A 1903 French Novel’s Unexpected Insights Concerning the Sorrows of Mary

Dr. Robert Hickson

25 March 2021

Feast of the Annunciation: the Incarnation

A 1903 French Novel’s Unexpected Insights Concerning the Sorrows of Mary: J.K. Huysmans’ The Oblate of St. Benedict

Epigraphs

“What a strange part, great and yet limited, did Sorrow play in the life of the Virgin!” (J. K. Huysmans, The Oblate of St. Benedict (1903, 1996), page 241—my emphasis added)

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“She [Sorrow] now ruled supreme and, from the fury of he onslaught, it might have been thought that Our Lady had drained the cup to the last dreg. But it was not so.” (J.K. Huysmans, The Oblate of St. Benedict (1903), page 243—my emphasis added)

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J.K. Huysmans’ 1903 novel The Oblate of St. Benedict begins his Chapter VIII with the following words:

The Feast of the Assumption [15 August] was over….The church, now empty, exhaled the soothing perfume….the scent symbolized the sepulchre whence the Virgin rose to take her place beside Her Son….

All day the heat had been overwhelming. Benediction had been preceded by the solemn Procession which [King] Louis XIII instituted in memory of the consecration of his kingdom to Our Lady, and Durtal [the novel’s protagonist and himself a gradual convert to the Catholic Faith], on reaching home, sat down in the shade of the great cedar tree.

There he [Durtal] meditated upon the Festival which was for him a Festival of Liberation from pain and the chief Festival of Our Blessed Lady. The day prompted him to contemplate the Madonna from a special point of view, for it brought him face to face with with the dreadful problem of Pain and Sorrow.1 (241—my emphasis added)

Huysmans admits his yearning “attempt to understand the reason for the existence of sorrow” (241), and himself going all the way “back to man’s beginning, to Eden, where Sorrow was born, the moment Adam became conscious of sin.” (241)

But for those who remain loyal to irreformable Catholic doctrine, the mystery of the original and abiding Purity (and Sinlessness) of the Blessed Virgin Mary always presents itself, often amidst Sorrow, and then almost always knowingly evokes our special love. Huysmans’ words also come to touch upon this mysterious matter:

Sorrow had held the Son [Jesus] in her grip for some hours. Over the Mother [Virgin Mary], her hold was longer, and in this longer possession lies the strange element.

The Virgin was the one human creature whom, logically, she [Sorrow] had no right to touch. The Immaculate Conception should have put Mary beyond her [Sorrow’s] reach, and [Virgin Mary,] having never sinned during her earthly life, she [Mary] should should have been unassailable, and exempt from the evil onslaughts of Sorrow.

To dare to approach her [Mary], Sorrow required a special leave from God and the consent of the Mother herself, who, to be the more like unto her Son and to co-operate as far as she [Mary] could in our Redemption, agreed to suffer at the foot of the Cross the terrors of the final catastrophe. (243—my emphasis added)

Now we shall go with the Narrator—and with the fresh perceptions of Durtal—into some other deeper matters of moment:

But in dealing with the Mother [Mary], Sorrow at the outset does not have full scope.

She [Sorrow] indeed set her mark on Mary from the moment of the Annunciation when Our Lady in a Divine light perceived the Tree of Golgotha. But after that, Sorrow had to retire into the background. She [Sorrow] saw the Nativity from afar, but could not make her way into the cave of Bethlehem. Only at the Presentation in the Temple, at Simeon’s prophecy, did she [Sorrow] leap from her ambush and planted herself in the Virgin’s [Mother Mary’s] breast. From that moment she took up her abode there, yet she [Sorrow] was not an unchallenged mistress, for another lodger, Joy, also dwelt there, the presence of Jesus bringing cheerfulness to His Mother’s soul. But after the treachery of Judas Iscariot, Sorrow had her revenge. She now ruled supreme and, from the fury of her onset, it might have been thought that Our Lady had drained the cup [chalice!] to the last dreg. But it was not so.

Mary’s excruciating grief at the Crucifixion had been preceded by the long-drawn anguish of the Trial; it again was followed by another period of suspense, [a period] of sorrowful longing for the day when she should rejoin Her Son in Heaven, far removed from a world that had covered them with shame. (243-244—my emphasis added)

In such words, we may see and cherish another heartful presentation of how the Blessed Mother uniquely co-operated with—and mediated for—the Humility of God in the Hypostatic Union: i.e., for Her own beloved and nourished Son, Christ Jesus. (But there are still those who say that, despite her perfections, Mary is No Co-Redemptrix, Nor a Mediatrix of All Graces.)

CODA

Because it came only from a small, incomplete fragment of a footnote, it may be of some interest to the reader to know how I recently, and so unexpectedly, discovered (and but partly read) the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans (1847-1907), especially his novel, The Oblate of St. Benedict (1903).

Reading the Epilogue of D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ 1959 book, A Florentine Portrait: Saint Philip Benizi (1233-1285), I came in contact (at the bottom of page 133) with an abbreviated and rather arcane footnote: “L’Oblat, 1903.” Deciding then to locate, if I could, who it was who wrote these stirring words (and where), I went on an adventure and search. Here, without any original French pagination, are the later English words on the Blessed Mother that I found—as translated by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, himself a Catholic scholar, and written from his heart on page 133 in his own 1959 Epilogue about the Servites of Our Lady’s Sorrows:

It needed God’s special permission and the consent of the Mother, who, to make herself more like her Son and to co-operate, according to her capacity, in our redemption, accepted at length, under the Cross itself, the frightful agonies of the Consummation.

FINIS

© 2021 Robert D. Hickson

1J. K. Huysmans, The Oblate of St. Benedict (Cambridge, UK: Dedalus European Classics, 1996—first published in in French in 1903; first English edition was in 1924.) The current edition, moreover, contains XVI chapters, ending on page 303. All further references will be to this Dedalus edition. For convenience, the page references will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay and commentary.