Bernanos and Carmel

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St. Teresa of the Andes

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose feast the universal Church celebrates today, is observed as a national holiday in Chile (where, by the way, I’ve been working this summer), the country consecrated to Mary under this title.  And perhaps not coincidentally, the first Chilean to be canonized was St. Teresa of the Andes (1900-1920), the Carmelite nun who died at the age of 19 after only 11 months of religious life–and without, it would seem, leaving so much as a ripple on the surface of Chilean society.  Teresa was canonized quite simply for “living, believing, and loving”.  Chile has, of course, her industrious “Martha” as well in the person of St. Alberto Hurtado, SJ (1901-1952), the social thinker, founder of institutions, and father of the poor.  But, all in all, the spirit of Carmel has been more notable in Chile over these last days.  And despite my loyalty to my Jesuit confreres, I have to admit that there is a special urgency to the holiness of Carmel.  For attention to the Church’s esteem for “unaccomplished,” contemplative lives helps to disambiguate two ideals so easily confused in our age: Christian holiness and philanthropic moralism—with the latter being understood more or less as the duty to reduce human human suffering whenever possible.

The Chilean Church’s seemingly disproportionate joy over these feasts of Carmel reminded me of a letter written by Georges Bernanos that I ran across some years back (and that has haunted me ever since). Therein the French Catholic novelist explains why he made Fr. Donissan, the saintly protagonist of Sous le Soleil de Satan, so humanly unimpressive.  For Bernanos, the human “foolishness” of this “saint of Lumbres” was necessary precisely to expose the attempted reduction of Christianity to philanthropic moralism :

Moralists are boring; they interest me about as much as a small rock.  If I were forced to deal with them, I would offer them someone other than my saint of Lumbres; I would choose someone other than, for example, a rational saint (such exist!).  But I will go further.  Let me make my confession to you LeFèvre: it is true that, out of spite, I wanted my foolish but humble and powerful hero to be a stranger to them.  It pleases me that he should unsettle them.

Yes, I had in mind those who reject this moralism, this attenuated Christianity, which seems to have been fashioned for an industrial civilization whose sole aim appears to be mastery over the material world.  I wanted to say to them: “Are you looking for a vision of the moral world that is both logical and emotional?  Look no further.”

I believe that my book will initially scandalize precisely those to whom it has something to give.  Those baptized individuals who have retained from their forgotten catechism only the vague memory of a collection of rules or imaginative symbols meant to facilitate the observance of moral precepts… People tolerate the saint as long he is a humanitarian, but he is looked on as a lunatic the moment he steps beyond the limits of bourgeois prudence.  The sister of charity is loved for keeping kids’ noses wiped; but the moment she enters Carmel, she becomes for some a fanatic, and, for the more indulgent others, a rare flower, an ornament, a precious human trinket … But what is all this?  What does this have to do with the crucified Christ?

…The problem of Life, I was saying, is the problem of Suffering.  But that wasn’t quite right.  The whole of the problem of Life can find ample space in the problem of Sin.  What is Sin, then?  Is it the transgression of the Law?  It is indeed, but what a poor abstraction that notion is!  Instead, we learn everything we need to know about sin when we call it by its proper name: it is deicide, the murder of God.

I know that this is a hard word.  It is so convenient to picture a creator who smiles at his creature’s mix-ups, or perhaps wrinkles his brow!  But if you leave anything at all out of this primary definition, redemption loses all of its meaning, and the ignominious agony of the Just One becomes nothing but a horrid and useless story.

Bernanos’ basic argument goes like something like this.  If Evil were only as deep as human suffering, then Christ’s passion would be a cruel excess; for a  humanitarian intervention would be sufficient.  But the Cross stands athwart this soothing interpretation of Evil.  There is more than pain.  There is also Sin.  And only with a view to Sin, which Bernanos memorably describes as “deicide”–i.e., utter enmity with God–can we see the sense of a life dedicated so exclusively to His friendship.  For from this perspective the contemplative, the life of friendship with God par excellence, is seen not so much as an escape from the world’s pressing needs as a raid on Evil’s fastest stronghold.

This is why the Church can rejoice in the “unaccomplished” lives of Carmel.

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2 Responses to Bernanos and Carmel

  1. Joe Johnson says:

    Inspiring.

  2. Very good post. I was just trying to explain the whole Catholic valuation of the contemplative life the other day, and I failed miserably. I will remember this.

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