Recollections of My Youth/The Petty Seminary of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet/Part III

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The Petty Seminary of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet/Part III[edit]

No Buddhist Lama or Mussulman Fakir, suddenly translated from Asia to the Boulevards of Paris, could have been more taken aback than I was upon being suddenly landed in a place so different from that in which moved my old Breton priests, who, with their venerable heads all wood or granite, remind one of the Osirian colossi which in after life so struck my fancy when I saw them in Egypt, grandiose in their long lines of immemorial calm. My coming to Paris marked the passage from one religion to another. There was as much difference between Christianity as I left it in Brittany and that which I found current in Paris, as there is between a piece of old cloth, as stiff as a board, and a bit of fine cambric. It was not the same religion. My old priests, with their heavy old-fashioned copes, had always seemed to me like the magi, from whose lips came the eternal truths, whereas the new religion to which I was introduced was all print and calico, a piety decked out with ribbons and scented with musk, a devotion which found expression in tapers and small flower-pots, a young lady's theology without stay or style, as composite as the polychrome frontispiece of one of Lebel's prayer-books.

This was the gravest crisis in my life. The young Breton does not bear transplanting. The keen moral repulsion which I felt, superadded to a complete change in my habits and mode of life, brought on a very severe attack of home-sickness. The confinement to the college was intolerable. The remembrance of the free and happy life which I had hitherto led with my mother went to my very heart. I was not the only sufferer. M. Dupanloup had not calculated all the consequences of his policy. Imperious as a military commander, he did not take into account the deaths and casualties which occurred among his young recruits. We confided our sorrows to one another. My most intimate friend, a young man from Coutances, if I remember right, who had been, transported like myself from a happy home, brooded in solitary grief over the change and died. The natives of Savoy were even less easily acclimatised. One of them, who was rather my senior, confessed to me that every evening he calculated the distance from his dormitory on the third floor to the pavement in the street below. I fell ill, and to all appearances was not likely to recover. The melancholy to which Bretons are so subject took hold of me. The memories of the last notes of the vesper bell which I had heard pealing over our dear hills, and of the last sunset upon our peaceful plains, pricked me like pointed darts.

According to every rule of medicine I ought to have died; and it is perhaps a pity that I did not. Two friends whom I brought with me from Brittany, in the following year gave this clear proof of fidelity. They could not accustom themselves to this new world, and they left it. I sometimes think that the Breton part of me did die; the Gascon, unfortunately, found sufficient reason for living! The latter discovered, too, that this new world was a very curious one, and was well worth clinging to. It was to him who had put me to this severe test that I owed my escape from death. I am indebted to M. Dupanloup for two things: for having brought me to Paris, and for having saved me from dying when I got there. He naturally did not concern himself much about me at first. The most eagerly sought after priest in Paris, with an establishment of two hundred students to superintend or rather to found, could not be expected to take any deep personal interest in an obscure youth. A peculiar incident formed a bond between us. The real cause of my suffering was the ever-present souvenir of my mother. Having always lived alone with her, I could not tear myself away from the recollection of the peaceful, happy life which I had led year after year. I had been happy, and I had been poor with her. A thousand details of this very poverty, which absence made all the more touching, searched out my very heart. At night I was always thinking of her, and I could get no sleep. My only consolation was to write her letters full of tender feeling and moist with tears. Our letters, as is the usage in religious establishments, were read by one of the masters. He was so struck by the tone of deep affection which pervaded my boyish utterances that he showed one of them to M. Dupanloup, who was very much surprised when he read it.

The noblest trait in M. Dupanloup's character was his affection for his mother. Though his birth was, in one way, the greatest trouble of his life, he worshipped his mother. She lived with him, and though we never saw her, we knew that he always spent so much time with her every day. He often said that a man's worth is to be measured by the respect he pays to his mother. He gave us excellent advice upon this head which I never failed to follow, as, for instance, never to address her in the second person singular, or to end a letter without using the word respect. This created a connecting link between us. My letter was shown to him on a Friday, upon which evening the reports for the week were always read out before him. I had not, upon that occasion, done very well with my composition, being only fifth or sixth. "Ah!" he said, "if the subject had been that of a letter which I read this morning, Ernest Renan would have been first." From that time forth he noticed me. He recognised the fact of my existence, and I regarded him, as we all did, as a principle of life, a sort of god. One worship took the place of another, and the sentiment inspired by my early teachers gradually died out.

Only those who knew Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet during the brilliant period from 1838 to 1844 can form an adequate idea of the intense life which prevailed there.[1] And this life had only one source, one principle: M. Dupanloup himself. The whole work fell on his shoulders. Regulations, usage administration, the spiritual and temporal government of the college, were all centred in him. The college was full of defects, but he made up for them all. As a writer and an orator he was only second-rate, but as an educator of youth he had no equal. The old rules of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet provided, as in all other seminaries, that half an hour should be devoted every evening to what was known as spiritual reading. Before M. Dupanloup's time, the readings were from some ascetic book such as the Lives of the Fathers in the Desert, but he took this half hour for himself, and every evening he put himself into direct communication with all his pupils by the medium of a familiar conversation, which was so natural and unrestrained that it might often have borne comparison with the homilies of John Chrysostom in the Palaea of Antioch. Any incident in the inner life of the college, any occurrence directly concerning himself or one of the pupils furnished the theme for a brief and lively soliloquy. The reading of the reports on Friday was still more dramatic and personal, and we all anticipated that day with a mixture of hope and apprehension. The observations with which he interlarded the reading of the notes were charged with life and death. There was no mode of punishment in force; the reading of the notes and the reflections which he made upon them being the sole means which he employed to keep us all on the qui vive. This system, doubtless, had its drawbacks. Worshipped by his pupils, M. Dupanloup was not always liked by his fellow-workers. I have been told that it was the same in his diocese, and that he was always a greater favourite with his laymen than with his priests. There can be no doubt that he put every one about him into the background. But his very violence made us like him, for we felt that all his thoughts were concentrated on us. He was without an equal in the art of rousing his pupils to exertion, and of getting the maximum amount of work out of each. Each pupil had a distinct existence in his mind, and for each one of them he was an ever-present stimulus to work. He set great store by talent, and treated it as the groundwork of faith. He often said that a man's worth must be measured by his faculty for admiration. His own admiration was not always very enlightened or scientific, but it was prompted by a generous spirit, and a heart really glowing with the love of the beautiful. He was the Villemain of the Catholic school, and M. Villemain was the friend whom he loved and appreciated the most among laymen. Every time he had seen him, he related the conversation which they had together in terms of the warmest sympathy.

The defects of his own mind were reflected in the education which he imparted. He was not sufficiently rational or scientific. It might have been thought that his two hundred pupils were all destined to be poets, writers, and orators. He set little value on learning without talent. This was made very clear at the entrance of the Nicolaites to St. Sulpice, where talent was held of no account, and where scholasticism and erudition alone were prized. When it came to a question of doing an exercise of logic or philosophy in barbarous Latin, the students of St. Nicholas, who had been fed upon more delicate literature, could not stomach such coarse food. They were not, therefore, much liked at St. Sulpice, to which M. Dupanloup, was never appointed, as he was considered to be too little of a theologian. When an ex-student of St. Nicholas ventured to speak of his former school, the old tutors would remark: "Oh, yes! in the time of M. Bourdoise," as much as to say that the seventeenth century was the period during which this establishment achieved its celebrity.

Whatever its shortcomings in some respects, the education given at St. Nicholas was of a very high literary standard. Clerical education has this superiority over a university education, that it is absolutely independent in everything which does not relate to religion. Literature is discussed under all its aspects, and the yoke of classical dogma sits much more lightly. This is how it was that Lamartine, whose education and training were altogether clerical, was far more intelligent than any university man; and when this is followed by philosophical emancipation, the result is a very frank and unbiased mind. I completed my classical education without having read Voltaire, but I knew the Soirees de St. Petersbourg by heart, and its style, the defects of which I did not discover until much later, had a very stimulating effect upon me.

The discussions on romanticism, then so fierce in the world outside, found their way into the college and all our talk was of Lamartine and Victor Hugo. The superior joined in with them, and for nearly a year they were the sole topic of our spiritual readings. M. Dupanloup did not go all the way with the champions of romanticism, but he was much more with them than against them. Thus it was that I came to know of the struggles of the day. Later still, the solvuntur objecta of the theologians enabled me to attain liberty of thought. The thorough good faith of the ancient ecclesiastical teaching consisted in not dissimulating the force of any objection, and as the answers were generally very weak, a clever person could work out the truth for himself.

I learnt much, too, from the course of lectures on history. Abbe Richard[2] gave these lectures in the spirit of the modern school and with marked ability. For some reason or other his lectures were interrupted, and his place was taken by a tutor, who with many other engagements on hand, merely read to us some old notes, interspersed with extracts from modern books. Among these modern volumes, which often formed a striking contrast with the jog-trot old notes, there was one which produced a very singular effect upon me. Whenever he began to read from it I was incapable of taking a single note, my whole being seeming to thrill with intoxicating harmony. The book was Michelet's Histoire de France, the passages which so affected me being in the fifth and sixth volumes. Thus the modern age penetrated into me as through all the fissures of a cracked cement. I had come to Paris with a complete moral training, but ignorant to the last degree. I had everything to learn. It was a great surprise for me when I found that there was such a person as a serious and learned layman. I discovered that antiquity and the Church are not everything in this world, and especially that contemporary literature was well worthy of attention. I ceased to look upon the death of Louis XIV. as marking the end of the world. I became imbued with ideas and sentiments which had no expression in antiquity or in the seventeenth century.

So the germ which was in me began to sprout. Distasteful as it was in many respects to my nature, this education had the effect of a chemical reagent, and stirred all the life and activity that was in me. For the essential thing in education is not the doctrine taught, but the arousing of the faculties. In proportion as the foundations of my religious faith had been shaken by finding the same names applied to things so different, so did my mind greedily swallow the new beverage prepared for it. The world broke in upon me. Despite its claim to be a refuge to which the stir of the outside world never penetrated, St. Nicholas was at this period the most brilliant and worldly house in Paris. The atmosphere of Paris--minus, let me add, its corruptions--penetrated by door and window; Paris with its pettiness and its grandeur, its revolutionary force and its lapses into flabby indifference. My old Brittany priests knew much more Latin and mathematics than my new masters; but they lived in the catacombs, bereft of light and air. Here, the atmosphere of the age had free course. In our walks to Gentilly of an evening we engaged in endless discussions. I could never sleep of a night after that; my head was full of Hugo and Lamartine. I understood what glory was after having vaguely expected to find it in the roof of the chapel at Treguier. In the course of a short time a very great revelation was borne in upon me. The words talent, brilliancy, and reputation, conveyed a meaning to me. The modest, ideal which my earliest teachers had inculcated faded away; I had embarked upon a sea agitated by all the storms and currents of the age. These currents and gales were bound to drive my vessel towards a coast whither my former friends would tremble to see me land.

My performances in class were very irregular. Upon one occasion I wrote an Alexander, which must be in the prize exercise book, and which I would reprint if I had it by me. But purely rhetorical compositions were very distasteful to me; I could never make a decent speech. Upon one prize-day we got up a representation of the Council of Clermont, and the various speeches suitable to the occasion were allotted by competition. I was a miserable failure as Peter the Hermit and Urban II.; my Godefroy de Bouillon was pronounced to be utterly devoid of military ardour. A warlike song in Sapphic and Adonic stanzas created a more favourable impression. My refrain Sternite Turcas, a short and sharp solution of the Eastern Question, was selected for recital in public. I was too staid for these childish proceedings. We were often set to write a Middle Age tale, terminating with some striking miracle, and I was far too fond of selecting the cure of lepers. I often thought of my early studies in mathematics, in which I was pretty well advanced, and I spoke of it to my fellow students, who were much amused at the idea, for mathematics stood very low in their estimation, compared to the literary studies which they looked upon as the highest expression of human intelligence. My reasoning powers only revealed themselves later, while studying philosophy at Issy. The first time that my fellow pupils heard me argue in Latin they were surprised. They saw at once that I was of a different race from themselves, and that I should still be marching forward when they had reached the bounds set for them. But in rhetoric I did not stand so well. I looked upon it as a pure waste of time and ingenuity to write when one has no thoughts of one's own to express.

The groundwork of ideas upon which education at St. Nicholas was based was shallow, but it was brilliant upon the surface, and the elevation of feeling which pervaded the whole system was another notable feature. I have said that no kind of punishment was administered; or, to speak more accurately, there was only one, expulsion. Except in cases where some grave offence had been committed, there was nothing degrading in being dismissed. No particular reason was alleged, the superior saying to the student who was sent away: "You are a very worthy young man, but your intelligence is not of the turn we require. Let us part friends. Is there any service I can do you?" The favour of being allowed to share in an education considered to be so exceptionally good was thought so much of that we dreaded an announcement of this kind like a sentence of death. This is one of the secrets of the superiority of ecclesiastical over state colleges; their regime is much more liberal, for none of the students are there by right, and coercion must inevitably lead to separation. There is something cold and hard about the schools and colleges of the state, while the fact of a student having secured by a competitive examination an inalienable right to his place in them, is an infallible source of weakness. For my own part I have never been able to understand how the master of a normal school, for instance, manages, inasmuch as he is unable to say, without further explanation, to the pupils who are unsuited for their vocation: "You have not the bent of intelligence for our calling, but I have no doubt that you are a very good lad, and that you will get on better elsewhere. Good-bye." Even the most trifling punishment implies a servile principle of obedience from fear. So far as I am myself concerned, I do not think that at any period of my life I have been obedient. I have, I know, been docile and submissive, but it has been to a spiritual principle, not to a material force wielding the dread of punishment. My mother never ordered me to do a thing. The relations between my ecclesiastical teachers and myself were entirely free and spontaneous. Whoever has had experience of this rationabile obsequium cannot put up with any other. An order is a humiliation whosoever has to obey is a capitis minor sullied on the very threshold of the higher life. Ecclesiastical obedience has nothing lowering about it; for it is voluntary, and those who do not get on together can separate. In one of my Utopian dreams of an aristocratic society, I have provided that there should only be one penalty, death; or rather, that all serious offences should be visited by a reprimand from the recognised authorities which no man of honour would survive. I should never have done to be a soldier, for I should either have deserted or committed suicide. I am afraid that the new military institutions which do not leave a place for any exceptions or equivalents will have a very lowering moral effect. To compel every one to obey is fatal to genius and talent. The man who has passed years in the carriage of arms after the German fashion is dead to all delicate work whether of the hand or brain. Thus it is that Germany would be devoid of all talent since she has been engrossed in military pursuits, but for the Jews, to whom she is so ungrateful.

The generation which was from fifteen to twenty years of age, at the brilliant but fleeting epoch of which I am speaking, is now between fifty-five and sixty. It will be asked whether this generation has realised the unbounded hopes which the ardent spirit of our great preceptor had conceived. The answer must unquestionably be in the negative, for if these hopes had been fulfilled the face of the world would have been completely changed. M. Dupanloup was too little in love with his age, and too uncompromising to its spirit, to mould men in accordance with the temper of the time. When I recall one of these spiritual readings during which the master poured out the treasures of his intelligence, the class-room with its serried benches upon which clustered two hundred lads hushed in attentive respect, and when I set myself to inquire whither have fled the two hundred souls, so closely bound together by the ascendency of one man, I count more than one case of waste and eccentricity; as might be expected, I can count archbishops, bishops, and other dignitaries of the Church, all to a certain extent enlightened and moderate in their views. I come upon diplomatists, councillors of state, and others, whose honourable careers would in some instances have been more brilliant if Marshal MacMahon's dismissal of his ministry on the 16th of May, 1877, had been a success. But, strange to say, I see among those who sat beside a future prelate a young man destined to sharpen his knife so well that he will drive it home to his archbishop's heart.... I think I can remember Verger, and I may say of him as Sachetti said of the beatified Florentine: Fu mia vicina, andava come le altre. The education given us had its dangers; it had a tendency to produce over excitement, and to turn the balance of the mind, as it did in Verger's case.

A still more striking instance of the saying that "the spirit bloweth where it listeth," was that of H. de ----. When I first entered at Saint-Nicholas he was the object of my special admiration. He was a youth of exceptional talent, and he was a long way ahead of all his comrades in rhetoric. His staid and elevated piety sprung from a nature endowed with the loftiest aspirations. He quite came up to our idea of perfection, and according to the custom of ecclesiastical colleges, in which the senior pupils share the duties of the masters, the most important of these functions were confided to him. His piety was equally great for several years at the seminary of St. Sulpice. He would remain for hours in the chapel, especially on holy days, bathed in tears. I well remember one summer evening at Gentilly--which was the country-house of the Petty Seminary of Saint-Nicholas--how we clustered round some of the senior students and one of the masters noted for his Christian piety, listening intently to what they told us. The conversation had taken a very serious turn, the question under discussion being the ever-enduring problem upon which all Christianity rests--the question of divine election--the doubt in which each individual soul must stand until the last hour, whether he will be saved. The good priest dwelt specially upon this, telling us that no one can be sure, however great may be the favours which Heaven has showered upon him, that he will not fall away at the last. "I think," he said, "that I have known one case of predestination." There was a hush, and after a pause he added, "I mean H. de ----; if any one is sure of being saved it is he. And yet who can tell that H. de ---- is not a reprobate?" I saw H. de ---- again many years afterwards. He had in the interval studied the Bible very deeply. I could not tell whether he was entirely estranged from Christianity, but he no longer wore the priestly garb, and was very bitter against clericalism. When I met him later still I found that he had become a convert to extreme democratic ideas, and with the passionate exaltation which was the principal trait in his character, he was bent upon inaugurating the reign of justice. His head was full of America, and I think that he must be there now. A few years ago one of our old comrades told me that he had read a name not unlike his among the list of men shot for participation in the Communist insurrection of 1871. I think that he was mistaken, but there can be no doubt that the career of poor H. de

was shipwrecked by some great storm. His many high qualities were

neutralised by his passionate temper. He was by far the most gifted of my fellow pupils at Saint-Nicholas. But he had not the good sense to keep cool in politics. A man who behaved as he did might get shot twenty times. Idealists like us must be very careful how we play with those tools. We are very likely to leave our heads or our wing-feathers behind us. The temptation for a priest who has thrown up the Church to become a democrat is very strong, beyond doubt, for by so doing he regains colleagues and friends, and in reality merely exchanges one sect for another. Such was the fate of Lamennais. One of the wisest acts of Abbe Loyson has been the resistance of this temptation and his refusal to accept the advances which the extreme party always makes to those who have broken away from official ties.

For three years I was subjected to this profound influence, which brought about a complete transformation in my being. M. Dupanloup had literally transfigured me. The poor little country lad struggling vainly to emerge from his shell, had been developed into a young man of ready and quick intelligence. There was, I know, one thing wanting in my education, and until that void was filled up I was very cramped in my powers. The one thing lacking was positive science, the idea of a critical search after truth. This superficial humanism kept my reasoning powers fallow for three years, while at the same time it wore away the early candour of my faith. My Christianity was being worn away, though there was nothing as yet in my mind which could be styled doubt. I went every year, during the holidays, into Brittany. Notwithstanding more than one painful struggle, I soon became my old self again just as my early masters had fashioned me.

In accordance with the general rule I went, after completing my rhetoric at Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet, to Issy, the country branch of the St. Sulpice seminary. Thus I left M. Dupanloup for an establishment in which the discipline was diametrically opposed to that of Saint-Nicholas. The first thing which I was taught at St. Sulpice was to regard as childish nonsense the very things which M. Dupanloup had told me to prize the most. What, I was taught, could be simpler? If Christianity is a revealed truth, should not the chief occupation of the Christian be the study of that revelation, in other words of theology? Theology and the study of the Bible absorbed my whole time, and furnished me with the true reasons for believing in Christianity and for not adhering to it. For four years a terrible struggle went on within me, until at last the phrase, which I had long put away from me as a temptation of the devil, "It is not true," would not be denied. In describing this inward combat and the Seminary of St. Sulpice itself, which is further removed from the present age than if encircled by thousands of leagues of solitude, I will endeavour also to show how I arose from the direct study of Christianity, undertaken in the most serious spirit, without sufficient faith to be a sincere priest, and yet with too much respect for it to permit of my trifling with faiths so worthy of that respect.


  1. A very graphic description of it has been given by M. Adolphe Morillon in his Souvenirs de Saint-Nicolas. Paris. Licoffre.
  2. See the excellent memoir by M. Fonlon (now Archbishop of Besancon) upon Abbe Richard.