THE CELEBRATION OF SUNDAY
[Continued from Part II]
I approach what is perhaps the most difficult part of my subject, because of the pitfall that it seems to cover: moral utility. What is the influence, on the morals of individuals and of society, of the observation of Sunday considered in itself, independent of the force that religion lends to it, and setting aside faith in dogmas and mysteries? Such is, at least, the manner in which I take up the question, and I do not think, I admit, that one could understand it otherwise. It is not a question of launching oneself into the vast field of religious opinions, to demonstrate the utility of public worship by the benefits of religion. All these questions are pointless and even, with regard to truth, trivial. It is not a homily on the effectiveness of Sunday as a source of divine favors that is called for, it is the indication of the relations that can exist between a conspicuous, public ceremony and the affections of the soul. Thus, it is necessary to separate the material from the spiritual, the nominal from the abstract, the human from the revealed, and say that what one practices apart from society, isolated, still preserves some moral utility; for the thought of the founder had to have been that every religious observance has its natural as well as its theological reason.
Another distinction is still necessary. The moral effects of Sunday are either mediate or immediate. By mediate effects, I mean those which rise from the circumstances which accompany the Sunday celebration; such are the relations of family and city, with which I will not concern myself further; and by immediate effects I understand those that Sunday produces by its own special action, independent of every social or domestic influence. This distinction, relatively unimportant in practice, has the advantage of better specifying my point of view, and sparing me repetitions.
“Nature has placed within man the feelings of pleasure and sadness, which force him to avoid the physical objects that seem harmful to him, and to seek those that suit him. The chief work of society will be to create in him a rapid instinct for moral affairs, which, without the tardy aid of reasoning, would lead him to do good and avoid evil. For the individual reason of man, lead astray by his passions, is often only a sophist who pleads their cause, and the authority of the man can always be attacked by his love of self. Now, what produces or replaces that precious instinct, what makes up for the insufficiency of human authority, is the sentiment that nourishes and develops the compulsory exercise of worship; it is this respect mixed with fear that inspires for the moral precepts the full spectacle and majesty of the solemnities which consecrate and celebrate them.”
The thought expressed in this passage is ingenious and beautiful; what’s more, it is perfectly true. That quick instinct, that second conscience, if I dare put it thus, has been created in the heart of the Israelite by the Sabbath, and Sunday lifts it to a higher degree than it does the soul of the Christian. Moses spared nothing to deeply instill respect for the Sabbath: ablutions, purifications, expiations, abstinences, absolute prohibitions, and strict injunctions. He multiplied, almost to excess, anything that could inspire the idea of the highest sanctity, and carry the veneration almost to the point of terror. On imaginations more impassioned because they are less cultured, the opinion of a more present divinity is all-powerful. The majesty of the sanctuary seems to forbid the approach of crime, and more than once we have seen great culprits, seized by a divine panic, flee frantic and shaking from a refuge where their crimes would no longer find themselves safe. Moses transported that horror of sacrilege from space to time: he rendered certain days inviolable, as he had consecrated certain objects and certain places. And vice, surrounded on all sides by the forces of religion, had no rest, no longer knowing where to hide itself.
But this charm that Moses had cast on the Sabbath, this new sort of scarecrow by which he warded off evil spirits, took all its virtue from a rather vulgar accessory, scarcely worthy of respect or fear: it was, if I dare make use of this withering word, (which is, thank heavens, not from our language,) it was the far niente, doing nothing. A philosopher would not have been aware of it, but Moses seized it.
The ancients, greater observers than we like to believe, perhaps because we don’t observe the same things, had remarked very well the effects of solitude on the morals of man. In solitude, the feeling of the infinite touches us, the passions fall silent; reason, clearer and more active, deploys all its strength and gives birth to miracles: character is strengthened and developed, imagination increases, the moral sense responds to the urgings of Divinity. The temples and oracles were placed by preference in remote places, planted thickly with trees, whose shadows invited meditation and contemplation. The wise, returned from the world and the passions, the lovers of the muses and nature, the legislators themselves, as well as the seers and poets, fled, sometimes in agreeable retreats, sometimes in frightening solitude, the indiscreet regard of the profane, who believed them to be in commerce with the gods. Solitude, when it is not the effect of a savage humor or a proud misanthropy, appeared to them the purest image of heavenly beatitude, and the fondest wish of a great soul would have been that all mortals know how to enjoy it and make themselves worthy of it. But if such is truly the highest destiny of man on the earth, in what sense is it sociable? How will its narrow residence suffice for a multitude of anchorites?
If Moses had had the power, he would never have had the thought to transform his farmers into effective hermits; he only wanted to make them men, to accustom them, by reflection, to seek the just and the true in everything. Thus he strove to create around them a solitude which would not destroy the greatest affluence, and which preserved all the prestige of a true isolation: that was the solitude of the Sabbath and the feasts. Constrained, under terrible penalties, to cease their labors for these solemn days, the Israelites submitted to the yoke of an unavoidable meditation; but, incapable by themselves of directing their attention and occupying their thought, they found themselves delivered up to the mercy of circumstances and the first comer: it was there that their teacher awaited them. I have already said what occupations had been assigned by Moses to the Sabbath day. That great and holy man had wanted all the Hebrews, from the children to the elderly, to be able to walk, by his example, with the Lord, and to live in a permanent communication with him. That is demonstrated, indisputably, by a passage in the book of Numbers, where it is related that Moses having chosen seventy men to aid him in the details of government, these men were animated with the same spirit as him and prophesied. And when Joshua came to say: “Master, there are still two men who prophesy in the camp; stop them.—“May it please God,” he responded, “that all the people should prophesy!” Let us say, in a slightly more human language, that nothing seemed more desirable to him than to maintain in the intelligence that tempered enthusiasm which produces knowledge of the good, the contemplation of ourselves and of the spectacle of nature.
The last night of the week is passed; the sun begins again its daily course; all the vegetation blooms and salutes the father of the day. Faithful to their instinct, the animals do not stop any more than the plants: the dormouse digs its burrow, the bird builds its nest, the bee collects pollen from the flowers. Nothing that lives suspends its labor: man alone stops for one day. What will he make of his long and drifting thoughts? He will hardly have roused himself from slumber, and already his inactivity will weigh on him: the evening arrives, and the day appears to him to have lasted for two days.
For frivolous spirits, Sunday is a day of unbearable rest, of frightening emptiness: they complain of the ennui which weighs them down. They blame the slowness of these unproductive hours, which they do not know how to spend. If they flee, in polite visits and worldly conversations, from the emptiness of their thoughts, they only add the void of the thoughts of others. From that arise the inventions of debauchery and the monstrous joys of the orgy.—Let those blame only themselves for the numbness that makes them stupid, the inconstancy of heart and understanding that exhausts them, and the dull paralysis that gnaws at them. When its partner lies idle, the spirit only goes more quickly: be careful, if you don’t know how to feed its all-consuming activity, that it does not consume itself.
Happy is the man who knows how to shut himself us in the solitude of his heart! There he keeps company with himself; his imagination, his memories, and his reflections respond to him. Let him promenade then along the crowded streets, let him stop in the public squares, let him visit the monuments; or, more happily, let him wander across the fields and meadows, and breathe the air of the forests; it matters little. He meditates, and he dreams. Everywhere his heart, happy or sad, elegant or sublime, belongs to him. It is thus that he judges everything soundly, that his heart is detached, that his conscience is invigorated, that his will is sharpened, and that he feels virtue bound up in his chest. It is thus that he begins with God himself, and that he learns from him, in conversations that none will repeat, what it is to live, and what it is to die. Oh! Then, as all things are reduced to their just value, how little worthy it appears that for their sake we hold onto life, or that for them we would seek death! We ask fearfully what the best remedy would be for the epidemic of suicide which multiplies its victims every day. That remedy, which we have sought everywhere except where it was to be found, was furnished by homeopathy. Make life contemptible, and we will no longer want to leave it; we only esteem it if we find it to be a burden. The stoic who, in prosperity, knows how to sacrifice his existence, also knows how to bear pain; he even denies that it is an evil. The disciple of Epicurus, lazily in love with life, curses it as soon as it no longer offers him pleasure. It is among the tombs, a skull in his hand, that he must preach against suicide.
What heroic self-sacrifices and heart-rending sacrifices were consummated internally in these inexpressible monologues of the holy days! What high thoughts, magnificent conceptions, descend into the soul of the philosopher and the poet! What generous resolutions were made! Hercules, at the end of adolescence, offered a sacrifice to Minerva. Standing before the altar, after having made some libations and singing hymns to the goddess, he waited, immobile and silent, until the flame had consumed the offering. Suddenly he saw two women appear, two immortals, Pleasure and Virtue, who, displaying their charms, demanded his homage. Pleasure flaunted all her seductions. Virtue offered labors and perils with an incorruptible glory. The young hero chose Virtue. Woe unto those who do not have the same vision! Great woe unto those who do not choose as did the son of Jupiter!
According to the preceding observations, the same cause suffices to explain both the energy that the moral sense can acquire, and the excesses where libertinism is plunged as a result of the observation of Sunday: that cause is the increase of activity given to the mind by the rest of the body. It is up to those charged with the protection of the customs, the education of the young and the direction of the public amusements, to turn to the advantage of morals an institution which, after religion itself, is the most precious remainder that we have preserved of the ancient wisdom, and the excellence of which is demonstrated by the very debaucheries for which it furnishes the occasion.
Among the upper classes, Sunday is no longer recognized; the days of the week all resemble one another. For those only occupied with speculations, intrigues and pleasures, it hardly matters what day it is; the intervals marked for rest no longer mean anything. The people sometimes holds back its passions for a week; the vices of the great are not deferred. Is the impiousness of the rich, established in their habits, incurable? The people, more faithful to its traditions and less open to attack in their character, are always under the hand of religion. I would even dare to suggest that with respect to Sunday the last glimmer of poetic fire is extinguished in the souls of our rhymers. It has been said: without religion, no poetry. It is necessary to add: without worship and without holidays, no religion. But since poetry, becoming rationalist, has raised the veils that covered the Christian myths, since it has left the allegories and symbols to raise itself up to the absolute, it is true to say that it has killed its foster-mother, and with the same blow committed suicide. Among the people, on the contrary, the lack of devotion does not exclude every religious idea. They can detest the priest, but never hate religion. They blaspheme against the dogmas and mysteries, and they prays at the graves and kneel at the blessings. And when faith no longer resonates for them, the poetry of Sunday still thrills.
Blonde Marie was loved by the young Maxime; Marie was a simple working woman, and in the naïveté of a first love; Maxime, a hard-working artisan, combined reason with youth. Nature seemed to have predestined these lovers to happiness, by blessing both with simplicity and modesty. Diligent at work every day of the week, Maxime tried hard to increase his savings; Marie braided in silence her wedding crown. They only saw each other on Sundays; but it was beautiful, it was solemn for them, this day when it was sung in heaven: Love is stronger than death! It spread the influence of religion and innocence over their mutual affection! True lovers are never sacrilegious: full of a loving respect, what would the young man have dared? What would the girl have allowed, beautiful in her modesty and the joy of the Sabbath? Alone with their love, they were under the protection of God. The revolution of July came suddenly to destroy such bliss. Maxime was told to provide for himself: no more work, no more joy. He resolved to move away for awhile and make for the capital. On the eve of his departure, a Sunday evening, he took Marie’s hand, and, without speaking to her, led her to the church.—“If I remain faithful, how shall I find you, Marie?”—“Do as you say, and you may count on my faithfulness.”— “Will you promise me before God?” She promised. They went out; the night was fine; Maxime, according to the custom of lovers who part ways, showed Marie the polar star and taught her to recognize its position.—“Your eyes will no longer meet mine,” he said to her; “but every Sunday, at the same hour, I will look in that direction. Do the same, so that at a single instant, as our hearts are united, our thoughts will merge. That is all that I ask, until I see you again.” He left. Paris did not always give him work; his days of unemployment became fatal to him. At the instigations of some friends, Maxime joined a republican society. An invincible melancholy took hold of his soul and altered his character. “Do you know,” he wrote to Marie, “why you are so poor, when so many shameless sorts live in luxury? Why I can’t marry you, when so many men throw themselves into debauchery?… Do you know why I sometimes work on Sunday, when others play or indulge their boredom all week long?… God has allowed the good to be the first to suffer from the vices of the wicked, to teach them that it is up to them to prune society and make virtue flower again. If the just were never to complain, the wicked would never mend their ways; the contagion would always spread, and the world, soon all infected, would perish… Pray to God for me, Marie; that is all that a weak woman can do. But there are a million young men, virtuous and strong, all ready to rise up, who have sworn to save the nation… We will triumph or we will know how to die.” Maxime was killed behind a barricade during the June days. From that time, his lover wore mourning. Orphaned from a young age and no longer having a mother, she attached herself to the aged mother of her fiancé. Her days were passed in labor and in the cares of a tender devotion. Every Sunday she was seen, in the dark chapel where she promised Maxime her heart and faith, assisting in the divine office. It is there that her heart, calm and resigned, was strengthened and purified in an ineffable love. And at night, after her prayers, heart full of the last words of Maxime,—until I see you again,— the sad Marie gazed sighing at the polar star.