Why Holy Thursday is not for the spiritually timid

Last Supper

Francois Mauriac writes that on this night 'it is sometimes made known to souls... that agony and death must not be feared'

First published in 1931 and now republished by Sophia Institute Press, Holy Thursday by the French Nobel laureate, Francois Mauriac (1885-1970), deserves to be more widely known. The work of an imaginative writer rather than a theologian, this slim volume of 97 pages, excluding notes, reflects its author’s profound Catholic faith, his familiarity with the liturgy from his childhood in Bordeaux and his own vivid response to the Scriptural texts: “No man knows himself, if he has not looked at his soul in the light of the Host lifted above the ciborium” he comments.

Mauriac is also seized by the timelessness of the Holy Thursday liturgy; how salvation history underlies all the centuries that followed this supreme event of 2000 years ago; how Jesus would have known “the philosophers and the scientists who believe only in what they see; and the mockers, the blasphemers who, from century to century, would fight, with unrelenting animosity, the small silent Host.”

This of course is why the Catholic Church is taken seriously by the secular world in a way that other Christian denominations and schismatic churches are not; despite the human frailties of her members, in particular the scandals of the priesthood and of some members of the hierarchy in our own times, Mauriac is right to emphasise that “inevitable scandals count for little when one considers obscure saintly lives or the holiness of the Catholic priesthood as a whole.” In this he is alluding to the humble fidelity of innumerable priests throughout the centuries, bringing the only true and lasting remedy to sinners: the grace of the sacraments.

He paints a picture of “the solitude of the priest in the country, in the midst of peasants so often indifferent, if not hostile, to the spirit of Christ…We enter a village church; we find only an old priest kneeling in the sanctuary, keeping a solitary watch with his Master.” Although he is describing “la France profonde” in the 1930s, much in the way Georges Bernanos pictured it in his masterpiece, The Diary of a Country Priest, Mauriac’s scene is easily translated to our own times, where the loneliness and isolation of priests is all the greater.

He suggests, with reference to St Therese of Lisieux’s journal for Holy Thursday – the night she realised she had the unmistakeable symptoms of a mortal illness – that on this night “it is sometimes made known to souls…that agony and death must not be feared but awaited and desired.” Indeed, echoing the saints throughout the ages and in direct contradiction to the modern western world which seriously floats the idea of research into “transhumanism” in order to counteract death, Mauriac reminds us that “Courage consists…in pondering upon death and in seeking instruction from that inevitable teacher.”

As you can guess from the above quotations this book, intended for non-Christians and for the “hostile or indifferent man”, is not for the spiritually timid; but then, in Mauriac’s eyes, putting the word “Christian” and the word “timid” in the same sentence would be oxymoronic.