It is good news that Cluny Media has decided to republish this year François Mauriac’s classic statement of his faith, What I Believe. First published in 1962 when the famous French, Nobel prize-winning, novelist and man of letters was aged 77, it brings together in a mere hundred pages all the spiritual leitmotifs of Mauriac’s life in an intensely personal and moving way: we encounter the youngest son of a strict, pious, widowed mother, whose puritanical religious upbringing caused a later Augustine-style conflict between the spirit and the flesh; the solitary youth whose discovery of the writings of Pascal helped save his faith when it came under the influence of modernism; the man whose imagination, both soaring and sceptical, clung to the Gospels and to the person of Christ alongside an uneasy and critical relationship to the Church Christ founded.
A reader of this testament will sympathise with Mauriac when he writes, “If I did not believe that [the Church] has received the words of eternal life…I would loathe many chapters of her history.” He also explains that, unlike his contemporary, Huysmans, his faith is not bound up with “the spell of the liturgy”. What matters to Mauriac are the Eucharist and Confession. That Christ “communicates Himself wholly to each person throughout the world” is a source of wonder. There is also the related question, “Why haven’t all received [grace]?” Mauriac adds, in a sentiment often explored in the spiritual torments suffered by the characters of his novels, “But what do we know about the grace bestowed on each one…refused or accepted?”
Pascal, the 17th century French mathematical genius and author of the Pensees, is, as Mauriac readily admits, “everywhere present in this book”: in his prose style, his mystical insights and his clarity of thought – “the point of perfection in French thought and French writing”. As a young aspiring writer himself, living within the milieu of Gallican scepticism towards which he was susceptible, he was deeply influenced by Pascal’s celebrated account of his night of conversion.
He also meditates on the enigmatic figure of Nicodemus in the Gospel, the upright Pharisee who came to Jesus by night. For Mauriac, insomnia and lying awake at night also brought about an encounter with Christ; of this experience he tells the reader with his own brand of passionate honesty, “For some, as for Nicodemus, there has perhaps been only one meeting, only one night, but one which may have guided their entire life. Nothing in the world could make me renounce what I saw, what I heard what I touched, even if it was only once.”
Mauriac’s chapter on “The Demands of Purity” describes his struggles to attain, and often to fail in this endeavour, sexual self-control. Aged 77, he can state with confidence that purity “does not however exile us from love” (as his childhood teaching had wrongly implied ); with the insight of age, his own mature belief, achieved over a lifetime, and his recognition of a Christian’s indissoluble link with other souls, he adds the enigmatic idea of “A double spiritual conquest: our own conquest first, and then the conquest of those whom the Lord puts on our path…in order that we save them.”
Though born in 1885, Mauriac sounds entirely modern when he writes of the difference between the ages of faith and our society today: “Men were not less criminal [then]…but they recognised themselves as criminals” – reminding us that the first insight a convert to Christ experiences is that he is a sinner, in desperate need of a Saviour. Mauriac’s last words are “To believe is to love.” I am now wondering: for what friend of mine would this book be an appropriate gift?