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The Nobel laureate who brought the Gospel to his atheist readers

The Last Supper, by Early Netherlandish painter Dieric Bouts

We should not be surprised if a major Catholic writer reflects on the great mysteries of his faith. François Mauriac (1885-1970) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. Catholicism was the wellspring behind Mauriac’s creativity. It gave him a deep consciousness of the existential drama of life: an awareness that man can be damned and that contending with one’s vices is a necessary lifelong battle. I learnt this from his most famous novel, A Nest of Vipers, which describes a man at his most degraded, and therefore at his most desperate. “Oh God! – if only you existed!” the protagonist, Louis, cries out.

In Holy Thursday: The Night That Changed the World (by Francois Mauriac, Sophia Institute Press, 120pp, £7.99/$12), a short series of reflections first published in 1931, Mauriac takes the reader on an intensely personal journey through each aspect of the liturgy: the stripping of the altars, the washing of the feet, the institution of the priesthood and so on, pointing out their profundity and eternal significance.

Typically of a man alive to the decline of faith which he saw around him in France in the 1930s, he writes that his reflections are intended for “the non-Christian reader, the hostile or indifferent man who, perhaps, will thumb this little book only because my name is known to him”. He hopes “They will learn … that the promise is for them also … because the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

What particularly seizes Mauriac’s imagination is that the scenes enacted in the Upper Room in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago have been vitally and constantly present in succeeding centuries, though only understood at the time by their divine initiator. 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 unremitting animosity the small silent Host.”

Such a vividly expressed long view of supernatural history helps readers to place the woes of our own time – and there are many, ecclesiastic and secular – in their correct context, as well as to remind us of our own essential place in this drama: “How many times did the cock crow for us as it did for Simon Peter?” Mauriac asks rhetorically.

He recalls the liturgy of Holy Thursday from his childhood, awakened by the mem­ories of singing in his college choir and par­ticipating in the soulful liturgy of Tenebrae. Unlike his slightly older compatriot, Proust, also deeply alive to the power of ear­ly mem­ories, Mauriac concentrates on the action of grace on a person’s soul if he is receptive to it. Meditating on the need for Confession, he remarks, much as French novelist Georges Bernanos might have done: “It is never too late to become a saint.”

A book to give to sensitive, literary-minded, atheist friends.

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The prolific GK Chesterton who, after his reception into the Church in 1922 aged 48, was every bit as fervent a Catholic as Mauriac, nonetheless offers a contrast to his French contemporary. Chesterton understood men’s vices equally well but chose to illustrate them through his creation of the priest-detective Father Brown, who was always more interested in the redemption of souls than in solving a crime – though he was also a highly successful sleuth. One might say GKC was a hope-filled humourist, while Mauriac was a hope-filled pessimist.

Dale Ahlquist, in his new book, Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of GK Chesterton (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 191pp, £12.99/$17), performs the amazing feat of fitting his comprehensive knowledge of his hero into 170 pages, excluding the notes. Lovers of GKC will know this is some achievement.

In three sections – The Man, The Writer, The Saint – Ahlquist interweaves these aspects, showing how they overlapped and complemented each other in this stimulating and authoritative survey. As the Cause of a potential “St Gilbert of Fleet Street” has been opened, the final section will be of particular interest to those who champion it.

Ahlquist swiftly disposes of the accusations of anti-Semitism and sloth, arguing for GKC’s avowed Zionism and his friendship with Jews, as well as how, when he was reclining on the sofa, his mind was always working at ferocious speed, composing articles, novels, poems, essays, editorials and biographies, sometimes at the same time. To those who think Chesterton was too prolific, Ahlquist comments drily: “His critics cannot approach him because they are overwhelmed.”

Anyone who knows something of Chesterton’s personality always falls under his spell: his intellectual exuberance, generosity, humility and simplicity all deepen the usual definitions of “genius”.

Ahlquist has written an excellent introduction for those who have not yet encountered Chesterton and who are free from the snobbery of modern literary trends. For those who already know and love him, this slim book is a reminder of why they do so. GKC’s voice, prophetical, playful and profound, needs to be heard by a new
generation.