In a moving essay on the great American-French novelist Julien (Julian) Green, Rick Yoder quotes many passages from Green’s autobiographical writings and diaries expressing his deep longing for God, and the insight that it gives him into the beauty and sadness of human life.
I had only read a little Green up to now. A friend of mine (who has had a struggle similar to Green’s) gave me an autographed copy of a German translation of Green’s late novel Les Étoiles du Sud (The Stars of the South). I found it strange and entrancing; a story of the antebellum South, which Green knew from the stories of his Southern mother, full of nostalgia for a time that never was. But I never finished it— partly because I wanted to read the prequel first, and partly because it seemed to me that German translation is not the best medium for reading historical novels about the American South. And, until now, I had not followed through with my intention of beginning Green again. But Yoder’s essay has given me a new stimulus.
By a strange coincidence I was reading Yoder’s essay on Tuesday on a train to Klagenfurt, where I am preaching May Devotions at the Cathedral. The same friend who originally introduced me to Green sent me a text message telling me that I must visit Green’s grave in the St. Egid Church. And so of course I went to St. Egid, and lit a candle for Green.
Why was Green buried in Klagenfurt? Apart from a few years in America, the country of his parents, Green lived his whole life in Paris. In fact, he first visited Klagenfurt at the ripe old age of 90, only eight years before his death. So why Klagenfurt? The question puzzled many at the time of his funeral. Die Zeit expressed that puzzlement brilliantly in a paragraph that is a classic of German contempt for Austria:
He who has once been in Klagenfurt, will not really want to return there. Too small, too Habsburg yellow, too few shops. The people are too friendly, the lake is too beautiful, the hearts and minds of the city counselors are too conservative. Ingeborg Bachmann was brought home there by force after her death, and buried there without her permission. Now Julien Green, born 1900 in Paris, died 1998 in Paris, a Parisian down to the silver knob on his cane, has found his last rest in Klagenfurt. Bishop Egon Kapellari buried the French poet in the city Church of St. Giles. Apparently, no fitting graveyard could be found in France. We do not know what drove Julien Green, who dreamed all his life of America, to make his last journey to the capital city of Carinthia. From Klagenfurt we have only the statement that the city senate decided in a unanimous vote to pay half of the funeral expenses. Oh you generous city counselors!
Die Zeit would have only needed to read the excerpts from Green’s diary published in an article in the Berliner Zeitung a year before Green’s death to solve the puzzle:
We will be buried in Austria, the land of Mary; or rather, we will be entombed there in stone… Why not France? For one reason, because I do not want our bodies to be exhumed later on, as happens at the Père Lachaise and other places in France la Douce. Austria, by contrast, has generously offered us a whole chapel.
President Mitterand had offered Green a grave in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame, but Green did not want pigeons making a mess on his grave. He himself had wanted to be buried in the Church of Andrésy, but the French Church had refused his request to have his adopted son and quondam lover Jean-Eric buried with him, for fear of scandal. Green had been moved by a statue of our lady in St. Egid, and the then bishop of Klagenfurt, Egon Kapellari, a man of deep appreciation for the arts, was only too happy to have both Greens entombed in a side chapel there. In an apparent jab at France, Green had his name spelled in its original American form “Julian” rather than the French “Julien” under which his books had appeared.
The cathedral in Klagenfurt has continued to cultivate the Austrian tradition (abandoned in so many places) of having May Devotions every evening in the month of May. They have a different choir sing each day. And they have a series of guest preachers, who preach two or three “May sermons” on successive days. I preached yesterday and the day before, and will preach again tonight. I have been preaching on the theological virtues, taking titles of our Lady from the Litany of Loretto: Virgo Fidelis (faith), Stella Matutina (hope), and tonight, Mater Pulchrae Dilectionis (love). Now I have decided to use the sermon of the “Mother of Beautiful Love” to talk about Green. Here’s an a sketch of what I mean to say:
I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. In me is all grace of the way and of the truth, in me is all hope of life and of virtue. Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits. For my spirit is sweet above honey, and my inheritance above honey and the honeycomb. (Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 24:24-27; Douai-Rheims)
Yesterday I took a walk through Klagenfurt, and visited the tomb of the great American-French novelist Julian Green. It was very moving for me to pray at his tomb. As it happens I had just been reading some passages from Green’s diaries, collected by a friend of mine. Perhaps you will forgive me for speaking a little of Green here in Klagenfurt, even it seems like bringing coals to Newcastle.
Green was a writer who had a deep insight in to the longing of the human heart for love. Human hearts yearn for the joy of true love, of beautiful love, a love that ennobles, a love that gives us a home. Love is the conformity of the heart to a lovable object— the heart’s receiving the impression of a lovable form, like wax receiving the impression of a seal— an impression that makes the heart yearn for unity with the beloved. And Green knew that our hearts were made to receive the impression of one who is infinitely lovable and beautiful. And he deeply felt the mystery that we are somehow banished from the happiness of such love, that we are yearning for something hoped for and remembered that just eludes us:
That deep longing for happiness, that longing I have in me, as we all have, so much so, for instance, that I can’t listen without melancholy to a bird singing on a too fine summer day in Paris, where does it come from? It is not merely the longing to possess everything, formerly so strong in me; it is a painful and sometimes pleasant nostalgic longing for a happiness too far away in time for our brief memory to retrace it, something like a recollection of the Garden of Eden, but a memory adapted to our weakness. Too much joy would kill us. (Diary: 1928-1957 81)
And Green felt deeply the great fear of our hearts that we will lose that happiness of receiving beautiful love, that we will be alone, cast out. And he understood the danger of a false love, an impure love; a love that is bent into the wrong direction, which loves in the wrong way abusing the beloved for selfish pleasure, or for a perverse, sterile simulation of the fruitful love of marriage. As beautiful as pure love is, so sad and sordid is love bent awry. How sad it is to see the innocence of young hope in love destroyed by such impure love.
Green was born in Paris to American parents. After growing up there, he went to his parent’s country for the first time as a young man to study at the University of Virginia. During a Latin class at UVA, his professor, commenting on a passage of Virgil said: “Gentlemen, it seems pointless for me to disguise the meaning of this passage: we are dealing here with the shame of Antiquity, by which I mean boy-love.” In a moment Green realized that this shame was his. He had deep homosexual inclinations. And they became for him a great source of struggle and suffering: a cross. He realized that they were a perverse bending of his natural desire for love:
Vice begins where beauty ends. If one analyzed the impression produced by a beautiful body, something approaching religious emotion would be found in it. The work of the Creator is so beautiful that the wish to turn it into an instrument of pleasure comes only after a confused feeling of adoration and wonder. (Diary: 1928-1957 93).
And so he struggled. His struggle had ups and downs, now he succumbed to temptation, now he rose to new heights. He experienced the sorrow of falling into sin, the way that sin destroys the beauty of life; and he experienced the joy of forgiveness, the way new found grace transfigures everything:
One loses all in losing grace. Many a time have I heard this said, but it is curious to observe that a single sin disenchants the whole of the spiritual world and restores all its power to the carnal world. The atrocious chaos immediately reorganizes itself…A veil stretches over the page. The book is the same, the reader’s soul has grown dark…a single act of contrition is enough for this wretched phantasmagoria to vanish and for the marvelous presence of the invisible to return. A man who has not felt such things does not know one of the greatest happinesses to be had on earth. (Diary: 1928-1957 300).
Those of you have been to the May Devotions the past few days will perhaps have seen a pattern in my sermons. The Faithful Virgin, who gives us faith, the Star of the Morning, who grounds our hope: faith and hope, the first two of the three theological virtues. “And now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). Today I want to speak of the Mater Pulchrae Dilectionis, the Mother of Beautiful Love: the mother who loves us, and helps us to love with a pure and beautiful love. For her whole life she loved God above all things; her whole heart was deeply impressed and formed by his infinite goodness and beauty, and everything that she did, she did out of pure love of him. And because she loved God, she loved all his creatures with a chaste and noble love. And for this reason her life is incomparably beautiful and noble: Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te: “Thou art all beautiful, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee.” (Song of Songs 4:7). And now she is united with God in the infinite happiness of love, and from that infinite happiness she reaches down to us, to help us receive the joy of the infinite love of God, the love that receives us and promises us a true home. And she helps us to love in return— to stretch out with a pure and noble love for God, and to love all His children for His sake.
Oh Mother of Beautiful Love, look down on your children today, help us to escape the sadness of disordered love, and to love God with all our hearts and souls. Form our hearts with His impression. Make us yours that we might be entirely His. Amen.