The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy

My early background in Catholicism was mostly French, the authors we studied in French classes (Pascal, Mauriac, Rabelais, Montesquieu), the  outlooks of teachers who had grown up in Europe. Later there would be  contact with Irish Catholic piety, but that Gallic/Catholic  way of seeing the world has stayed with me.

The socialist become  convert and mystic. Charles Péguy was killed by a bullet through the head during the Battle of the Marne in 1914. He had anticipated his death in a poem:

Blessèd are those whom a great battle leaves
Stretched out on the ground in front of God’s face,
Blessèd the lives that just wars erase,
Blessèd the ripe wheat, the wheat gathered in sheaves.

It was a dramatic end to a heroic life. He was barely forty.

From Geoffrey Hill’s The  Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy:

To dispense, with justice; or, to dispense
with justice. Thus the catholic god of France,
with honours all even, honours all, even
the damned in the brazen Invalides of Heaven.

Here there should be a section without words
for military band alone: “Sambre et Meuse,”
the “Sidi Brahim” or “Le Roi s’Amuse”;
white gloves and monocles and polished swords

and Dreyfus with his buttons off, chalk-faced
but standing to attention, the school prig
caught in some act and properly disgraced.
A puffy satrap prances on one leg

to snap the traitor’s sword, his ordered rage
bursting with “cran et gloire” and gouts of rage.
The chargers click and shiver. There is no stir
in the drawn ranks, among the hosts of the air,

all draped and gathered by the weird storm-light
cheap wood-engravings cast on those who fought
at Mars-la-Tour, Sedan; or on the men
in the world-famous stories of Jules Verne

or nailed at Golgotha. Drumrap and fife
hit the right note: “A mort le Juif! Le Juif
à la lanterne!” Serenely the mob howls,
its silent mouthings hammered into scrolls

torn from Apocalypse. No wonder why
we fall to violence out of apathy,
redeemed by falling and restored to grace
beyond the dreams of mystic avarice.

But who are “we,” since history is law,
clad in our skins of silver, steel and hide,
or in our rags, with rotten teeth askew,
heroes or knaves as Clio shall decide?

“We” are crucified Pilate, Caiaphas
in his thin soutane and Judas with the face
of a man who has drunk wormwood. We come
back empty-handed from Jerusalem

counting our blessings, honestly admire
the wrath of the peacemakers, for example
Christ driving the money-changers from the temple,
applaud the Roman steadiness under fire.

We are the occasional just men who sit
in gaunt self-judgment on their self-defeat,
the élite hermits, secret orators
of an old faith devoted to new wars.

We are “embusqués,” having no wounds to show
save from the thorns, ecstatic at such pain,
Once more the truth advances; and again
the metaphors of blood begin to flow.

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