If Only This Could Be Said

By Milosz, Czeslaw | Cross Currents, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

If Only This Could Be Said


Milosz, Czeslaw, Cross Currents


To deny, to believe, and to doubt absolutely--this is for man what running is for a horse. --PASCAL

If only this could be said: "I am a Christian, and my Christianity is such and such." Surely there are people who are capable of making such a statement, but not everyone has that gift. The power of dispossession, of disinheritance, is so great that language itself draws a boundary line. "In that dark world, where gods have lost their way" (Theodore Roethke), only the path of negation, the via negativa, seems to be accessible. It is worthwhile to ponder the difficulty of labeling oneself a Christian. This difficulty is marked by somewhat different characteristics in each branch of Christianity; to speak of "Christianity in general" would be to forget about many centuries of history and that we each belong to a particular, more or less preserved, tradition. In my case, the difficulty lies in calling myself a Catholic.

The obstacles I encounter derive from shame. We always experience shame in relation to someone; that is why, instead of dilating on religious concepts, I am obliged to make an effort to picture the faces of people before whom I am ashamed. A milieu which is hostile to religion, which thinks of religion as a relic of a past era, would probably arouse my violent opposition and a manifestation of my own religiosity. I am not dealing with such a milieu, however. Actually, I ought to explain the word milieu. What I mean by this is a certain number of people, scattered among various cities and countries, but present in my imagination. When I speak about my time or my era, I refer to events that touch me directly, as well as to what I know from books, films, television, the press; but more reliable knowledge is connected to people, to those whose way of life and thinking is familiar to me, to some extent, thanks to our personal relationships. I call this group "my contemporaries" under the assumption that they can b e considered to be representative of a much more inclusive group, although it would be inappropriate to base any far-reaching generalizations on them.

My contemporaries treat religious faith with respect and a lively interest, but almost always faith is something held by others that they have rejected for themselves. During the first three-quarters of the twentieth century such radical changes took place in the way people lead their lives that customs which were still universal in 1900 have acquired the characteristic of exceptions, and my contemporaries experience these changes both as progress and as a loss about which nothing can be done. Once upon a time, the fundamental events of human existence were consecrated by rituals marking a person's entrance into life, fertility, and death. The birth of a child was followed immediately by his acceptance into the community of the faithful, which meant, among Christians, baptism. Then the child submitted to rites of initiation (First Communion, confirmation studies, the sacrament of confirmation). In the countries where I have spent most of my life, in France and America, the existence of these rites, even of ba ptism, is becoming more and more problematic. They require a decision by the parents, so they are not perceived as selfevident. One of my contemporaries, Albert Camus, once asked me what I think: Is it not a little indecent that he, an atheist, should be sending his children to First Communion? But a decision in favor of the religious education of children does not offer much help, since the language in which the catechist speaks is countered by the impression the surrounding scientific-technological civilization makes upon the imagination.

The existence of marriage, marriage rites, rich in symbolism and providing a sense of the succession of generations, is becoming even more problematic. (The central place of this rite in Polish theater -- in Wyspianski's Wedding. …

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