cases even be fortunate, that men of a somewhat milder type or tradition have often defended Christianity, and even Catholicism, in a tone that was deprecating and tactful, and might have seemed to some to be apologetic. There is nothing of this sort about the typical French Catholic. There is nothing of this sort about M. Henri Ghéon. There was nothing of this sort about the Curé d'Ars. The first fact that will strike anyone outside the Catholic Church, and even a good many people inside it, in the attitude both of the author and the subject of this book is that a Frenchman of this sort is essentially militant There is nothing apologetic about his apologetics. He is not only propagandist but provocative. It is a quality which can, of course, take bad as well as good forms; just as it can be put at the service of bad as well as good causes. But there has always been apparent on both sides of the French religious quarrel a certain insistent and irritant character. I have heard that a sceptical mayor of some French town was not content with taking the metal of certain church bells, but cast it into a statue of Zola. He did the most annoying thing he could possibly think of. I believe that a statue of a great French freethinker, honoured in foreign countries as a great scholar and man of letters, was set up to be a glory to his own village; and the villagers instantly battered it to pieces with stones. Try to imagine villagers in Surrey doing this to a statue of George Meredith, because he was an agnostic. To put this aspect of French Catholicism in a word, in France the defence is not merely defensive. It is, in the honourable and soldierly sense of the word, offensive. As Mr. Belloc has remarked somewhere, 'the French do not fight with reluctance.'

This book is the story of a humble and saintly parish priest, who lived a quiet life in a rustic corner. It is natural to think first of him as gentle and pacific; and in one sense, like all such men, he was very gentle and very pacific. But he was, above all things, challenging. If I might so express it, he was above all things exasperating. He was a walking contradiction; he cut across the whole trend of his time at right angles; quite content to know that the angle was right. Nearly all people of the other race or temper, like so many English and some German people, take their divergence in a sort of curve, feeling the forces round them as things that can be partially followed, if they are ultimately left behind. But M. Ghéon sees M. Vianney primarily as a protest and a denial; a denial of all the things which were at his moment most confidently affirmed. M. Vianney appeared in history at the supreme moment of the French Revolution, when it was proclaiming both tremendous truths and tremendous falsehoods as with the trumpets of the Apocalypse. And in the midst of all those thunders the Curé d'Ars stood calmly talking about something totally different. He was talking exactly as he would have talked if he had been a Celtic hermit of the Dark Ages talking to a savage tribe of Picts. At the very moment when the human world seemed to have been enlarged beyond all limits for all to see, he declared it to be quite small as compared with things that hardly anybody could see. At the moment when thousands thought they were reading a radiant and self-evident philosophy, proved quite clearly in black and white, he calmly called its black white and its white black. For us who live at the end of the rationalist and republican epoch, it is difficult to measure how hopeful was the beginning of it, and how hopeless seemed the contradiction of it. For already the curve of the world has begun to creep backwards a little nearer to the mysticism of such a saint; though, alas, the modern mind has more often changed negatively by disillusion than positively by enthusiasm. But in the atmosphere of his own age, he was like a man dug up out of some other aeon or flung from some other planet. And indeed the quarrel of the world about such a man must always be, in a deeper sense, on whether he has risen from the Stone Age or fallen from the stars.

M. Ghéon, the author of so many striking dramas, sees here chiefly the drama of such a defiance. Sometimes, I am tempted to fancy, he even exaggerates the contrast, not so much between the saint and the period as between the saint and the ordinary life. But I recognize in that the fighting French exaggeration; such as appears in Wilfrid Ward's life of his father, touching the parallel between the French and English reaction. While Newman was rationalizing against rationalism in The Grammar of Assent, Veuillot was hurling Holy Water in the faces of the French rationalists, as the thing that would exasperate them most. And there is in fact a vital value in emphasizing the contrast, as a part of the controversy that concerns everybody. The critics of the Church are notably unlucky in hitting on the charge that she belongs to a feudal world or particular periods of the past. They are driven to call so many modern things medieval, that it is at last apparent that she is no more medieval than she is modern. It was in the dull daylight of the manufacturing and materialistic nineteenth century that the unearthly light shone from the cavern of Lourdes. And it was in the full sunrise of the secular age of reason introduced by the eighteenth century that a nimbus not of that age or of this world could be seen round the head of the Curé d'Ars.


  1. He's my patron saint! :D

  2. +JMJ+

    Great reading! =D Uncle Gilbert is incomparable!


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