“This Pascal to whom I owe everything” — François Mauriac

François Mauriac (1885 – 1970)
François Mauriac published a book What I believe (1962). In a chapter entitled “The debt to Pascal,” he said “Without him, I doubt if I would have remained faithful.” He said “in a young man, the hidden powers of the flesh and the demands of reason are conjugated against Christ.” Pascal showed him the viability and beauty of the faith, ironically in a way that a saint may not, because  Pascal, “despite his genius, remains one us.”
But with a more interesting and profound reason he explains why Pascal is so important for each generation of Christians in the modern world. He calls Pascal’s “memorial,” his testimony to Christ,  a “talisman” and a “charm” to ward off the demons of modernity.  (To read the Memorial of Pascal, click here)
“The negations of the modern world had no effect on those men for whom Pascal had come (and I am one of them).” Mauriac, and others, in a generation that sought escape into drugs and madness, the subconscious and dreams, used Pascal’s talisman not to escape reality but to “reach supreme reality, not to change life but to change our own, thanks to a constant surpassing of ourselves.” 
If Blaise Pascal, the all too human, and frail genius, could fall to his knees and pray to Christ, and record his testimony of peace and joy, so too Mauriac, or any one of us, can and must do so. “The fire of one night of Pascal was sufficient to illuminate our entire life.”
In a previous chapter, “The demon,” Mauriac says “men today refuse in advance, and without any preliminary explanation, to believe that the clue to the enigma is given to us outside of the material world.”  In the modern world the artists and intellectuals have too often made the refusal: “Modern man has cut off communication with God by a basic negation. He fears being surprised.” Pascal undoes that negation and he is surprised by joy. Pascal is a sign — he signifies that at the beginning of modernity the negation of God was not a function of superior intellect, scientific insight, political enlightenment or  artistic vision. It was an affair of the heart. It was human vanity, and wretchedness. It was a narrowing of vision, a corruption of the heart. At the beginning, Pascal lived his protest and left his notes for the expansion of vision, the restoration of the heart, and integrity of life.
Due to Mauriac I have a better understanding now why Pascal is so important to modern Christians (and similarly is Newman important). Many scientists and philosophers act as if their moral life or religious dispositions have no bearing on their intellectual life. And the general tenor of mind is sceptical, reductionistic and inclined towards disbelief. A Christian must always be on the defensive, apologetic in the weak sense of the word, i.e., yielding, compromising, and seeking approval. We could continually tweak the five ways of Aquinas, explain the powers of the soul, and yet face another reductionist scheme or critique of reason “proving” that our whole enterprise is quaint, wrong headed, “medieval.” The Ivy League looks down upon the practice of religion and the science of metaphysics. “Why Mr. Motes, that is medieval, people just don’t do that anymore” exclaims the landlady in O’Connor’s Wise Blood.  “As long as I do it, I suppose people are still doing it,” said Hazel (he was mortifying his flesh). As long as Pascal did it, we can do it (bend the knee in prayer and thanksgiving). So Pascal was there at the founding of the modern age, prophetically warning against the dualism of mind and heart, or rather the loss of heart to sceptical mind, and the blindness to human wretchedness; he opened up the joy of faith in the search and discovery of the “hidden God” and the relish of the beatitudes. Why be on the defensive for one’s whole life and being? Pascal says “Rejoice, again I say rejoice.” Confident, not on the defensive.

And he goes on the offensive. Mauriac writes  — “because of his passionate desire to know the singularities and the contradictions in the real man, the least of his Pensees touches a sensitive spot in us, and inevitably awakens a response.” His “slightest thought troubles, or harms or irritates.” Thus “Pascal is still involved in our quarrels; he is alive.”

Pascal’s examination of heart provides the threshold to the modern age. The intellectuals or the ambitious may refuse to examine their own heart. But Pascal the prophet continues to call them out — “you do not know your own wretchedness, or greatness.” Pensees §131– “What sort of freak then is man? How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel such a tangle? This is certainly beyond scepticism and dogmatism, beyond all philosophy. Man transcends man.”
But not knowing the greatness or wretchedness of man, they do not have clue to the measure of human existence. For there is only one. “He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospel.” (Memorial) The truth of the heart is not mere feeling, but reflective knowledge of personal existence. The beatitudes are as hard as the wood of the cross, not a soft or pious escape.
Pascal correctly utters these lines in the Memorial — “Certainty. Certainty. Heartfelt, joy, peace.”
That is where Christians must always dwell. And then go about their business in the realm of science, philosophy, politics and the business of the world. Not on the defensive. But in confident faith, and the joy of the victory over the world. 
Pascal is accused of being a fideist. Or of having yielded to emotionalism and the exaltation of feeling.Or of Jansenism and Augustinianism. Or of many other things. But Mauriac suggests — “This is Pascal’s scandal which arouses pity in professional philosophers.  He provokes pity in them but he also shocks them. They consider his crime that of having tried to frighten us, of having taken pleasure in prolonging our anguish to reach his ends. As if this anguish was not in each of us! Pascal does not create in us our troubled conscience, even if it is true he searches for its explanation and proposes to us its remedy.”
The self-examination of the heart stands before each person. If one is ready to peer into that abyss, then one may be ready for Pascal.
“Blaise Pascal came to us and held in his hands a light, a lamp of those who are waiting for the return of the Bridegroom, a fire ignited by that flame he saw, with his own eyes, during the night of November 24, 1654, between approximately ten o’clock and twelve thrity. It is that flame which still illuminates those of us who have kept the faith in the God understood by the heart.” Mauriac, What I Believe, p. 105


1 Comment
  1. Nice post.

    Francois Mauriac is my favorite writer.


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