Like all American Francophiles, I love books written by expats living in Paris. So you can imagine my delight to discover, on my last trip to the City of Lights, the bilingual book simply entitled Paris by Julien Green. It’s the kind of travel guide which makes you beg for an auto-da-fe to cast Rick Steves and the Lonely Planet people headlong into, because it is the rare work, like Georgina Masson’s Rome, which is an experience and not just a series of lists with vapid sound-bites. Julien Green is not a household name for most Americans, not even for those of us who are connoisseurs of Catholic literature. This remarkable writer was born in 1900 in Paris to parents from Savannah, Georgia, better known for Flannery O’Connor (tip of the biretta at the Holy Name). He was also the first foreigner elected to the prestigious Academie Francaise – an American! Green managed to channel that languid Southern prose most of us know only via Pat Conroy into the crisp idiom of a modern French which made him a noted literary figure in Paris, where he lived most of his adult life. He also continued to use that delightful tense of passé simple long after it was cast into the oubliettes of history, and for all of that still managed to capture a very contemporary audience. (One wonders why he was not asked to collaborate to translate the Roman Missal into French!)
At 16, after his domineering and controlling mother died, Green followed his father into the Catholic Church. After a brief stint as a soldier during World War I, he studied at the University of Virginia. Shortly after, his star appeared in the French literary firmament. He abandoned the Faith for a brief period of time, choosing Buddhism as a means of escaping what he felt to be Catholicism’s rigid morality. But he soon came back to the Faith.
Like that other famous literary convert, Graham Greene, he will probably never be canonized. As one of those people who never left a thought unpublished, between his novels and his nine-volume journal, he engaged in a spiritual battle over his passions so intense that its very Gallic transparency strikes the most hedonistic Anglo-Saxon as frankly exhibitionistic. But unlike other bon-vivants of the 19th and 20th centuries with religious obsessions and sexual issues, he did not wait until the end to live as a Catholic, like Oscar Wilde, nor did he abandon himself to grotesque identity politics and thirst for ecclesiastical revolution, like Andre Gide. None of his novels will be part of a book club for homeschooling moms at an SSPX chapel. And I daresay no red-blooded American man could stomach reading more than a few pages of them.
Green remained, despite his perpetual spiritual and moral anguish, a convinced Catholic. Having read Pascal, he imbibed some of the rigorism of Jansenism which probably exacerbated a sensitive conscience. But he was always aware of the reality of the body and soul composite that is man, and realized the futility of dualist temptations to pretend that one can have purity of soul without purity of the body. He also knew that the “thorn in his flesh” was something which would be put to rest and healed only in the resurrected body in heaven, and that the supernatural life of the sacraments in the Church alone could get him there.
Green also realized that tremendous paradox of life in the Church, that its holiness is proved, not by its saints, but by its perseverance amidst sin. As he wrote in an ironically titled work, Pamphlet Against the Catholics, “It is not the saints that one has to talk about if one is to prove the sanctity of the Church. It’s bad priests and popes. A Church governed by saints continues on, that’s normal and human. But a Church that can be governed by villains and imbeciles, and still continue, that is neither normal nor human.” Green’s intensely lived struggles, lived openly through his literature, and his devout frequentation of the sacraments, caused Jacques Maritain to declare that he was a mystic. For Green, the true mystic, the true man, was St Francis, “God’s fool” as he entitled a book dedicated to the saint. That encounter with Christ, which was the true reality which allowed man to transcend the struggle between flesh and spirit, came through the humanity of Christ which gave man access to Divinity via the sacraments.
Green’s profoundly sacramental humanism, if we can call it that, conditioned his reaction to the way the sacraments came to be celebrated after the Second Vatican Council. One would expect that this master of the French language and celebrant of sacramental realism would have welcomed the liturgical reform. When he first heard French used for the Psalms at Tenebrae on Good Friday in 1956, he wrote, “Psalms mooed as if by cows in French . . . How can Catholics not revolt against such ugliness? One bitterly misses the Latin of former times”. As the reforms progressed and the liturgy took on what to him were more Protestant characteristics, he and his sister Mary, also a convert, suffered intensely. He once wrote to her, “Why did we even convert?”
Green’s biographer Anthony Newbury suggests that, for Green, the “solitude of the individual with his conscience as unique authority” that was Protestantism was simply untenable. Green needed a Church with “real authority” so he felt he actually had a place other than the tortured one of his own conscience. If Newbury is right, it indicates why Green suffered the apparent Protestantization of the liturgy as a real crisis of faith. But the Frenchman clung to his faith until his death in 1998, and continued to explore in his later novels the crass sexualization of a world in which conscience has been emptied of its ties to the sacraments and to true religion.
Green’s reaction to the liturgical reform is very instructive. He did not reject the post-conciliar liturgy because he was a decadent aesthete or a nostalgic stick-in-the-mud. He rejected the deformation of the liturgy because he foresaw its disastrous consequences in the moral realm. One of the byproducts of vernacular liturgy in the post-Vatican II Church has been a didacticism which borders on pedantry. At its best, the didactic liturgy becomes a vehicle for teaching which, while orthodox, preaches moral rectitude in conformity with the ethical teachings of the Church, but comes across as little more than moralizing and preaching at people. At its worst, it strips the real authority of the Church in the moral sphere of any imaginative ability to inspire people to live a life worthy of the Mystery to which the liturgy and faith call them.
The dramatic situation in which we find ourselves today finds orthodox Catholics calling out for clear teaching on sexual morality and life issues to challenge the hedonism of our day. But if the faith is reduced merely to the observance of a moral code, and liturgy to explaining how to observe it, that faith will not be able to dialogue with anyone except those who are already convinced and opens itself up to Pharisaism. (This is incidentally a point that Pope Benedict makes in his new book). A Julian Green could be inspired to struggle against his passions and cling to Christ, not because of moralizing from the pulpit, but by entering into those beautiful Prayers over the People from the Lenten liturgies of the Roman Mass, which gave him hope that he could, by prayer, fasting and works of mercy, create a space in his heart where God could take Him up into Himself, where Love would find him.
The restoration of the sacred in the liturgy is a must. Clear teaching on the moral life is a must. But if the way of the disciple is not to be highjacked by self-righteousness, that moral teaching must be expressed not by the lips of us sinners, but in the beauty and the transcendence of the sacred liturgy.
I have known many young men and women like Julian Green in my parishes. They come from a world which hates everything the Church stands for in the culture wars. They come because they think the Catholic Church will give them something more. That desire does not keep them from falling into sin, or being tempted. But they come. They want a real place where they can live besides the dreary world and their own weak consciences. A banal liturgy, clerical officiousness, and a poorly formulated moral teaching cloaked in crusader talk will extinguish the pale flame of faith that has been lit in them. But if we trust in the power of Christ acting through the sacraments, through a liturgy celebrated according to the real authority of the true religion and in all of its transcendent beauty, that flame will burst into a fire which will consume them with zeal.
His whole life, Julian Green struggled to master himself and convert to Christ in whom he found authentic love. He was not always successful in his quest, but he held fast to a faith which is real and true because it is not from mortal flesh and human spirit. He was able to do so because of his experience of the true religion, the power of the sacraments, and heavenly liturgy. His works are difficult reads, because they expose the deep fault lines of the spiritual combat. They are as uncomfortable as the Lenten penances which train us for that war against princes and principalities. But for all of that, they are also profoundly Catholic, not because they show the saint in the apotheosis of glory, but because they show what sinful humanity is capable of when assumed by the LORD of glory.