One of the things that has most impressed me about Pope Francis is that he talks about sin, and about the devil as if he actually believes that sin and the devil are real. In his first homily as pope, Pope Francis made this stunning claim:
When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.
That’s a bold first impression to make as pope, and it lead me to pick up Léon Bloy’s Pilgrim of the Absolute at the seminary library. It turns out, the quotation Francis selected is characteristic: Bloy doesn’t mince words, and is radical in his commitment to the Gospel, and to the poor (which he would describe as one commitment, not two).
Bloy doesn’t hold back against anyone who he views as impeding or ignoring the Gospel or the poor. You are never left wondering what he really thinks, either: one chapter of this book is fittingly called “The Hurler of Curses.” Some of his strongest criticisms are against the sweatshops of his day (pp. 181-83):
The sweatshop system! It is hard to believe these infamous words could have been written
Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane (1890)
even in English. Yes, even in English, it is unbelievable. But what sweat? Good Lord! It is impossible, after such a word, not to think of Gethsemane, not to think of Moses who wanted all Egypt to stream with blood in order to prefigure the Death Throes of the Son of God. Did He who took upon himself all imaginable sorrows and all unimagined sorrows then sweat blood after this fashion? The Bloody Sweat as a system! Jesus’s Bloody Sweat intended to be the silent partner of famines and massacres! … It might be thought that men have gone mad from having leaned over the edge of this gulf …
The Evangelist Saint Luke heard Jesus Christ’s Bloody Sweat falling upon the ground, drop by drop. That noise so slight, unable to awake the sleeping disciples, must have been heard by the most distant constellations and singularly have altered their wanderings. What are we to think of the sound, slighter still and much less listened to, of the countless steps of those poor little ones going to their task of sorrow and wretchedness demanded of them by the damned, but all the same without knowing it and without other knowing it, moving thus towards their elder brother in the Garden of the Agony, who calls them and awaits them within His bloodied arms? Sinite pueros venire ad me. Talium est enim regnum Dei (Suffer the little children to come until me. For such is the kingdom of God).
Poverty, he said, “is nothing less than the Spouse of the Son of God, and when her golden wedding takes place, the barefoot and the starvelings will come running from the ends of the earth, to witness it” (p. 184). In running from poverty, Bloy suggested that the rich were running from the Cross (pp. 175-76):
Those among the rich who are not, in the rigorous sense, damned, can understand poverty, because they are poor themselves, after a fashion; they cannot understand destitution. Capable of giving alms, perhaps, but incapable of stripping themselves bare, they will be moved, to the sound of beautiful music, at Jesus’s sufferings, but His Cross, the reality of His Cross, will horrify them. They want it all out of gold, bathed in light, costly and of little weight; pleasant to see hanging from a woman’s beautiful throat.
What they (or we) don’t want, Bloy argued (p. 176), was the true Cross: “The base and black Cross, in the midst of a desert of fear vast the world; no longer shining as in children’s pictures, but overwhelmed under a dark sky not even brightened by lightning, the terrifying Cross of Dereliction of the Son of God, the Cross of utter Misery and Destitution.”
As you might have deduced from the last section, Bloy has strong words for his fellow Christians, who he
grimly suggested are the closest thing that the saved will experience of Hell (p. 216):
The damned in the abyss of their torments have no other refreshment than the spectacle of the devils’ hideous faces. The friends of Jesus see all around them the modern Christians, and thus it is that they are able to picture hell.
Bloy took the life of sanctity very seriously, and it bore great fruit: for example, he was responsible for the conversion of the great French Thomist, Jacques Maritain. And it seems to have been an endless source of frustration for him to see Christians simply drifting along, without taking their own sanctification seriously.
|Léon Bloy (1887)|
But Bloy’s critical assessments were born out of charity, not ill will: he sincerely loved the people he criticized. And even if he couldn’t understand their often-frivolous lives, he could recall that they were souls beloved by God, and could hope for their salvation. A priest wrote a friendly letter to him that included the line, “I do not have the soul of a saint.” The priest undoubtedly meant this as humility, , but Bloy corrected him, and reminded him that (p. 223), “There is a deceptive form of humility that resembles ingratitude.” Authentic humility recognizes the startling reality that we each do have the souls of Saints (pp. 222-23):
Well, then I answer you with certainty that I have the soul of a saint; that my fearful bourgeois of a landlord, my baker, my butcher, my grocer, all of whom may be horrible scoundrels, have the souls of saints, having all been called, as fully as you and I, as fully as Saint Francis or Saint Paul, to eternal Life, and having all been bought at the same price: You have been bought at a great price. There is no man who is not potentially a saint, and sin or sins, even the blackest, are but accident that in no way alters the substance.This, I think, is the true point of view. When I go to the café to read petty or stupid newspapers, I look at the customers around me, I see their silly joy, I hear their foolish nonsense or their blasphemies, and I reflect that there I am, among immortal souls unaware of what they are, souls made to adore eternally the Holy Trinity, souls precious as angelic spirits; and sometimes I weep, not out of compassion, but out of love at the thought that all these souls, whatever may be their present blindness and whatever the apparent acts of their bodies, will all the same go invincibly to God who is their necessary end.
The sum total of fifty worldly priests would not even amount to as much as one Judas, a Judas who returns the money and hangs himself from despair. Frankly, such priests are appalling. Through them it is that the rich are confirmed in their wealth, as ice is solidified by sulphuric acid.
Msgr. Bolo belongs to a different school and makes me think of one of our bishops, he too of the fireside brand, who, with his feet up before a good fire and smoking a fat cigar after a copious meal, would merrily belch these truthful words: “To think we are the successors of the Apostles!”
From this, you might expect Bloy to be anti-clerical, but this wasn’t the case at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: he wrote one of the finest defenses of the priesthood that I’ve read, in a (scathingly anti-Protestant) letter he wrote to a mathematician friend (pp. 221-23):
Your letters inform me of nothing, unless it be of the bankruptcy of your reason. So, my dear
friend, you have doubts concerning the Church because there exist priests and faithful who are unworthy, whose true reckoning, moreover, you cannot know. In other words you have doubts about mathematics because you have known one professor – or three hundred and seventy-seven professors – of algebra or trigonometry who were swine. Really, that’s too stupid, permit me to say it to you with love […]You say you do not know “any priest who could have won your obedience.” Why say that to me of all people, my dear friend? […] I think you cannot have written those words without a little shame. I have known priests who were admirable men, I still know some, and I shall know others who have in mind nothing but the Glory of God, the Salvation of Souls, the Evangelization of the Poor. So low have we fallen that these words have become grotesque; but I am not afraid to write them…Sentimental objections are of no value. Does or does one not have the duty of obeying God and the Church? The whole question lies there. From this very simple point of view, the priest is nothing more than a supernatural instrument, a generator of the Infinite; and one must be [a fool] to see anything else, for all this takes place and must take place in the Absolute. For over thirty years, I’ve been hearing masses said by priests unknown to me; and I go to confession to others who may, as far as I know, be saints or murderers. Am I then their judge? and what a fool I would be if I proposed to find out their condition! It is enough for me to know that the Church is divine, that she cannot be anything but divine, and that the Sacraments administered by a bad priest are precisely as efficacious as those administered by a saint.Isn’t it enough to make one weep, my dear friend? I am here among brutes, suffering tortures, and I must write you, you, a Catholic, these rudimentary things which an informed heretic has no right not to know. It’s appalling.Here is a very simple comment which ought, I think, to make an impression on you, for there is something mathematical about it. The Protestant world surrounding me is beyond dispute ugly, mediocre, as devoid of the absolute as is possible. What is the character peculiar to that world? It is this: the Supernatural is excluded from it: the Supernatural is excluded from Christianity, which amounts to the most illogical and unreasonable idea that can ever have entered a human head. The consequence: contempt for the Priesthood, the cheapening of the priestly function, outside of which the supernatural cannot be made manifest. Without the power to consecrate, to bind and to loose, Christianity vanishes, to give way, in the stables of Luther and Calvin, to an abject rationalism, certainly inferior to atheism. A Catholic priest possesses such an investiture that, if he is unworthy, the sublimity of his State shines forth all the more brightly. Here, for instance, is a criminal priest liable, if you like, to the fullest damnation, and yet who have the power of transubstantiating! … How can you not perceive this infinite Beauty?
So Bloy loved and defended the Church, and the priesthood specifically. This love didn’t require him to be silent in the face of clerical abuses: in fact, it likely motivated him to call clergy (and all Christians) to greater holiness.