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French Perspectives - A Modern Coenobium

( Originally Published 1916 )

"Le résultat du travail obscur de mille paysans, serfs d'une abbaye, etait une abside gothique dans une belle vallée ombragée de hauts peupliers, où de pieuses personnes venaient, six ou huit fois par jour, chanter des psaumes d l'Eternel. Cela constituait une assez belle façon d'adorer, surtout quand, parmi les ascètes il y avait un Saint Bernard. . . . Cette vallée, ces eaux, ces arbres, ces rochers voulaient crier vers Dieu, mais n'avaient pas de voix; l'abbaye leur en donnait une." !

THE Abbaye I have in mind stands in the midst of a wide, cultivated plain on the borders of Champagne and Burgundy. On a morning in early September, straight from a crass German ship, from Paris languishing in summer dust and loud with American voices, I found myself entering its cool, ancient, gray-walled garden, where two or three gentlemen in shabby black were pacing slowly between the flowery borders. France! — it made one catch one's breath, after two breathless American years, to find her waiting here; so tranquilly, so soberly, so articulately waiting to initiate one into her intellectual conflicts and her spiritual hopes.

My host, as he advanced to meet me, raising his hat high from the bald dome of his head, knew how to make his salutation a part of the picture. I still see him standing there against the colossal wall of the twelfth-century grange above which loomed the greater height of the noble Cistercian church. The long, sloping roof of the grange, tiled, mossed, mellowed, where doves gently moaned and spread their wings in the sun, added, as the bright flower-beds did, an intimate note of peace and amenity to the naked asceticism of the monastic background. It was Sunday morning, I remember, and one heard the organ of the church rolling somnolently under the vault. Mme. Paul Desjardins, my hostess, was at mass with her children and some of her guests. Out here, pacing the sunny greensward, were her husband, a free-thinking professor, who has had a strong influence on the intellectual youth of France; M. Alfred Loisy, the excommunicated Catholic modernist, now Professor of Comparative Religion at the Collège de France; M. Paul Sabatier, the Protestant Franciscan. How right M. Desjardins had been to save this antique re-treat of faith and pure reason from the destruction, that followed the "Separation," and consecrate it to the uses of modern seekers after truth.

"Pons exulis, hortus, asylum," says an inscription of 1250. This was ever the great tradition of the Abbaye de Pontigny, as M. Desjardins, in his admirable pamphlet setting forth the purpose of the Entretiens d'été, reminds those who would share its twentieth-century hospitality. Established in the twelfth century by monks of the original Cistercian foundation of Cîteaux, and bearing on its architecture the austere and logical imprint of St. Bernard's reforming mind, it was even in the Middle Ages a refuge for foreigners as well as for Frenchmen. Thomas à Becket sojourned here, and other illustrious archbishops of Canterbury, who knew the persecutions of the English kings. The last of them, Edmund of Abingdon, dying here, became the patron of the church. As Morton Fullerton, a modern pilgrim, remarks, at Pontigny, one may look back to the distant age when there were no walls between the nations. "The unity," he adds, "which the Catholicism of the Middle Ages knew how to create above the rivalries of the peoples, science may one day bring back again into the world."

Here was M. Desjardins's text and his opportunity: an international unity of thought has been one of his dearest dreams. His is a unique figure, a genius preeminently social, even in the French nation. The best of his years and of his culture and learning and intelligence have gone into — talk. Talk not casual, but directed to the formation of an enlightened public opinion. A professor and a scholar of distinction, he is still better known as the leader of a society which gained its weight at the time of the Dreyfus Affair; a society called "L'Union pour la vérité," whose chief object is to aid its members "to form just judgments" by means of the critical and liberal discipline of free discussion. What more natural, then, from the moment when he came into possession of the Abbaye than to think of re-creating there in the vacation season "a free and tranquil group of friends, a modern coenobium," which should also in some measure be a foyer international. The place was too monumental for the use of a single man or family.

"The vastness and the arrangement of the edifice invited the collective life, imposed it almost. What was the use of all these individual, separate cells, and these vast corridors of stone, where the morning and the evening sun played under the vaults? The simplicity of the Romanesque architecture and the silence indicated in addition that the collective life should be contained, inward." So the Entretiens d'été were begun, bringing together for ten days at a time, in a setting hallowed by the past, men and women representing many shades and generations of French intellectual thought, and a few privileged foreigners.

Nothing more different from the thin educational atmosphere of the usual "summer meeting" can well be imagined. Richness was here the quality in which one was steeped. The occasion was like a glorified, intellectual house-party, where one was free from social and other bondage, and where the feast of reason did not consist merely of caviare and cocktails partaken at odd hours, but was a solid repast composed with true French art, and washed down with mellow wine. Thanks to the understanding skill of the host and hostess, the guests lived quite after their own fashion during the day, meeting their fellows, of course, for meals, but not gathering all together for the entretien until that really sociable hour between tea and dinner when shadows lengthen and minds begin to stir.

Before that hour, on the Sunday of my arrival, I had time, with a sense of home-coming — this was my second visit to Pontigny — just sufficiently stirred by novelty, to take account of my surroundings and my companions. My hostess, as she showed me to my "cell," made light of my quite legitimate fears that I had nothing to contribute to the philosophical discussion. Mme. Desjardins made light of everything: that, I reflected, as I watched her slim, trim, swift-moving figure vanish again down the corridor, was her extraordinary gift, the gift of the French-woman at her highest and most civilized level. Everything I was to enjoy in the next ten days bore the stamp of Madame's clever, active hands, her clear, constructive, practical mind, from the embroidered homespun on my dressing-table to the orchards and fields cut by the little willow-fringed river Serein that lay below my windows.

The fields which she turned to such excellent agricultural account stretched beyond the walled enclosure. The immediate foreground of my view was a sleepy square of green turf enclosed between an angle of gray stone and buttressed roof made by the junction of the rear wall of the grange with the side wall of the church. Here the French Revolutionists, who destroyed most of the Abbey buildings, had had the grace to leave one gallery of the cloister untouched for mod-ern eyes. And here on the green the Desjardins children had set up their tennis-net; Biaise, the roly-poly ten-year-old; Anne, two years his senior, with her tangle of flopping curls and her inherited gift of witty speech; Michel, the intellectual of fifteen — there they were now, finishing a game with an elderly young man whom I did n't know, waving their rackets, and signaling that it was lunch-time.

Across the long tables in the fine Romanesque refectory the eyes of all the guests kept turning to our hostess. How in the world did she do it? To lead a normal private life with her husband and children — lessons, music-lessons, nothing forgotten — in the midst of so much society; to manage the farm and garden at a profit; to run the big, complicated household like clock-work, and feed us so royally in a country where food was hard to get; to contribute just the right and pertinent word at just the right moment to the heat of discussion, and all with the air of a lady who had nothing to do but "sew a fine seam" — it was épatant, it was beautiful. Silhouetted against the whitewashed wall her narrow, dark, distinguished head was a subject for a great painter: perfectly black shining hair done high and tight in a psyche knot; narrow, high, bright cheeks, very arched black eyebrows which lifted higher still with the happy expressiveness of smile or query.

Ladies, as I looked about me, appeared to be somewhat in the majority, as the other sex had been at the sociological (decade two years earlier. Women, M. Desjardins suggested, seek more than men the consolations of philosophy. In any case the subject of our discussion: rationalist criticism of mysticism, mystical criticism of rationalism, had drawn them hither. There was the exquisite and worldly Mme. R., a perfect replica of an eighteenth-century grande dame, who accompanied a bluff, elderly, business husband; there was Mlle. C., her clever friend, who wrote and lectured; there was Miss T., the English, psychologist, and Mlle. R., the French one, with her heavy black eyeglass cord; there were also, since members of the profession were especially welcome, a sprinkling of middle-aged spinster teachers and able young women (pupils of M. Desjardins) fresh from Sèvres. Yet undoubtedly these ladies, in their abundant variety, came to less than MM. Loisy, Sabatier, and Desjardins and the little group of writers, professors, and brilliant youths, who backed them up. One of the greatest differences between France and America is that in France women, even the clever ones, do the listening when men are on hand.

M. Desjardins was the person to whom everybody wanted to listen. Thanks to his wife's competent building of the foundations of the décade, he had nothing to bother about but the super-structure, the amiable diversions, the fine blossoming ideas. He had established his library at one end of the great upper hall of the grange, and there he made us free to work or read during the day. But his thickset yet graceful figure was often to be met in the center of a little group in the garden alleys; or conducting a party down the chill, blanched nave of the church. The light that fell undimmed through the gray-green glass of the lancet windows here cast no spell upon the senses. Indeed, even the foreigner scarcely needed to be told that he was in this abbey church in the presence of the greatest French tradition: the tradition of clarity, simplicity, unity, "pure reason." "It accords five centuries earlier, with the `Logic' of Port-Royal," M. Desjardins has said. Is not Pascal the French Catholic mystic whom the Anglo-Saxon Puritan can best under-stand? Certainly, at Pontigny, Puritans found themselves strangely at home. When, in the course of the decade, we visited the churches of Auxerre and Vézelay, their ripe, their almost rakish decoration seemed by comparison with this serene austerity, to symbolize the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Again, on the long, slow, conversational walks which our host led along the flat red roads and across the rolling stubble-fields, the impression of what the " Cenobites " who built our Abbey had sacrificed of pride and vain-glory was borne in upon us. It was impossible to get away from the church; its long gray outline loomed ever be-hind, before us under the low-hanging sky. And yet it fitted into these unemphasized rustic con-tours of the land, which are so different from the picturesque coteaux of southern Burgundy, as humbly as some great, gray farm building—Walter Pater had remarked it in his day, but one inevitably repeated the discovery. The stern, round arches, the coif-like apse hugged the sweep of the nourishing earth, hid themselves in the furrow.

Our minglings of archmology with international politics brought us back from our walk in a sort of sublimated state, over a plain bathed in a diffused, transfiguring golden light, which was probably as much the light of the French intelligence as the light of the declining sun. In any case, we fairly floated along, traversing our village, which, like the others of the region, seemed to be constructed of gray stone pillaged from the Abbaye in 1789 — passing under the dainty little eighteenth-century pavillon built by the last worldly abbots for the entertainment of their lady guests, and so into the garden, where Madame was, of course, established with her children, her embroidery frame, and her groaning tea-table.

After tea came the real business of the day, the entretien. Even this was not a formal affair. Indeed, it always had an air of conversational freedom, and yet, because of M. Desjardins's skill as conductor, always reached a goal. Witty, searching, epigrammatic, with an inexhaustible mine of learning and culture to draw on, and an extraordinary range of allusion, he seemed actually to be as much littérateur as philosopher, as much philosopher as sociologist — one might, paradoxical though it seems, continue the list through the range of human knowledge, without branding him a dilettante. How did such a thorough-going radical manage to keep all tradition in his pocket? It was the play of his curious, critical mind and still more his gift of style in speech which most dazzled the Anglo-Saxon. Thinking, with M. Desjardins, was a social act. "Il cherche toujours sa pensée a travers la pensée des autres," said one of the ladies. He had a habit, when he spoke, of claiming, with his roving, deep-set, brilliant brown eyes, the approval and recognition of an audience. He was often vague and distrait in private conversation, but put him in the midst of a group and his intellect was hard and crystalline, refracting every sympathetic gleam, utilizing every opening, drawing blood, stimulating controversy, and always forging ahead. At the end of two hours, however much the talk had seemed to wander, however empirical it appeared to the pragmatic American, there was something constructed, which made, in turn, a starting-point for tomorrow's entretien.

What, then, did we discover about the relations between rationalism and mysticism? It is not easy to say: many personal definitions and hypotheses were offered, and Bergson, Durkheim, and the other modern French philosophers and their intellectualist critics were abundantly cited. But what remains with me as most significant is the contribution of M. Loisy, the distinguished modernist writer, who took the floor on several successive days to give us the result — not then published — of his researches into the origin of the Christian mystery.

The transmission of religious thought and emotion, and also the transmission of the forms which are the vehicle of that thought; the infiltration into primitive Jewish thought of ancient Orphic religions and mysteries; the evolution of the idea of a community, of a church — all this would have been fascinating to the layman, even if it had not been spoken by a grand excommunié in a laicized abbey. As it was, this gentle, blue-eyed, retiring old man, whose gray beard and neat, dark-blue clothes were unconsciously belied by his ecclesiastical tones and gestures, and whose spirit of douce moquerie was occasionally betrayed by an instinctive piety, became a poignant figure for us, in one of the most poignant of modern French dramas. How could the Church have let such a mind go ? Yet how could she keep him, who dissected her with his finely tempered critical instrument as a surgeon might dissect his own mother, absorbed, in spite of an old affection, in the strangeness of her anatomy.

The drama was further enhanced by the presence of a young disciple whom this critical influence had also detached from the ancient mother, and who evidently yet kept for her an even greater love. C.'s youth was not to be gathered from his pale, lined hatchet face — a face that summed up the wisdom and suffering and humor of the ages, and sat oddly atop his undergrown child's body. I could too readily imagine, as I watched him, the stare his bald head and lean shanks, below their knee-breeches, his soft, black tie and his shrill, breaking voice would have won him from a Harvard student of the same age. But if the Harvard student had listened, his scorn would have turned to marvel that under-nourishment and midnight oil, combined with intellectual passion, could produce such a rare gift of expressive speech, such mastery of background, such ease of demonstration.

C.'s subject was the liturgy; he had won the Prix de Rome and was soon departing for three years to the Farnese Palace. Meanwhile, al-ready a savant, but still, as it were, at his master's feet, he had occasion, in the course of the argument, to supply liturgical illustration. It was then, as he chanted in his high quaver, that one realized the intensity of his emotion about what he had renounced; it was then that the face of the old man, who leaned forward so eagerly and followed with uplifted hand, seemed to sum up the whole problem of the rationalist. His approving, unconscious, "Oui, mon fils," his warning "C'est trop dire, mon fils," were strangely touching. The understanding between youth and age is for foreigners one of the most moving and enviable facts of French civilization; age, in its gentle, ironic detachment making no claims but those of disinterested sympathy in an absorbing spectacle; youth, largely because left so unconstrained, spontaneously revering.

Another pretty example of the interplay of generations was given by C.'s relation to the Des-jardins children. They adored him, frankly and freely, hung on his arm, drank up his words, while he, with his face of ancient wisdom, entered comically into their secrets, their mischief, and their games. Michel, already a serious student, consulted him about his intellectual problems, and Anne adopted him as a literary critic. Anne was cultivating a grande passion for the eighteenth-century beauty; but her sonnets did not, as her carping elder brother pointed out, meet the rigid demands of French metrics. "Toi et C.," she turned on them one evening furiously, "vous ne comprenez rien a l'amour." The salon was convulsed.

This smooth-flowing current of happy family life, in which we all bathed more or less, brought real refreshment to the atmosphere. In England, at such a gathering, children would have been kept well out of sight. In America they would have been either bored or boring. But here at Pontigny — in a land, that is to say, where the "family" is at the bottom of everything — they fitted naturally into the scheme of things. To hear Blaise — who had engaged one of the " Sévriennes" in a game of "la famille Gringoire" — asking in a whisper for "the notary's cat"; to watch Anne learning a new stitch at her mother's side, did not detract from the dramatic readings, or the music, or the renewed intellectual arguments with which our evenings were beguiled.

Into these discussions there entered much more than I have been able to suggest. The flavor of past decades was pervasive. With our excursion to Vézelay, for instance, were associated not only the archaeological reminiscences of an old workman of Viollet de Duc's who guards the lovely church, but a precious fragment of folklore that M. Bedier (a recent guest) had discovered on a certain lone hill. We heard, moreover, what the Nouvelle Revue Française had contributed in the way of literary debate; what the ardent representatives of various oppressed peoples — Indians, Poles, Finns, Alsace-Lorrainers — had evolved as to the rights of small nations; what the educationalists were planning in the line of a modern model school. And behind, like a sort of humane medium in which the most disparate elements merged and blent, was — France. First the wide countryside, so primitive yet so civilized, with its hard, straight roads, its pale skies, its forested horizons, its gray villages, its willowy streams, its broad, homely fields, its ancient, loquacious farmers — the France of the soil. Next, the Abbaye, austere and monumental, with its memories of monks and crusaders, of kings and pilgrims, of prelates and revolutionists — symbol of the conflict between faith and reason, the France which is the inheritance of the intellectuel.

"Pristina nec periit pietas — may its ancient piety abide," ends the modern inscription outside the refectory door. Well, the Abbaye was still a pious spot, besides being a hospitable and generous one, so the most rationalistic of the guests must have said to himself as he took the train, and wandered off toward Paris, along the silvery reaches of the river Yonne. Was he nearer a vision of "truth" than the earnest Cenobite of the twelfth century? After all, he too — in spite of all that the intervening years had added to human knowledge — yes, he too, for all his learning and his scepticism, had to admit in leaving Pontigny the eternal verity which Pascal has stated once for all: "Le coeur a des raisons que la raison ne connaît point."

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