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

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The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part V[edit]

I thus reached the vacation of 1845, which I spent, as I had the preceding ones, in Brittany. There I had much more time for reflection. The grains of sand of my doubts accumulated into a solid mass. My director, who, with the best intentions in the world, gave me bad advice, was no longer within my reach. I ceased to take part in the sacraments of the Church, though I still retained my former fondness for its prayers. Christianity appeared to me greater than ever before, but I could only cling to the supernatural by an effort of habit--by a sort of fiction with myself. The task of logic was done; that of honesty was about to begin. For nearly two months I was Protestant; I could not make up my mind to abandon altogether the great religious tradition which had hitherto been part of my life; I mused upon future reforms, when the philosophy of Christianity, disencumbered of all superstitious dross and yet preserving its moral efficacity (that was my great dream), would be left the great school of humanity and its guide to the future. My readings in German gave nurture to these ideas. Herder was the German writer with whom I was most familiar. His vast views delighted me, and I said to myself, with keen regret, if I could but think all that like a Herder and remain a priest, a Christian preacher. But with my notions at once precise and respectful of Catholicism, I could not succeed in conceiving any honourable way of remaining a Catholic priest while retaining my opinions. I was Christian after the fashion of a professor of theology at Halle or Tuebingen. An inward voice told me: "Thou art no longer Catholic; thy robe is a lie; cast it off."

I was a Christian, however; for all the papers of that date which I have preserved give clear expression to the feeling which I have since endeavoured to portray in the Vie de Jesus, I mean a keen regard for the evangelic ideal and for the character of the Founder of Christianity. The idea that in abandoning the Church I should remain faithful to Jesus got hold upon me, and if I could have brought myself to believe in apparitions I should certainly have seen Jesus saying to me: "Abandon Me to become My disciple." This thought sustained and emboldened me. I may say that from that moment my Vie de Jesus was mentally written. Belief in the eminent personality of Jesus--which is the spirit of that book--had been my mainstay in my struggle against theology. Jesus has in reality ever been my master. In following out the truth at the cost of any sacrifice I was convinced that I was following Him and obeying the most imperative of His precepts.

I was at this time so far removed from my old Brittany masters in respect to disposition, intellectual culture and study that conversation between us had become almost impossible. One of them suspected something, and said to me: "I have always thought that you were being overdone in the way of study." A habit which I had acquired of reciting the psalms in Hebrew from a small manuscript of my own which I used as a breviary, surprised them very much. They were half inclined to ask me if I was a Jew. My mother guessed all that was taking place without quite understanding it. I continued, as in my childhood, to take long walks into the country with her. One day, we sat down in the valley of Guindy, near the Chapelle des Cinq Plaies, by the side of the spring. For hours I read by her side, without raising my eyes from the book, which was a very harmless one--M. de Bonald's Recherches Philosophiques. Nevertheless the book displeased her, and she snatched it away from me, feeling that books of the same description, if not this particular one, were what she had to dread.

Upon the 6th of September, 1845, I wrote to M. ----, my director, the following letter, a copy of which I have found among my papers, and which I reproduce without in any way attenuating its somewhat inconsistent and feverish tone:--

"SIR,--Having had to make two or three journeys at the beginning of the vacation, I have been unable to correspond with you as early as I could have wished. I was none the less urgently in need of unbosoming myself to you with regard to pangs which increase in intensity each day, and which I feel all the keener because there is no one here to whom I can confide them. What ought to make for my happiness causes me the deepest sorrow. An imperious sense of duty compels me to concentrate my thoughts upon myself, in order to spare pain to those who surround me with their affection, and who would moreover be quite incapable of understanding my perplexity. Their kindness and soothing words cut me to the quick. Oh, if they only knew what was going on in the recesses of my heart! Since my stay here I have acquired some important data towards the solution of the great problem which is preoccupying my mind. Several circumstances have, to begin with, made me realise the greatness of the sacrifice which God required of me, and into what an abyss the course which my conscience prescribes must plunge me. It is useless to describe them to you in detail, as, after all, considerations of this kind can be of no weight in the resolution which has to be taken. To have abandoned a path which I had selected from my childhood, and which led without danger to the pure and noble aims which I had set before myself, in order to tread another along which I could discern nothing but uncertainty and disappointment; to have disregarded the opinion which will have only blame in store for what is really an honest act on my part, would have been a small thing, if I had not at the same time been compelled to tear out part of my heart, or, to speak more accurately, to pierce another to which my own was so deeply attached. Filial love had grown in proportion as so many other affections were crushed out. Well, it is in this part of my being that duty exacts from me the most painful sacrifice. My leaving the seminary will be an inexplicable enigma to my mother; she will believe that I have killed her out of sheer caprice.

"Truly may I say that when I envisage the inextricable mesh in which God has ensnared me while my reason and freedom were asleep, while I was following with docile steps the path He had Himself traced out for me, distracting thoughts crowd themselves upon me. God knows that I was simple-minded and pure; I took nothing upon myself; I walked with free and unflagging steps in the path which He disclosed before me, and behold this path has led me to the brink of a precipice! God has betrayed me! I never doubted but that a wise and merciful Providence governed the universe and governed me in the course which I was to take. It is not, however, without considerable effort that I have been able to apply so formal a contradiction to apparent facts. I often say to myself that vulgar common sense is little capable of appreciating the providential government whether of humanity, of the universe, or of the individual. The isolated consideration of facts would scarcely tend to optimism. It requires a strong dose of optimism to credit God with this generosity in spite of experience. I hope that I shall never feel any hesitation upon this point, and that whatever may be the ills which Providence yet has in store for me I shall ever believe that it is guiding me to the highest possible good through the least possible evil.

"According to what I hear from Germany, the situation which was offered me there is still open;[1] only I cannot enter upon it before the spring. This makes my journey thither very doubtful, and throws me back into fresh perplexities. I am also advised to go through a year of free study in Paris, during which time I should be able to reflect upon my future career, and also take my university degrees. I am very much inclined to adopt this last-named course, for though I have made up my mind to come back to the seminary and confer with you and the superiors, I should nevertheless be very reluctant to make a long stay there in my present condition of mind. It is with the utmost apprehension that I mark the near approach of the time when my inward irresolution must find expression in a most decided course of action. Hard it is to have thus to reascend the stream down which one has for so long been gently floated! If only I could be sure of the future, and of being one day able to secure for my ideas their due place, and follow up at my ease and free from all external preoccupations the work of my intellectual and moral improvement! But even could I be sure of myself, how could I be of the circumstances which force themselves so pitilessly upon us? In truth, I am driven to regret the paltry store of liberty which God has given us; we have enough to make us struggle; not enough to master destiny, just enough to insure suffering.

"Happy are the children who only sleep and dream, and who never have a thought of entering upon this struggle with God Himself! I see around me men of pure and simple mind, whom Christianity suffices to render virtuous and happy. God grant that they may never develop the miserable faculty of criticism which so imperiously demands satisfaction, and which, when once satisfied, leaves such little happiness in the soul! Would to God that it were in my power to suppress it. I would not hesitate at amputation if it were lawful and possible. Christianity satisfies all my faculties except one, which is the most exacting of them all, because it is by right judge over all the others. Would it not be a contradiction in terms to impose conviction upon the faculty which creates conviction? I am well aware that the orthodox will tell me that it is my own fault if I have fallen into this condition. I will not argue the point; no man knows whether he is worthy of love or hatred. I am quite willing, therefore, to say that it is my fault, provided those who love me promise to pity me and continue me their friendship.

"A result which now seems beyond all doubt is that I shall not revert to orthodoxy by continuing to follow the same line,--I mean that of rational and critical self-examination. Up till now, I hoped that after having travelled over the circle of doubt I should come back to the starting-point. I have quite lost this hope, and a return to Catholicism no longer seems possible to me, except by a receding movement, by stopping short in the path which I have entered, by stigmatising reason, by declaring it for once and all null and void, and by condemning it to respectful silence. Each step in my career of criticism takes me further away from the starting-point. Have I, then, lost all hope of coming back to Catholicism? That would be too bitter a thought. No, sir, I have no hopes of reverting to it by rational progress; but I have often been on the point of repudiating for once and all the guide whom at times I mistrust. What would then be the motive of my life? I cannot tell; but activity will ever find scope. You may be sure that I must have been sorely forced to have dwelt for one instant upon a thought which seems more cruel to me than death. And yet, if my conscience represented it to me as lawful, I should eagerly avail myself of it, if only out of common decency.

"I hope at all events that those who know me will admit that interested motives have not estranged me from Christianity. Have not all my material interests tempted me to find it true? The temporal considerations against which I have had to struggle would have sufficed to persuade many others; my heart has need of Christianity; the Gospel will ever be my moral law; the church has given me my education, and I love her. Could I but continue to style myself her son! I pass from her in spite of myself; I abhor the dishonest attacks levelled at her; I frankly confess that I have no complete substitute for her teaching; but I cannot disguise from myself the weak points which I believe that I have found in it and with regard to which it is impossible to effect a compromise, because we have to do with a doctrine in which all the component parts hold together and cannot be detached.

"I sometimes regret that I was not born in a land where the bonds of orthodoxy are less tightly drawn than in Catholic countries. For, at whatever cost, I am resolved to be a Christian; but I cannot be an orthodox Catholic. When I find such independent and bold thinkers as Herder, Kant, and Fichte, calling themselves Christians, I should like to be so too. But can I be so in the Catholic faith, which is like a bar of iron? and you cannot reason with a bar of iron. Will not some one found amongst us a rational and critical Christianity? I will confess to you that I believe that I have discovered in some German writers the true kind of Christianity which is adapted to us. May I live to see this Christianity assuming a form capable of fully satisfying all the requirements of our age! May I myself cooperate in the great work! What so grieves me is the thought that perhaps it will be needful to be a priest in order to accomplish that; and I could not become a priest without being guilty of hypocrisy.

"Forgive me, sir, these thoughts, which must seem very reprehensible to you. You are aware that all this has not as yet any dogmatic consistence in me; I still cling to the Church, my venerable mother; I recite the Psalms with heartfelt accents; I should, if I followed the bent of my inclination, pass hours at a time in church; gentle, plain, and pure piety touches me to the very heart; and I even have sharp relapses of devotional feeling. All this cannot coexist without contradiction with my general condition. But I have once for all made up my mind on the subject; I have cast off the inconvenient yoke of consistency, at all events for the time. Will God condemn me for having simultaneously admitted that which my different faculties simultaneously exact, although I am unable to reconcile their contradictory demands? Are there not periods in the history of the human mind when contradiction is necessary? When the moral verities are under examination, doubt is unavoidable; and yet during this period of transition the pure and noble mind must still be moral, thanks to a contradiction. Thus it is that I am at times both Catholic and Rationalist; but holy orders I can never take, for 'once a priest, always a priest.'

"In order to keep my letter within due limits, I must bring the long story of my inward struggles to a close. I thank God, who has seen fit to put me through so severe a trial, for having brought me into contact with a mind such as yours, which is so well able to understand this trial, and to whom I can confide it without reserve."

M---- wrote me a very kind-hearted reply, offering a merely formal opposition to my project of following my own course of study. My sister, whose high intelligence had for years been like the pillar of fire which lighted my path, wrote from Poland to encourage me in my resolution, which was finally taken at the end of September. It was a very honest and straightforward act; and it is one which I now look back upon with the greatest satisfaction. But what a cruel severance. It was upon my mother's account that I suffered the most. I was compelled to inflict a deep wound upon her without being able to give the slightest explanation. Although gifted with much native intelligence, she was not sufficiently educated to understand that a person's religious faith can be affected because he has discovered that the Messianic explanations of the Psalms are erroneous, and that Gesenius, in his commentary upon Isaiah, is in nearly every point right when combating the arguments of the orthodox. It grieved me much, also, to give pain to my old Brittany masters, who retained such kindly feelings towards me. The critical question, as it represented itself to my mind, would have seemed absolutely unintelligible to them, so plain and unquestioning was their faith. I went back to Paris therefore without letting them know anything more than that I was likely to travel, and that my ecclesiastical studies might possibly be suspended.

The masters of St. Sulpice, accustomed to take a broader view of things, were not very much surprised. M. Le Hir, who placed an unlimited confidence in study, and who also knew how steady my conduct was, did not dissuade me from devoting a few years to free study in Paris, and sketched out the course which I was to follow at the College de France and at the School of Eastern Languages. M. Carbon was grieved; he saw how different my position must become, and he promised to try and find me a quiet and honourable position. M. Dupanloup[2] displayed in this matter the high and hearty appreciation of spiritual things which constituted his superiority. I spoke very frankly to him. The critical side of the question did not in any way impress him, and my allusion to German criticism took him by surprise. The labours of M. Le Hir were almost unknown to him. Scripture in his eyes was only useful in supplying preachers with eloquent passages, and Hebrew was of no use for that purpose. But how kind and generous-hearted he was! I have now before me a short note from him, in which he says: "Do you want any money? This would be natural enough in your position. My humble purse is at your service. I should like to be able to offer you more precious gifts. I hope that my plain and simple offer will not offend you." I declined his kind offer with thanks, but there was no merit in my refusal, for my sister Henriette had sent me twelve hundred francs to tide over this crisis. I scarcely touched this sum, but nevertheless, by relieving me of any immediate apprehension for the morrow, it was the foundation of the independence and of the dignity of my whole life.

Thus, on the 6th of October, 1845, I went down, never again to remount them in priestly dress, the steps of the St. Sulpice seminary. I crossed the courtyard as quickly as I could, and went to the hotel which then stood at the north-west corner of the esplanade, not at that time thrown open, as it is now.


  1. This has reference to a post of private tutor which was at my disposal for a time.
  2. M. Dupanloup was no longer superior of the Petty Seminary of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet.