Péguy: Hope and Repetition

The axiom is that madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But, suggests Charles Péguy, repetition is actually the core of hope. We talked about the French Catholic Péguy last week – looking at hope and the future in his free verse poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. On the face of it, there are some pretty obvious instances where he’s right. There are some things where you do the same thing over and over, and you do expect different results. For instance, checking the mail. In other circumstances, yeah – repetition can seem foolish. When I was a teenager, I was at a Pentecostal church, and we’d pray and sing about religious revival, and a revolution in the hearts of the people in our city – and obviously nothing really happened. I think the closest they got to revolution was when the church hierarchy removed the senior minister and replaced him with someone from out of town. But – I think for me personally, it’s quite hard now to pray and imagine that anything meaningful will actually come out of it. I went to an Anglican church for a bit, and they’d pray for Syria or whoever else was having trouble that week – which was nice, it was thoughtful – but it was hard to commit to the idea that those prayers were doing anything. It’s obviously not a unique sentiment on my part – Péguy acknowledges the pain and difficulty of hope:

“You make twenty times the same trip on earth.
To come to an end twenty times.
And twenty times you end up, you come to, you attain
With difficulty, with much effort, with much straining,
Painfully,
The same point of disappointment.”

This concept of disappointment segues into Péguy’s depiction of hope as a child. Kids have that irrepressible energy – they will happily do things over and over again. I – obviously, you know, as a teenager was clearly in that stage – I’d throw myself into believing that the whole world was going to upend and everyone would become religious because of a bunch of kids bouncing around in a refurbished warehouse. We might call that childish naivety or innocence, or a sort of immaturity – but Péguy thinks it’s how hope is meant to work. The key difference between children and adults, he says, between the hopeful and the hopeless, is actually their willingness to throw themselves repetition, and then to throw themselves into sleep:

“Children don’t even think about being tired.
They run like little puppies. They make the trip twenty times
And, consequently, twenty times more than they needed to.
What does it matter to them. They know well that at night
(But they don’t even think about it)
They will fall asleep
In their bed or even at the table
And that sleep is the end of everything.”

Within the frame of his poetry, sleep is an act of trust, a decision to put down your plans and become defenseless – to give the situation to God, and to believe that things will be better in the morning. Sleep is, again, naïve. It’s an opportunity to rest, to relax, and to come back rejuvenated the next day. The biological reality serves as a metaphor for a spiritual truth – kids sleep easily, and therefore also can run around all day. Their trust in the night gives them the ability to trust during the day, to act and repeat themselves without fear – to express hope. It’s a sophisticated poetic idea.

Péguy continues by suggesting that night is in some ways almost the dominant mode of existence for human beings. Our lives, he suggests, are a movement from one night to another – from the darkness before we were born to the darkness after:

“…nothing but a passage between two borders
An opening between the night before and the night after
A hole
Between the night of shadows and the night of light
Thus on a small scale each day is merely an opening.
A hole.”

The brief flash of existence between those nights is just a gap in an otherwise unbroken canvas – a hole or opening, as Péguy says. So too our individual days are gaps between the night before and the night after. Night “is what is continuous, wherein being draws its strength, night forms one long continuous fabric,/
A boundless continuous fabric, whereas days are only holes.” It is:

“…my great black wall
Whereas the days only open up like windows
Onto a restless, onto a wavering,
And perhaps onto a false, light.”

Night and its silence offer the truest perspective on reality. The uncertainties and stresses of day to day life encourage a certain – almost small-minded or narrow-minded type of thought, an impulse to put the concrete and obvious world of day above the infinite night. That shift can make it harder to hope, harder to trust in the divine, in the darkness. Harder to repeat the same things again and again, and believe in the possibility of change. Children don’t have that problem, Péguy suggests. They throw themselves into repetition, because they know (at least instinctively) that they can fall back on the night. They know they can exhaust themselves, because they know that afterwards they can retreat into silence, into the divine. The biological reality here (get more sleep and you’ll feel better) really plays second fiddle to the poetic and theological concept. Péguy isn’t talking about your nap routine – his point is about where we’re from, where we’re going, and how we move through the world. It’s about where hope comes from, and how we can maybe get back to some of the things we’ve lost.

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