André Frossard

Extract from

God Exists: I have Met Him

by

André Frossard

(14 January 1915 - 2 February 1995)

(Translated by Marjorie Villiers)

Collins, London 1970, pages 109-125

NIKOLAI BERDYAEV had a fine mind; indeed, his brain was so overloaded with ideas that his tongue sometimes stumbled. Since those days I have learned to admire him, but then he had, so far as I was concerned, one very grave weakness: he believed in God and, moreover, he did not write about him as one writes about a scientific hypothesis, which I regarded as permissible. No, he wrote about God as though he really existed, which I considered required proof. To fall back on a god to explain the world and its history seemed to me to be a piece of sophistry quite unworthy of a philosopher. A detective story in which the classic puzzle of solving a murder which has been committed in a locked room is resolved by the activity of a supernatural being capable of passing through walls wouldn’t be worth much. Those were the kind of arguments I used at the time and that is why Berdyaev’s Un Nouveau Mo yen Age made absolutely no impression on me. This author was a believer; the conclusions he reached about Marxism, the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution stemmed from his beliefs; they were no concern of mine and made no impact on me.

This is more or less what I said to Willemin when he asked me to explain my remark that there was nothing to discuss about the book. Since the author believed in God, everything he wrote followed on logically; between him and me no discussion was possible.

*

Willemin misunderstood me; he believed that Berdyaev had convinced me and thought we should celebrate the occasion by dining together. I was always happy to dine with him; I enjoyed his company, his lively mind, his talent for the flute, for medicine, for journalism, for cooking a la Lorraine, for mimicry. I might not share his ideas but I often shared his jokes.
 

Not being fond of coming out into the open, and not wishing to spoil his evening, I decided not to explain my position to him; I’d leave him his illusory happiness, at least until dinner—time, perhaps until the dessert. This was the misunderstanding which, as I have already mentioned, played a part in my conversion.

*

The office having just closed, we set off in Willemin’s old car (any sort of car was an unbelievable luxury in our world), hanging on to the doors to keep them from flying open. We crossed the Seine and went away from the tie Saint-Louis — evidently we were not going to Willemin’s apartment.

When we reached the Place Maubert I assumed that we were heading for the Rue Mouffetard where we usually bought our fried fish in its newspaper wrapping. We should, I foresaw, eat under the bridges and that would be quite pleasant. We should pay one franc for the fish and a few pence for the bottle of wine which would be dark blue at the bottom and pleasantly mauve and translucent at the neck. When, however, we passed the turning to the Rue Mouffetard and did not take it I was left without a clue as to where we were bound for. Perhaps we would go to a restaurant though the hour was rather early.

(Too many details and too trivial, complains the reader, but he must allow for the fact that one is apt to go in for detail if one has had the strange experience of attending one’s own birth.)

I asked no questions, I was happy to let my friend choose the way, but our journey became even less understandable as we drove in a circle round the Latin Quarter, turned back on our course and reached the Rue d’Ulm. What could be bringing us to this students’ quarter, at present uninhabited on account of the holidays? We stopped, shortly after passing the Ecole Normale Su—périeure, in front of my old haunt, the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs. Willemin got out and suggested that either I come along with him or wait for him for a few minutes in the car. I waited. No doubt he was going to call on someone. I watched him cross the road and push open a little door which stood near to a great iron gate above which I could see the steeple of a chapel.

Obviously he was going to pray, perhaps go to confession, certainly engage in one of those activities which take up so much of a Christian’s time. All the more reason for me to stay in the car.
It was the eighth of July. The summer was glorious. Straight in front of me the Rue d’Ulm, looking like a sun-drenched trench, led off in the direction of the Pantheon, which could be seen at its end. What thoughts crossed my mind? I don’t remember. No doubt, as usual, they floated around looking vaguely for a ledge, an angle, for some geometrical motif to rest on. As to my inner life? So far as my conscience was concerned, it was, at peace, that is to say I was not suffering from any disturbance, such as people say predispose one to mystical experiences.

*

I had no heart-break. That very evening I had a rendezvous with a German girl at the Beaux—Arts; she had the fine features which sometimes go with plumpness and gave me the impression she would not defend her frontiers very vigorously. (I mention this for the benefit of those who explain religion by its opposite, who explain the mind by the body, the greater by the less, and what’s on top by what’s below.) Anyway, very soon the German girl had so completely vanished from my mind that I even forgot to put her off.

I was without any metaphysical problems. The last time I had had any trouble of the sort had been at the age of fifteen, as I have described earlier. Then it had seemed to me that the world by which I was besieged and deafened, the world which was so dumbly voluble, was about to hand me the key to its Hieroglyphs, the secret of its being (and that this was imminent). But, the world did not reveal anything to me and since that time I had not tried to discover its secret.

Together with my socialist friends, I held that the world could be explained by politics plus history, and that metaphysics were the most disappointing of all pastimes. And certainly if I were to have imagined that there was a truth, the priests would have been the last people to whom I would have gone to learn about it and the Church (about which I had heard only in terms of some of her temporal malpractices) would have been quite the last place to which I would have gone to look for it.

My profession as a journalist had done nothing to diminish my scepticism though it had done a lot to quieten the anxieties which my disappointing youth had caused my parents. I was exercising my skill at too young an age, and had done so for too short a time, for my career to have brought me any of those disappointments which create a vacuum inside one and that sense of isolation which could favour the birth of an impulse towards religion. I had no worries. I was not a worry to anyone. Willemin’s friendship had had the effect of withdrawing me from some undesirable relationships which I had formed in the past. The year had been calm, there had been no national emergencies and France was not under any immediate external threat; the alarm had not yet been sounded. I had no fixations. My health was good and I was very happy in so far as I was aware; the evening promised to be a pleasant one. I waited.

I had no curiosity about things relating to religion, for religion seemed to m’ to belong to another age.

    *
It is now ten minutes past five. In two minutes’ time I shall be a Christian.

A COMPLACENT atheist, I suspected nothing when, bored by waiting while Willemin was busy with his devotions, which were keeping him longer than he had expected, I pushed my way past the little gate to have a look at the building into which he had disappeared. My interest in it was that of a lover of architecture or perhaps that of a tourist.

*

What I had been able to see of the chapel over the gate was not very prepossessing and the Sisters will I hope forgive me if I say that when wholly disclosed to my view it did not prove any handsomer. It stood at the end of a small courtyard and had been built in a nineteenth century English Neo-Gothic style, which, when it tidies up the original Gothic, petrifies it and deprives it of all movement. I am not writing this stricture to enjoy the dubious pleasure of criticizing a style that has now come to be admired but to make the point that no rush of artistic emotion had anything to do with what follows.

The inside is no more stimulating than the exterior. It is the banal careening of a stone ship whose dark grey lines stop and start before they have been given the chance to make the Cistercian encounter between austerity and beauty. The nave is divided into three distinct sections. In the first, near the entrance, the faithful pray in semi—darkness. Stained-glass windows, dimmed by neighbouring buildings, let in a little weak light which falls on various statues and there is a side altar covered with bouquets of flowers.

The second section is used by the nuns; their heads covered by black veils, they look like rows of well-behaved birds perched in bays of varnished wood. Later I was to learn that they belong to the order of ‘L’Adoration Réparatrice’ founded after the war of 1870 as a pious reparation for some excesses that took place during the Commune. They are not very numerous (this fact will be seen later to be important). They are a contemplative order; they have chosen to shut themselves up to give us freedom and to live in obscurity to give us light. According to materialistic standards — and for the following two minutes they were those to which I still subscribed — these women were totally useless.

They were chanting some sort of prayer, two choirs replying to each other from either side of the nave. The chant culminated at regular intervals in the exclamation: gloria patri et filio, et spiritui sancto, after which the two—part chant continued peacefully on its way. I had no idea that it was the psalms that were being sung or that I was attending matins. I was lulled by the swell of the canonical hours.

The end of the chapel was rather brightly lit. The high altar was draped in white and covered with a great many plants and candelabra and a variety of ornaments. Above it hung a large metal cross; at its centre there was a white disc, and three others that were slightly different were fixed to the extremities of the cross.
In the interest of art, I had previously visited churches but I had never before seen a host, much less a monstrance with a host in it. I was therefore quite unaware that before me was the Blessed Sacrament below which many candles were burning. The other discs, the complicated gilt ornaments, all contributed to making identification of this distant sun still more difficult.

*

I didn’t see the point of all this, naturally, since I was not looking for it. Standing by the door, I looked out for my friend, but I was not able to identify him among the kneeling figures. My glance went from the dimness to the light, fell on the congregation, travelled from the faithful to the nuns, and from the nuns to the altar without any thought consciously crossing my mind. Then, for no particular reason, I fixed my eyes on the second candle on the left-hand side of the cross.

It was at this moment that, suddenly, the series of extraordinary events was set in motion whose extreme violence was about to dismantle the absurd creature that I had been until that moment and give birth to the dazzled child I had never been. First, were the words: spiritual life.

They were not said to me nor did I form them in my mind; it was as though they were being spoken by someone close to me who was seeing something which I had not yet seen.

*

The last syllable had hardly brushed my conscious mind when an avalanche descended upon me. I am not saying that the heavens opened; they didn’t open - they were hurled at me, they rose suddenly flashing silently from the depths of this innocent chapel in which they were mysteriously present.

How can I describe what took place in words which refuse to carry the sense, which indeed do worse, for they threaten to intercept what I have to say and in doing so to relegate my meaning to the land of fancy? Were a painter to be given the gift of seeing colours that are unknown to man what would he use to paint them with?

What can I say to describe that which I apprehended? It was an indestructible crystal, totally transparent, luminous (to such a degree that any further intensity would have destroyed me), with a colour near to blue; a different world, whose brilliance and density made our world seem like the wraith of an unfulfilled dream. What I saw was reality; this was truth and I was seeing it from the dim shore on which I still stood. Now I knew that there is order in the universe and at its beginning, beyond the shining mists, the manifestation of God: a manifestation which is a presence, which is a person, the person whose existence I should have denied a moment ago, the presence of him whom the Christians call Our Father. And I knew that he was gentle, that his gentleness was unparalleled and that his was not the passive quality that is sometimes called by the name of gentleness, but an active shattering gentleness, far outstripping violence, able to smash the hardest stone and to smash something often harder than stone, the human heart.

*

This surging, overwhelming invasion brought with it a sense of joy comparable to that of a drowning man who is rescued at the last moment, but with this difference that it was at the moment in which I was being hauled to safety that I became aware of the mud in which, without noticing it, I had till then been stuck; and now I wondered how I had ever been able to breathe and to live in it.
The Church had become a new family to me. Now it was its business to guide me along the path I should take, for, in spite of appearances, I still had some way to go and this distance could not be miraculously shortened.

*

All these impressions which I find it so hard to translate into the deficient language of ideas and images occurred simultaneously and were so telescoped the one into the other that after many years I have not yet been able to digest all they contained. Everything was dominated by the presence, beyond and through the great assembly, of him before whom I had the joy of appearing as a child who had been forgiven and who had woken up to discover that everything is a gift.

It was fine outside. I was five years old and the world that once consisted of stone and pitch was now a great garden in which I would be allowed to play for so long as it pleased Heaven to leave me in the land of the living.

Willemin as he walked beside me seemed to sense something peculiar about my expression and observed me with clinical attention.

‘What’s come over you?’ he enquired.

‘I’m a Catholic.’ And for good measure I added, ‘Roman and Apostolic.’

‘Your eyes are goggling.’

‘God exists. It’s all true.’

‘If you could only see yourself.’

But I couldn’t see myself; I was like an owl who has flown into the midday sun.
 

*
 

Five minutes later, on the terrace of a café in the Place Saint—André—des—Arts, I was telling Willemin all about it. At least all that, faced with the inexpressible, I was able to say of this world that had suddenly been spread out before me, all I could describe of that shining boulder which had silently destroyed the habitation of my childhood and made my surroundings vanish like mist. Around me the debris of my mental scaffolding littered the ground. I looked at the passers-by, who saw nothing, and I thought of the wonder they would feel if they were to experience the confrontation which had just been mine. I was certain that sooner or later this would happen to all of them and I rejoiced at the thought of the surprise of the unbelievers and of the doubters who were not even aware of their doubts.

God existed; he was here present, revealed and at the same time hidden by the light which, using neither speech nor images, conveyed a knowledge and a love of all things.

I realize that remarks such as these must appear extravagant, but what else am I to say if Christianity is true, if there is a truth, if the truth is a person who does not wish to be unknowable?

The miracle lasted for a month. Every morning I was delighted once again to experience that light which made daylight seem pale and that gentleness which I shall never forget and which is all that I know of theology.

Why I had to go on living on this planet when all this heavenly kingdom was so near at hand was not obvious to me but out of gratitude rather than understanding I accepted the situation.

However, each day the illumination and the gentleness lost a part of their intensity. Finally they vanished. But I was not left lonely. Truth would come to me in other modes; I would have to search for what I had almost found. A priest belonging to the order of the Holy Ghost undertook to prepare me for baptism by telling me about religion, of which, as will have been obvious, I had not the smallest knowledge.

What he described as Christian doctrine proved to be what I expected and I rejoiced in it.  The teaching of the Church was true and I took pleasure in all its details. The only fact that surprised me was that of the Eucharist. It seemed unbelievable. I was amazed that the love of God should have used such an astonishing means of communication and that for it bread, the food of the poor and of small children, had been God’s choice.

Of all the gifts which Christianity was showering upon me, the Eucharist seemed to me the greatest. Overwhelmed with blessings, I anticipated that the rest of my life was going to be a sort of unending Christmas.
Experienced people to whom I spoke warned me that this privileged state was not going to last forever, that the laws of spiritual growth were the same for everyone, that, after the joy of the green pastures of experienced grace, I should be faced by the rock, the climb, the risks involved, that I was not always going to be a happy child. I did not listen to them. I was determined not to grow up a second time. Such was my wisdom, less wise than theirs.

They were right and I was wrong. Once the Christmas season had passed I had to face the stone and the tar and the things of a world which was slowly and cunningly returning to its old consistency. I lived a Good Friday and a Holy Saturday, lived them in a silence pierced only by a cry of anguish.

*
 

Twice the greatest suffering which can come upon a human being struck my home. Any parent will understand my meaning without requiring me to be more explicit. Twice I went to the cemetery, trying to discover the encompassing mercy behind the horror. Unable to revolt, incapable of taking refuge in doubt — for whom could I doubt except myself? — I lived with this sword piercing my heart, all the while knowing that God is love.

*
 

I am not writing this for the sake of completing my story, but it is a necessary part of my witness. One day I went to look at the place where some day I shall be buried. Out of curiosity I glanced to see who were my neighbours. I found this was the burial plot of the Sisters of L’Adoration Réparatrice. I know too well how these coincidences can be regarded either as a sign or rejected as a superstition. But the coincidence is enough for me.

The little Sisters who, five hundred kilometres away, were present at my birth will also be present at the hour of my death and I think, I believe, I know, that these two moments will be identical, will be one; material things, will disappear and gentleness will return.

*
 

Love, to speak of you, eternity itself will be too brief.