Rorate Caeli

September 5, 1914: Péguy at 100
- I - The Mystery of Charity in War and Death

French essayist and poet Charles Péguy died exactly 100 years ago, on September 5, 1914, in the movements that immediately preceded one of the most decisive military engagements of the Western Front, that would be known as the First Battle of the Marne. Péguy died when an enemy bullet hit his forehead, and those in his company who were close to the 41-year-old Lieutenant heard his last words, Ô mon Dieu! Mes enfants! ("Oh, my God! My children!")

The former hardcore Socialist had become more and more Catholic in mind and spirit as his death approached. He all but single-handedly refounded the Paris-Chartres pilgrimage that had been mostly forgotten since the Revolution - and that would be the foundation of the greatest yearly Traditional Catholic event in the world decades later. A keen observer of reality, he was one of the few who had actually foreseen that the pacifist spirit of the Socialist and anticlerical elites would be dashed by the facts in a war that he thought would be unfortunately inevitable - and he was proved right. Much of his literary production in his last years was related to Catholicism as part of the innermost soul of his nation, and to the Catholic sense of honor, strength, devotion to country as a matter of Justice and calling, and death as the accepted price for sacrifice for what is right and good, in the hope of the Resurrection brought about by God. This explained his obsession with Saint Joan of Arc, whose greatest accomplishments had taken place in his own hometown of Orléans, and who had been beatified by St. Pius X already in his Catholic years, in 1909.

Chapelle Notre-Dame de Montmélian, Saint-Witz

On the eve of his death, he spent the whole night decorating the images with flowers and praying at the little chapel of Notre-Dame de Montmélian (pictured above), restored decades after his death. This devotion rooted in the deepest history of his nation, and in the all-encompassing motherly love of the Blessed Virgin, was reflected in all his Catholic writings, such as the excerpt below, from The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc ("Le Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d'Arc", 1910 version) on Our Lady during the Passion of Our Lord, part of the mystery of the Holy Warrior herself. Pay attention - a comment from someone quite special in the end:

For the past three days she had been wandering, and following.
She followed the people.
She followed the events.
She seemed to be following a funeral.
But it was a living man’s funeral.
She followed like a follower.
Like a servant.
Like a weeper at a Roman funeral.
As if it had been her only occupation.
To weep.
That is what he had done to his mother.
Since the day when he had begun his mission.
You saw her everywhere.
With the people and a little apart from the people.
Under the porticoes, under the arcades, in drafty places.
In the temples, in the palaces.
In the streets.
In the yards and in the back-yards.
And she had also gone up to Calvary.
She too had climbed up Calvary.
A very steep hill.
And she did not even feel that she was walking.
She did not even feel that her feet were carrying her.
She too had gone up her Calvary.
She too had gone up and up
In the general confusion, lagging a little behind ...
She wept and wept under a big linen veil.
A big blue veil...
A little faded.
She wept as it will never be granted to a woman to weep.
As it will never be asked
Of a woman to weep on this earth.
Never at any time.
What was very strange was that everyone respected her.
People greatly respect the parents of the condemned.
They even said: Poor woman.
And at the same time they struck at her son.
Because man is like that.
The world is like that.
Men are what they are and you never can change them.
She did not know that, on the contrary, he had come to change man.
That he had come to change the world.
She followed and wept.
Everybody respected her.
Everybody pitied her.
They said: Poor woman.
Because they weren’t perhaps really bad.
They weren’t bad at heart.
They fulfilled the Scriptures;
They honored, respected and admired her grief.
They didn’t make her go away, they pushed her back only a little with special attentions
Because she was the mother of the condemned.
They thought: It’s the family of the condemned.
They even said so in a low voice.
They said it among themselves
With a secret admiration.
She followed and wept, and didn’t understand very well.
But she understood quite well that the government was against her boy.
And that is a very bad business.
She understood that all the governments were together against her boy.
The government of the Jews and the government of the Romans.
The government of judges and the government of priests.
The government of soldiers and the government of parsons.
He could never get out of it.
Certainly not.
What was strange was that all derision was heaped on him.
Not on her at all.
There was only respect for her.
For her grief.
They didn’t insult her.
On the contrary.
People even refrained from looking at her too much.
All the more to respect her.
So she too had gone up.
Gone up with everybody else.
Up to the very top of the hill.
Without even being aware of it.
Her legs had carried her and she did not even know it.
She too had made the Way of the Cross.
The fourteen stations of the Way of the Cross.
Were there fourteen stations?
Were there really fourteen stations?
She didn’t know for sure.
She couldn’t remember.
Yet she had not missed one.
She was sure of that.
But you can always make a mistake.
In moments like that your head swims.
Everybody was against him.
Everybody wanted him to die.
It is strange.
People who are not usually together.
The government and the people.
That was awful luck.
When you have someone for you and someone against you, sometimes you can get out of it.
You can scramble out of it.
But he wouldn’t.
Certainly he wouldn’t.
When you have everyone against you.
But what had he done to everyone?

I’ll tell you what:
He had saved the world.*

"Through a deep reflection on topics ever present in contemporary thought, we have been introduced into the heart of the Christian Mystery. In this extremely rich text, Péguy has been able to convey forcefully Joan's passionate cry to God, imploring him to put an end to the wretchedness and suffering she sees around her, thereby expressing mankind's anxiety and search for happiness. ... Leading us even deeper into meditation, Péguy enables us to glimpse in the Mystery of Christ's Passion what ultimately gives meaning to the prayer of this young woman, whose spiritual power cannot but move us.

"... Indeed, in the international context familiar to us today, in the face of the tragic events in the Middle East and situations of suffering caused by violence in many regions of the world, the message transmitted by Charles Péguy in The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc remains a most profitable source of reflection.

"May God hear the prayer of the Saint of Domrémy and our own, and give to our world the peace to which it aspires!"
Benedict XVI
Castel Gandolfo, August 19, 2006

[*Translation from the French by Mr. Julian Green, slightly altered.]