Leon Bloy and Rage for the Absolute

Leon Bloy

Pope Francis quoting Leon Bloy in his first sermon from the Sistine Chapel yesterday: When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Leon Bloy, the intemperate and vehement Catholic convert whose ranting and inspired outrage in novels, diaries, letters and essays galvanised and shocked Belle Epoque France in the early 1900s. A former agnostic who had loathed the Catholic Church, he later turned his fury against the comfortable scientifically minded rationalists and made enemies of  most the leading  writers and thinkers of his day. He had no time for bourgeois progress and comfort (“The Eiffel Tower is a truly tragic street lamp.”).  His enemies were many, but so were his  admirers, those who spoke of him as a ‘pilgrim of the Absolute’, an uncompromising lover of Christ.

I pray like a robber asking alms at the door of a farmhouse to which he is ready to set fire.

When I first read Bloy, he reminded me of  the English Jonathan Swift, savage and satirical with a  haunted suffering conscience. Bloy’s heart burned for the poor.

Kafka wrote: “Léon Bloy possesses a fire that brings to mind the ardour of the prophets — an even greater ardour, I should say. Of course that is easily explained: his fire is nurtured by the dung-heap of modern times.”

Bloy was not only a furious polemicist and  apologist, he was also a mystic and  the beauty of his insights  read like poetry:

Love does not make you weak, because it is the source of all strength, but it makes you see the nothingness of the illusory strength on which you depended before you knew it.

Leon Bloy was born in Notre-Dame-de-Sanilhac, in the arondissement of Périgueux, Dordogne in 1846.  He was the second son of Voltairean freethinker and stern disciplinarian Jean Baptiste Bloy and his wife Anne-Marie Carreau, the pious Spanish-Catholic daughter of a Napoleonic soldier. After his tormented agnostic boyhood, Bloy moved to Paris to become a painter, then a writer, and underwent a sudden intense religious conversion. Following his father’s death in 1877, Bloy began to visit La Salette, haunted by the vision of the Virgin crowned with thorns and weeping for humanity. His influence and friendship would bring the painter Georges Rouault and the philosopher Jacques Maritain  into the Church and he would influence writers as disparate as Georges Bernanos, Grahame Greene and Jorge Luis Borges.

Bloy’s life is crowded with contradictions and  extremes — he had no understanding of realistic compromise, no way to be other than what he was, a suffering wretch on fire for the Divine.  In his commitment to the poor, Bloy refused to  get a  job and demanded that his friends support him and his  family. Several referred to him as the ‘ungrateful beggar’. He and his wife Jeanne along with their two children lived in abject poverty in Montmartre and came close to starvation. Bloy gave away his savings, gave away royalties from his books. Maritain met Bloy on an icy winter day wearing an old jacket buttoned up to the neck because  he  had no shirt. An impossible character.

 “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

He longed for sainthood, for martyrdom and saw himself as a sinner dependent on the mercy of God. As a young man he had a long anguished relationship with a prostitute Anne-Marie Roule who would convert to Catholicism and die in 1907; then  he  had a relationship with Berthe Dumont, whom he found begging in the streets. (Parallels perhaps with Vincent van Gogh.)  When she died Bloy had to borrow money to pay for her funeral. Not unsurprisingly, his understanding of carnal love was that it would remain unconsummated, cause untold suffering and end in death. When he met Jeanne Molbech who would become his wife, he saw her as an idealised figure of Woman, pointing towards the example of the  Madonna. And always there, leading him into greater depths of self-giving compassion and service, was Lady Poverty. His greatest novel is entitled The Woman who was Poor, La Femme Pauvre. Until his death in 1917 Leon Bloy would go on troubling heaven with his bootless cries, filled with savage indignation, a tempest of zeal and intolerable yearning. To read even a sentence of Bloy is to fall into some wild storm on the heath, some devastating dark night of the soul. This too though — the light at the end of the tunnel is so bright that it hurts your eyes.

Every man who begets a free act projects his personality into the infinite. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe. If he begets an impure act, he perhaps darkens thousands of hearts whom he does not know, who are mysteriously linked to him, and who need this man to be pure as a traveler dying of thirst needs the Gospel’s draught of water. A charitable act, an impulse of real pity sings for him the divine praises, from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel and protects mankind.

Prophet, mystic, outcast — few Catholic writers have been more challenging or unforgettable.

There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.

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