The Year of Faith began with a challenge from the Holy Father Emeritus: “We cannot accept that salt should become tasteless or that light be kept hidden.” During this last intense year of renewal, Catholics have been reminded again and again that our age calls for vigilance. For the embers of Western Civilization glow but dimly now, and the “profound crisis of faith” identified by Benedict XVI can hardly be ignored. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need the freshness and clear conviction of converts to the Faith.
As the prolific Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops once noted, France lived through a spiritual crisis of her own in the seventeenth century, and while the long-term result of that crisis was—for all practical purposes—the death of a once-great Catholic civilization, the age also witnessed dozens of inspiring conversions. “It would be impossible,” wrote Daniel-Rops, “to compile a list of all the converts” of the age. Among the most illustrious of them were Jean Racine, Blaise Pascal, and Louise de la Vallière. All three were raised Catholic, went astray for a season, and as adults returned to the Father’s house with hearts brimming over with the love of God.
The fall from grace of Louise de la Vallière has a horrid, contemporary feel to it. Her idyllic childhood was rudely cut short by the death of her father when she had just gained the age of reason. Her mother remarried a man of rank who took the family to the royal court. The lovely Louise was only seventeen when she there caught the eye of the great. “Very pretty, very sweet, and very naïve,” was the impression she gave to one lady of the court; she was, therefore, perfect for a scheme by which the young king’s unsuitable regard for his brother’s wife could be shielded from view. The plan was for the young Louise to receive Louis XIV’s overt advances so that his pursuit of his cousin and sister-in-law the Princess could continue in secret. But passions unbridled will take their fatal course, and her virtue was soon compromised; she would eventually bear the king four children.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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By the time her fifth pregnancy had ended in a life-threatening miscarriage, the luster of the affair had long since faded, and, internally, she had exchanged what she called “an entirely profane life full of pride and sensuality” for a still worse one in which, as she later said, “I labored only to fill myself with self-love and the spirit of the world, and in which all I did was to forget God, waste my time, and constantly risk my salvation by acquiring merely pagan virtues.” Five years later, in the sermon he preached when she took the veil as a Carmelite, Bossuet described the former condition of her soul in these terms: “Thus you see the rational soul fallen from her original dignity because she had abandoned God and because God abandoned her. She is led from captivity to captivity. She is captive to herself, to her own body, to her senses, and to pleasure, captive to everything that surrounds her.” What freed her from her captivity to sin? God’s invisible grace, first and foremost, but also the prayers, holy conversation, and witness of those few courtiers—including Bossuet—whose efforts eventually bore fruit in her beautiful transformation. At her death in the year 1710, she was one month shy of thirty-six years of religious life, and known among her sisters for her voluntary abasement and tranquility of soul.
Louise de la Vallière’s story is a retelling of the conversion of Mary Magdalene; Jean Racine’s was that of a prodigal son. The conversion of Blaise Pascal, however, does not fit into neat Biblical form, but it is famous for having given birth to one of the enduring classics of religious literature. Although his Pensées breathe the zeal of the convert, it is difficult to identify from what he converted. It was not from hardened vice, but instead from a state of character so much in outward conformity to the demands of virtue that although his sister called it “the worst-spent period of his life” one of his biographers, Father Marvin R. O’Connell, determined that it would better be spoken of as his “so-called worldly period.” The clues are scant, but we may reason backwards from the Pensées to the man.
When Pascal set out to write them, he had one goal in mind: to bring his readers to “God through Jesus Christ.” He knew that one of the chief obstacles to faith in his time was the influence of Montaigne’s Essays, then “read and reread,” as Marc Fumaroli observed, “as the ‘gentleman’s psalter,’ the antidote to servility and false piety.” As a Psalter, however, the Essays came up short. With only six references to Christ through their entire length, they breathed an air of self-sufficiency rather than of reliance upon Divine Grace. It was this worldly spirit that Pascal feared, because he understood its power from personal experience: “It is not in Montaigne,” he wrote, “but in myself, that I find everything I see in him.” As he emerged from his worldly period, Pascal wrote of his astonishment at the “blindness” in which he had been living.
One of his companions from that time provided an indication of what that blindness consisted in when he said that Pascal “was a great mathematician who knew of nothing else.” Professor Jean Mesnard summed up Pascal’s worldly period as an “attachment to science” colored by “a bit too lordly an awareness of his own genius.” Pascal himself would seem likely to concur. Amidst his lengthy discussion of diversions is included the example—as one to be avoided—of those who “sweat in their rooms to show the learned they have solved a problem in algebra that had not as yet been solved.” Confessing that he had “spent a long time in the study of abstract sciences,” Pascal explained that he learned that they “were not proper to man, and that I was straying farther from my own condition by trying to penetrate them.” Coupled with these indications, the directness of his imperative—“Let us labor, then, to think well. This is the principle of morality.”—suggests that Pascal’s final and definitive conversion was one of mind, in which, for the first time in his life, his “every thought” was “taken captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Pascal’s conversion was accompanied by a dramatic mystical vision, an account of which he carried on his person until his death. Thanks to that little scrap of paper, we know that he experienced the presence, as he put it, of the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” In contrast, the conversion of Jean Racine, the greatest of French playwrights, is so hidden from view that its reality has regularly been contested by his secular admirers.
Orphaned at a young age, Racine was educated and, to a great extent, raised at the abbey of Port-Royal, where a female community of Cistercians had been joined by a group of unusually zealous Catholics, the ‘solitaries’ of the nascent Jansenist movement, a group of clerics and laymen known for their austere life and serious pursuit of sacred learning. The education that Racine received from them, building upon his own natural gifts, made him into one of the greatest masters of the French language, then and since, and gave him an indelible love for poetry. In those days, the theater was locked in mortal combat with the pulpit for cultural authority in France. Racine’s decision to become a poet and playwright was, accordingly, a direct rejection of the instruction and guidance he had received. From the early-1660s to the mid-1670s were his lost years: hardly any documents, not even letters, remain to allow a conclusive retelling of his story. He is rumored to have had two successive long-standing affairs with leading actresses, and, as his fame was just beginning, he wrote a stinging rebuke to his former master, Pierre Nicole, declaring that “each of us must follow his vocation.” Racine then thought that his was for worldly fame. The tragedies he composed during his lost years are still considered unimpeachable from a poetic point of view, but they have little to offer to a thoughtful Catholic audience.
Racine’s conversion coincided with the deepening of his art; his masterpiece, Phèdre, was a critical examination of the passions which, he declared, “portrayed [them] merely in order to show the aberrations to which they give rise.” After Phèdre, Racine put his personal life in order, becoming an exemplary husband and father. His fame as a writer had gained him the prestigious and comfortable post of an official chronicler of the deeds of Louis XIV. In the last quarter-century of his life, he turned to poetry only to compose serious subjects: the Biblical dramas Esther and Athaliah and the brief, but stirring Spiritual Canticles.
The thread that joins the lives of these converts is that the faith of each faltered for a time, as each was led astray by the world under one of its guises. As Pascal explained, commenting on St. John’s account of the three concupiscences (1 John 2:16), “there are three orders of things: flesh, mind, and will”:
The carnal and rich men, kings: they have as object the body.
The curious and scholarly: they have as object the mind.
The wise: they have as object righteousness.
This last point is framed in terms that may mislead; by “righteousness” Pascal was signifying the good at which the proud man says he aims. His account, then, agrees with that of Aquinas, who explained that St. John’s phrase “pride of life” refers to an “inordinate desire for arduous goods.” Just as Racine sought excellence as a poet without regard to the proper measure of that excellence, so also did Pascal and Louise de la Vallière seek their chosen goods without subordinating them to, and integrating them within, the life of faith and of Christian moral virtue. Pascal spoke for them all when he summed up the lesson he had learned in his conversion in five memorable words: “God must reign over all.”
Author’s note: For a judicious and readable introduction to Pascal, one cannot do better than Marvin R. O’Connell’s Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). The quotations from Pascal’s Pensées were taken from the recent and commendable translation by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005).
Editor’s note: The painting above is a portrait of Blaise Pascal.