Recollections of My Youth/The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part I

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The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part I[edit]

The house built by M. Olier in 1645 was not the large quadrangular barrack-like building which now occupies one side of the square of St. Sulpice. The old seminary of the seventeenth and eighteenth century covered the whole area of what is now the square, and quite concealed Servandoni's facade. The site of the present seminary was formerly occupied by the gardens and by the college of bursars nicknamed the Robertins. The original building disappeared at the time of the Revolution. The chapel, the ceiling of which was regarded as Lebrun's masterpiece, has been destroyed, and all that remains of the old house is a picture by Lebrun representing the Pentecost in a style which would excite the wonder of the author of the Acts of the Apostles. The Virgin is the centre figure, and is receiving the whole of the pouring out of the Holy Ghost, which from her spreads to the apostles. Saved at the Revolution, and afterwards in the gallery of Cardinal Fesch, this picture was bought back by the corporation of St. Sulpice, and is now in the seminary chapel.

With the exception of the walls and the furniture, all is old at St. Sulpice, and it is easy to believe that one is living in the seventeenth century. Time and its ravages have effaced many differences. St. Sulpice now embodies in itself many things which were once far removed from one another, and those who wish to get the best idea attainable in the present day, of what Port-Royal, the original Sorbonne, and the institutions of the ancient French clergy generally were like, must enter its portals. When I joined the St. Sulpice seminary in 1843, there were still a few directors who had seen M. Emery, but there were only two, if I remember right, whose memories carried them back to a date earlier than the Revolution. M. Hugon had acted as acolyte at the consecration of M. de Talleyrand in the chapel of Issy in 1788. It seems that the attitude of the Abbe de Perigord during the ceremony was very indecorous. M. Hugon related that he accused himself, when at confession the following Saturday, "of having formed hasty judgments as to the piety of a holy bishop." The superior-general, M. Garnier, was more than eighty, and he was in every respect an ecclesiastic of the old school. He had gone through his studies at the Robertins College and afterwards at the Sorbonne, from which he gave one the idea of just emerging, and when one heard him talk of "Monsieur Bossuet" and "Monsieur Fenelon",[1] it seemed as if one was face to face with an actual pupil of those great men. There is nothing in common except the name and the dress between these ecclesiastics that of the old regime and those of the present day. Compared to the young and exuberant members of the Issy school, M. Garnier had the appearance almost of a layman, with a complete absence of all external demonstrations and his staid and reasonable piety. In the evening, some of the younger students went to keep him company in his room for an hour. The conversation never took a mystical turn. M. Garnier narrated his recollections, spoke of M. Emery, and foreshadowed with melancholy, his approaching end. The contrast between his quietude and the ardour of Penault and M. Gottofrey was very striking. These aged priests were so honest, sensible and upright, observing their rules, and defending their dogmas, just as a faithful soldier holds the post which has been committed to his keeping. The higher questions were altogether beyond them. The love of order and devotion to duty were the guiding principles of their lives. M. Garnier was a learned Orientalist, and better versed than any living Frenchman in the Biblical exegesis as taught by the Catholics a century ago. The modesty which characterised St. Sulpice deterred him from publishing any of his works, and the outcome of his studies was an immense manuscript representing a complete course of Holy Writ, in accordance with the relatively moderate views which prevailed among the Catholics and Protestants at the close of the eighteenth century. It was very analogous in spirit to that of Rosenmueller, Hug and Jahn. When I joined St. Sulpice, M. Garnier was too old to teach, and our professors used, to read us extracts from his copy-books. They were full of erudition, and testified to a very thorough knowledge of language. Now and then we came upon some artless observation which made us smile, such, for instance, as the way in which he got over the difficulties relating to Sarah's adventure in Egypt. Sarah, as we know, was close upon seventy when Pharaoh conceived so great a passion for her, and M. Garnier got over this by observing that this was not the only instance of the kind, and that "Mademoiselle de Lenclos" was the cause of duels being fought, when over seventy. M. Garnier had not made himself acquainted with the latest labours of the new German school, and he remained in happy ignorance of the inroads which the criticism of the nineteenth century had made upon the ancient system. His best title to fame is that he moulded in M. Le Hir, a pupil who, inheriting his own vast knowledge, added to it familiarity with modern discoveries, and who, with a sincerity which proved the depth of his faith, did not in the least conceal the depth to which the knife had gone.

Overborne by the weight of years, and absorbed by the cares which the general direction of the Company entailed, M. Garnier left the entire superintendence of the Paris house to M. Carbon, the director. M. Carbon was the embodiment of kindness, joviality and straightforwardness. He was no theologian, and was so far from being a man of superior mind, that at first one would be tempted to look upon him as a very simple, not to say common, person. But as one came to know him better, one was surprised to discover beneath this humble exterior, one of the rarest things in the world, viz., unalloyed cordiality, motherly condescension, and a charming openness of manner. I have never met with any one so entirely free from personal vanity. He was the first to laugh at himself, at his half intentional blunders, and at the laughable situations into which his artlessness would often land him. Like all the older directors, he had to say the orison in his turn. He never gave it five minutes previous consideration, and he sometimes got into such a comical state of confusion with his improvised address, that we had to bite our tongues to keep from laughing. He saw how amused we were, and it struck him as being perfectly natural. It was he who, during the course of Holy Writ, had to read M. Garnier's manuscript. He used to flounder about purposely, in order to make us laugh, in the parts which had fallen out of date. The most singular thing was that he was not very mystic. I asked one of my fellow students what he thought was M. Carbon's motive-idea in life, and his reply was, "the abstract of duty." M. Carbon took a fancy to me from the first, and he saw that the fundamental feature in my disposition was cheerfulness, and a ready acquiescence in my lot. "I see that we shall get on very well together," he said to me with a pleasant smile; and as a matter of fact M. Carbon is one of those for whom I have felt the deepest affection. Seeing that I was studious, full of application, and conscientious in my work, he said to me after a very short time--"You should be thinking of your society, that is your proper place." He treated me almost as a colleague, so complete was his confidence in me.

The other directors, who had to teach the various branches of theology, were without exception the worthy continuators of a respectable tradition. But as regards doctrine itself, the breach was made. Ultramontanism and the love of the irrational had forced their way into the citadel of moderate theology. The old school knew how to rave soberly, and followed the rules of common sense even in the absurd. This school only admitted the irrational and the miraculous up to the limit strictly required by Holy Writ and the authority of the Church. The new school revels in the miraculous, and seems to take its pleasure in narrowing the ground upon which apologetics can be defended. Upon the other hand, it would be unfair not to say that the new school is in some respects more open and consistent, and that it has derived, especially through its relations with Germany, elements for discussion which have no place in the ancient treatises De Loci's Theologicis. St. Sulpice has had but one representative in this path so thickly sown with unexpected incidents and--it may perhaps be added--with dangers; but he is unquestionably the most remarkable member of the French clergy in the present day. I am speaking of M. Le Hir, whom I knew very intimately, as will presently be seen. In order to understand what follows, the reader must be very deeply versed in the workings of the human mind, and above all in matters of faith.

M. Le Hir was in an equally eminent degree a savant and a saint. This co-habitation in the same person, of two entities which are rarely found together, took place in him without any kind of fraction, for the saintly side of his character had the absolute mastery. There was not one of the objections of rationalism which escaped his attention. He did not make the slightest concession to any of them, for he never felt the shadow of a doubt as to the truth of orthodoxy. This was due rather to an act of the supreme will than to a result imposed upon him. Holding entirely aloof from natural philosophy and the scientific spirit, the first condition of which is to have no prior faith and to reject that which does not come spontaneously, he remained in a state of equilibrium which would have been fatal to convictions less urgent than his. The supernatural did not excite any natural repugnance in him. His scales were very nicely adjusted, but in one of them was a weight of unknown quantity--an unshaken faith. Whatever might have been placed in the other, would have seemed light; all the objections in the world would not have moved it a hairsbreadth.

M. Le Hir's superiority was in a great measure due to his profound knowledge of the German exegeses. Whatever he found in them compatible with Catholic orthodoxy, he appropriated. In matters of critique, incompatibilities were continually occurring, but in grammar, upon the other hand, there was no difficulty in finding common ground. There was no one like M. Le Hir in this respect. He had thoroughly mastered the doctrine of Gesenius and Ewald, and criticised many points in it with great learning. He interested himself in the Phoenician inscriptions, and propounded a very ingenious theory which has since been confirmed. His theology was borrowed almost entirely from the German Catholic School, which was at once more advanced, and less reasonable, than our ancient French scholasticism. M. Le Hir reminds one in many respects of Dollinger, especially in regard to his learning and his general scope of view; but his docility would have preserved him from the dangers in which the Vatican Council involved most of the learned members of the clergy. He died prematurely in 1870 upon the eve of the Council which he was just about to attend as a theologian. I was intending to ask my colleagues in the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres to make him an unattached member of our body. I have no doubt that he would have rendered considerable service to the Committee of Semitic Inscriptions.

M. Le Hir possessed, in addition to his immense learning, the talent of writing with much force and accuracy. He might have been very witty if he had been so minded. His undeviating mysticism resembled that of M. Gottofrey; but he had much more rectitude of judgment. His aspect was very singular, for he was like a child in figure, and very weakly in appearance, but with that, eyes and a forehead indicating the highest intelligence. In short, the only faculty lacking, was one which would have caused him to abjure Catholicism, viz. the critical one. Or I should rather say that he had the critical faculty very highly developed in every point not touching religious belief; but that possessed in his view such a co-efficient of certainty, that nothing could counterbalance it. His piety was in truth, like the mother o'pearl shells of Francois de Sales, "which live in the sea without tasting a drop of salt water." The knowledge of error which he possessed was entirely speculative: a water-tight compartment prevented the least infiltration of modern ideas into the secret sanctuary of his heart, within which burnt, by the side of the petroleum, the small unquenchable light of a tender and sovereign piety. As my mind was not provided with these water-tight compartments, the encounter of these conflicting elements, which in M. Le Hir produced profound inward peace, led in my case to strange explosions.


  1. I should like to make one observation in this connection. People of the present day have got into the habit of putting Monseigneur before a proper name, and of saying Monseigneur Dupanloup or Monseigneur Affre. This is bad French; the word "Monseigneur" should only be used in the vocative case or before an official title. In speaking to M. Dupanloup or M. Affre, it would be correct to say Monseigneur. In speaking of them, Monsieur Dupanloup, Monsieur Affre; Monsieur, or Monseigneur l'Evqeue d'Orleans, Monsieur or Monseigneur l'Archeveque de Paris.