[André Frossard, French journalist and essayist, was born on 14th January 1915, the son of Louis-Oscar Frossard, one of the historic founders of the French Communist Party of which he was the first General Secretary and a leading figure for 31 years. His parents raised him an atheist. On 8th July 1935, when he was 20 years old, a journalist in Paris, he went out to dine with a friend who stopped for a brief visit to a chapel, leaving Frossard outside. It belonged to nuns of the religious order known as l’Adoration Réparatrice. Bored, Frossard went in to find his friend. . .
“I recall a great man with a great talent to whom I told my story; once I had finished, he was quite unable to contain his astonishment and exclaimed, “I really do like you a lot but, when all is said and done, why you?” The only answer to his question is that there is no answer. I was a commonplace young man, give or take a few additional weaknesses, with nothing remarkable about me except a foot wounded by a bomb splinter and a marked propensity for absence, intellectual, moral and, so far as possible, physical absence. Scripture tells us that grace is no respecter of persons and I believe I have shown that, when grace came to me, it came to just anybody. What happened to me can happen to everybody, to the best, to the less good, to the one who knows nothing and even to the one who thinks he knows something; to my reader tomorrow, perhaps this very evening; one day, for sure.”
During his distinguished career, Frossard became a close friend of Pope John Paul II and was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1987. He died in Versailles on 2nd February 1995. The passage below is from the end of his book, God Exists: I Have Met Him, 1970. The book is beautifully translated by J. F. Harwood Stevenson, and can be found online HERE.]
Nicholas Berdyaev was a man of magnificent intellect, a mind so overloaded with ideas that their weight sometimes caused him to stammer. I subsequently learned to admire him but at the time he had, so far as I was concerned, a critical defect; he believed in God and spoke of Him not as a scientific hypothesis, which would have been allowable, but as truly existing, which so far as I was concerned still had to be proved. Having recourse to a God in order to make sense of the world and of history was in my view a subterfuge unworthy of a philosopher. What would be the point of a detective story in which the classic puzzle of a murder within an enclosed space was artificially solved by the intervention of a supernatural being capable of going through walls? That was my reasoning at the time and that is why the reading of “A New Middle Ages” made on me not the slightest impression. This writer was a religious author; the conclusions he drew from his faith in respect of Marxism, the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution were irrelevant to me, could not reach me. This was the spirit in which I answered Willemin when he asked me what I felt about the book; the book “was not open to argument.” Once granted the premise of God’s existence, the rest logically followed. No discussion was possible.
He understood the position completely back to front, namely, that Berdyaev had convinced me. This made him so happy that he wanted us to celebrate the occasion by having dinner together, something I was always ready for. I delighted in his company, his quickness of mind, his gift for excellence, whether in playing the flute, in medicine, journalism, country cooking or mimicry, and even if I did not share his views, I was happy to be with him laughing at the same time and at the same things. It may have been my distaste for having things too clear cut or the fear of spoiling his joyful mood but I had not the courage to disabuse him and I left him to his happiness. Since we were going to dine together, I thought, there would be time enough to point out his mistake when we got to the dessert. This was the absolute misunderstanding which, as I said a few pages back, was at the origin of my conversion.
The newspaper was put to bed shortly before five o’clock in the afternoon and we set off in his old car—a luxury unheard of at the time for young people like us—one of whose doors had to be kept shut with an elbow. We crossed the Seine, a long way from the Ile Saint Louis; so we were not heading for his place, Place Maubert, so I presumed we were going to the Rue Mouffetard where we got the printed chips. That meant dinner under the bridges. I saw nothing wrong with that. It would cost us one franc, plus a few sous for the wine-bottle filled to the top with a dark blue liquid which, once poured, became a pleasantly translucent mauve. Once, however, we had roared through the crossroads at the end of the Rue Mouffetard, I gave up speculating. Perhaps after all we were going to have dinner at the restaurant, though it did seem a bit early for that. I am giving a lot of detail which may seem insignificant. My reader must allow for the fact that one is very inclined to go into detail when one has had the extraordinary good fortune to be present at one’s own birth.
I was asking no questions. I let myself be carried on by this friendship, careless of the direction it had chosen. The route he had taken became in any case less and less intelligible; we circled round the Latin Quarter and retraced our steps up the Rue Claude-Bernard, then up the Rue d’Ulm. What on earth was taking us to these areas currently depopulated by the school holidays? We stopped a little way beyond the Ecole Normale Superieure in front of my old Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. My companion got out and addressed me through the car window: I could either follow him or wait for him a few minutes. I would wait. Presumably he had some kind of visit to make. I saw him cross the road, push open a little door near a large wrought iron portal above which one could make out the roof of a chapel. Fair enough, he was going to pray, to go to confession, to perform one or other of those activities that took up a lot of time for Christians. That was one more reason for staying where I was.
It is the 8th July, a marvelous summer’s day. In front of me the Rue d’Ulm lies open like a sun-filled channel stretching up to the Pantheon which from this angle has the advantage of being seen more or less face on. What were my thoughts? I don’t remember. Doubtless vague as usual, wandering along the walls in search of some projection, angle or geometric design on which to fix my attention for a moment. My inner state? Judging by such account as one’s conscious mind can give of itself, my inner state was perfect, by which I mean it showed none of those disturbances which are assumed to predispose one to mysticism.
My love life is trouble-free. That very evening—I say this for the benefit of those who profess that sort of insight which explains religion by its contrary, the spirit by the body, the greater by the less and, in particular, the higher by the lower—I have an arrangement to meet a young German girl, a student at the Beaux Arts, a blonde with the delicate features often seen on girls that are just a little overweight. She has given me to understand that she would not be mounting too vigorous a defence of her frontiers. In a moment she will be so completely forgotten that it will not even occur to me to call off our meeting.
I am free of metaphysical anxieties. My last such experience had been when I was around fifteen; it took the form I described at the beginning of this book, the feeling that the universe, besieging me, deafening me with what I can only call its dumb spate of information, will any moment now reveal to me the secret of its existence, the key to its codes. The universe had in fact revealed to me nothing at all and I have given up further questioning. In company with our socialist friends I believe that the world consists of politics and history and that nothing is more a waste of time than metaphysics. In any event, if I were to believe in the existence of truth, the last people I would approach to ask about it would be priests, while the Church, known to me only in terms of its various temporal deficiencies, would be the last place I would go to look for it.
My job has done nothing to diminish my skepticism but a lot to alleviate the fears inflicted on my parents by my worrying adolescence. I am too young and have been at it too short a time for journalism to have brought me disappointments of the kind that create a void, a feeling of solitude such as might favour the emergence of religious feeling. I have no worries and create none for other people; my friendship with Willemin has freed me from the bad company I had kept for a while. Generally speaking, the year is calm, the nation without disturbances within or threats from without; the alarm has not yet sounded and I have no corresponding anxieties. My health is good; I am happy, so far as one can be and know that one is. The evening promises to be pleasant and I am waiting.
To sum up, I feel absolutely no curiosity whatsoever about anything to do with religion, all of which is simply out of date.
It is ten past five. In two minutes I shall be a Christian.
As a contented atheist, I obviously had not the faintest idea of this when, tired of waiting for the end of the incomprehensible devotions that were holding up my friend a bit longer than he had expected, I in my turn push open the little wrought iron door to take a closer look, for the sake of art or idle curiosity, at the building in which I am tempted to say he is dawdling (in actual fact I can have been waiting for him at the most for three or four minutes).
What could be seen of the chapel over the doorway had not been particularly exciting. I hope that the little sisters for whom I am going to become a little brother will forgive me if I speak ill of their home but it gains nothing by being inspected on foot. It stands at the end of a short yard, one of those buildings in the English gothic style of the end of the nineteenth century, the work of architects resolved to put some order into it and thereby taking all the life and movement out of it. I do not write this for the dubious pleasure of criticizing an art form whose reputation needs no comment but simply to make clear that artistic emotion had nothing to do with what follows.
The interior is no more uplifting than the exterior. It is like a banal stone ship beached for careening with its dark grey lines going hither and yon without ever achieving the Cistercian marriage of the austere and the beautiful. The nave is sharply divided into three parts. The first, starting at the entrance, is reserved for the faithful who say their prayers in semi-darkness. Windows, neutralized by the mass of buildings all around, leak a feeble light onto statues and a side altar decked with flowers.
The second part is occupied by nuns, their heads hidden in black veils, like rows of patient birds settled in their varnished wooden benches. I shall learn later on that they are sisters of the order entitled “Adoration Réparatrice,” a congregation founded as a response of piety to certain excesses of the revolutionary spring of 1848. Relatively few in number—it will later emerge that this detail has its importance—they belong to one of those contemplative orders which choose imprisonment so as to make us free, choose obscurity so that we may have light, and invite from the materialist morality that will still be mine for another minute or two, the judgment that they serve no useful purpose. They are saying a sort of prayer with the voices from one side of the nave answering those on the other and coming together at regular intervals in the chant of “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto” before resuming the alternating murmur of the quiet stream of prayer. I have no idea that they are singing the psalms, that we are listening to Matins and that I am being borne up on the gentle tide of the canonical hours.
The far end of the chapel is quite brightly lit. Above the high altar draped in white, a vast arrangement of plants, candlesticks and ornaments is dominated by a large ornate metal cross with, at its centre, a dull white disc. Three other discs of the same size but not quite of the same appearance are fixed at the extremities of the cross. I have before now been inside churches out of interest in art but I have never seen a monstrance with a host in it, indeed I believe I had never seen a host, and I have no idea that I am in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, towards which rise up two ranks of burning candles. The presence of the supplementary discs and the florid complications of the décor make it even more difficult for me to make sense of this distant sun.
All this has a significance that escapes me, the more so in that I am paying it hardly any attention. Standing near the door, I am looking around to find my friend but I cannot make him out among the kneeling forms in front of me. My gaze moves from shadow to light, returns to the congregation without inspiring any particular thought, goes from the faithful to the motionless nuns, from the nuns to the altar and then, I know not why, concentrates on the second candle burning to the left of the cross. Not the first nor yet the third but the second. And that is the moment which without warning sets off the series of wonders that with inexorable violence are going to demolish instantaneously the absurd being that is myself and bring to dazzled birth the child that I had never been.
First of all, these words are put to me: “spiritual life.” They are not spoken to me, I do not utter them myself, I hear them as if they were uttered near me in a low voice by a person who has to be seeing something that I have not yet seen myself.
The last syllable of this murmured prelude has no sooner entered my consciousness than the avalanche begins. I cannot say that heaven opens; it does not open, it is hurled at me, it arises like a sudden silent thunderbolt from out of this chapel in which one would never have dreamed that it was mysteriously enclosed. How can I describe it in these reductive words that refuse to serve me, threatening to intercept my thoughts and consign them to the realm of fantasy? The painter to whom it was granted to catch a glimpse of unknown colours, how would he paint them? It is like a crystal, indestructible, infinite in its transparency, almost unbearable in its brightness (a fraction more would annihilate me) and, as it were, blue, a world, another world of a brilliance and density such as to reduce ours to the faint shadows of unfinished dreams. It is reality, it is truth, I see it from the dark bank on which I am still held back. There is an order in the universe and, at its summit, beyond this veil of dazzling mist, the evidence of God, evidence become presence and presence become the person of the One whom a moment ago I would have denied, the One whom Christians call “our Father” and from whom I learn that He is gentle, with a gentleness like no other, not the passive quality sometimes so described but active, breaking open, far beyond any form of violence, capable of shattering the hardest stone and, harder even than stone, the human heart.
This overwhelming flood that breaks over me brings with it a joy that is nothing other than the exultation of a man saved, the joy of one brought off from a shipwreck just in time, but with this difference, that it is only at the moment when I am lifted up towards salvation that I become aware of the mire in which, without realising, I am buried and I cannot understand, seeing myself still half caught in it, how I have ever been able to live and breathe there.
At the same time I am given a new family which is the Church, She having the task of leading me where I must go, it being understood that despite appearances I have a certain way still to travel, a distance that cannot be abolished and has to be covered.
All these sensations that I am labouring to express in the defective medium of ideas and images come simultaneously, enfolded one within the other, and after many years I have not exhausted their content. The whole is dominated by the presence, beyond and through an immense multitude, of the One whose name I can never write again without feeling the dread of wounding His tenderness, the One before whom I have the happiness of being a forgiven child, waking to learn that everything is gift.
Outside it was still a fine day and I was five years old. The world that once had been made of stone and tarmac was a great garden in which I was to be allowed to play for as long as God was pleased to leave me there. Willemin was walking beside me and seemed to have noticed something utterly unusual in my face; he gazed at me with medical thoroughness. “What is going on with you?” — “I am a Catholic,” and then, as if afraid of not having been sufficiently explicit, I added “apostolic and Roman” to complete my confession of faith. “You’re goggle-eyed!.” — “God exists, it is all true.” — “If only you could see yourself!” I could not see myself. I was like an owl at midday, facing the sun.
Five minutes later, on the terrace of a café in the Place Saint-Andre-des-Arts I was telling my friend everything, that is to say, everything that I could say as I struggled with what was inexpressible, about that world suddenly revealed, that blazing reality which had soundlessly demolished the house of my childhood and reduced to a drift of mist the territory which had been mine. The ruined structures of my inner life lay all around me. I watched the passers-by who walked on without seeing and I thought of the amazement they would feel when they in their turn experienced the encounter that had just been granted to me. Certain that one day it would come to them as it had to me, I was smiling in advance at the thought of the surprise awaiting unbelievers and those who doubted without being aware of it. One of us recalled the posturing dictator [several times Mussolini tried to shock an audience by calling on God to strike him dead] who gave Heaven two minutes in which to strike him dead, failing which he would consider himself entitled to make a public declaration that Heaven was empty. The absurdity of this challenge to the Infinite by a grain of dust left us helpless with laughter. God existed and indeed He was present, simultaneously revealed and masked by that wordless imageless light employed by Him to give me everything to understand, everything to love. I can see well enough just how exorbitant all these assertions must seem but I cannot help it if Christianity is true, if truth exists, if that truth is a person, a person who truly wills not to be unknowable.
The miracle endured for a month. Every morning I encountered with utter joy that light which made the sun seem dark, that sweetness that I shall never forget and which is the sum total of my theological learning. It did not seem at all clear to me why it was necessary to continue my stay on this planet when all that heaven was close enough to touch, but I accepted it out of gratitude rather than conviction. Nonetheless every day that light and sweetness lost a little of their intensity. Finally they disappeared but without my being returned to solitude. The truth was to be communicated to me otherwise, I would have to seek after having found. A priest of the Holy Ghost order undertook to prepare me for baptism by instructing me in that religion of which I can only say that I knew nothing. Nothing that he told me of Christian doctrine came as a surprise and I received it with joy; the teaching of the Church was true to the very last comma and I took it to heart line by line, greeting each with the sort of applause you give to some master-stroke. Only one thing did surprise me, the eucharist, not that it seemed to me unbelievable but that divine charity should have found this astounding means to communicate itself filled me with wonder, and above all that in order to effect it bread was chosen, the staple of the poor and the favourite food of children. Of all the gifts heaped up before me by Christianity, this one was the most beautiful.
Thus overwhelmed with blessings, I believed that my life would be an unending Christmas. I had placed myself in the hands of persons of experience and they did indeed warn me that this privileged state would come to an end, that the laws of spiritual growth were the same for everybody, that after the sweetness of my excursion into the green fields of grace emotionally experienced there would come the rockface, the climb, the risk and that I would not always be the happy child. I listened to them hardly at all. I had firmly decided not to make a second time the mistake of growing up; that was my wisdom but it was less sure than theirs. They were right, I was wrong. After the songs of Christmas I had to journey through things, the stone and asphalt of a world that little by little surreptitiously recovered its solidity. And there was a Good Friday, there was a Holy Saturday, the silence that swallows up a cry.
The greatest suffering that can be inflicted on human beings was twice visited upon my household. All fathers will understand me, all mothers even more, without need of further words. Twice I made my way to the provincial cemetery in which my own place is marked, trying to find in the midst of horror the memory of mercy. Incapable of revolt, excluded from any recourse to doubt (whom would I be doubting if not myself?), I had to live with this sword in my heart, knowing that God is love.
I am not writing to tell my own story but simply to bear witness, and my witness demands that one further thing must be told. The grave that will be mine is at the junction of two alleys. One day I was moved by casual curiosity to look and see whose tomb it was that lay exactly beside my own; it was the sepulchre of the sisters of l’Adoration Réparatrice. I am well aware of what differences and what kind of certainty can characterize the interventions of the Holy Spirit, so I do not use the word “sign.” The coincidence is enough for me. At a distance of five hundred kilometers the little sisters who were present at my birth will be present also at the hour of my death and I think, I believe, that these two moments will be identical, just as loved ones lost and sweetness rediscovered will at the last be one reality.
Love, to speak your praises, eternity will be too short.
The publication of this account won me a fair number of confidences, a good few questions—and some reproaches.
A Christian weekly, without disputing (so they said) the authenticity of my spiritual experience, declared it to be of marginal significance, too personal to be useful to everybody. They also gave me to understand that I was not “a convert of the Council” in the sense that my account gave no answer to the questions that confront the man of today.
I cannot myself see how an interior experience can be anything but “personal” if it is an experience at all nor why its being so should deprive it of significance. What can happen to one person is applicable, in whatever degree, to all others and it seems to me that Christianity is built on a series of asserted experiences quite as “personal” as my own: “Jesus has risen, his tomb is empty, I have seen him.” This is called bearing witness and all that can be said is what I myself said at the beginning of the book: the witness a man bears is only as good as the man bearing witness. I know this perfectly well. It is possible to impugn both simultaneously. But one cannot simultaneously approve the witness himself by recognizing that his account is faithfully given (as the above mentioned journal courteously concedes) and invalidate the witness he bears by declaring it inadequate, as if the still fundamental question to which the title of this book gives an answer is any less important to the man of today than it was to the man of yesterday or the day before.
I fear that Christian publications may sometimes entertain a peculiar idea of the questions posed by our contemporaries. There was an occasion at Mons, in Belgium, when at the close of a conference followed by a long discussion, I was waylaid at the exit from the hall by three young people, two boys, one girl. The one most confident came forward and said to me on behalf of all: “Sir, we did not feel able to speak up in public and we thought it better to wait till everyone had left. But we have a question to put to you. A serious question which is: “Why should one live?”
Their twenty-year old faces were indeed serious and their eyes watchful. It was perhaps only a problem of metaphysics, of the kind one forgets before finding the solution; it was perhaps only the expression of a transient distress, one of those that fade away with the memory of certain conversations. But it could also be deeper and more dangerous. I do not believe that they had put on hold an option for death, pending my answer, but in the end there was something already far away in their eyes which put me on my guard. I acted as if everything depended on what I was going to say and I talked to them for a further half hour. These young people who were asking themselves the question “Why should one live?”, were they not “men of today”?
A different reproach. A priest, as it happens imbued with psychoanalysis, makes it a complaint against me that I have written a book of pure “description” from which, he said, all “reflection” has been banished. And it is true that, having a simple “fact” to report, I did stick to it as closely as I could, denying myself any commentary and even any analysis, in such a way as to leave each reader free to consider it and come to his own conclusions. I had to give an account of an experience in the fullest sense of the term and not to give a demonstration. This book is not meant to be a demonstration of God’s existence; it tells of an encounter with a Person, and an encounter is something to be described and as simply as possible. But the idea that no intimate “reflection,” implicit and understated, can enter into a “description” would come as a great surprise to artists.
A third and final reproach, at least so far as I know, was formulated by a priest who belongs to a religious order and is well known in France for his persistence in declaring that “God died in Jesus Christ.” There could be, according to him, no private revelation either to be expected or to be hoped for in a church. That leaves unexplained how it happened that I, having entered a church in what I might call a pure state of unbelief, managed to come out of it a few moments later a convinced Catholic. Did I dream it? In that case, I am still dreaming. Did I have a hallucination? I should have had a few more. Could my story be false? Nobody goes that far but it is nonetheless firmly asserted that there is not, that there cannot be any private or individual revelation.
Here again the facts are inconsistent with the theory. That is bad luck for the theory. But how many theorists do we have today, doing their utmost to make of our living faith an ideology like all the others, a system of ideas, an intellectual prison, with the superficially laudable intention of expressing the faith in terms and in a form acceptable to contemporary ways of thought! They are the same ones who daily insist on the revolutionary aspect of Christianity; it seems they do not notice the contradiction that exists between simultaneously proclaiming Christianity as a revolution and yet as a system of thought which involves no challenge to anybody’s way of thinking. One must opt for one or the other. If the apostle Paul, who is indeed the first of theologians, had been concerned, like a number of his successors, to present Christian truth in a form duly “acceptable” to his pagan listeners—I am thinking in particular of the Athenians—he would have had to play down the incarnation, the resurrection and life everlasting to such an extent that there would have been no Christianity at all for the last nineteen centuries.
It is the subtlest minds who generally fail to notice the grossest errors; and the error that consists in attempting to fit Christianity into the framework of current pagan thought is probably one of the most monstrous ever committed.
It is not out of any concern for personal justification that I am driven to opening this “postface” with a list of criticisms. They are useful in allowing me to establish certain points that I am the first to admit are not points of history and to reply indirectly to some of the questions that have been put to me in the course of the last two years. The most frequent had to do with the late date of my book’s publication, the most insistent for young people had to do with what freedom is left to a convert by a revelation on which he did not have to deliberate, and the most difficult was the identification of the Person encountered.
I have given above a preliminary answer to the first question, when I spoke of “dream” and “hallucination.” I had to prove that I did not easily abandon myself to the former and that I was not subject to the latter; if I had been so subject, the “phenomenon” could not have failed to repeat itself—which turned out not to be the case. And if I was a dreamer to the extent of having dreamed my own conversion, I would by now long since have woken up.
The second question would not be surprising if it came from convinced Marxists for whom it is already an “alienation” to be a creature in the image and likeness of One other than oneself. It does somewhat surprise me, coming from young Christians. “The truth will set you free,” says the Gospel. Divine truth does not destroy the freedom of the person it visits; it brings freedom by teaching him that there is only one true freedom, the one which on the model of God’s freedom delivers you from yourself for the love of another or others. Can it be that Christians do not know that God is love, that love is gift of self, that love is ipso facto liberating and that liberty is, so to say, only the “nom de guerre” of charity?
Giving an answer to the third question is a little awkward. By what, by what sign, by what means can one recognize, in an encounter such as that which is the subject of this book, that there is no mistake of identity? In such circumstances, what is the basis of our certitude? I think it derives quite simply from the fact, little known or little understood, that a revelation of this kind does not simply furnish to the person it affects an objective evidence to be recognized but also gives him, at the same time, the means of grasping it, a means which he does not possess naturally. It follows that the necessarily perfect correlation of the evidence and of the means of grasping it, both arriving simultaneously, creates certainty. In this connection I have adopted in my book the analogy of colours.
Let us suppose that some miracle confers for a moment on your eyes the capacity to see infra-red and ultra-violet, colours normally invisible. You would no more be in doubt as to these colours than as to those you normally see and the correlation between these colours and the supplemental capacity conferred on you would leave no hesitation in your mind. But I shall come back to this difficult point in my next book.
I say this because it has become clear to me that I have to write another book, to explain certain pages in this one. Confidences made to me as a result of this one have taught me two things at least. The first is that conversions are much more numerous than people think and are very often kept secret, either out of timidity or for fear of causing raised eyebrows in a hostile audience or again by the difficulty of finding a language appropriate to the nature of their experience; if the great mystics have always complained of their failure to do so, how can ordinary folk such as ourselves feel any confidence that they will manage it? The second thing I have learned is that there is at least this point in common with all converts, that all of them have met Somebody, not an idea or a system. They have not, for the most part, felt the attraction of an ideological structure; they have with wonder, sometimes with astonishment, discovered a person, most often the Second Person of the Trinity, like the pilgrims of Emmaus whom we see going over the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem without any understanding of what had happened, who hear the mysterious companion on their journey “explaining to them the Scriptures” and who still fail to understand, yet who suddenly recognize Jesus “in the breaking of bread.” There is in every conversion that moment of “the breaking of bread,” the transition from idea to reality, in which is revealed a person whom perhaps one did not expect. A person who is to be adored.
And have we ever had a greater need of adoration than we have today?
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