For the past couple of week I have been reading for the past couple of weeks with considerable pleasure J-K Huysman’s novel ‘En route’ (its title in both English and French). It is thinly veiled description of this French author’s own conversion to practising Catholicism at the end of the 19th century
Most of the religious experience recounted is convincing, though equally fascinating are the descriptions of late 19th century Parisian Catholicism, and the insights it gives into the religious mind of the time. In the process of his conversion, Huysman’s hero Durtal, a middle-aged man of means of aesthetic bent, spends long hours in various well-known Paris churches, and produces sharp descriptions of their choirs, congregations and clergy. To all three he can be merciless. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fr Gévresin, the aged priest who gives Durtal the decisive push back into practising faith, sidesteps the mainline structures, sending him out of Paris to a run-down Trappist monastery, where he makes his confession and takes communion.
Huysmans’ exaltation of the priesthood and of monasticism, with the attendant theology of reparation sound extreme to modern ears, and I have difficulty in working out how much this is specific Huysmans religious romanticism, how much this was mainline discourse them, or whether it was, as I suspect, already rather peripheral (it is certainly so today). Take his view on priesthood (the context is a funeral mass):
‘Never, in any religion, has a more charitable part, a more august mission, been assigned to man. Lifted, by his consecration, wholly above humanity, almost deified by the sacerdotal office; the priest, while earth laments or is silent, can advance to the brink of the abyss, and intercede for the being whom the Church has baptized as an infant, who has no doubt forgotten her since that day…’
Or his line on the substitutionary/reparatory role of enclosed religious, especially women. This time it is Gévresin speaking:
“You are aware, sir, that in all ages, nuns have offered themselves to heaven as expiatory victims. The lives of saints, both men and women, who desired these sacrifices abound, of those who atoned for the sins of others by sufferings eagerly demanded and patiently borne. But there is a task still more arduous and more painful that was desired by these admirable souls. It is not now that of purging the faults of others, but of preventing them, hindering their commission, by taking the place of who are too weak to bear the shock.”
The ‘spiritual image’ Huysmans gives of Paris is that of a lots of religious hidden away in arduous conditions in out-of-sight cloisters, hoping by their prayers to make good the evil living of many of the city’s inhabitants, if you want a tug of war nuns vs. prostitutes.
Theologically, I believe that some people can ‘advance to the brink of the abyss’, but do not see this as specific to the priesthood. Nor do it want to throw out of the window the idea of redemptive prayer, or of ‘expiatory victimhood’, or the idea that people of deep prayer can indeed preserve the world from much worse. I pretty much believe in all three, in some form or another, but I am uneasy when they are systematized, or (intentionally or otherwise) romanticized.