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5.4.12

À mon chevet: Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

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We no longer know what those solemnities of family and religion are, where the entire homeland and the God of that homeland seemed to rejoice: Christmas, January 1, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, St. John's Day were for me days of prosperity. Perhaps the influence of my native rock acted on my feelings and studies. As early as 1015, the residents of St. Malo made an oath to go help build with their own hands and wealth the bell towers of the cathedral of Chartres: had I not also worked with my own hands to raise up the battered steeple of the old Christian basilica? "The sun," said Fr. Maunoir, "has never shined on a region where a more constant and unchanging fidelity to the true faith has appeared than Brittany. For thirteen centuries no infidelity has soiled the tongue that has been used to preach Jesus Christ, and he has yet to be born who has ever seen Brittany preach a religion other than the Catholic one."

During the feast days I have just recalled, I was led in pilgrimage with my sisters to various sanctuaries in the town, to the chapelle de Saint-Aaron, to the Couvent de la Victoire. My ear was struck by the sweet voice of some invisible women: the harmony of their songs mixed with the cry of the waves. When, in the winter, at the hour of salvation, the cathedral filled with the crowd; when old sailors on their knees, young women and children read their Hours by little candles; when the multitude, at the moment of Benediction, sang in chorus the Tantum ergo; when in the break between these chants, outbursts of carols caressed the windows of the basilica, shook the vaults of that nave that made the chest of Jacques Cartier and Duguay-Trouin resonate. At such times I experienced an extraordinary feeling of religion. I did not need my governess, La Villeneuve, to tell me to clasp my hands together to invoke God by all the names my mother taught me. I saw the heavens opened, the angels offering up our incense and our prayers, I lowered my forehead. It was not yet weighed down by these cares that weigh so horribly on us now, when one is tempted not to lift up one's head again after one has bowed it to the altar.

A sailor, leaving these rites, set off all fortified against the night, while another was coming back to port, guiding himself toward the illuminated dome of the church. Thus religion and danger were continually before us, and their images presented themselves inseparably in my thoughts. I was barely born when I heard talk of death: in the evenings, a man used to go with a bell from street to street, alerting Christians to pray for one of their deceased brothers. Almost every year, ships were lost before my eyes and, while I was playing along the shore, the sea rolled the cadavers of foreign men up to my feet, dead far from their homeland. Madame de Chateaubriand used to tell me, like St. Monica used to say to her son, "Nihil longe est a deo" (Nothing is far from God). They had entrusted my education to Providence: it did not spare me its lessons.

Devoted to the Virgin, I knew and loved my protectress whom I confused with my guardian angel: her image, which had cost La Villeneuve a demi-sou, was attached, with four tacks, to the head of my bed. I should have lived in that era in which one prayed to Mary, "Sweet Lady of heaven and earth, mother of mercy, fountain of all good things, who bore Jesus Christ in your blessed womb, beautiful, all-sweet Lady, I thank you and pray to you."

-- François-René Chateaubriand, Mémoires d'Outre-tombe, 1:44-45 (my translation)
I was able to complete my doctoral research in Paris thanks to a fellowship from the French government. This generous bourse was named in honor of François-René Chateaubriand, and in gratitude I spent much of my free time that year reading Chateaubriand's works and visiting the important sites of his life: the Château de Combourg (where he spent much of his later childhood, forced by his somewhat distant, cruel father to sleep by himself in a room at the very top of one of the towers), and his tomb on the Grand Bé, an island surrounded by water at high tide, off the coast of St. Malo, the town where he spent his younger days. His Memoirs from Beyond the Grave are some of my favorite reading.

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