Charles Péguy, Le Porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu, Éditions Gallimard, 1929.

Charles Péguy’s long poem, “The Gateway of the Mystery of the Second Virtue,” (often translated in English as “The Portal of the Mystery of Hope”) is the middle volume in a trilogy, surrounded on either side by “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc” (a play) and “The Mystery of the Innocent Saints.”  Written in 1912, the poem presents itself as an extended meditation on the theological virtue of hope. According to Péguy, hope is characterized by its ever-new quality, its ability to approach the same task as if it were to be accomplished for the first time.  This makes hope, the frailest of the virtues, the virtue that vivifies the rest – which for Péguy is represented by “little girl hope” standing between her two “older” sisters Faith and Charity, drawing them forward.  The poem itself is structured as a series of repetitions, almost Semitic in its constant re-use of phrases and images, each of which are developed in their repetition.  A single image or concept presented at the beginning of the poem is often expanded into a self-contained meditation later.  Thus, the poem imitates hope in its very structure, since childlike hope treats the successive grind of days as if each were a new day.  Hope is almost naïve, but all the while indestructible.  For this reason, Péguy insists that hope is the greatest virtue and at the same time the “littlest” virtue.

The poem begins by juxtaposing personified Faith and Love with Hope, in order to point out why God delights in Hope in particular.  Faith and Love are “obvious” virtues, the virtues easiest to grasp and therefore the most discussed.

The faith I love best, says God, is hope. 

Faith does not surprise me.

It is not surprising.

I shine forth so in my creation.

……….

I shine forth so in my creation.

So that in order not to really see me, it would have to be that these poor people were blind.

Charity, says God, does not surprise me.

It is not surprising.

These poor creatures are so unhappy that, unless they had a heart of stone, they could not help but love one another.

 

La foi que j’aime le mieux, dit Dieu, c’est l’espérance. 

La foi ça ne m’étonne pas.

Ça n’est pas étonnant.

J’éclate tellement dans ma création. (15)

………

J’éclate tellement dans ma création.

Que pour ne pas me voir vraiment il faudrait que ces pauvres gens fussent aveugles.

La charité, dit Dieu, ça ne m’étonne pas.

Ça n’est pas étonnant.

Ces pauvres créatures sont si malheureuses qu’à moins d’avoir un cœur de pierre, comment n’auraient-elles point charité les unes des autres. (19)

Hope, on the other hand, surprises even God.  It is surprising because of the continual sense, despite tragedy, that tomorrow will be better (20).  When God narrates in the poem, he attributes hope to the grandeur of his grace, the grace rooted in Christ.  Hope flows like a river throughout creation, flows with the abundance of grace: it flows through spiritual and carnal creation, mortal and immortal, each distinctive realm opened to eternity while inundated by the grace of hope. Grace is “Dans ma création spirituelle et charnelle et encore spirituelle/ Dans ma création éternelle et temporelle et encore éternelle”[i] (21).  Grace flows from Christ’s pierced side (cette fois, oh cette fois)[ii] and is that from which hope also springs.  So, God exclaims:

What is my grace and what is the strength of my grace that this little hope, vacillating at the breath of sin, trembling with every gasp, anxious at the least breath, 

be as unceasing, remain as faithful, as righteous, as pure; and invincible, and immortal, and impossible to extinguish; as that little flame in the sanctuary.

That burns eternally in the faithful lamp.

Quelle ne faut-il pas que soit ma grâce et la force de ma grâce pour que cette petite espérance, vacillante au souffle du péché, tremblante à tous les vents, anxieuse au moindre souffle, 

Soit aussi invariable, se tienne aussi fidèle, aussi droite, aussi pure; et invincible, et immortelle, et impossible à éteindre; que cette petite flammé du sanctuaire.

Qui brûle éternellement dans la lampe fidèle (21)

It is no mistake that the poem mentions the story from First and Second Maccabees—and primarily the story of Hanukkah—in which the menorah needed to burn constantly, but they were running out of oil.  Miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight days until they could receive more oil. It is a reference not only to that narrative, but also to the candle that burns next to the tabernacle in Catholic churches.  That flame is always lit, holding vigil over the presence of Christ in the tabernacle. Péguy’s Eucharistic themes are constant and consistent, with hope running concurrent to the daily bread of the Eucharist: the bread given each day, daily at Mass, daily the same and daily just as miraculous. (Much as in Aquinas: Praestet fides supplementum/ Sensuum defectui.)[iii] The food of hope, the nourishment of hope, is Christ himself, even unto the final shroud over Christ’s body in the tomb, for hope grasps the hidden future with the courage and frailty of total self-surrender.  (Do not some churches place a veil over the tabernacle?)

We will return to the shroud, the final moment of the poem, again.  It remains to be seen, first, how hope seizes the future in the present.  According to Péguy, hope’s proleptic stance is distinguished by its ability to see “what will be.”

It is she, this little one, who leads them all. 

For Faith sees only what is.

And she, she sees what will be.

Charity loves only what is.

And she, she loves what will be.

Faith sees what is.

In Time and in Eternity.

Hope sees what will be.

In time and for eternity.

In the future, so to speak, of eternity itself.

 

C’est elle, cette petite, qui entraîne tout. 

Car la Foi ne voit que ce qui est.

Et elle elle voit ce qui sera.

La Charité n’aime que ce qui est.

Et elle elle aime ce qui sera.

La Foi voit ce qui est.

Dans le Temps et dans l’Éternité.

L’Espérance voit ce qui sera.

Dans le temps et pour l’éternité.

Pour ainsi dire dans le future de l’éternité même. (28-9)

Hope’s ever-new quality, its characteristic ability to start the same tired task afresh, is precisely Péguy’s argument as to how hope grasps the future: the future is the always-beginning, or rather, it is always-beginning in time. Péguy will often shift between the beginning and the future, moving among images of both, because hope’s dynamism encompasses both.  Hope is new and in that respect is a beginning, but its newness is the electric vitality of eternity.  The virtue of hope, then, is associated with the sacrament of baptism, which is a new beginning because it gives eternal life.  For “le baptême est le sacrement le plus neuf./ Et le baptême est le sacrement qui commence’’[iv] (45) and hope is ‘‘celle qui toujours commence’’[v] (46).

But hope is not without its terror. Hope does not inoculate against suffering.  So Péguy depicts a character, the woodcutter, as an ordinary figure of extraordinary hope—as is the case with all human beings—who experiences tremendous fear (Il en avait tremblé dans sa peau)[vi] when his children become ill (56).   His terror chills him to the bone, so deep he can no longer endure it and resolves then to surrender his children to the Virgin Mary (Si touchante et si belle)[vii] in a moment of desperate prayer (66).  The woodcutter’s hope is imperfect.  Hers is perfect.

And so she is not only 

All faith and all love.

But is also all hope.

And that is seven times more difficult.

As it is seven times more full of grace.

Thus she has taken into her custody and protection.

And keeps for eternity.

The young virtue Hope.

Et ainsi elle qui n’est point seulement 

Toute foi et toute charité.

Mais aussi qui est toute espérance.

Et cela est sept fois plus difficile.

Comme c’est aussi sept fois plus gracieux.

Ainsi elle a prise en charge et en tutelle.


Et en commende pour l’éternité.

La jeune vertu Esperance. (69)

The Virgin bears the characteristics of hope, and is in that respect Hope personified.  She is eternally young, pure in her persistent newness—in her motherhood (67). For Péguy, Mary’s grandeur is not to be found in a kind of heroic greatness, but in her humility: “A celle qui est infiniment riche./ Parce qu’aussi elle est infiniment pauvre”[viii] (73). Hope is always little girl hope, never as it were fully grown.  Never set apart in the autonomy of adulthood.  Hope is thus essentially Marian: because she is the one who is full of grace, Mary is the one who is with us, and not otherwise (81).  It is here that all the strength of frail hope shows itself: hope never derives its unbreakable endurance from itself, but from God, and from its ability to remain with us even when we would leave it for despair.  Mary’s perpetual virginity, her unblemished purity, appears now as a sign of hope’s unadulterated dependence on God for all the fruit it bears.  And so Péguy expresses Mary as most carnal while also being pure:

One alone is pure being carnal. 

One alone is carnal while being pure.

It is for this that the Blessed Virgin is not only the greatest blessing to have fallen to earth.

But also the greatest blessing to have descended upon all of creation.

Une seule est pure étant charnelle. 

Une seule est charnelle ensemble étant pure.

C’est pour cela que la saint Vierge n’est seulement la plus grande bénédiction qui soit tombée sure la terre.

Mais la plus grande benediction meme qui soit descendue dans toute la creation. (90)

A vital theme for Péguy is thus the marriage between the ordinary and extraordinary, between flesh and eternity, as it is precisely this union that hope encircles.  There is, again, sharp terror felt in such a meditation: to recognize the descent of God’s grace on the world (most perfectly effected in Mary) is to begin to sense that God’s grace has somehow become dependent on the world.  The Virgin must speak her Fiat, and the Church must speak the Word through the burdensome succession of ages (as in the Vulgate: in saecula saeculorum).[ix] The poet laments over this dependence, this risk, over having to speak Christ’s word:

O misery, o misfortune, that this would come back to us, 

That it would belong to us, that it would depend on us

To make it heard through the centuries of centuries,

To make it resound.

O misère, ô malheur, c’est à nous qu’il revient, 

C’est à nous qu’il appartient, c’est de nous qu’il dépend

De la faire entendre dans les siècles des siècles,

De la faire retentir. (109)

To take the Incarnation seriously means a full consideration of the fact that God really has taken on flesh—and this is a risk.  It means a full consideration of the fact that God has handed himself over, as it were, to continue to be incarnated in the Church—and this, too, is a risk.  This is how, according to the poet, God “learns” anxiety.  He learns it from we who would refuse to speak the word.  He learns it from the lost sheep, which could in all its freedom remain lost.  This is “La dévorante inquiétude au cœur de Jésus,”[x] which is “L’inquiétude de ne pas la retrouver. De ne pas savoir” (89).[xi] The terrible peril of freedom after the Fall casts time in the shadow of anxiety.  Hope is confidence but it is not certitude.  Even the grandeur of God’s grace, the gift given without merit, nevertheless bears this risk: we can reject grace, and—more worrisome—in some sense grace has been given over to us, as we can be instruments of grace.  That is, grace is given over to the Church, while remaining God’s possession.  God has given himself over to us, while remaining God, in the sense that the Eucharist is “given over” to us, to be received, to be consumed.  (“Take and drink; take and eat.”)  We feel the horror of this; we know somehow in the depths of our being that it could all go wrong.  So, the poet must reassure us: “Il faut avoir confiance en Dieu mon enfant./ Il faut avoir espérance en Dieu./ Il faut faire confiance à Dieu” (128).[xii] Even in all the risk of freedom, God knows what he is doing.

That God knows what he is doing is, for Péguy, expressed in the “three parables of hope,” which are the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The first two parables in particular describe the extravagance of God’s efforts to retrieve what has been lost, to go to the last to recover the least.  The third parable, the Prodigal Son, is the greatest parable of hope—the one that lasts beyond the bounds of Christianity, lingering even among the embittered.  “Rien que d’y penser, un sanglot vous en monte à la gorge” (163).[xiii] It is the greatest of these parables because it most vividly describes how God rejoices over our repentance, how the penitent sinner is not simply restored to former grace, but somehow crowns the glory of God. So this parable follows us even when we forsake it.  Hope adheres in us when we would rather despair, so that even our sorrow is a sorrow felt because we hope for better.  “Car c’est un mystère qui suit, c’est une parole qui suit/ Dans les plus grands/ Éloignements” (166).[xiv]

According to Péguy, we are always creatures of hope.  We are always covered in the mantle of hope, and for the poet, this mantle is the darkness of night.  This makes hope both inscrutable and ever-present, the surrender that cradles itself in total trust in God.  So, God says of night:

O night who dresses all wounds 

You who draw from the well of the Samaritan woman, from the deepest well,

The deepest prayer.

O night, o my daughter Night, you who know how to fall silent, o my daughter of the beautiful mantle.

You who confer rest and forgetfulness.  You who confer a balm, and silence, and shadow.

O nuit qui panses toutes les blessures 

Au puits de la Samaritaine toi qui tires du puits le plus profond

La prière la plus profonde.

O nuit, ô ma fille la Nuit, toit qui sais te taire, ô ma fille au beau manteau.

Toi qui verses le repos et l’oubli. Toi qui verses le baume, et le silence, et l’ombre. (228).

The deepest prayer, for Péguy, is the prayer made in hope.  The prayer that hopes.  The prayer clothed by grace as the sky is clothed by night.  Days are full of activity and struggle; night is sheer grace.  Or again, hope is the deepest prayer since it surrenders in the present to the future God has set before us on the cross.  The cross, which is itself our hope, itself shrouded in hope as it shrouds the world in hope.

O my most cherished daughter, I see it still before my eyes and I will see it in my eternity 

It was then, o Night, that you came and, in a great shroud, you buried

The Centurion and his Romans,

The Virgin and the holy women,

And that mountain, and that valley, upon which the evening was descending,

And my people of Israel and sinners with them and he who was dying, who had died for them

And Joseph of Arimathea’s men who already approached.

Bearing the white shroud.

O ma fille chère entre toutes et je le vois encore et je verrai cela dans mon éternité 

C’est alors ô Nuit que tu vins et dans un grand linceul tu ensevelis

Le Centenier et ses hommes romains,

La Vierge et les saintes femmes,

Et cette montagne, et cette vallée, sur qui le soir descendait,

Et mon peuple d’Israël et les pécheurs et ensemble celui qui mourait, qui était mort pour eux

Et les hommes de Joseph d’Arimathée qui déjà s’approchait.

Portant le linceul blanc. (234)


[i] In my  spiritual creation and carnal and still spiritual/ In my eternal creation and temporal and still eternal.

[ii] That time, o that time.

[iii] Faith exceeds the supply/ of defective senses.

[iv] Baptism is the newest sacrament./ And baptism is the sacrament that begins.

[v] That which always begins.

[vi] He was trembling in his very flesh.

[vii] So moving and so beautiful.

[viii] And the one who is infinitely rich/ Because she is also infinitely poor.

[ix] Cf. Le Porche du mystère, 115.  Unto ages of ages.

[x] The devouring anxiety of the heart of Jesus.

[xi] The anxiety of not finding it.  Of not knowing.

[xii] You must have trust in God, my child./ You must have hope in God./ You must trust God.

[xiii] Only thinking about it, a sob rises in your throat.

[xiv] Because she is a mystery who follows, she is a word that follows/ Into the greatest/ Estrangements

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