A God Who Trembles: Fear & Hope in the Poetry of Peguy

By Ryan, Jerry | Commonweal, December 19, 2008 | Go to article overview

A God Who Trembles: Fear & Hope in the Poetry of Peguy


Ryan, Jerry, Commonweal


Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe salvi, published a year ago, is magnificent as a theological lesson on the virtue of hope, drawing on Scripture and the church fathers to challenge the misplaced hopes of the modern world.

Nearly a century prior to Benedict's letter, Charles Peguy (1873-1914) published The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue--also a meditation on hope, but this one by a poet and unlikely mystic in the middle of a harrowing personal drama. Where Benedict speaks to the intellect, Peguy speaks to the heart; where Benedict strives for clarity, Peguy hints at mystery, and does so with an irresistible tenderness.

Charles Peguy was born in Orleans, the son of a carpenter. His father was killed in the Franco-Prussian War when Charles was ten months old. His mother supported herself and her child by mending chairs. Charles received the customary religious education, made his first Communion, and excelled in his studies. In 1895, he enthusiastically "converted" to socialism and became a militant atheist. In 1897, he married Charlotte Baudouin, the sister of a close friend who had died prematurely. With her dowry, Peguy founded a socialist publishing house. While still believing firmly in the socialist ideal, Peguy became disillusioned with socialist politics and its compromises--especially during the Dreyfus Affair. When he lost control of the publishing house, through what might be called a "hostile takeover," he founded a journal called Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, in which he could express himself more freely. That put him in a political no man's land. He was considered a traitor by the Left for his refusal to toe the party line, while the Right wanted nothing to do with him because of his socialist ideals. Both considered him an enemy. This ideological isolation continued throughout his lifetime and followed him after his death.

In 1908, after a serious illness and a period of extreme distress, Peguy returned to Catholicism. His was the church of Joan of Arc and the cathedral-builders, of a time when France was the church's beloved elder daughter, pure and firm in its faith, when society lived according to the pulse of the liturgy, when God was quite naturally everywhere and in all things. Peguy's conversion was absolute and all-absorbing, as is evident in his postconversion writings. Yet he had not been married in the church, and his wife wanted no part of it--nor would she tolerate the idea of baptizing their three children. Charles Peguy thus found himself a "public sinner" in the church he so loved, cut off from the Eucharist and the rest of the sacraments. Moreover, he had fallen in love with Blanche Raphael, one of his associates at the Cahiers, and that passion was a further humiliation and contradiction, though Peguy successfully resisted the temptation and maintained his fidelity to his family. Raissa Maritain describes Peguy praying with tears on the tops of omnibuses, entrusting his family to the Virgin. (After his death, his wife and children converted.) It was in the context of this personal anguish that he wrote his astonishing hymn to hope, The Mystery of the Porch of the Second Virtue. As a lieutenant in the army reserves, Peguy was mobilized at the outbreak of World War I. He was killed by a single bullet to the head in the Battle of the Marne.

Peguy's style is simple, lapidary, and, in some ways, biblical. Like the psalmists, he proceeds slowly, using rhythmic repetitions and slight variations to examine a theme in all its implications. It is contemplative poetry at its best, provoking prayer because it is imbued with prayer. Peter Maurin's prose style, in his Easy Essays, has often been compared to that of Peguy--though Maurin always denied that Peguy had any influence on him. Some of Peguy's works were translated into English in the 1940s, many of them by Julian Green, but translations are now difficult to find.

The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue is the second part of a trilogy, sandwiched between The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. …

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