Traces N.2, February 2005

The Supreme Sign of Hope

Fifty years ago, Paul Claudel died. His work and his person are still the object of much debate. Some despise him and some place him among the great. What is important for us is that his genius has left us some great works, like the Announcement Made to Mary.

One of the characters in the play is Pierre de Craon, the builder of cathedrals. In the play, which presents various models of human love, he bears the terrible mark of leprosy. His greatness, however, lies not in the fact of his invulnerability. He knows limitation, he is a marked man, and yet he fulfills his noble vocation as a builder, a man who builds a place that is useful for the life and destiny of all. As Claudel tells us, Pierre de Craon “does not live on the same level” as others; his vocation is a special one. He does not have a home like others, he doesn’t live relationships like others.

In recent weeks, the great event of the tsunami has forced everyone to ask himself what the authentic dignity of the human being is, if his life can be so rapidly and “easily” swept away and eliminated. Great authors of old, the psalmist, Homer and Virgil, as well as more modern writers like Leopardi, Montale, and Ungaretti have focused on this great question. Compared to them, many hackneyed reflections, so many specious arguments we have heard or read recently, are mere chatter.
And on other questions, too–like the debate over experimentation on human embryos–we get the same sort of thing.

What has Pierre de Craon to do with all this? His entrance on the scene, we can quite well say, is the entrance on the scene of the Christian man. He knows that human existence carries a limitation within itself. He had experienced the pride of feeling like God. He had tried to possess everything he wanted, and Violaine in particular, but it wasn’t to be. He emerged from that experience marked with leprosy, with limitation. As Péguy tells us, no one knows what Christianity is like a sinner does, or a saint.

Pierre de Craon is a man who no longer has the illusion of being the measure of all things, and so no longer lives his limitation and nature’s limitation as a scandal. This is why a Christian recognizes nature as a “sister,” as that first great Italian poet, St Frances, wrote. Sister, not mother or stepmother; created, just like us.
Man’s greatness lies not in the illusion of being lord of the world. Life is to be served, above all, by building, as many like Pierre de Craon do, and in this way they show the positivity of Being, not of nature as something divine in itself–like that missionary in one of the places devastated by the earthquake, who helps the poor, cares for his Church, and grows orchids as a supreme sign of hope.