Arts Arts & Books

The surrealist who fled to a monastery

In post-World War I Paris, everyone loved the poet Pierre Reverdy. The Cubists and Surrealists tried to make him their own. Modigliani painted him (pictured); Coco Chanel may have dated him. But in the end, Reverdy belongs to no one.

He desires to remain unknown. “Let’s go somewhere else where no one looks at us,” he begs. His work, though, cannot be ignored. His poems are carefully stacked into an elegant landscape of words. The adoration of the avant-garde makes him claustrophobic, so he dwells on themes of entrapment. To him, the world has gone askew and we are sliding down a melancholy, windswept path.

Reverdy seeks not fame but an authentic existence. He does something shocking. He becomes Catholic. Around 1926, he discovers an “old abbey wall against which I can lean like a trellis”. He burns a stack of poems and moves to live near the monastery at Solesmes in north-western France. Max Jacob and his friends Jacques and Raïssa Maritain are supportive of the move. In his article, “Loneliness and the Existent”, Bernard Doering quotes a letter from Reverdy to Maritain, explaining: “I must give everything to God … I need to die. That’s right – to disappear, to become nothing.” In the face of growing emotional unease and alienation, he dims the light even further. He is nothing, God is everything.

At the monastery, he never becomes any happier. His religious fervour cools but he stays in the shelter of the monastery wall until his death in 1960, conflicted, searching for answers and writing about standing at a crossroads. Psychologically unable to choose one path, he is also frightened of becoming stuck. Pinned to the spot, he cannot escape the shadow of the Cross. “The last belfry left standing,” he intones, “tolls midnight.”

Some believe Reverdy lost his faith and they interpret his work without reference to Catholicism, but this displays naïvety. History is scattered with saints who speak of the fierce darkness at the heart of faith. It’s a leap into the mystical void, and the effort wears Reverdy out. He warns us: “It’s hard to believe, you know. It’s very hard to believe.” Faith is conflicted. It is cinders, broken wings and sighs. In the human heart it encounters a thousand rebellions, but the struggle is part and parcel of the journey. If faith is a crossroads that pulls us to pieces, it is also the trust that God makes us whole again.

Reverdy’s faith is his alone. Your faith is yours alone. Pause for a while, pause for a Lenten lifetime to ponder the miracle that God opens up an interior space where we may linger within the frustration and tension of the Cross. For each of us, there is an open gate in the monastery wall.

Fr Michael Rennier is associate editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art and faith (dappledthings.org)