Cahiers Péguy


Hope, The Virtue That Surprises Even God

“Why do we need predictions?” the New York Times asked this week in a two-day on-line forum. “Even though prognostications turn out to be wrong as often as they are right, why do they have such enduring power and appeal?”

To answer this question, the Times enlisted ten commentators: a geologist, an inventor, an economist, a sociologist, a management consultant, and five authors of moderate distinction. The panel wrote of prognostications, forecasts, predictions, the “law of accelerating returns,” the “Power of ‘I Told You So’”—all focused on the speed and surprises of technological, economic, and social change.

Geologist Simon Winchester (author of The Map that Changed the World, a very good book) notes that “star-gazing,” especially long-term, is “wonderfully entertaining nonsense.” Winchester, bless him, quotes Thomas à Kempis: “Whatever you may dream, fate has other plans in store.” But such realism does not deter other luminaries from flashing their brain power for the Times. Inventor Ray Kurzweil, for example, speculates that 25 years from now a computer could well fit inside a human cell.

Still, the question stands: Why do we speculate about the future? Why this interest, this desire to read the tea leaves in humanity’s cup? John McWhorter writes that we do so to evade “modernity,” our own reality. David Ropeik says it is “to give ourselves the feeling of control over our fate. I mean fate as in safety, survival, life, death.” The unspoken assumption of all ten Times panelists is that we can hope only for the species, not for our souls—that “safety, survival, life, death” refer to humanity, our posterity, not to you and me. Even Sherry Turkle’s piece, hopefully entitled “Expressing Hope,” focuses on hope for . . . computing power. But then as Fr. Giussani taught us, real hope, the Theological Virtue, stems from the certainty of faith, and where do we find certain faith in our Times?

My own speculation would be that, since my childhood anyway, when astrologer-psychic Jeane Dixon annually spun the wheel of fortune and made predictions for the coming year, human hope has not so much vanished as it has faded to a shadow of itself. We play these year-end guessing games in the Times, as in The National Enquirer, somewhat in the way the children in Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, physically severed from their daemons, souls in the form of animals, wear fish around their necks as pathetic symbols of a sublime reality they no longer possess. (No comments about the Magisterium, please! Pullman’s use of the term may be anti-Catholic, and the trilogy, His Dark Materials, does fade anticlimactically by the end of book three, but The Golden Compass is a first-class work of poetic imagination. Ask either of my daughters.)

By contrast with today’s pundits, Charles Péguy had real hope. Witness his book-length poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, written exactly 100 years ago and first published in his periodical Cahiers de Quinzaine on October 22, 1911. The poem is referenced several times in Fr. Luigi Giussani’s volume on Hope. (This post is my third in a series on Péguy, a series that began here and continued here.) Péguy plays a fugue on the theme of hope for over 4,000 lines.

Although it is one of the three Theological Virtues, Péguy writes, Christians often forget about hope—and God (this is cool) is surprised by it! In the English translation by David Louis Schindler Jr., the poem opens with God saying that neither faith nor charity surprise him. God says he is so “resplendent in my creation” that “in order not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.”

Charity, God continues, “doesn’t surprise me. . . . These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for each other.”

But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
Even me.
That is surprising.

That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.
That is surprising to me and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I’m surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.
And must flow freely and like an inexhaustible river.

As may already be apparent from this short excerpt, Péguy the poet reads like nothing so much as a French Catholic Walt Whitman, weaving a spell as he repeats and rephrases himself with line upon line of observations in the voice of a common man. Early in the poem, Péguy introduces a striking image. The three Theological Virtues, he writes, are like three females in a Corpus Christi procession. Faith is “a loyal Wife,” charity “a Mother. . . . Or an older sister who is like a mother.” By contrast—

Hope is a little girl, nothing at all.
Who came into the world on Christmas day just this past year.
Who is still playing with her snowman.
With her German fir trees painted with frost. . . .
And yet it’s this little girl who will endure worlds.
This little girl, nothing at all,
She alone, carrying the others, who will cross worlds past.

As the star guided the three kings from the deepest Orient.
Toward the cradle of my son.
Like a trembling flame.
She alone will guide the Virtues and the Worlds.

How tragic that for so much of today’s world this little girl has ceased to exist!

There are some extraordinary passages in this Portal. As the aging father of two grown daughters, I was particularly struck by one of them. Like so much in the poem, it runs counter to today’s mentality. Péguy imagines a farmer father who would not “have the heart to work” if not for his children. This father “tenderly” thinks of the coming day when he will be no more, and his children will take his place.

His place in the parish and his place in the forest.
His place in the church and his place in the house.
His place in the town and his place in the vineyard.
And on the plains and on the hill and in the valley.
His place in Christianity. After all.
His place as a man and his place as Christian.
His place as parishioner, his place as worker.
His place as farmer.
His place as father . . .

And twenty lines later—

He’ll have long been in the cemetery.
Around the church.
He, that is, his body.
Side by side with his fathers and the fathers of his fathers.
Lined up with them.

And ten lines further on—

His body, because his soul he will have a long time ago.
Commended to God.
Putting it under the protection of his patron saints.

He will sleep, his body will thus rest.
Among his own, (awaiting his own).
Awaiting the resurrection of the body.
Until the resurrection of the body his body will thus rest.

At this point, we are only 10 percent of the way into Péguy’s great poem, and I may have another post about it in me. But for now it is enough to hope, despite what the pundits think or write, to hope that someday, not only will my children survive me in a technological landscape out of H. G Welles or Phillip K. Dick, but they and I will survive together in the Kingdom of God. I as their father, and my own father with us as well.

Because the only real question about the future worth asking at the end of 2010, or time, is, What is our destiny? What is yours?

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About Webster Bull

Webster Bull is a writer and publisher living in Beverly, Massachusetts, north of Boston. His latest book is "Something in the Ether: A Bicentennial History of Massachusetts General Hospital, 1811-2011," to be published in April 2011. You can follow Webster on Facebook.
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  1. If anyone despairs, let him read Péguy’s Portal of Hope, which denies none of the human problems we may face: a sick child in peril of death, an impossible marital situation (made worse by pious friends), suicidal despair. Only by this human path does Péguy invite us to hope against hope, or hope beyond hope. Christopher Dawson also sees hope as an essential element of Christian culture, one that not only Calvinists, but also Jansenists have eroded.

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