Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Victor Hugo's Portrait of a Bishop

Today is Bastille Day, and it would not be right to let it go unhonored here at Mirror of Justice. Here is my contribution: Hugo's Tomb
something from that titan of France now well ensconced in the Pantheon, Victor Hugo. If you do not know Les Miserables (the novel, of course, not the musical), you must give it a try. It's a rare and true pleasure to read.

It may perhaps come as a surprise that the first book of Les Miserables, "A Just Man," is almost entirely devoted to describing a bishop--Bishop Bienvenu Myriel. It may be even more surprising that this portrait, by that grand homme de la patrie, is not merely flattering but reverential. Yes, Hugo saves many sharp elbows for the clerisy. Yes, he has a rather pantheistic conception of Christianity. But it seems churlish today to dwell on these matters. And it should not go unnoticed that this masterpiece of the French Revolution and post-Revolutionary France leads its charge in praise of a cleric--a good and just man. It is, in its way, a deeply religious novel.

Here is something toward the end of the Book 1, Chapter 14 ("What He Thought"). Happy Bastille Day.

Human meditation has no limits. At its own risk and peril, it analyzes and digs deep into its own bedazzlement. One might almost say, that by a sort of splendid reaction, it dazzles nature; the mysterious world which surrounds us renders back what it has received; it is probable that the contemplators are contemplated. However that may be, there are on earth men who—are they men?—perceive distinctly at the verge of the horizons of reverie the heights of the absolute, and who have the terrible vision of the infinite mountain. Monseigneur Bienvenu was not one of these men; Monseigneur Welcome was not a genius. He would have feared those sublimities whence some very great men even, like Swedenborg and Pascal, have slipped into insanity. Certainly, these powerful reveries have their moral utility, and by these arduous paths one approaches to ideal perfection. As for him, he took the path which shortens,—the Gospel’s.

He did not attempt to impart to his chasuble the folds of Elijah’s mantle; he projected no ray of future upon the dark groundswell of events; he did not see to condense in flame the light of things; he had nothing of the prophet and nothing of the magician about him. This humble soul loved, and that was all.

That he carried prayer to the pitch of a superhuman aspiration is probable: but one can no more pray too much than one can love too much; and if it is a heresy to pray beyond the texts, Saint Theresa and Saint Jerome would be heretics.

He inclined towards all that groans and all that expiates. The universe appeared to him like an immense malady; everywhere he felt fever, everywhere he heard the sound of suffering, and, without seeking to solve the enigma, he strove to dress the wound. The terrible spectacle of created things developed tenderness in him; he was occupied only in finding for himself, and in inspiring others with the best way to compassionate and relieve. That which exists was for this good and rare priest a permanent subject of sadness which sought consolation.

There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine. One day, that man who believed himself to be a “philosopher,” the senator who has already been alluded to, said to the Bishop: “Just survey the spectacle of the world: all war against all; the strongest has the most wit. Your love each other is nonsense.”—“Well,” replied Monseigneur Bienvenu, without contesting the point, “if it is nonsense, the soul should shut itself up in it, as the pearl in the oyster.” Thus he shut himself up, he lived there, he was absolutely satisfied with it, leaving on one side the prodigious questions which attract and terrify, the fathomless perspectives of abstraction, the precipices of metaphysics—all those profundities which converge, for the apostle in God, for the atheist in nothingness; destiny, good and evil, the way of being against being, the conscience of man, the thoughtful somnambulism of the animal, the transformation in death, the recapitulation of existences which the tomb contains, the incomprehensible grafting of successive loves on the persistent I, the essence, the substance, the Nile, and the Ens, the soul, nature, liberty, necessity; perpendicular problems, sinister obscurities, where lean the gigantic archangels of the human mind; formidable abysses, which Lucretius, Manou, Saint Paul, Dante, contemplate with eyes flashing lightning, which seems by its steady gaze on the infinite to cause stars to blaze forth there.

Monseigneur Bienvenu was simply a man who took note of the exterior of mysterious questions without scrutinizing them, and without troubling his own mind with them, and who cherished in his own soul a grave respect for darkness.

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2017/07/victor-hugos-portrait-of-a-bishop.html

DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink