Part 3


We rejected everything that came from Catholicism, with the notable exception of the person, the human person, of Jesus Christ, towards whom the seniors of the Party preserved (not on any great scale, it must be said) a sort of feeling with a moral origin and a poetic application.

We were not his followers but he could have been one of us by virtue of his love of the poor, his severity towards the powerful and above all the fact that he had been the victim of the priests, at any rate of the most highly placed priests, and executed by the civil power with its machinery of oppression. My father would, if asked, willingly recite for his friends a poem of Jehan Rictus, entitled “What if he came back?”, formulated in the language of populism on the theme of an eventual return of Christ among men. What if he came back? Things would doubtless proceed exactly as before, save that the bourgeoisie would have learned by experience not to make a martyr of him but to treat him as a visionary needing treatment, gentle but very firm. One thing was certain, though; he would not set foot among those who asserted their allegiance to him; he would never be seen at church but much more likely at the police station with all the rejects of the established order. The poem expressed for Jesus the vaguely protective tenderness of a pity that was close to compassion:

    “Do you still have that wound of the spear in your side?”

The blow of the lance in the side of the Crucified One was one more count in the indictment to be levelled against society and my father would recite the passage with extraordinary force.

The general opinion was that, once the Gospels had been stripped of their mythological superstructure, they could pass for a fairly good introduction to socialism; we would willing concede as much to Christians who asked us to do so. Once we had made that concession, it was a matter for astonishment that they did not forthwith become socialists. As for ourselves becoming Christians, the idea never even crossed our minds. Everything that had preceded socialism served simply as a fore-runner. Our faith was sufficient for us. Bound up with the very movement of history, it had in our eyes the further advantage of being irrefutable.  And indeed it may well be that the only way of refuting Marxism was to put it into practice.

The believer often wrongly imagines that the unbeliever, when alone with his thoughts on life and death, suffers from his inability to give an answer to all the innumerable questions “Why” that come and torment consciences despite the interdict pronounced against them by the spirit of science.  But for the unbeliever the problem of life belongs to experts who will one day be able to reproduce it and thus to deliver it from death. Over and above this, it must be understood that collectivism is not simply an economic doctrine but an authentic mysticism that offers its adherents a certain impersonal assurance of immortality. A person who lives wholly and entirely for the community, what would he have to lose at the end of his life?  The jaws of death would close on emptiness. Having abandoned his whole self to the collectivity, he would survive in some way within it, he having been long since trained by it to surrender to it his judgment and his will. The collective mystic loses himself in the collectivity rather as the Christian mystic loses himself in God. The difference is that the former does not find himself again.

This book is not a confession. I would in fact be incapable of the sacrifices required by that particular literary form.  The dazzling light of the July that I describe below has blotted out in me almost everything that preceded it. The impressions of childhood have stood firm because in all of us they are so strong that they end up taking over in old age, but those of adolescence only survive in my memory somewhat like those indeterminate splashes of colour that swim in one’s retina after one has for a moment looked at the sun.       

   What I was between the ages of ten and twenty is, I suppose, common to me and everybody else who has lived through them. However, apart from the particular features of the milieu that I have already described, there were some differences that I have to set down. They do me no credit.

From the fact that my father had shown exceptional brilliance in class everyone deduced that I would do the same; everyone was mistaken. They were all the more justifiably mistaken because initially they were right.

At the communal school, everything went well. We were all of humble origin, at any rate so far as appearances went, we all wore the same black smock, our teachers saw life in the same terms as our parents did and they taught us with that degree of gravity then common to those who dispensed a benefit of recent origin, which the poorer classes were not yet used to receiving, namely, education, an immeasurable blessing. The world was simple. History, proceeding on its path between the poles of good and evil and beneath a heaven almost entirely occupied by Victor Hugo, was sustained by virtue, impeded by ignorance and proceeding towards that happy consummation predicted by the best among us who were also the most far-sighted. Liberty gave access to the ideal of universal goodness and brotherhood which was not only that of our masters and therefore of ourselves but also that of the republic and of the philosophy of our times. In order to be free one had only to study; we studied, taught with scrupulous patience by exemplary instructors conscious of possessing in their books the secret of every sort of achievement.

I had good marks and the little cardboard rectangles, yellow, blue and red, of “good points” accumulated in the little bag of black velvet that I, like all the others, had hanging on my chest from a cord around my neck, somewhat in the manner of a scapular. A certain number of good points won the cross of honour; I was often so decorated. I used to work with ease, despite remaining in that state of vagueness and absence that was habitual with me.  I was made to take dictation of a passage of Merimee. This was probably the cause of my downfall; I made only one mistake – it was with the word “alveole” , the form and meaning of which have always suggested to me the feminine gender.  I was judged to be of exceptional promise. My father already envisaged me at an Ecole Normale, indeed at the Ecole Normale Superieure, with the higher degree of my aggregation, a professor of history, in fact everything that he could easily have been himself had not poverty compelled him to take a shorter path.  After consultation with my teachers and the headmaster of my school, it was decided to send me to the lycee. I was placed in the sixth form at the age of nine and a half.

It was too soon. Even more than the change of methods and of teachers, the change of milieu was fatal to me. My comrades at the communal school were like my cousins, my childhood friends, we had the same way of life, we played games after class in dreary Belfort streets that we pretended were those of Paris. But at the lycee, sited at the edge of the expensive districts in which houses had lifts, the young boys wearing ties who surrounded me had already learned manners from their parents, even if not the manners of the adult world, and they knew that this world, not yet open to them, would one day be theirs to claim. For them, learning was not in order to become free but in order to dominate; I did not feel it in quite those terms but that is what I felt. The communal school was a public benefaction, the schoolmaster was the heir of sages of earlier times and we owed him our attention and our gratitude. The lycee was like a family chateau, the family not being mine, in which the teacher had succeeded the nurse as the dispenser of an intellectual diet which earned him only a modest increase of prestige. The self-confidence of my little comrades who studied with nonchalance and played to win, the irony of our teachers who addressed us as“monsieur”with an empty formality that stressed politeness in proportion to our ignorance, the changes of classroom and master according the subject, all this became for me a cause of distress and anxiety.  Fear would overcome me the moment I saw from far off the walls of the lycee with its windows crisscrossed with huge iron bars. It was with the authentic despair of a child that I would cross the threshold of the immense glass cage in which I would find no friends. In the classroom the dread of having to answer a question never left me unless replaced by the fear of being ignored. If a question did compel me to stand up, I would experience a kind of vertigo that emptied my head of such little knowledge as it could take and left me unable to speak in the midst of a pitying silence.  During times of recreation I cannot recall ever having played any kind of game with the others who hurtled round about me, occasionally pushing me out of the way like an awkward piece of furniture. From time to time I would run through the courtyard like a maniac, just to give myself the impression that I was taking part; I put so much energy into creating this illusion that twice I fell and split my eyebrow.


I gave up first running, then studying. I developed a certain skill in slinking off to wander through the streets or sit and daydream on park benches in the company of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  My escape route was into philosophy, and it is a fact that I read not a single novel before I was thirty, saving only those of Voltaire, which are of course political tracts. I was dazzled by the author of Candide. Nobody ever had so penetrating an eye, so keen a wit. I could see him in my mind’s eye as an unconquerable duellist, striding sword in hand down the years of his century, driving before him a raging but terrified flock of tyrants, corrupt judges and ecclesiastics. I truly believe that I must have read his Dictionnaire Philosophique ten times, in raptures over definitions that I now have to call the basest of caricatures but which then seemed to me the height of elegance.   

I was, however, more attracted by Rousseau. He had rather less of that kind of wit that keeps you at a distance like a drawn sword, and beneath the tattered rags of author’s vanity one could discern the pain of an outsider of genius who was reduced to changing the world simply in order not to feel a stranger within it. He attributed to himself a degree of goodness with which in reality he would probably have felt uncomfortable and was far less at ease in good society than Voltaire. His experience of rejection endeared him to me.  I used to imagine him being even more unhappy than myself at the lycee which saw me less and less.  At the cost of a short-lived violent effort at the year’s end I did for some time manage to go up to the next class; but finally the shortfall became too great and I had to repeat a year. My mother became worried. The Deputy Headmaster, a man of Assyrian aspect with a chest of impressive depth, raised his arms to heaven and explained to her in a voice resounding within his colossal torso that I was equally absent whether present or elsewhere, so that comments left me unaffected since they were never able to reach me.  While he was talking, I could not call to mind a single occasion on which I had received from anybody the least rebuke or the faintest sign of interest, which only went to show how right he was.

  At home my father took to eying me with increasing concern. One morning he summoned me to the foot of his bed; he used to spend a great deal of time in it, reading, writing or composing his speeches and surrounded with a snow-drift of newspapers; he addressed me with an appeal to reason, which at the time fell on deaf ears.

  It was not till much later that I understood what a disappointment I had been to him and what distress I must have caused him. Children know a great deal but they do not know what it means to be a child.

My mother refused to admit that I was educationally handicapped; she put everything down to some problem of growth, to my teachers’ inability to understand me, to the climate of Paris, to anything whatsoever capable of disproving any inferiority in a being who, like her, loved painting and music. My mother’s love accepted in advance all the explanations I had to offer and occasionally added some that I would never have thought of.  If I was unable to endure being at the lycee, that must mean that the lycee was all wrong.

I lived for nothing but drawing and to certain extent I lived by drawing. With paper, a pen and some Chinese ink I was happy. I would as it happened always draw the same thing, doubtless under the influence of the Iliad which neither Rousseau nor Voltaire had managed to make me forget: Greek temples in a style taken from an architectural textbook. The white page took the place of light, and the tiny pen-strokes I made in countless thousands effected an abridgement of space such as to compel the emergence and manifestation of form. In my eagerness to compel it to emerge even sooner, I would in my inexperience over-elaborate and let my pen run away with me, a fatal mistake that would suddenly transform my patient cross-hatchings into a hedge behind which the expected form would remain obstinately hidden. What I wanted was to lead things to disclose themselves, to confess their identity, an intention that could be ruined in a few millimeters with the pen: the tiny surplus stroke operated as a kind of negation, spoiling the whole effort. I would then add others in the hope of negating that, and the white column I had hoped to create would soon vanish in a thicket of erasures. I would then tear up that page and start again, ten times, a hundred times, with incredible obstinacy.

My mother never underestimated me and, seeing my faculty of perseverance, recalled that Courbet was a native of Franche-Comte  and that our village boasted an excellent painter of the Hoggar whose successor she now considered me to be. Our home region was plainly destined  to furnish France with artists. Another native of Franche-Comte, resident in Paris, who had in his time composed some pleasing love songs, advised her to put me in for the entrance examination to the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, which he thought to be within my range. And in fact I was accepted at a satisfactory level and a few months before I reached the required age. My father decided to be make the best of the little that there was to be got out of me and showed his satisfaction in his own understated way, that is, he said nothing at all but took me with him, man to man, on a visit to the distant constituency in Martinique that he had represented for the last two years.

During the twelve or thirteen days of the crossing we exchanged five or six words loaded with such a backlog of feeling that they sank without trace in the customary silence of our relationship. 


At Fort-de-France hundreds of little boats decked with banners were awaiting us beneath a scalding sun and we were literally unable to touch the ground till evening, carried from one rostrum to another by a crowd full of enthusiasm, cheerfulness and – I hope I shall not be misunderstood – an exquisite dignity despite its destitution.  On the morrow and the days following, while my father was getting on with his difficult job, with speeches and addresses, here managing an increase in salaries, there overcoming an administrative obstacle, I was looked after by a devoted geography teacher, a man of erudition and good humour, who took it on himself to show me round the island, to tell me its history, to point out the bread-fruit tree, the butter tree, the crockery tree, to teach me to recognize the manchineel tree that sends you blind. He showed me one of the prettiest sights there are, namely, a plantation of pineapple trees at dusk, and one of the most frightening, Mount Pelee discharging into the night rivers of molten rock. I filled my notebooks with uninspired sketches and inept commentary, all of which gave me a great deal of satisfaction.

Every evening, amid the flutterings of multicoloured cockchafers going from one blind to another beneath verandas wreathed in blossom, we were served at table by enchanting young girls. I was in admiration of their figure, girdled at the waist like a spray of flowers, their delicate profile outlined in the shadows by a gleam of light, and I could have imagined no happier lot than to live at their feet, lost in contemplation of the precious matter they were made of.

A delight and a burden, our stay lasted a month, during which I had ample opportunity to understand why my father spoke so little at home; he had no strength left to do so. After learning to respect his silence, I began to respect him as a person. On the boat which took us back to France we each retreated into our respective silences. These few weeks spent in each other’s company had helped us to a better mutual understanding. We no longer needed words; a gesture, a glance were enough. The experience each of us had henceforward of the other allowed us to cut back any outlay of expression.


Back in Paris, I put no more into my work at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs than I had at the lycee.  My years of indiscipline had rendered me incapable of conforming to a time-table or putting up with any kind of restraint; that included the copying of the prescribed models furnished to us by a system of teaching that was unable to provide us with talent but tried at least to provide us with technique.  I had no desire to become an interior designer; my taste was neither sufficiently confident nor sufficiently bad. I would have liked to become an architect, so long as there were Greek temples needing to be built and even though the title of “architect” was the most ferocious term of abuse in the vocabulary of hack artists. Supervision at the Ecole was even easier to get round than that of the lycee and I used to spend my days in gardens, swimming pools, museums, exhibitions in which I would go straight to the architectural section and immerse myself in blue-prints. Their subject was of no importance; all I wanted was that they should be composed of elegant rectangles, of curved lines delicately traced at the frontier where empty space met mass and weight, of those perfect squares with lines deliberately extended beyond where they met so as to form latticed corners that attached the design to the space surrounding it. In the painting galleries of the Louvre I would seek out compositions with an underlying motif of the monumental, preferably Attic.

I also used to seek out, though timidly, the company of young girls on whom I would lavish platonic attentions whenever their celestial transit brought them by chance for a moment within range of my devotion.  Nonetheless, on the day I became fifteen, having some cash in hand, I thought it a mark of my status to spend the evening with a lady of the street, and I took the metro to Montparnasse. When I got there, I noticed, at the far end of a deserted corridor, an emaciated beggar who looked as if painted in bitumen on the white tiles of the wall like the figures painted by Matisse on the walls of the chapel at Vence. At the very moment I passed in front of him I knew that, on this evening, I would go no further. Was it pity, the harshness of the contrast between this wretched individual, reduced to holding out his hand to the empty air, and the furtive blushing pleasure-seeker I was trying to make of myself, was it the desire to perform a spontaneous act, or was it the cowardly relief of postponing an experience that was too much for me? I do not know, but the fact is that the handful of notes that I was clutching in my pocket went into the hat of that poor man and I turned back to get my ticket punched for the return journey. Alas, there would not always be poor men to stop me on the path of evil. 


My good actions were meanwhile getting rarer. My inability to integrate myself into a milieu or group reduced me little by little to a state all but feral, and my mother had many occasions to complain about my character.  It was impossible to recognize the silent gentle child on whom she was formerly so often complimented in the tall aggressive lout, obsessed with muscle-building, who spent his mornings flogging up and down luke-warm swimming baths, who could endure neither advice or comment, who showed patience with nobody except his young sister and who seemed to think he could acquire an education by standing around daydreaming and by random reading of heterogeneous philosophers, from which, as it happened, he retained nothing at all.


My mother was like all mothers in feeling more responsibility for my failures than ever she took pride in my successes and she did all she could to persuade my father that my disorderly life was the effect of art.  He remained unconvinced. He took the view that I would never achieve anything.


He did try nonetheless to get me to do something. He had reconstituted the socialist party after having for some years attempted to acquire the spirit of mortification required of communist functionaries by their Grand Master and he therefore suggested to me that I should found a socialist youth branch in the small mining town in the East where he had become both mayor and deputy. I prepared the rule book and the membership cards, I made a speech on the theme “we are entering the struggle when our elders are still in it” to a gathering of some thirty young men in a municipal hall.  When the meeting ended, I dealt with applications to join. Everybody joined. The branch had got off to a good start. I watched its subsequent progress from a distance; I was never again seen either at its head or its tail. I had been regarded before with desperation but now it was with despair.

I am sorry to have had to trouble the reader at such length with an account of my hesitant and idle beginnings but, since I have to describe a grace that came as a complete surprise, I have also to show that there would have been no difficulty in finding a person more worthy than myself to receive it.  I say this for the benefit of those whom I have sometimes heard to complain of not having experienced the encounter that was granted to me; the likelihood is that they were judged more capable of discovering for themselves what to my weakness needed to be revealed.


My father was pursuing a career that everybody believed would necessarily take him to the highest political appointments. And indeed he soon was for the first time a minister. It was in a coalition that lasted twenty-four hours; but they were deeply impressive hours, for him and for all of us who went to gaze at him in his new dignity, beneath the painted ceilings of a delightful mansion situated on the left bank. He was, at heart, disconcerted to be lodged in the eighteenth century rather than the eighteenth arrondissement. He was utterly indifferent to honours, took no pleasure in the tapestries and gilded ornamentation of the furniture provided by the state. It was out of modesty that he had accepted to be a minister, as if, having already made his name but unaware of the fact, he thought it necessary to add to that name an official address.  But I am in no doubt as to where he spent the best moments of his political life; it was in a little café in his commune, at a table between the counter and the glass door, where in the evening before dinner he would play cards with miners just up from the depths, their eyes getting slowly used again to light and space. That is where he was himself, I know it and so did they.


However distracted he might have been with other matters, he was nonetheless permanently on the watch for any sign of hopeful developments in me. A well-known left wing cartoonist had taught me that a newspaper is first of all a picture in black and white so that a drawing intended for it should take its inspiration from the typography surrounding it. With this in mind I tried my hand at some cartoons of political figures. My father took them to the party’s newspaper which accepted my contribution all the more willingly because it badly wanted his. One of my victims thought fit to have me approached for the original of his portrait and thanked me for it with a letter in his own hand. He was a former President du Conseil, which earned me a degree of respect. Since I could draw, it followed that I could write. A short story I had written at the age of fifteen was accepted by a prominent weekly and appeared on the right-hand page. It was quite forgotten that I owed this distinction to my father’s influence and those about me began daydreaming that some great writers had been as devoid of university qualifications as I was and that I would stay that way for some years more until gripped by the ambition to become a naval officer.  In sober truth the list of these self-taught authors was a short one but to get my name on it all I would need was a little good will. People decided to wait and see.

But I was only too well aware of my gift for disappointing. Was anyone interested in my Greek temples? I did cartoons in order to be able, once they were published, to write stories. I was seen as a novelist; I devoted myself to canoeing on every stretch of water to be found in the region of Paris. The upshot was that at long last my father could bear no more and served me notice that I had to earn my own living. As I had not the faintest idea how to do so, he got me a position, at the age of seventeen, on an evening paper run by the friend of a relative. I was put in the news department and told to learn the job by helping out the professionals. It contained a number of seasoned reporters and several sons of celebrities, considerably older than myself.  Some of them took me with them to the police station or the scene of crime and goodnaturedly helped me to acquire that blend of scepticism and naivete which makes the journalist the sort of fellow who has seen everything but retains the ability to feel shock and surprise at things that no longer shock or surprise anybody else. Others, doubtless foreseeing that life had little enough in store for them, devoted themselves to abusing those freedoms that life still afforded them in their youth and they carried me off to places of ill repute, into which I gratefully followed them.

I was the baby, the last born of the editorial team. They treated me kindly, giving me from time to time an article to write on the autumn fall of leaves or on cat shows. They dispensed me at the earliest possible moment from criminal matters; my investigations never yielded anything. Chance always happily arranged things so that the victim would turn out to be in the best of health and the suicide would bungle it.  I enjoyed journalism, at least when it did not expose me to the hostility of concierges who were deeply distrustful of newspapers, particularly evening newspapers with their huge headlines that must have felt like an undesirable night-time disturbance.  I learned about the world in the disillusioned company of experts whose knowledge of it principally consisted of the abnormal, whether in the form of crime or some sort of triumphant success.  I was leading the life of an adult well before adulthood, in the style of those youngsters who are never more puerile than when refusing any longer to be children and for whom the legal age of majority is the ideal frontier beyond which one can do whatever one likes. This is pretty well what I was doing, but thank God there was not all that much I actually wanted to do apart from getting what I could from associating with girls who were probably taking pity on the brutish personality I dreamed of constructing as a means of self-assertion and which was unmistakably beyond my power.

Morally, the good examples I had been given and which, unbeknown to myself, still held sway over me protected me from the worst excesses, but I was nonetheless well on the way to furnishing my contemporaries with a specimen of asocial socialist when a subtle conspiracy of chances brought me into the divine ambush of which I now have to speak.


The first thing was a meeting on the banks of the Seine, underneath the iron bridge that crosses the river up by the gare d’Austerlitz. There, between the noise of the metro and the gentle glide of barges, stands the little brick building that houses the Institut Medico-legal. I was leaning on the parapet, watching the water go by in its slow sad waltz when a colleague as yet unknown came to keep me company.

  He was a lad of about twenty-five or twenty-six, with a crew-cut and a wicked look to him. The smoke of a cigarette that he held almost vertically between lips tight closed forced him to narrow his eyes and created ironic wrinkles on a countenance whose every line combined to suggest question marks. His entire person gave one the impression of laughter kept in and controlled with the greatest difficulty, laughter that managed to escape from time to time from a corner of his mouth or from the suddenly opened window of a sparkling blue eye. Once we had got past the exchange of well-worn professional details, he moved on – I won’t say to the object of his visit but to the most direct form of questioning, one for which I was entirely unprepared, questions on my past, my present, my future. In fact he wanted to know what ideal I was pursuing in my life.

I had a few ideas that came straight from my father’s stock, spiced with a touch of scepticism from Voltaire’s, but an ideal? What exactly was an ideal? I wasn’t sure that I knew. Taken by surprise, probably inspired by the boats going down the Seine beneath us or thinking of my favourite recreation, I answered: “Rowing!” Put differently but no more spiritually, the oar. My answer had a shattering effect.

My questioner laughed so hard that, if it hadn’t been for the balustrade, he would have fallen in the water. His face contorted, his chin touched his knees, he laughed till he cried, till he lost his breath, till he almost worried me, and with such simple candour that the comical side of my profession of faith became suddenly clear even to me.  I had a vision of myself, everlastingly rowing at the level of the ideal and going nowhere, and I started to laugh myself, even if with a bit more restraint. Outbursts of laughter are not frequent near the morgue. Its door opened, the doctor appeared on the threshold. I was afraid for a moment that he was going to take offence but he had come simply to tell us the result of his investigations.  We took a few notes and then we parted. As my comrade was moving off, I could see his back still shaking with little convulsions of laughter. We were not to meet again for a whole year until chance brought us together again, this time in the same newspaper. But chance, said Napoleon, never did anything.


The advantage of being the son of a celebrity is that finding a job presents no problem. The trouble is that losing it is just as easy as finding it. Your life is organized out of your sight. One fine day the newspaper that employed me sacked me without a word of explanation. Next day my father got me onto a rival newspaper, the property of a big shipowner with left wing sympathies; he gave me a fatherly talking to in a bleak office near the Stock Exchange before having me taken to the newsroom that he never visited. There I discovered, among the salaried idlers of the place, my laughing friend from the morgue, who gave me his name. He was called Willemin, had the same forename as myself and a kind of immediate complicity took shape between us; I have often asked myself why but never found an answer. We were as unlike as it was possible to be. I was lethargic and vaguely cultivated the sort of bitterness which at the age of twenty can seem to go with one’s complexion, unsociable, one of those dreamers without dreams who always find any request inconvenient even though having nothing to do. Willemin was full of vitality, hugely talented, living life to the full and gifted with a sense of humour about it which made living with him a sort of fantastic poem in which the demands of its rhyme scheme took priority over those of logic. He was the third son of a schoolmistress from Lorraine who had been left a widow with three sons and a daughter, all of them scholastically brilliant.

The eldest took the lead always and in everything and endlessly added to his collection of laurels. He was expected to make his mark in the world of scholarship, revolutionizing mathematics or philosophy, getting into the Academy of his choice at the same age as the generals of the Revolution. He caused a certain disappointment when he discovered a vocation as a vet and a taste for events connected with folklore.

The second was that professor of medicine who one day diagnosed himself, before a lecture hall of his students pale with emotion, as suffering from a cerebral tumour. The evolution of his illness and the terrifying operation that he underwent, in part under his own direction, gave him the material for a series of lectures that have not their like in the world. Then he died. He was a hero. 

The daughter, with a brilliant academic record, married a mining engineer and disappeared with him in the direction of Ales. The youngest - my one, so to say – had a slightly less straightforward adolescence. He gave up his study of medicine in favour of the Conservatoire, then gave up that in favour of journalism after having won an award for his flute playing. His mother had begun to worry and followed him to Paris, bringing with her ample supplies of love, wisdom and a certain rustic simplicity which led her to thank the gentleman of the talking clock, whose willingness to be of service never ceased to amaze her; she could not bring herself to hang up when faced with a person so obliging as to give her, after the hour and the minute, the detail of the seconds. She was absolutely certain that her ugly little duckling was a swan just like the others. If he was taking his time about showing the fact, it was because she had somehow not managed to care for him enough in the nest; she therefore never missed an opportunity of covering him with a wing while he took pleasure in ruffling her feathers. In any case, the unsettled years were coming to an end. He could see his profession packed with young people of whom nearly all had taken early leave of their studies. He decided to return to his own and while we idled away our time in the armchairs provided by our ship-owner, waiting for some volcano to take the trouble to erupt, he would work away in a corner of the newsroom, stuck between two piles of medical textbooks, his sleeves rolled up, his brow determined. A grey thread of cigarette smoke rising in front of the thicket of his eyebrows made him look like an abandoned camp-site with a fire still smouldering.

That being the sort of people we were, something precious, intimate and utterly unpredictable grew up between us; we were like a pair of non-matching Siamese twins. It was within this friendship that I lived the best years of my youth, the happy possessor of an elder brother devoted to me, watching over my work and my health. 

He had digs on the Quai de Bourbon which could not quite manage a view out over the Seine but did at least look down on the library of Leon Blum; in the evening, if he did not feel like cooking for us there, we would go out and dine on a bag of printed chips – by which I mean chips marked with ink from the newspaper they were wrapped in – under one of the bridges of the Ile Saint-Louis.

He was a cradle Catholic who had “lost his faith” about the age of fifteen and recovered it in circumstances sufficiently unusual to suit his particular genius. He went one day to listen to a lecture given by a Christian philosopher, Stanislas Fumet, and it seemed to him that the speaker attached a great deal of importance to nineteenth century writers such as Ernest Hello, of whom he had never heard, whether in class or elsewhere. “If I don’t even know the names of such important thinkers”, he said to himself, “that must mean that I don’t know much, in fact I know nothing”. At which point he went off to a church to make an act of humility and was much the better for it. The faith returning brought with it two unexpected gifts: joy and freedom of heart. This at least was what he told me but he did not convince me.

Since humility had done so much for him, he made it his business to inculcate it in others. His method was extremely simple; it consisted in making them realize just what donkeys they were as they confronted life and the world, walking blind on the cliff edge of the infinite, and just how much they would gain by recognizing the fact without more ado, taking advantage of the opportunity to humble themselves which he, out of love for his neighbour, thought it his duty to afford them. He put into this enterprise a great deal of imagination and of energy but not a scrap of pride or self-importance, being himself perfectly humble both by grace and by nature. It just so happened that his humility was self-sustaining and in a sense “diffusive of itself”, to use an expression theology employs of charity.  He was not an unqualified success. The donkeys lived up to their reputation and proved stubborn; of all the virtues they may have lacked, humility was without question the one whose absence troubled them the least.

It naturally follows that in his eyes my status was that of donkey, and a donkey of a particularly wretched species, that of republican donkeys, godless donkeys, painted red and full of braying propaganda. He had not the least respect for my opinions, nor did I for his. I suspected him of being both base and summit of the edifice of “anarcho-royalism” to which he proclaimed allegiance. This ideological combination specific to himself alone had the not inconsiderable advantage of being self-contradictory and thus escaping the limitations of systematic argument. Humour filled the gap. In the evenings, beneath our bridges, we had long conversations that went nowhere. All around us people were talking of war, the one that was still an unfailing source of stories and the one that was on the way. The world presented us with its normal merry-go-round of crime and folly; from the disastrous current of events each of us drew the moral appropriate to our respective convictions; he saw it as presided over by the left, I as presided over by the right. Once we had worked out all we disagreed on, we each of us stuck to our guns, further than ever apart, more than ever inseparable.

In sober truth I believe that politics and its daily to and fro occupied no greater place in our minds than the notional topic of those paintings by Brueghel in which what is theoretically the subject of the composition gets relegated to one corner of a canvas dominated by mountains, sky and ocean. That did not stop us everlastingly harking back to the left, the right, the monarchy, the republic, without moving a single step towards each other, and I think it was in the hope of dealing a mortal blow to my obstinate socialism that my Siamese twin lent me one day a book by Nicholas Berdyaev, entitled “The New Middle Ages”. This book, which completely failed to do what it was intended for, was the cause of the misunderstanding that is at the origin of my conversion.

This is the point at which occurred the event which is at the centre, I ought to say the beginning of my life since that life, thanks to the grace of baptism, was to take the form of a new birth. An event that was going to effect in me so extraordinary a revolution, changing in a single moment my way of existing, of seeing, of feeling, so radical a transformation of my character, causing me to speak in a way so utterly unexpected that my family took alarm. The day before I was a youth who, granted that he had a rebellious streak and was inclined to insolence, was from the statistical point of view entirely normal, moving within the confines of a set of well known opinions and, so far as concerns emotional development, showing the sort of misbehaviour which is said to belong to that age, in short, capable of anything perhaps but not of causing surprise. The following day I was a child, gentle, wondering, full of a solemn joy which he could not stop overflowing onto those around him, all of them disconcerted by the eccentricity of a thistle on which quite unexpectedly roses were blooming.

The general opinion was that I was bewitched and it seemed a good idea to have me examined by one of our friends who was a doctor, an atheist and a confirmed socialist. He had the good sense not to summon me to his office where I should not have opened my mouth but to pay a friendly visit to our house and to question me indirectly, without any obvious pressure or probing, coming back to the points that interested him only after long digressions. After two or three such relaxed conversations he was in a position to report his conclusions to my father; it was, he said, “grace”, an effect of “grace”, and nothing more. There was no need to worry.

He spoke of “grace” as if it were a peculiar sickness, showing various easily recognized symptoms. Research had not as yet managed to discover the nature of the disease but the work was making progress. Was the illness grave? No. Faith did not attack the reason. Was there a remedy? No, the illness ran a natural course towards recovery; these crises of mysticism, at the age I had reached, generally lasted a couple of years and left neither damage nor trace. Nothing more was needed than patience.

My mother was completely satisfied with this. The change in me restored her hopes and, if credit had to be given to religion, well, she was enough of a realist to be unreservedly grateful to it. My father, to begin with and before he had recourse to medical advice, had shown himself less accommodating. I had asked for absolute confidentiality from those few persons who had undertaken to instruct me, to explain the Church to me and to baptize me. It was easy for me to understand just how irritating it would be for a socialist militant of my father’s kidney to endure contradiction under his own roof from his own son and I thought I had taken sufficient precautions to prevent the modest event of my conversion to Catholicism from becoming an item of political news.

Unfortunately the secret leaked out and it was in the pages of a daily on the extreme right that my father learned all about it, all save the essential, that is to say, the exact circumstances of my conversion.  The newspaper’s interest in my soul was limited to stressing how little respect I seemed to show for my socialist upbringing, given what it called my preference for “the company of Saint Francis of Assisi” rather than that of my father’s friends. The approach was not particularly elevated but hit its mark. My father drew the inference that the right, assisted by some sly priest, has taken advantage of the weakness of my character and my lack of discernment in order to further a campaign against him. His anger was such that he refused to see me; refusing to speak to me would not have represented much of a change in our Belfort life-style.

For some time my mother had to bring my meals to my room, but finally my conditions of arrest were relaxed and it was then that recourse was had to the doctor. A modus vivendi was arrived at. They would put up with my being a religious crank provided I was discreet about it as they would be with me. I was asked to abstain from any kind of proselytism with regard to my young sister (she did nonetheless convert, as did my mother, although long after her).  Faithful to the convention thus established, I took refuge in a sort of interior catacomb, living there with my certitudes and that happiness I would so much have loved to share, to spread around, to give up to be ransacked. When we were living in a ministry, something that occurred more and more often, I would sneak out every morning long before the concierge had taken up his post and

make my way to where my beloved Siamese twin was waiting for me at a street corner with his decrepit motorcar to take me for a mass at dawn to Notre Dame or elsewhere.  One or two old ladies, church caretakers, grey hair beneath black straw hat, were all the company we had. I would gaze at them, fixed each on her prie-dieu as if on a miniature Jacob’s ladder, and I would tell myself that perhaps it was thanks to the faithful service, maintained from age to age, of old people such as these that I had found, at the appointed hour, a religion still intact.  I felt a great wave of gratitude carrying me towards them and towards all who had kept the faith – I almost said, who had kept the faith for me; the thought that religion might have vanished from the world before I entered it gave me a  retrospective shudder of dread.

Straw hats, straw chairs, the grain of the gospels, the wheat of the host, how good it was to be there under the arches of grey stone in the solitude of those cells in which the priest, to the imperceptible accompaniment of the music of the awakening day, performed at the altar his quiet miracle.


After mass we would move on to our shift at the newspaper, compelled to keep hidden all the wealth which so obviously was of no interest to anybody. We were like two Christopher Columbuses returning from the Americas to be greeted with universal indifference. Some escaped our attentions by flight, others by asserting they had discovered America before us and left it long since. Could that be possible? They spoke of it so little, so poorly. The great shipowner had me summoned to his presence; it was to admonish me with affectionate insistence as to the dangers of mysticism, once one had got past certain limits that were in fact easy enough to reach.  Above all, I was not to go off and enter a monastery; I would be taking an irrevocable step, sure to bring despair to my parents and ultimately to myself. He had only my good in mind. Did I understand this? Yes, I did but I heard it very faintly; his voice came to me as if from far away, from the depths of a sunken world.  I would have liked to help him. He would have been surprised to know it.

With whom then could I share what had been given to me, had transported me?  At home our socialist friends considered me a little weak-minded and treated me with an appropriate considerateness. At the newspaper it became obvious that after having initially been objects of curiosity we had become a bore. We were reduced to sharing our thoughts only when alone together and the newsroom corridor became the cloister in which we exchanged antiphon and response of our utterly new joy. To keep people quiet we used to invent romantic assignations with imaginary persons, the opposite of the long established convention of covering up affairs of the heart with a respectable alibi.

There was a single one of our colleagues who showed an eagerness to learn what we used to talk about, laugh about, whisper together about.  In order to stimulate his curiosity we would answer his questions in a tone half serious, half joking, telling him that we were talking about things which, about things that, in fact about things that he would never be able to understand because he was neither baptized nor a believer nor interested in becoming one. As he continued strongly to assert his good will, we told him that, if he truly desired the gift of faith, he should go and seek it at the church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs where he would certainly obtain it. All he had to do was to go every morning for one month to the six o’clock mass; we would guarantee the result. It must be remembered that we were very young and, needless to say, no shadow of doubt crossed our mind. Our colleague followed our instructions to the letter. Every morning he went to mass. “Well?” we would ask him when he arrived at the newspaper. Mournfully, “Nothing”, he would answer. Nothing at the end of a fortnight, nothing at the end of three weeks. We began to feel a little anxious. Day by day the month approached its end; we were deeply apprehensive. Had he finally received the faith we had so rashly promised him? “No”, he said, his face contorted. He simply had to admit that he still could not believe, despite all we had said, despite our own confidence. We were in consternation.

But to our amazement we learned next day that our catechumen, as an apprentice Christian was called in times past, had gone again to church. He did not have the faith but he could no longer do without the mass, so much so and to such good effect that he ended up by becoming a Christian in the oddest way imaginable, out of covetousness and obstinacy. In his own time, not ours. His obstinacy won for him the gift of a faith as fresh as the early morning, and the habit of proceeding by way of challenge to God. His family name was that of a little fish. He is still in the net.                 

We did not always act in this extravagant manner. But whatever efforts we did make were in vain, very few were interested. For my part it was soon born in on me that nobody would believe me or even listen to me, so long as I failed to prove myself a person of common sense, to show that I could live like other people, which meant passing exams, earning my living rather than living off my relatives, in short, by so acting that one day people might be willing, if not to follow me, at least to listen to what I had to say. I concluded that before I started proving the existence of God, I had to prove myself. The narrative you are about to read was therefore postponed till at long last the moment came when I realized that, by dint of showing myself a reasonable being, I ran the risk of being too reasonable by half. If I am allowed one last conceit, I might say that after my conversion I spent so much time proving myself balanced that I almost got fixed that way.

I hope I have by now established that there was not a single thing that predisposed me to religion, barring only the fact that I had no religion. If my parents, from whom I never had anything but affection and good example, had been believers, they would have passed on the faith to me quite naturally. Since they were not, and despite the failure of socialism to extinguish absolutely my mother’s Protestantism, they naturally raised me in that conception of the world which was theirs and which was mine till I became twenty. So far as concerns my early years I have passed over nothing that needed to be said though remaining silent as to things which, pursuant to a kind of good manners now somewhat out of fashion, should remain unspoken. I mean those experiences and upheavals of adolescence concerning which I have absolutely nothing to say which could cast light on anything for anybody.

In conclusion I regret having spoken so often in the first person, but how was I to escape this uncomfortable necessity? I recall a great man with a great talent to whom I told my story; once I had finished, he was quite unable to contain his astonishment and exclaimed, “I really do like you a lot but, when all is said and done, why you?” The only answer to his question is that there is no answer. I was a commonplace young man, give or take a few additional weaknesses, with nothing remarkable about me except a foot wounded by a bomb splinter and a marked propensity for absence, intellectual, moral and, so far as possible, physical absence. Scripture tells us that grace is no respecter of persons and I believe I have shown that, when grace came to me, it came to just anybody. What happened to me can happen to everybody, to the best, to the less good, to the one who knows nothing and even to the one who thinks he knows something; to my reader tomorrow, perhaps this very evening; one day, for sure.

Nicholas Berdyaev was a man of magnificent intellect, a mind so overloaded with ideas that their weight sometimes caused him to stammer. I subsequently learned to admire him but at the time he had, so far as I was concerned, a critical defect; he believed in God and spoke of Him not as a scientific hypothesis, which would have been allowable, but as truly existing, which so far as I was concerned still had to be proved. Having recourse to a God in order to make sense of the world and of history was in my view a subterfuge unworthy of a philosopher. What would be the point of a detective story in which the classic puzzle of a murder within an enclosed space was artificially solved by the intervention of a supernatural being capable of going through walls?  That was my reasoning at the time and that is why the reading of “A New Middle Ages” made on me not the slightest impression. This writer was a religious author; the conclusions he drew from his faith in respect of Marxism, the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution were irrelevant to me, could not reach me. This was the spirit in which I answered Willemin when he asked me what I felt about the book; the book “was not open to argument”. Once granted the premise of God’s existence, the rest logically followed. No discussion was possible.


He understood the position completely back to front, namely, that Berdyaev had convinced me.  This made him so happy that he wanted us to celebrate the occasion by having dinner together, something I was always ready for. I delighted in his company, his quickness of mind, his gift for excellence, whether in playing the flute, in medicine, journalism, country cooking or mimicry, and even if I did not share his views, I was happy to be with him laughing at the same time and at the same things. It may have been my distaste for having things too clear cut or the fear of spoiling his joyful mood but I had not the courage to disabuse him and I left him to his happiness. Since we were going to dine together, I thought, there would be time enough to point out his mistake when we got to the dessert.  This was the absolute misunderstanding which, as I said a few pages back, was at the origin of my conversion.


The newspaper was put to bed shortly before five o’clock in the afternoon and we set off in his old car – a luxury unheard of at the time for young people like us – one of whose doors had to be kept shut with an elbow. We crossed the Seine, a long way from the Ile Saint Louis; so we were not heading for his place. Place Maubert, so I presumed we were going to the Rue Mouffetard where we got the printed chips. That meant dinner under the bridges. I saw nothing wrong with that. It would cost us one franc, plus a few sous for the wine-bottle filled to the top with a dark blue liquid which, once poured, became a pleasantly translucent mauve. Once, however, we had roared through the crossroads at the end of the Rue Mouffetard, I gave up speculating. Perhaps after all we were going to have dinner at the restaurant, though it did seem a bit early for that. I am giving a lot of detail which may seem insignificant. My reader must allow for the fact that one is very inclined to go into detail when one has had the extraordinary good fortune to be present at one’s own birth.

I was asking no questions. I let myself be carried on by this friendship, careless of the direction it had chosen. The route he had taken became in any case less and less intelligible; we circled round the Latin Quarter and retraced our steps up the Rue Claude-Bernard, then up the Rue d’Ulm.  What on earth was taking us to these areas currently depopulated by the school holidays?  We stopped a little way beyond the Ecole Normale Superieure in front of my old Ecole des Arts Decoratifs.  My companion got out and addressed me through the car window: I could either follow him or wait for him a few minutes. I would wait. Presumably he had some kind of visit to make. I saw him cross the road, push open a little door near a large wrought iron portal above which one could make out the roof of a chapel. Fair enough, he was going to pray, to go to confession, to perform one or other of those activities that took up a lot of time for Christians. That was one more reason for staying where I was.

It is the 8th July, a marvelous summer’s day. In front of me the Rue d’Ulm lies open like a sun-filled channel stretching up to the Pantheon which from this angle has the advantage of being seen more or less face on.  What were my thoughts? I don’t remember. Doubtless vague as usual, wandering along the walls in search of some projection, angle or geometric design on which to fix my attention for a moment. My inner state? Judging by such account as one’s conscious mind can give of itself, my inner state was perfect, by which I mean it showed none of those disturbances which are assumed to predispose one to mysticism.

My love life is trouble-free. That very evening – I say this for the benefit of those who profess that sort of insight which explains religion by its contrary, the spirit by the body, the greater by the less and, in particular, the higher by the lower – I have an arrangement to meet a young German girl, a student at the Beaux Arts, a blonde with the delicate features often seen on girls that are just a little overweight. She has given me to understand that she would not be mounting too vigorous a defence of her frontiers. In a moment she will be so completely forgotten that it will not even occur to me to call off our meeting.

I am free of metaphysical anxieties. My last such experience had been when I was around fifteen; it took the form I described at the beginning of this book,  the feeling that the universe, besieging me, deafening me with what I can only call its dumb spate of information, will any moment now reveal to me the secret of its existence, the key to its codes. The universe had in fact revealed to me nothing at all and I have given up further questioning.  In company with our socialist friends I believe that the world consists of politics and history and that nothing is more a waste of time than metaphysics. In any event, if I were to believe in the existence of truth, the last people I would approach to ask about it would be priests, while the Church, known to me only in terms of its various temporal deficiencies, would be the last place I would go to look for it.

My job has done nothing to diminish my skepticism but a lot to alleviate the fears inflicted on my parents by my worrying adolescence.  I am too young and have been at it too short a time for journalism to have brought me disappointments of the kind that create a void, a feeling of solitude such as might favour the emergence of religious feeling. I have no worries and create none for other people; my friendship with Willemin has freed me from the bad company I had kept for a while. Generally speaking, the year is calm, the nation without disturbances within or threats from without; the alarm has not yet sounded and I have no corresponding anxieties. My health is good; I am happy, so far as one can be and know that one is. The evening promises to be pleasant and I am waiting.

To sum up, I feel absolutely no curiosity whatsoever about anything to do with religion, all of which is simply out of date. It is ten past five. In two minutes I shall be a Christian.


As a contented atheist, I obviously had not the faintest idea of this when, tired of waiting for the end of the incomprehensible devotions that were holding up my friend a bit longer than he had expected, I in my turn push open the little wrought iron door to take a closer look, for the sake of art or idle curiosity, at the building in which I am tempted to say he is dawdling (in actual fact I can have been waiting for him at the most for three or four minutes.


What could be seen of the chapel over the doorway had not been particularly exciting. I hope that the little sisters for whom I am going to become a little brother will forgive me if I speak ill of their home but it gains nothing by being inspected on foot. It stands at the end of a short yard, one of those buildings in the English Gothic style of the end of the nineteenth century, the work of architects resolved to put some order into it and thereby taking all the life and movement out of it.  I do not write this for the dubious pleasure of criticizing an art form whose reputation needs no comment but simply to make clear that artistic emotion had nothing to do with what follows.

The interior is no more uplifting than the exterior. It is like a banal stone ship beached for careening with its dark grey lines going hither and yon without ever achieving the Cistercian marriage of the austere and the beautiful.  The nave is sharply divided into three parts. The first, starting at the entrance, is reserved for the faithful who say their prayers in semi-darkness. Windows, neutralized by the mass of buildings all around, leak a feeble light onto statues and a side altar decked with flowers.


The second part is occupied by nuns, their heads hidden in black veils, like rows of patient birds settled in their varnished wooden benches.  I shall learn later on that they are sisters of the order entitled “Adoration Reparatrice”, a congregation founded as a response of piety to certain excesses of the revolutionary spring of 1848. Relatively few in number – it will later emerge that this detail has its importance – they belong to one of those contemplative orders which choose imprisonment so as to make us free, choose obscurity so that we may have light, and invite from the materialist morality that will still be mine for another minute or two, the judgment that they serve no useful purpose. They are saying a sort of prayer with the voices from one side of the nave answering those on the other and coming together at regular intervals in the chant of “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto” before resuming the alternating murmur of the quiet stream of prayer. I have no idea that they are singing the psalms, that we are listening to Matins and that I am being borne up on the gentle tide of the canonical hours.

The far end of the chapel is quite brightly lit. Above the high altar draped in white, a vast arrangement of plants, candlesticks and ornaments is dominated by a large ornate metal cross with, at its centre, a dull white disc. Three other discs of the same size but not quite of the same appearance are fixed at the extremities of the cross. I have before now been inside churches out of interest in art but I have never seen a monstrance with a host in it, indeed I believe I had never seen a host, and I have no idea that I am in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, towards which rise up two ranks of burning candles. The presence of the supplementary discs and the florid complications of the décor make it even more difficult for me to make sense of this distant sun.


All this has a significance that escapes me, the more so in that I am paying it hardly any attention. Standing near the door, I am looking around to find my friend but I cannot make him out among the kneeling forms in front of me.  My gaze moves from shadow to light, returns to the congregation without inspiring any particular thought, goes from the faithful to the motionless nuns, from the nuns to the altar and then, I know not why, concentrates on the second candle burning to the left of the cross. Not the first nor yet the third but the second. And that is the moment which without warning sets off the series of wonders that with inexorable violence are going to demolish instantaneously the absurd being that is myself and bring to dazzled birth the child that I had never been.


First of all, these words are put to me: “spiritual life”. They are not spoken to me, I do not utter them myself, I hear them as if they were uttered near me in a low voice by a person who has to be seeing something that I have not yet seen myself.

The last syllable of this murmured prelude has no sooner entered my consciousness than the avalanche begins. I cannot say that heaven opens; it does not open, it is hurled at me, it arises like a sudden silent thunderbolt from out of this chapel in which one would never have dreamed that it was mysteriously enclosed. How can I describe it in these reductive words that refuse to serve me, threatening to intercept my thoughts and consign them to the realm of fantasy? The painter to whom it was granted to catch a glimpse of unknown colours, how would he paint them? It is like a crystal, indestructible, infinite in its transparency, almost unbearable in its brightness (a fraction more would annihilate me) and, as it were, blue, a world, another world of a brilliance and density such as to reduce ours to the faint shadows of unfinished dreams. It is reality, it is truth, I see it from the dark bank on which I am still held back. There is an order in the universe and, at its summit, beyond this veil of dazzling mist, the evidence of God, evidence become presence and presence become the person of the One whom a moment ago I would have denied, the One whom Christians call “our Father” and from whom I learn that He is gentle, with a gentleness like no other, not the passive quality sometimes so described but active, breaking open, far beyond any form of violence, capable of shattering the hardest stone and, harder even than stone, the human heart.

This overwhelming flood that breaks over me brings with it a joy that is nothing other than the exultation of a man saved, the joy of one brought off from a shipwreck just in time, but with this difference, that it is only at the moment when I am lifted up towards salvation that I become aware of the mire in which, without realising, I am buried and I cannot understand, seeing myself still half caught in it, how I have ever been able to live and breathe there.


At the same time I am given a new family which is the Church, She having the task of leading me where I must go, it being understood that despite appearances I have a certain way still to travel, a distance that cannot be abolished and has to be covered.


All these sensations that I am labouring to express in the defective medium of ideas and images come simultaneously, enfolded one within the other, and after many years I have not exhausted their content. The whole is dominated by the presence, beyond and through an immense multitude, of the One whose name I can never write again without feeling the dread of wounding His tenderness, the One before whom I have the happiness of being a forgiven child, waking to learn that everything is gift.

Outside it was still a fine day and I was five years old. The world that once had been made of stone and tarmac was a great garden in which I was to be allowed to play for as long as God was pleased to leave me there. Willemin was walking beside me and seemed to have noticed something utterly unusual in my face; he gazed at me with medical thoroughness. “What is going on with you?” - “I am a Catholic”, and then, as if afraid of not having been sufficiently explicit, I added “apostolic and Roman” to complete my confession of faith. “You’re goggle-eyed!”. - “God exists, it is all true.” – “If only you could see yourself!” I could not see myself. I was like an owl at midday, facing the sun.

Five minutes later, on the terrace of a café in the Place Saint-Andre-des-Arts I was telling my friend everything, that is to say, everything that I could say as I struggled with what was inexpressible, about that world suddenly revealed, that blazing reality which had soundlessly demolished the house of my childhood and reduced to a drift of mist the territory which had been mine. The ruined structures of my inner life lay all around me. I watched the passers-by who walked on without seeing and I thought of the amazement  they would feel when they in their turn experienced the encounter that had just been granted to me.  Certain that one day it would come to them as it had to me, I was smiling in advance at the thought of the surprise awaiting unbelievers and those who doubted without being aware of it. One of us recalled the posturing dictator who gave Heaven two minutes in which to strike him dead, failing which he would consider himself entitled to make a public declaration that Heaven was empty. The absurdity of this challenge to the Infinite by a grain of dust left us helpless with laughter. God existed and indeed He was present, simultaneously revealed and masked by that wordless imageless light employed by Him to give me everything to understand, everything to love. I can see well enough just how exorbitant all these assertions must seem but I cannot help it if Christianity is true, if truth exists, if that truth is a person, a person who truly wills not to be unknowable.


The miracle endured for a month. Every morning I encountered with utter joy that light which made the sun seem dark, that sweetness that I shall never forget and which is the sum total of my theological learning. It did not seem at all clear to me why it was necessary to continue my stay on this planet when all that heaven was close enough to touch, but I accepted it out of gratitude rather than conviction. Nonetheless every day that light and sweetness lost a little of their intensity. Finally they disappeared but without my being returned to solitude. The truth was to be communicated to me otherwise, I would have to seek after having found. A priest of the Holy Ghost order undertook to prepare me for baptism by instructing me in that religion of which I can only say that I knew nothing. Nothing that he told me of Christian doctrine came as a surprise and I received it with joy; the teaching of the Church was true to the very last comma and I took it to heart line by line, greeting each with the sort of applause you give to some master-stroke. Only one thing did surprise me, the eucharist, not that it seemed to me unbelievable but that divine charity should have found this astounding means to communicate itself filled me with wonder, and above all that in order to effect it bread was chosen, the staple of the poor and the favourite food of children. Of all the gifts heaped up before me by Christianity, this one was the most beautiful.

Thus overwhelmed with blessings, I believed that my life would be an unending Christmas. I had placed myself in the hands of persons of experience and they did indeed warn me that this privileged state would come to an end, that the laws of spiritual growth were the same for everybody, that after the sweetness of my excursion into the green fields of grace emotionally experienced there would come the rockface, the climb, the risk and that I would not always be the happy child.  I listened to them hardly at all.  I had firmly decided not to make a second time the mistake of growing up; that was my wisdom but it was less sure than theirs. They were right, I was wrong. After the songs of Christmas I had to journey through things, the stone and asphalt of a world that little by little surreptitiously recovered its solidity. And there was a Good Friday, there was a Holy Saturday, the silence that swallows up a cry.


The greatest suffering that can be inflicted on human beings was twice visited upon my household. All fathers will understand me, all mothers even more, without need of further words. Twice I made my way to the provincial cemetery in which my own place is marked, trying to find in the midst of horror the memory of mercy. Incapable of revolt, excluded from any recourse to doubt (whom would I be doubting if not myself?), I had to live with this sword in my heart, knowing that God is love.


I am not writing to tell my own story but simply to bear witness, and my witness demands that one further thing must be told. The grave that will be mine is at the junction of two alleys. One day I was moved by casual curiosity to look and see whose tomb it was that lay exactly beside my own; it was the sepulchre of the sisters of  l’Adoration Reparatrice.  I am well aware of what differences and what kind of certainty can characterize the interventions of the Holy Spirit, so I do not use the word “sign”. The coincidence is enough for me. At a distance of five hundred kilometers the little sisters who were present at my birth will be present also at the hour of my death and I think, I believe, that these two moments will be identical, just as loved ones lost and sweetness rediscovered will at the last be one reality.


Love, to speak your praises, eternity will be too short.     


The publication of this account won me a fair number of confidences, a good few questions – and some reproaches.

A Christian weekly, without disputing (so they said) the authenticity of my spiritual experience, declared it to be of marginal significance, too personal to be useful to everybody. They also gave me to understand that I was not “a convert of the Council” in the sense that my account gave no answer to the questions that confront the man of today.

I cannot myself see how an interior experience can be anything but “personal” if it is an experience at all nor why its being so should deprive it of significance. What can happen to one person is applicable, in whatever degree, to all others and it seems to me that Christianity is built on a series of asserted experiences quite as “personal” as my own: “Jesus has risen, his tomb is empty, I have seen him”. This is called bearing witness and all that can be said is what I myself said at the beginning of the book: the witness a man bears is only as good as the man bearing witness. I know this perfectly well. It is possible to impugn both simultaneously.  But one cannot simultaneously approve the witness himself by recognizing that his account is faithfully given (as the above mentioned journal courteously concedes) and invalidate the witness he bears by declaring it inadequate, as if the still fundamental question to which the title of this book gives an answer is any less important to the man of today than it was to the man of yesterday or the day before.

I fear that Christian publications may sometimes entertain a peculiar idea of the questions posed by our contemporaries. There was an occasion at Mons, in Belgium, when at the close of a conference followed by a long discussion, I was waylaid at the exit from the hall by three young people, two boys, one girl. The one most confident came forward and said to me on behalf of all: “Sir, we did not feel able to speak up in public and we thought it better to wait till everyone had left. But we have a question to put to you. A serious question which is: “Why should one live?”

Their twenty-year old faces were indeed serious and their eyes watchful. It was perhaps only a problem of metaphysics, of the kind one forgets before finding the solution; it was perhaps only the expression of a transient distress, one of those that fade away with the memory of certain conversations. But it could also be deeper and more dangerous. I do not believe that they had put on hold an option for death, pending my answer, but in the end there was something already far away in their eyes which put me on my guard. I acted as if everything depended on what I was going to say and I talked to them for a further half hour.

 These young people who were asking themselves the question “Why should one live?”, were they not “men of today”?


A different reproach. A priest, as it happens imbued with psychoanalysis, makes it a complaint against me that I have written a book of pure “description” from which, he said, all “reflexion” has been banished.  And it is true that, having a simple “fact” to report, I did stick to it as closely as I could, denying myself any commentary and even any analysis, in such a way as to leave each reader free to consider it and come to his own conclusions. I had to give an account of an experience in the fullest sense of the term and not to give a demonstration. This book is not meant to be a demonstration of God’s existence; it tells of an encounter with a Person, and an encounter is something to be described and as simply as possible. But the idea that no intimate “reflexion”, implicit and understated, can enter into a “description” would come as a great surprise to artists.


A third and final reproach, at least so far as I know, was formulated by a priest who belongs to a religious order and is well known in France for his persistence in declaring  that “God died in Jesus Christ”.  There could be, according to him, no private revelation either to be expected or to be hoped for in a church.  That leaves unexplained how it happened that I, having entered a church in what I might call a pure state of unbelief, managed to come out of it a few moments later a convinced Catholic. Did I dream it? In that case, I am still dreaming. Did I have a hallucination? I should have had a few more.  Could my story be false? Nobody goes that far but it is nonetheless firmly asserted that there is not, that there cannot be any private or individual revelation.

Here again the facts are inconsistent with the theory. That is bad luck for the theory. But how many theorists do we have today, doing their utmost to make of our living faith an ideology like all the others, a system of ideas, an intellectual prison, with the superficially laudable intention of expressing the faith in terms and in a form acceptable to contemporary ways of thought! They are the same ones who daily insist on the revolutionary aspect of Christianity; it seems they do not notice the contradiction that exists between simultaneously proclaiming Christianity as a revolution and yet as a system of thought which involves no challenge to anybody’s way of thinking. One must opt for one or the other. If the apostle Paul, who is indeed the first of theologians, had been concerned, like a number of his successors, to present Christian truth in a form duly “acceptable” to his pagan listeners – I am thinking in particular of the Athenians – he would have had to play down the incarnation, the resurrection and life everlasting to such an extent that there would have been no Christianity at all for the last nineteen centuries.

It is the subtlest minds who generally fail to notice the grossest errors; and the error that consists in attempting to fit Christianity into the framework of current pagan thought is probably one of the most monstrous ever committed.


It is not out of any concern for personal justification that I am driven to opening this “postface” with a list of criticisms. They are useful in allowing me to establish certain points that I am the first to admit are not points of history and to reply indirectly to some of the questions that have been put to me in the course of the last two years. The most frequent had to do with the late date of my book’s publication, the most insistent for young people had to do with what freedom is left to a convert by a revelation on which he did not have to deliberate, and the most difficult was the identification of the Person encountered.

I have given above a preliminary answer to the first question, when I spoke of “dream” and “hallucination”. I had to prove that I did not easily abandon myself to the former and that I was not subject to the latter; if I had been so subject, the “phenomenon” could not have failed to repeat itself- which turned out not to be the case. And if I was a dreamer to the extent of having dreamed my own conversion, I would by now long since have woken up.

The second question would not be surprising if it came from convinced Marxists for whom it is already an “alienation” to be a creature in the image and likeness of One other than oneself. It does somewhat surprise me, coming from young Christians. “The truth will set you free”, says the Gospel. Divine truth does not destroy the freedom of the person it visits; it brings freedom by teaching him that there is only one true freedom, the one which on the model of God’s freedom delivers you from yourself for the love of another or others. Can it be that Christians do not know that God is love, that love is gift of self, that love is ipso facto liberating and that liberty is, so to say, only the “nom de guerre” of charity?

Giving an answer to the third question is a little awkward. By what, by what sign, by what means can one recognize, in an encounter such as that which is the subject of this book, that there is no mistake of identity? In such circumstances, what is the basis of our certitude? I think it derives quite simply from the fact, little known or little understood, that a revelation of this kind does not simply furnish to the person it affects an objective evidence to be recognized but also gives him, at the same time, the means of grasping it, a means which he does not possess naturally. It follows that the necessarily perfect correlation of the evidence and of the means of grasping it, both arriving simultaneously, creates certainty.  In this connection I have adopted in my book the analogy of colours.

Let us suppose that some miracle confers for a moment on your eyes the capacity to see infra-red and ultra-violet, colours normally invisible. You would no more be in doubt as to these colours than as to those you normally see and the correlation between these colours and the supplemental capacity conferred on you would leave no hesitation in your mind. But I shall come back to this difficult point in my next book.


I say this because it has become clear to me that I have to write another book, to explain certain pages in this one. Confidences made to me as a result of this one have taught me two things at least. The first is that conversions are much more numerous than people think and are very often kept secret, either out of timidity or for fear of causing raised eyebrows in a hostile audience or again by the difficulty of finding a language appropriate to the nature of their experience; if the great mystics have always complained of their failure to do so, how can ordinary folk such as ourselves feel any confidence that they will manage it?  The second thing I have learned is that there is at least this point in common with all converts, that all of them have met Somebody, not an idea or a system. They have not, for the most part, felt the attraction of an ideological structure; they have with wonder, sometimes with astonishment, discovered a person, most often the Second Person of the Trinity, like the pilgrims of Emmaus whom we see going over the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem without any understanding of what had happened, who hear the mysterious companion on their journey “explaining to them the Scriptures” and who still fail to understand, yet who suddenly recognize Jesus “in the breaking of bread”. There is in every conversion that moment of “the breaking of bread”, the transition from idea to reality, in which is revealed a person whom perhaps one did not expect. A person who is to be adored.

  And have we ever had a greater need of adoration than we have today?  






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