Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Whittaker Chambers/Pope Francis - Touched by Mercy:One in Confession; The Other, In Reading Les Miserables

Consider Pope Francis touched by mercy at 16 or 17 in the person of a priest hearing confession: Miserando atque eligendo: having received mercy, chosen - like Christ and Matthew

Francis: "In that confession, something strange happened to me, I don't know what it was, but it changed my life; I would say that I was 'caught off guard.' (...) It was a surprise, the wonder of an encounter; I realized that I was being awaited.... From that  moment on for me, God is the one who 'came first.'"

 ChambersAt the age of eight or nine, Whittaker Chambers lifted a book from a barrel of books of his grandfather; it was “a big book whose pages were dog-eared, evidently from much turning by my grandfather. It was an old-fashioned book. The text was set in parallel columns, two columns to a page. There were more than a thousand pages. The type was small. I took the book to the little diamond-shaped attic window to read the small type in the light. I opened to the first page and read the brief foreword:

                ‘So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social damnation, which, in the face of civilization, creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny which is divine with human fatality –
                ‘So long as there the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by hunger, and the stunting of childhood by physical and spiritual night – are not solved, -
                ‘So long as, in certain areas, social asphyxias shall be possible –
                ‘So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.’

        "I did not understand half the words. How should I know what ‘human fatality’ meant, or ‘social asphyxia’? But when I read those lines, there moved through my mind a solemn music that is the overtone of justice and compassion. A spirit moved upon the page and through my ignorance I sensed that spirit.

      The book, of course, was Victor Hugo’s Les MiserablesThe Wretched of the Earth. In its pages can be found the play of forces that carried me into the Communist Party, and in the same pages can be found the play of forces that carried me out of the Communist Party. The roots of both influences are in the same book, which I read devotedly for almost a decade before I ever opened a Bible, and which was in many respects, the Bible of my boyhood. I think I can hear a derisive question: ‘How can anyone take seriously a man who says flatly that his life has been influenced by Victor Hug’s Les Miserables?’ I understand. I can only answer that, behind its colossal failings, its melodrama, its windy philosophizing, its clots of useless knowledge, its overblown rhetoric and repellent posturing, which offend me, like everybody else, on almost every page, Les Miserables is a great act of the human spirit. And it is a fact that books which fall short of greatness sometimes have power to move us greatly, especially in childhood when we are least critical and most forgiving, for their very failures confess their humanity. As a boy, I did not know that Les Miserables is a Summa of the revolt of the mind and soul of modern man against the materialism that was closing over them with the close of the Middle Ages and the rise of industrial civilization – or, as Karl Marx would later teach me to call it: capitalism.

       I read and reread Les Miserables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things – Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent. It taught me justice and compassion, not a justice of the law, or, as we say, human justice, but a justice that transcends human justice whenever humanity transcends itself to reach that summit where justice and compassion are one. It taught me that, in a world of force, the least act of humility and compassion requires the utmost exertion of all the powers of mind and soul, that nothing is so difficult, that there can be no true humility and no true compassion where there is no courage. That was the gist of its Christian teaching. It taught me revolution, not as others were to teach me – as a political or historical fact – but as a reflex of human suffering and desperation, a perpetual insurgence of that instinct for justice and truth that lay within the human soul, from which a new vision of truth and justice was continually issuing to meet the new needs of the soul in new ages of the world.

     I scarcely knew that Les Miserables was teaching me Christianity, and never thought of it that way, for it showed it to me, not as a doctrine of the mind, but in action in the world [my underline], in prisons, in slums, among the poor, the sick, the dying, thieves, murderers, harlots and outcast, lonely children, in the sewers of Paris and on the barricades of revolution. Its operation did not correspond to anything I knew as Christian in the world about me. But it corresponded exactly to a need I felt within myself.

     Les Miserables gave me my first full-length picture of the modern world – a vast, complex, scarcely human structure, built over a social abyss of which the sewers of Paris was the symbol, and resting with crushing weight upon the wretched of the earth. Dickens’ novels showed me much the same thing, in a series of glimpses rather than in one appalling view of the human pit. But Dickens’ novels, when they did not merely bore me, left me completely unmoved. His tear-jerking scenes jerked no tears from me though I sometimes resented their efforts to. I knew that the unfortunate hero would always come into a legacy, or an eccentric would intervene to snatch the good outcast or the lost child from the engulfing evil which was, after all, rather quaint. And though I did not know that there was such thing as a problem of evil. I recognized that Dickens’ way was too easy a way out, and no more an answer to the problem that he had raised than life insurance is an answer to the problem of death. Moreover, Dickens was entirely secular. Again, while I did not know the difference between secular and spiritual, I felt it [me again]. I brushed Dickens aside and plunged into Hugo.

      It was above all the character of the Bishop of Digne and the stories about him that I cherished in Les Miserables. As a boy I read them somewhat as other people read the legends of the saints. Perhaps it is necessary to have read them as a child to be able to feel the full force of those stories, which are in many ways childish, and appeal instantly to the child mind, just as today they appeal to what is most childlike in me as a man.

     That first day, when I sat in our living room and read how the Bishop came to Digne, I knew that I had found a book that had been written for me. I read how t he Bishop moved into his palace with vast salons and noticed next door a tiny hospital with its sick crowded into a few small rooms. The Bishop called in the director of the hospital and questioned him: How many rooms are there in the hospital; how many sick; how many beds in each room? ‘Look,’ he said at last, ‘there is evidently some mistake here. You have my house and I have yours. Give me back my house and move into yours.’ The next day the Bishop was in the hospital and the patients were in the palace. ‘He is showing off,’ said the solid citizens.

          The Bishop’s views on human fallibility fixed mine and made it impossible for me ever to be a puritan. ‘To be a saint,’ he sometimes preached to the ‘ferociously virtuous,’ ‘is the exception, to be upright is to rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright. To commit the least possible sin is the law for man… Sin is a gravitation.’

                He first raised in my mind the question of relative human guilt. Everybody was praising the cleverness of a public prosecutor. A man and woman had been arrested for some mischief. There was no evidence against the man. By a trick, the prosecutor convinced the woman falsely that the man had been unlawful to her. She testified against him. ‘Where are the man and woman to be tried” asked the Bishop. ‘At the assizes.’ ‘And where,’ asked the Bishop, ‘ is the prosecutor to be tried?’

       The Bishop lodged in my mind a permanent suspicion of worldly success and pride of place that never changed in all the changes of my life. He was not one of the ‘rich mitres.’ In Paris he did not ‘catch on.’ He was not considered ‘to have any future.’ For, said Hugo, ‘We live in a sad society. Succeed  –  t hat is the advice that falls, drop by drop, from the overhanging corruption.’

* * * * *
                Even as a Communist, I never quite escaped the Bishop. I put him out of my mind, but I could not put him out of my life.[1]

        One passage of Les Miserables I knew almost by heart.
Jean Valjean, whom the Bishop had reclaimed, had told the police that he, the prosperous factory owner and philanthropist, was in fact the convict they were looking for. They had jailed him. He had escaped. Nevertheless, he risked returning to the city hospital to tell a dying streetwalker that he would take care of her child. The police, with Inspector Javert at their head, closed in. Jean Valjean retreated to a little room, where he stood motionless in a corner, out of sight of the door. In the room with him was a nun. Sister Simplice, who loved him for his goodness and pitied him for his suffering.

                One fact distinguished Sister Simplice from the rest of the human race. In all her life, she had never told a lie. Sister Simplice heard Javert coming and fell upon her knees. The police inspector opened the door, but seeing her in prayer, stopped abashed. ‘This was Sister Simplice, who had never lied in her life. Javert k new this and venerated her especially because of it.’

                ‘Sister,’ he said, ‘are you alone in this room?’

                Sister Simplice looked up and answered: ‘Yes.’

                Javert continued: ‘Excuse me, if I persist. It is my duty- you have not seen this evening a person, a man – he has escaped and we are searching for him – Jean Valjean – you have not seen him?

                Sister Simplice answered: ‘No.’

                ‘She lied. Two lies in succession, one upon another, without hesitation, quickly, as if she were an adept in it.’

                ‘Your pardon,’ said Javert and withdrew.

                Then followed the words that became a part of my mind: ‘Oh, holy maiden… may this falsehood be remembered to thee in Paradise.’"

[1] Whittaker Chamber, “Witness” Regnery Gateway (1952, 1980) 133-137

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