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Jules Romains: Colloquy on God and war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

Jules Romains: Selections on war

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Jules Romains
From Verdun: The Battle (1938)
Translated by Gerard Hopkins

99089

The Abbé Jean was hurrying because he had just received a message which had caught at his heart-strings.

“There’s a badly wounded man asking for you at No. 2 casualty clearing station. He knew you were here. He says he made his first Communion with you. He’s been very badly hit in both legs. They’ll probably carry out a double amputation this afternoon.”

The Abbé Jean made his way toward the bed which had been pointed out to him. He did his best to recognize the face that lay on the pillow. But it was one of those faces often to be met with in Paris, the kind, too, that manhood transforms, by coarsening and enlarging the features, so that the peculiarities observable in childhood are hard to trace. A heavy mustache hid the line of the mouth. But what did it matter! He was not going to be called upon to swear to identify in a court of law. The wounded man’s name had been given him: Devaux, Amédée. For purposes of recognition that was not much to go on.

The Abbé advanced:

“Hullo, Devaux, you here!”

“Yes, Father; do you recognize me?”

“Of course I do! I won’t say you haven’t changed, but I recognized you at once.”

“Same here, Father; I knew you the moment you came in.”

Devaux’s voice was almost normal; his colour was high.

“What year was it you made your first Communion?”

“1899, Father. I’m twenty-seven.”

“1899?…ah, yes…Are you a family man?”

“I’m married, with two children…You might easily have seen me since then, Father; I’ve always been a regular church-goer. But my parents left Montmartre; they ran a dairy, perhaps you remember? They bought a little grocery business in the rue Jeanne-d’Arc. I’ve hardly been back to Montmartre since.”

They spoke of Notre Dame de Clignancourt, and of Montmartre, in the old days. Devaux said that he had worked for the gas company, but that a little earlier, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he had gone through a religious crisis which had been so violent that he had seriously thought of becoming a priest.

“A little because of my memory of you, Father.”

“Indeed!” said the Abbé, deeply moved, and studying more attentively the very ordinary face before him. “Indeed!…I really am sorry that we never met again…But now that we have, we mustn’t lose sight of each other..we must keep up our new friendship when we’ve both gone back to civil life. It will be a great pleasure for me. Mind, I mean it!”

All the time he was speaking, he registered a feeling of pleasure in the moral serenity, the freedom of spirit, which he thought he could detect in this seriously wounded man, who in a few hours’ time was to undergo an operation which might well prove mortal and must, in any case, be dreadful.

Devaux’s tone changed.

“I wanted to see you because there are things I want to talk about. My memory of you is so vivid…I don’t know whether you’ve been told, but there’s no hope for me.”

“Nonsense! They told me just the contrary. They said they might have to operate, but that you would almost certainly recover.”

“It’s not much of a prospect – to go through life without my legs.”

“But they may save them! The surgeon will do his very best, be sure of that. Surgery nowadays, you know, can perform miracles. I see them with my own eyes, almost every day.”

“No…I’m quite sure…Besides, I shouldn’t like my poor wife to be tied to a cripple like me for the rest of her life.”

“I’m certain that your wife loves you. She would rather a thousand times have you back a cripple than not have you at all…You must know that!…She’d give you a fine blowing up if she could hear you now!”

“But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about…There’s a question I want to ask…Anybody else would put me off with a lot of humbug…but not you…Let me think a moment…Not that I need to think; what I’m going to ask you has been going round and round in my head for a long time now; but I want to find the words to put it…What’s going on is too frightful. I know what you’ll say: that God wants to punish us or try us…I suppose the Boches say the same things too…Well, I admit that He may have very good reasons for making us suffer like this…although – well – but what I can’t understand is how making us do evil can possibly lead us to salvation…Do you think, Father, that what we are all doing now, both us and the Boches, is good?”

“My son, don’t you think you are wrong in comparing the two cases – in treating them as analogous?…You are defending your country, which has been unjustly attacked…”

“Father, you know perfectly well that if it had been us who had unjustly attacked the fellows over there, I should have been in it just the same, and that you would be telling me, just as you are now, that I was doing my duty.”

“Well, that’s what it all comes down to. You are doing your duty.”

“Oh, I know well enough, Father, that if I do wrong in the circumstances, there is much to excuse me…But I was talking about God.”

The Abbé did not reply at once. The question put to him was of a sort to trouble him deeply. Had he not often put it to his own conscience, in spite of himself? He, no more than the man before him, found it easy to imagine Christ taking a hand in all this business…the Jesus of the Gospel finding no other way of bringing men to Himself than by setting them to murder one another.

Devaux spoke again:

“My own feeling is that God can’t do anything about it.”

“You mustn’t say things like that, my son. They show lack of respect for God’s almighty power…But there is, maybe, in your thought something that is not entirely wrong…Perhaps it is not altogether absurd to imagine that for this once God has been content, without intervening Himself, to leave men to the working of their own madness…their own human nature, alas!…For we must never forget that He created us free. To punish mankind it was not necessary to decree these horrors…He had only to withdraw Himself and leave men to their own devices…Yes, that I believe is the answer to your question.”

“But them Father, what comfort have we left?”

“I have sometime asked the same question, my son…I tell you this to prove that I am not answering you thoughtlessly…Our comfort must be to think that Christ hates this war as much as we do ourselves.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Certainly I do.”

“You don’t think he likes to see his priests blessing guns and flags…chanting Te Deums to Him?”

“I think, rather, that such things put Him out of patience, and that He will never be happy until peace comes.”

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. rosemerry
    August 9, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    An interesting point of view we rarely hear. Real christians would be wise to take heed.

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