By Montgomery Belgion
WHEN a lack of good Catholic
writers in England is deplored, as Miss Maisie Ward deplored it recently, her words being echoed and endorsed in the editorial columns of this paper, ought we to blame the indifference of the reading public? There are plenty of Catholic writers in France, and some are very widely read indeed. Have they some secret which would explain their popular appeal?
For instance. there is DanichRops, who is not only an occasional contributor to THE CATHOLIC HFRALD, but a prolific author. While in France last August I saw from the windows of the bookshops that his popular account of Our Lord's terrestrial life in its contemporary setting had reached a 34Rth edition. This book). has in fact been so well received that Daniel-Rops has been led to undertake a complete popular history of the Church in six thick volumes. The first, L'Eglise des Apotres et des Martyrs. appeared at the beginning of last winter.
It took him four years to write it. and yet on top of this monumental task he finds time to produce other books smaller in compass but equally solid in substance. That can only be because there are readers for them. What do these readers find to attract them?
Apologetics But No Moralising The question is best answered by glancing at two recently published? What most forcibly strikes an objective reader is that. while the underlying aim of both is, needless to say. apologetic, there is no moralizing or attempt at edification in either. One discusses in simple terms the power of the human will. The sub ject is obviously of universal interest. People who have never understood any need of repentance have at least made New Year resolutions. They must sometimes wonder why they failed to keep them. Seizing on this. Daniel-Rops begins by examining the conditions in which the human will is exercised. In order to will, I have to have some intention, he says. and willing is invariably expressed in act. Every exercise of the will must be conscious. and it only takes place with the freedom and consent of the agent. Thus I cannot will without deliberately committing myself. Furthermore, to say " I will to do this or that " is to assume that my will is directed by the mind. I will, therefore I am. I should have no will if I were not a self. Hence, my acts of will involve the whole of me, and there can be no willing in isolation from the rest of my self.
Next comes the question : In what conditions does my willing have the best prospects of fulfilling its purpose? In every act of will there arc. he says, three stages. I need to be careful that the first stage, in which the pros and cons are reviewed, does not last too long. The second—the stage of decision—must be reached at the appropriate moment. neither too soon nor too late. The third— the stage of execution—is a matter of choice as much as of perseverance.
Having briefly alluded to the training of the will in the young, and declared that the basis of such training must be order. Daniel-Rops turns to the adult situation. As an act of will involves the whole being of the individual, and is the exercise of a free choice. so in the fulfilment of a decision of the will 1 should not rely too heavily on habit and I am hound to depend on the co-operation of some at least of my fellow-men.
Heroic Sanctity Finally, we are brought to the ultimate purpose of the use of the will. By now he has broken a lance with Freud. denying that the will is actuated by instinct or that the will cannot overcome those expressions of instinct which the individual reproves. But willing has a final and loftier goal—namely, the individual's transcendence of his self. The highest expression of the human will is, he says, sacrifice, and those who attain to it are the heroes and the saints. A hero may not be holy. but a saint is always heroic. and it is sanctity which gives heroism its full significance. No doubt few of us can be either heroic or saintly. but upon every one there lies the obligation to tend towards heroism and sanctity. All education of the will is meaningless, indeed it is well nigh impossible, except when guided by a recognition of moral and spiritual values.
Of the second book the Christian character is more on the surface. The title must be explained first of all; for it is puzzling. It is a reference to Plato's legend in the Critics of the lost Atlantis. For long the inhabitants of that Continent dwelt in peace and happiness. The divine element in their composition predominated. But gradually this element was dulled, the people grew quarrelsome and vicious, and at last Atlantis was engulfed into the abyss and the waters covered it. In the world today we too are on the brink of an abyss. We live in Barbary, DanielRops says. That is to say, we are now repudiating history. Human society is no longer poised on the balance which sustained the West down the centuries and no other has been found to take its place. Our situation is thus perilous in the extreme, but it is not desperate. DanielRops brings a message of hope. It depends on men themselves, he says. whether or not they will escape the doom. They have but to obey the injunction which they were given two thousand years ago—the injunction that each should lave his neighbour as himself.
Wide Criticism In propounding this ancient remedy for novel afflictions, DanielRops reviews a host of topics of in terest to French people—and perhaps to others—who are alive to the world of thought around them. He criticizes the squalor of the life depicted in the novels of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, he extracts a lesson from the literary remains of Franz Kafka, he draws on the wisdom of Kierkegaard, he accounts for the vogue of J. P. Sartre's existentialism and of that philosophy of the absurd professed by Albert Camus. He mentions Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, Bergson and Maeterlinck. The Brothers Karattiazov and William Blake. as aptly as he refers to the significance of millions of displaced persons, to the hopes placed in the United Nations. or to the prospects of a federated Europe.
Thus it is clear that both books have beep written according to a certain method, and that is why I call attention to them. I do not suggest
that they should be translated. By all means let those who can read French obtain them (they are easily bought in London). But as we over here would recoil from a breakfast consisting of no more than bread soaked in white coffee, so we are entitled to have books that deal with our own problems and preoccupa tions. These two by Daniel-Rops are principally of interest, I feel, in showing how the Catholic writer may find non-Catholic readers. For although the object of both is to end up at the foot of the Cross, that ob ject is attained obliquely. DanielRops does not frighten off an audience possibly apathetic to religion; he goes out to meet it on its own ground. He discusses what is of as much interest to persons who never go to church as to those who do— in one book a common human problem. and in the other the topics of current table-talk. And so it seems to me that the two books have a value surpassing their actual content. May it not be that if English Catholic writers were to adopt the method employed here by DanielRops, they too would find a wide circle of readers to give them welcome?
Jesus en Son Temps. (Paris, Faya rd.) 2 Vouloir. By Daniel-Rops. (Paris: Pion.). Chants pour les Abjures. By Daniel-Raps. (Paris: Guilde de ['Amine.)