20 November, 2007

Lucinie and Mother Teresa

The Hattiesburg library recently held a used book sale. One of the discards I acquired is a translation of a 1958 French novel titled Lucinie, by Marie-Louise Pascal Dasque. Mme. Dasque was the wife of a French farmer in Algeria back when Algeria was still a French colony. She sets her tale in Algeria, and the story suggests strongly that the French who lived there dwelled in blissful ignorance that they would not be masters of the land much longer.*

This is all strange enough, but stranger still is how the book itself sparkles with pre-conciliar Catholic spirituality, in the best sense of the word. (All in my humble opinion, of course.) Lucinie serves as a member of an order of religious who nurse the sick and dying. She shows tendencies of contemplation and loves Jesus deeply. She appears not to struggle much with the order's rule. She is simple and innocent, yet intelligent. (Simplicity, innocence, and intelligence are not mutually exclusive, notwithstanding the demons' howls.)

Yet Lucinie is not a cardboard cutout. What I enjoy about the novel are passages such as the following:

[Lucinie] preferred to take her stand on the life of Christ, reliving it in her imagination. She discussed it mentally, going over the details again and again, describing to herself the physical characteristics of appearance and of scene, until at times, though very infrequently, a brief fleeting vision called forth her full concentration and made her ready to recapture with all the concentrated force of her emotions the image that had forever disappeared.

This practice she loved dearly, yet it did not achieve contact with God. Rather did He flee, the moment she tried to reach Him... How did she know that [He was present]? Who gave her such an assurance? In fact, she had no such assurance, but its absence did not change her belief. And now for some considerable time this sense of union had left her or at least had suffered a qualitative change, becoming less certain and lacking sweetness.

Sister Lucinie again addressed her companion. "I don't know whether or not I believe in God. ..."
Ordinarily I would find such a statement unremarkable, and move on. Not in this case.

Here, a devout Catholic grandmother, a farmer's wife raised on Catholic religious education before the Second Vatican Council, exhibits a profound awareness that deeply religious people often experience prolonged periods of anguish, uncertainty, and a sense of abandonment by God. Yet when Mother Teresa's letters are published more than half a century after Mme. Dasque's book, well-educated people express shock and amazement at the notion that a deeply religious Christian could feel abandoned by God—despite the fact that a casual perusal of Catholic spiritual literature makes it plain that Mother Teresa was not the first to experience emptiness, and will not be the last. Unless I have read too much into Catholic writers like St. John of the Cross, we should all hope to experience this at some point; it is a sign of spiritual maturation.

The book must have been quite popular in France, considering the fact that I am reading an English translation that came out shortly after. The jacket cover quotes positive reviews by Le Monde, La Croix, La Cité, and Etude. The quote from La Cité remarks,
[This novel] opens the door to a series of works of real value.
A half-hearted Google search reveals no further information on Mme. Dasque, no later novels. Only this one book appears, in antique bookstores. Given the subsequent turmoil in Algeria, there may indeed have been nothing further.

I'll write further on the novel itself once I finish it.

*Throughout the first half of the book, not a single Algerian of non-French descent has appeared—not one. The only sign of unrest is a vague mention to some communists. The uninformed reader could easily conclude that Algeria is a province of southern France.

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