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From The Passion of Our Lady (1910)
By Charles Péguy
 
Translated by Julian Green
 
No boy had ever cost his mother so many tears.
No boy had ever made his mother weep as much.
 
For the past three days she had been wandering, and following.
She followed the people.
She followed the events.
She seemed to be following a funeral.
But it was a living man’s funeral.
 
She followed and wept, and didn’t understand very well.
But she understood quite well that the government was against her boy.
And that is a very bad business.
She understood that all the governments were against her boy.
The government of the Jews and the government of the Romans.
The government of judges and the government of priests.
He could never get out of it.
 
She had gone up.
Gone up with everybody else.
Up to the very top of the hill.
Without even being aware of it.
Her legs had carried her and she did not even know it.
She too had made the Way of the Cross.
The fourteen stations of the Cross.
Were there fourteen stations?
Were there really fourteen stations?
She didn’t know for sure.
She couldn’t remember.
Yet she had not missed one.
She was sure of that.
 
Everybody was against him.
Everybody wanted him to die.
It is strange.
People who are not usually together.
The government and the people—
That was awful luck.
When you have someone for you, and someone against you, sometimes you can get out of it.
You can scramble out of it.
But he wouldn’t.
Certainly he wouldn’t.
When you have everyone against you.
But what had he done to everyone?
 
I’ll tell you.
He had saved the world.

__________________
 
 
This month, we’re reading a selection from The Passion of Our Lady, a long poem by French poet Charles Péguy, in Julian Green’s translation.

In this country, not many have heard the name Charles Péguy. But he is a remarkable figure, one of the major poets writing in French at the beginning of the 20th century. Charles Péguy was born in 1873 in Orléans. His father died a year after Péguy’s birth, and his mother supported the family by mending furniture. Péguy won a scholarship to study in Paris and became a noted editor, essayist, and poet.

In his early years, Péguy considered himself an agnostic, but later he embraced his Catholic faith. While he was a believer, and wrote many poems on Catholic subjects, he was, for the most part, non-practicing. When the First World War broke out, Péguy enlisted and was killed on the battlefield in 1914, at the age of 41.
While Péguy at times wrote in conventional, fixed verse poetic forms, his most celebrated works are in a style distinctively his own. This is free verse, with short, staccato sentences and phrases: almost every line ends with a period, and ideas build up gradually, through repetitions and echoes that slowly build. There’s an urgency about Péguy’s writing.

The poem Scott read is a section from a book-length poem called The Passion of Our Lady, which appeared in 1910. In the Catholic tradition, Mary shared in the Passion of Jesus. The idea of the Passion of Our Lady finds expression in devotions like the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and is reflected in devotions like the Way of the Cross. This devotion has Scriptural precedent: it goes back to the prophecy uttered by Simeon when the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple: “you yourself a sword shall pierce.”

The devotion of the “Passion of Mary” finds its fullest expression in the traditional hymn Stabat Mater, which dates to the 13th century:

Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has pass'd.

In this poem, Péguy gives us his own variation on the Stabat Mater. The short, fragmentary lines accentuate Mary’s confusion and panic:

The fourteen stations of the Cross.
Were there fourteen stations?
Were there really fourteen stations?
She didn’t know for sure.
She couldn’t remember.
Yet she had not missed one.
She was sure of that.

Péguy alludes here to the fourteen stations in the traditional devotion of the Way of the Cross. Mary’s experience is not so orderly. She was not counting the stations as she followed her son through Jerusalem. All she knows is that she followed him all the way:  “she had not missed one. / She was sure of that.”
As a journalist, Péguy was deeply engaged with the politics of his time. This poem shows a keen awareness of the complex role that politics played in the crucifixion of Jesus. “All the governments were against her boy. / The government of the Jews and the government of the Romans. / The government of judges and the government of priests. / He could never get out of it.”  A socialist, Péguy is quick to notice the rare unanimity of those opposed to Jesus. The Jews and the Romans, the judges and the religious leaders—all are against him. Péguy circles back to this at the end of the passage. “People who are not usually together: the government and the people.” They are never together—but when it comes to the death of Jesus, they are in agreement. “But what had he done to everyone?... He had saved the world.” It is as if the whole world condemns Jesus to death—because the whole world is saved by him.

As we approach Holy Week, Péguy’s poem invites us to hear the Passion narratives in a new way--messy, confusing, embedded in human relationships and politics. He asks us to see, beyond the tranquility and balance of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, a glimpse of the chaos and pain that Jesus and Mary really experienced. Péguy invites us to recognize that the Passion took place in a moment not unlike our own: fraught with factions and divisions, sharing little in common—except being, all too often, blind to the divine presence in our midst.

 

 

 

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