Péguy, Expositor of Christian Hope

Michelle K. Borras

“God speaks, and in speaking he hands himself over to us. He loves, and in loving he hands his happiness over to us. He hopes, and his hope is his answer to Joan. The God we hear speaking is efficacious hope, a God new from all eternity.”

It is difficult to remain in hope, Benedict tells us in his newest encyclical, because it is difficult to remain in the often painful purification that is the “school of hope,” or prayer, and it is difficult to persevere in the consequence of that purification: the twofold opening to God and to our neighbor. Prayer, that most profound act of hope and most profound conversation, stretches us toward an ever-greater approximation to the dimensions of Life, eternal life (Spe salvi, 27), and toward the brethren into whose darkness the Son of God gave himself—for he gave himself “for all.” So thoroughly must this “for all” resonate in the Christian consciousness that, as the Pope reminds us, “To live for [Christ] means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others” (SS, 28). It means recognizing that just as my life and the lives of my brethren constantly “spill over” into one another for good and for ill (SS, 47), the salvation of my brethren is somehow my salvation, their hope is my hope: “Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well” (SS, 34). Or, in the words of the poet Charles Péguy, “You do not save your soul as you would a treasure. You save it as you lose a treasure: in surrendering it. We must save ourselves together, we must arrive togetherbefore the good Lord. What would he say if we arrived before him, came home to him, without the others?”1 Every act of hope is an act both for my brethren and borne by them, and brings us together into Life: the life that is God’s gift to us, and that is God himself.

Hope binds: men to men, and man to God. It makes the human being supple, transparent to his neighbor and before the “good Lord,” and in doing so it has cosmic repercussions. In the words of Pope Benedict, hope keeps “the world open to God” (SS, 34). Since the world is not itself if it is not open to God, that is as much as to say that it keeps the world as new as it was at its creation: a fitting receptacle for its Creator. But how does it do this, how does it reveal the deepest truth of all things, the deepest and “newest” freshness of the world? How does it spark the kind of insight into the mystery of salvation that we find in the above citation from Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc? More, how does it open to us the mystery of God, and thereby cause us to enter into Life? And perhaps most of all, in the face of the difficulty of hope and in the face of that darkness into which the Son of God gave himself, how do we hope? How do we live in hope?

Charles Péguy, that strange, early-twentieth-century French polemicist and poet, stood both inside and outside the Church. Much of his work, too, stands in a strange place: that sort of halflight in which theology and literature are no longer readily distinguishable, and sometimes, as in his triptych, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, we do not really know who is speaking, the poet or God. Péguy was a difficult man who wished to stand in the most difficult place: the place of purification where the word of man, that is, the poet’s word, prayer, and ultimately the word of fidelity to God and to neighbor that gathers up the whole of man, encounters the word of God, where man himself encounters God and undergoes the painful shaping worked upon him by grace. He wished to stand at that point where prayer, dialogue, the human word, meet and are assumed into the source of all dialogue: God, who is three and one. He also meant to take the mystery of the Incarnation seriously, and thereby to gaze upon the world and man in such a way that they are, at last, given all their weight. It is not clear if he meant, in so doing, to discover from within this “earthly earth” the source of hope and thereby of life, but this is in fact what he did. In allowing himself to be stripped for the sake of his poetical-theological task, in the painful experience of failure, public and private, Péguy became a remarkable expositor of what Benedict calls “the true shape of Christian hope.” We will follow Péguy’s slow discovery of the ground of our hope as it takes place in the progression of the three Mysteries, in order to discern with him, through the difficult school of prayer and suffering to which both he and his Joan of Arc (the main character of the Mysteries) were subjected, the virtue that makes this worn-out world somehow continuously resplendent with its original purity and perfection, makes it come to us ever-new, in all the light of that judgment in which it was first seen and pronounced good. Hope can do this, as we will come to see, because it is also the virtue that somehow, mysteriously, guarantees the archetypical, eternal “newness,” purity, and perfection of God.

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