Since Webster has brought up Péguy, the neglected inspirer here, I offer this article I wrote 20 years ago for the CL Magazine briefly published in the US. I met Péguy earlier, as a teenager, intrigued that God might have an issue with insomniacs, and later stalked the blue hardcover volume God Speaks at the Green Apple bookstore in San Francisco until I could come up with the $20 to bring it home.
There is nothing in the world better than the life of an honest man. There is nothing better than the baked bread of daily duties…. Above all, let us cling to this treasure of the humble, to this sort of implied joy which is the flower of life, this kind of healthy gaiety which is virtue itself and more virtuous than virtue itself (“The Humanities”).
Charles Péguy (1873-1914) had a lifelong interest in the problem of work for man—both as the means of providing for his physical needs and because of the meaning of the activity itself for his life. The French poet led an active life in politics, journalism, and as publisher and writer for the journal Cahiers (Notebooks), by which he barely sustained his own family of five. His final avocation, as a soldier, cost him his life in World War I.
Péguy always identified with his peasant heritage. He was raised by his widowed mother and grandmother who made their living caning chairs, usually working 16-hour days. In Péguy’s youth, religion was in the background and eventually abandoned for socialism. At times his writings were anticlerical, but he found the Church an opponent worthy of notice, particularly because of some Catholic friends. In his passion for the truth he often broke with old friends and eventually gave up on his party, disillusioned with the materialism, propagandism in art, anti-Semitism and other duplicities practiced to meet political goals.
Péguy’s Cahiers changed with him. He called it his “journal vrai” (“true”) and “the most beautiful thing in the world, a friendship and a city,” for its writers were free thinkers, humanists, Jews and Protestants who remained with him even after his conversion. Péguy wrote, “Our cahiers have become a perfectly free association of men who all believe in something.” The journal published original plays, novels, stories and poetry as well as political and social essays. He claimed that a good issue would displease at least one-third of the subscribers.
A lengthy illness may have contributed to his conversion, during which time he wrestled with the problem of damnation, reflected in his play, “The Mystery of the Charity of St. Joan of Arc.” Afterward his focus moved more to religious concerns, and he wrote movingly of God the Father, Jesus, Our Lady, and the saints while remaining just outside the doors of the Church. He attended Mass for the first and last time as an adult on the feast of the Assumption, three weeks before his death, and his friends and family believe he received the sacraments at that time.
Poverty vs. Destitution
Péguy’s early encounter with destitution, while distributing bread in a Parisian slum, showed him first-hand the evils of being denied not only basic sustenance, but the opportunity to participate in a function so important for man’s identity—his work. He blamed this on a new meritocracy, which denied work to those less talented, contributing to their physical and moral decline. It was for this reason that he joined the Socialist party and proposed a utopian model, a society in which each person would share the dignity of physical labor and have an opportunity to pursue artistic, philosophic, and scientific endeavors.
In “Old France” (1911), Péguy outlined the difference between the poverty of earlier times—“To be well housed in the little dwelling of poverty”—and the destitution inflicted by the modern world, which he described as “this monster of a Paris which is the modern Paris, where the population is divided into two classes so completely separated that never before has so much money been squandered on pleasure and money refused to such an extent to labor.” The former gift of poverty he called, “a kind of unspoken contract between man and fate … an asylum,” adding that those willing to restrict themselves to poverty in those earlier days, working hard and neither gambling nor wasting their small earnings, were not continuously thrown into destitution.
Work and Culture
Péguy didn’t confine his reflections on work to the level of macroeconomics. In “The World Is Against Us” (1909) he wrote of the degradation of work as it impacts man’s dignity and the consequent effect on culture:
We live in such barbarous times that luxury is confused with cleanliness. When a workman tries to work properly he is accused of being luxurious…. [L]uxury and wealth always work sloppily, literally there no longer exists any medium through which culture could either be maintained or even through which it might seek to revive itself or merely defend itself. Through which it could return…
Péguy began to grapple with the meaning of daily labor for the Christian in his work on Joan of Arc (1909), particularly in facing war and destruction, a preoccupation in his own politically unstable times. Joan laments:
All that is needed to set a farm ablaze is a flint. It takes … two years to build it…. It takes years and years to make a man grow, it took bread and more bread to feed him, and work and more work, and all kinds of work. All that is needed to kill him is one blow…. [T]he match is not even.
It is through Hauviette, the peasant girl, “a clear-sighted little girl from Lorraine,” that an attitude is revealed of peaceful trust in God’s designs. Hauviette answers:
For well nigh fifty years … the soldier has been crushing, or burning or robbing the ripe harvest … the same French peasants plow the same fields with just the same care, before God…. That is what preserves everything…. Work. The good Lord’s work.
She explains that even if she were forewarned by half an hour that the Last Judgment was upon them, she would continue to play or spin or to pray because:
Everything one does in the day is agreeable to God, provided of course that it is all right. Everything is God’s, everything concerns God, everything is done before God’s eyes; the whole day is God’s. All prayer is God’s, all work is God’s; all play too is God’s, when it’s time to play…. It is all these things taken together and for all these things one after the other than we have been put on earth….
Sacramentality of Work
Péguy wrote of the sacramentality of work, that is, as the present moment of grace, in “L’Argent” (1913), as he had experienced it growing up in the countryside of France:
From the moment we got up all [life] was governed by a rhythm, a rite … everything was ordered by sacred custom. They used to tell the curés, to annoy them, that “to work is to pray.” They were unaware of the truth of what they were saying…. [F]or a sense of respect still existed, … and the existence of such respect made life into what one might call a continuing ceremony … all happenings were sacramental.
In his long poem “Eve” (1913) Péguy the Christian observed the disordering of work as a result of the Fall. The poem begins as a description of paradise and then shows the painful rupture between the present moment and its eternal meaning:
And all fidelities were like a tower,
And time and space were no more than their valets,
And time and space ensured a respite,
And all fidelities were one only love.
Afterwards you knew only time in space.
No longer did you know the youthful world,
Or that peace of heart more full and more deep
Than the huge ocean beneath the eye of God.
This split infected man’s sacred function—his work. Péguy wrote of work which had become no more than organization, classification, and counting, no longer tied to the eternal.
Women, I tell you, you would stow away God himself,
If he happened to pass in front of your house.
You would stow away the trespass and the supreme power,
If they happened to pass in front of your mind.
All is seen and appraised and sold at the door.
All is displayed and cried up and sold on the stall.
All is shown and voiced and invested and yields.
Is this the salvation which we have sought?
The only satisfaction of this desire for unity between the present and man’s destiny is in the Incarnation:
For the supernatural itself is carnal
And the tree of grace has deep-thrusting roots
And drives through the soil and searches the depths
And the tree of the stock is itself eternal.
This reflection on the intersection of time and eternity can be found again in the work on Joan of Arc, where Péguy writes of Christ’s own daily work as man, by which he raises and unites every man and his activity to himself. Jesus Christ is the answer to the meaning of work in its personal and social significance as an activity through which man meets his eternal destiny.
Touching eternity with his eye that was God’s eye,
He was at the very end and here at the same time….
With one look he grasped all of his human life….
For he had worked as a carpenter, that was his trade….
The trade of cradles and coffins
Which are so much alike.
Of tables and beds.
And also of other pieces of furniture.
Of all furniture.
Because you mustn’t forget anybody.
You mustn’t discourage anybody….
And the earth is but your footstool.
Reprint from CL Magazine, Winter 1990.