Péguy: Hope and the Future

Charles Péguy was a French Catholic poet and essayist over the turn of the 20th century. Born in 1873, he died in battle in the first year of WWI. We’re looking today at his The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, which – is a bit of an odd duck. It’s a free verse poem, but it’s also a monologue as part of a wider trilogy of plays. The first play, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, came out in 1910. The Portal was released as a poem in 1911, but it’s also sort of a monologue by one of the characters from Charity, and then the third work, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, is technically a play – it continues with the same characters, and has some dialogue, but in practice is mostly just one of the characters doing a monologue again. I think poetry is in some ways probably more appropriate as a form, because Péguy is very insistent on a sort of direct, unvarnished repetition. It reads like a meditation:

“Because of she who assures, she who promises to the morning, the day
In its entirety,
To the spring, the year
In its entirety,
To childhood, life
In its entirety,
To time, eternity
In its entirety,
To creation, God himself
In his entirety.”

If you’re into it, you’ll love it, and if you’re not, you’ll think it’s annoying. That’s the creative background to this work, right, just for context. I haven’t read the other two texts, so I don’t know how much the plays really add to the whole thing, but for this work on its own, I’m not sure that wrapping adds much. For instance, there are a couple bits of French nationalist sentiment, tying in with the Joan of Arc thing:

“There must be something going on, says God, between our French and the little Hope.
They work so wonderfully together.”

You can sort of take it or leave it, really. Again, I’m mentioning it here to give a bit of an overview of what the text is about, but – yeah, I’m not sure I could say with any confidence that it’s crucial to the poem’s theological reflections.

The Portal of the Mystery of Hope is, as you might imagine, a reflection on the second virtue. It describes hope as the “most difficult” virtue, as “perhaps the only difficult one.” Both faith and charity, Péguy says, are “obvious”: “Faith is completely natural, easy-going, simple, easy-coming. Very easy-coming. Very easy-going. It’s a woman that everyone knows, a nice old lady, a nice old parishioner, a nice woman from the parish, an old grandmother.” Charity, similarly, is “completely natural, simple, overflowing, very easy-coming. It’s the first movement of the heart.” In order not to have charity, you really have to work at it:

“You would have to shut your eyes and plug your ears.
To so many cries of distress.”

Hope, however, he sees as less obvious:

“But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
Even me.
That is surprising.

That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.”

And – you know, I think it’s easy to poke holes with Péguy. Obviously faith doesn’t come naturally to many people. It’s not as apparent or self-evident as he seems to think it is – in fact, it’s hard not to suspect that such a claim is just religious self-aggrandizing. But I want to give Péguy a bit of rope here, trace out his thinking. It’s worth thinking about hope in an era of climate change, with potentially the quite legitimate end of the world storming down towards us. Without waiving any reservations, let’s see where this all leads.

Péguy says that part of the difficulty of hope is that it’s oriented towards the future. Faith “sees what is,” while hope “sees what will be.” Charity “loves what is,” while hope “loves what will be.” Péguy thus characterizes hope as a child, both to suggest its naivety, its innocence and purity, but also because children represent the future. “No one ever works except for children,” he says. There’s an extended piece in the first few pages about a man felling trees in the forest during winter, and how the thought of his kids sustains him:

“His three children who will succeed him and who will survive him.
On Earth.
Who will have his house and his land.
And if he doesn’t have a house and land, who will at least have his tools.”

The focus on inheriting tools speaks again to the future, and the future’s future – it’s about his kids becoming providers for a new generation. This man is out in the forest in the deep of winter cutting wood for the family, “with his billhook and with his saw and with his felling axe and with his hand axe,” and one day his children will inherit those tools, inherit the means to provide for their own kids in the same way. “He tenderly greets the new time when he will be no longer.”

That motif of hope as centered around children, around the future – again, there are some interesting resonances with living through climate crisis. I know a few people who have decided not to have kids, or who actually regret having kids, given the sort of world they’re likely to inherit. And – you know, it’s not that any period has been without troubles, but this is something different. It’s probably valid to look at the rising sea tides, the melting polar caps, and the increase in extreme weather events (like the floods we mentioned the other week), and decide that you don’t want to bring someone into the world, don’t want to subject them to that. Within the framework that Péguy offers, the refusal of children is a refusal of hope – but I don’t think that’s the mindset these people are in. It’s not despair, it’s – something else. We need a different frame of reference, an alternate model of hope, a new understanding of resilience, survival and suffering.

As we sketch out this framework, we might initially note that many people have abandoned Péguy’s fixation on blood. Climate change does not respect national borders – it’s a human crisis, and our conception of our selves and our communal boundaries changes accordingly. We expand beyond Péguy’s parochial French nationalism, and towards the global. Similarly, Péguy’s motif of children centers around the biological, genetic link:

“And with his tools his sons will inherit …
The strength of his name, the strength of his blood.
Because they came from him.
And they are sons of France and of Lorraine.
Children of good stock and a good house.
And good blood will show itself.”

Again, our boundaries have expanded. The decision for one couple not to have kids does not signify their rejection of hope or the future, because kids continue to exist in the global milieu. We think on a global level, rather than along individual family lines. We’ve talked about how the Catholics critique hyper-individualism and the supposed atomization of society, but is Péguy’s biological parochialism any less of an issue? Hope under climate crisis has to take on – has already taken on – a different shade to Péguy’s theory. I think we understand now that ‘me and mine’ is insufficient. It got us into this mess. It won’t get us out.

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