To begin well was a grace not given to Louis XIV. King before his fifth birthday, rudely shocked by the Fronde uprising as a mere child, and first seduced—the story goes—by a lady-in-waiting at the French court while still a green youth, the miracle is not that he was head-strong, unreflective, and given to the lusty satisfaction of his passions, but rather that he shouldered the burdens of governance at all, and, moreover, threw himself into them with unbounded application. When he took up the reins of the State in 1661, there was little doubt of his potential for greatness, but much reason to fear for his goodness.
The worst was that the king lived amidst a courtly culture that flattered the passions. Immediately after his wedding in 1660, a comedian who mocked the very institution of marriage entertained the court, and the king even sat for one of his plays on Christmas Day that year. Who was that playwright? No mean performer, it was the great Molière himself. Yet amidst knowing smiles and laughter, the memory of St. Vincent de Paul’s warnings against the theater came to mind, and Anne of Austria persuaded her son to invite to court a young priest named Bossuet to preach a cycle of sermons in the chapel of the Louvre for the observance of Lent in 1662.
The twelve surviving sermons of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s Carême du Louvre are collectively one of the great classics of Christian oratory. In this series, a preacher whose art was just coming into maturity set for himself the lofty goal of changing the moral course of the young king’s reign. The refined raillery and ironic detachment of Molière met their match in Bossuet’s fiery earnestness, sublime composition, and relentless argumentation.
The vigorous thirty-four year old preacher began on the Feast of the Presentation. The first word of his sermon was crucifixion. Anticipating Holy Week, he built his sermon from the most evocative of words: cross, nails, spines, wounds, pierced, stricken, offering, victim, sacrifice. “It is the purpose of our Gospel,” he argued, “to make the faithful understand that they must sacrifice themselves with Jesus Christ.” The content of the sermon may have been conventional, but its imagery and language were highly charged. Bossuet borrowed from Augustine to explain the reason for our punishment: we have chosen sin, therefore we have been given death. But he drove home the point with a metaphor of his own: “because we have chosen [sin] for our king . . . [death] has become our tyrant.” Exhorting the courtiers not to set their hearts upon this mortal life, he warned: “In vain are you so besotted by this faithless mistress.” The king could hardly have misunderstood such language. Bossuet, however, would not be cryptic, and so on the first Sunday of Lent came an admonition couched in the words of Nathan to the adulterous David: “O prince, it is to you we speak.”
“On the Preaching of the Gospel,” the sermon that contained this pointed line, began Bossuet’s assault upon the libertines. Its theme was hearing. God, he explained, is normally quiet. In the face of his reserve, our hardened hearts quickly become deaf to his goodness. The “doctors of the court,” meanwhile, deliver “public lessons in libertinism.” Into the breach step the preachers. They are the “clear and intelligible voice” of God, calling all Christians to repent, and their sermons, however sonorous, are not to be heard as pleasing diversions: “Such emotions–weak, incomplete, and ephemeral–should be felt in front of the stage, on which are played out mere illusions, and not in front of the pulpit from which the Gospel is proclaimed, where the holy truth of God appears in its purity.”
Molière’s central doctrine, the worldly conception of honnêteté or good breeding, was Bossuet’s target. The courtiers were careful to avoid “deliberate statements of dangerous opinions,” but the danger was that they were being assailed not by great waves of impiety, but by a soft rain of it that would corrupt them “drop by drop.” The “poison of libertinism was in the hidden force of bad example;” it was a “subtle contagion breathed in through the air of the great world.” The world is a “subtle master that teaches without dogmatizing;” its method is “never to prove its maxims, but to impress them” upon us without our noticing. It propagates “false ideas of good and evil” under the guise of ambition and false gallantry. The air was “infected with this contagion,” and the result was that Christians tricked themselves into believing that the prophetic admonitions of Scripture were addressed only to outright unbelievers. They were not. God warns his own children that they were taking his truth “according to the measure of their passions.” For the world would have us distinguish among our vices, condemning the brutish ones, but “laboring to make some of them honorable, such as those delicate passions that are called the vices of well-bred ladies and gentlemen.” He did not need to name Molière. By attacking a domesticated, tolerant, and easy Christianity, Bossuet was countering his influence. “Whence this great disorder, if it is not that truth has been diminished? It is diminished in its purity, because we falsify and adulterate it; diminished in its integrity, because we cut and trim it; diminished in its majesty, because failing to be transformed by it, we lose the respect that we owe to it.”
In the fourth week of Lent, Bossuet delivered what is today the best known of the series, the Sermon on Death, a marvelously-turned work that insisted his audience look not to this fleeting life, but to the end that awaits us all. Walking, though we do, across the stage of the “theater of changes,” we sense within ourselves a principle that transcends time and survives death. One clue to our immortality is that “man has almost changed the face of the world;” he has trained wild nature to his purposes and adorned it with his creations, thus showing the mark of his Creator. Another is the light within us, the duty we discover and seek to carry out, the “immortal approval of integrity and virtue, which is the first Reason, showing itself to us by its image.” And yet these signs of our immortality would only plunge us deeper into despair and make “the tyranny of death all the more insupportable” if Christ had not come. “O soul, filled with crime, you rightly fear the immortality that would render your death eternal! But here is the person of Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life: he who believes in him, will not die.”
Tears of repentance, not laughter: this was the preacher’s aim. He had opened the Carême du Louvre with the word crucifixion, and he brought it to a close on Good Friday with a meditation upon the suffering Christ, because “mere words do not suffice to convert the hardened world: it must be shown the wounds and be moved by the blood.” At length he dwelt upon the bloody sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane, piercing the Savior’s clothing and moistening the earth; this “unheard-of sweat” was proof that our sins, and not the Romans, had killed Christ, for “the immensity of this sorrow alone could have given him the death-blow.” “My brothers, I implore you,” said Bossuet, taking a personal turn, “relieve my spirits and do yourselves meditate upon Jesus crucified; spare me the pain of describing for you what words are not capable of communicating.” The lengthy periods of his usual Ciceronian style ceded to the pungent brevity of exhortation: “Let us bitterly weep for our sins.”
The pains endured by Christ proved the validity of his testament, but his Passion had more to teach. Thus the preacher besought his audience to “seek in his Passion the motives of a holy horror against the disorders of our life.” He placed before them the example of Judas, the flatterer, who applauded his master only “that he might profit from him.” The other disciples had not been much better, for they had all abandoned their Lord. “Do you not recognize yourselves in this history? Do you not recognize in it your insincere favors and inconstant friendships?” The faults of the courtiers were those of the Roman soldiers who had mocked Christ with “malicious joy.” Molière poked fun at Christian respectability. Bossuet replied: “Christians, do you dare to abandon yourselves to that spirit of derision that was so outrageous against Jesus Christ? What is derision if not the triumph of pride, the reign of impudence, the food of disdain, the death of reasonable society, the shame of modesty and of virtue?” Calling them “mockers to the last,” he asked them whether they did not fear to “renew all that was most bitter in the Passion.”
Throughout the Carême du Louvre, Bossuet had remembered the besetting sin of his king, and now he made one final remonstrance. “L’amour déshonnête,” more than any other sin, has “plunged the innocent soul of Christ into the greatest excesses of sorrow.” On Palm Sunday, he had called for the cabal of the libertines to be overthrown and for the narrow path to heaven to be widened: “Something illustrious and grand stirs for your Majesty . . . do not let your sins be an obstacle to the things that are being prepared.” Now, on Good Friday, he exhorted the king to remember the poor: “Sire, let not your Majesty tire: as suffering mounts, so mercy must be extended . . . it is the dying Jesus who exhorts you, Sire; he commends to you your poor.”
In the short run, the Carême du Louvre was a failure. A few months after Good Friday, Molière’s troupe was invited to spend several weeks playing for the court. At Christmastide came the first performance of his rejoinder to Bossuet, The School for Wives. Molière’s ascendancy over the young king was then sealed in the spring of 1664 at Versailles by the sumptuous week-long dramatic party called “The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island,” during which he placed in the mouth of one of his actors barely-disguised words of praise for the king’s affair with Louise de La Vallière, and then directed the début of the play that would become Tartuffe. Bossuet, meanwhile, was not invited back to preach to the court until 1665. His patience, however, was at length repaid. Residing at court for the decade of the 1670s as the tutor to Louis XIV’s son, he assisted the conversions of the Duchess of Orléans, Madame de La Vallière, and the Grand Condé, and—after many more forthright sermons and two very pointed letters—the king’s own moral reformation.
No preacher unaided can make another man into a saint, and Bossuet is, to be sure, not to be blamed for the delays in his royal auditor’s return to the sacraments. The fact that Louis XIV did so return, and live out the autumn and winter of his life as a faithful and even a penitent Christian, remains as a lasting testament to the efficacy of Bossuet’s example and counsel, and to the power of some of the most wise and eloquent preaching the world has ever heard.