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In our schools reigns perhaps more than elsewhere this deplorable influence of human respect, this puerile and odious prejudice which, by a strange reversal of common sense, dares to attach ridicule to the practice of the most holy duties.
In this pernicious atmosphere of a military school, in this environment of indifference, if not of hostility, it does not take a mediocre strength of soul to preserve intact the treasure of faith. It takes an almost heroic courage to dare, on occasion, despite human respect, to boldly confess one’s belief. One who, in the depths of his heart, still retains respect for the truth, and would not want to deny it, certainly, in front of the executioners, shudders at the mere idea of facing, in order to defend it, the mockery of his comrades. Here is the example of a singular intrepidity, in circumstances which still raise its merit.
The incident we are relating took place at the Polytechnic School of Saint-Cyr, at the beginning of the 19th century. One day, at recess time, when most of the young people were gathered in one of the rooms because of the bad weather, a student suddenly entered with an air of singular hilarity, and, climbing on a chair, by a gesture he demanded silence. We immediately made a circle to lend an ear to his motion.
“Gentlemen, he said, it is good to be amused sometimes, otherwise one is dumbed down by the overuse of numbers; for those who are of this opinion, I can offer you a good opportunity, a real godsend. I have made a find, but a strange, unheard-of, fabulous find, and such that I would give it to you in hundreds, in thousands, in ten thousands, that you would not guess the object, unless it was the one who lost it, if it is possible that he is among the students of the School. But I would rather believe that the thing belongs to an inhabitant of the moon than to one of you. Let’s see, imagine what I picked up in one of the corridors.
– A banknote!
– Well, his find is… a wig.
– Wig yourself.
– No, a recipe to make the melons come.
– They come enough on their own.
– A truth charter?
– A City Hall program?
– Gentlemen, no politics, please; the walls have ears! Besides, we’re at recess… to relax.
– A kazoo?
– A snuffbox?
– A pipe?
– Ah, nice, nice! Hang yourself, Odry.
– No, nothing like that.
– I’ve got it, a plan for a tragedy.
– An ode to spring?
– In Latin poetry?
– There is no more spring.
– Young’s Nights, translated from the Saxon by the late Sleeping Man?
– An acorn from the oak of Dodona?
– The false eye of Anibal?
– An autograph of Robinson Crusoe?
– Gentlemen, if anyone makes fun of me, I’ll get off the tripod.
– Bah! said a pupil, you are all very naive to put your brains backwards like that. Don’t you see that the fellow, in studio style, is making us pose. For me, I am sure, nothing in the hands, nothing in the pockets! and I would challenge him!
– Ah! says the other pricked, I have nothing to show?
– Do we bet him?
– Yes, a candy cane at the next outing.
– I accept, but with the condition that I will ask myself for the above mentioned stick, and that it will have a kilometer of length and the diameter in consequence.
– Dude! but you will undertake to devour it all by yourself, and in one day.
– Thank you, I am not Gargantua. To hell with the bet! But anyway, I see the comrades losing patience! Come on, gentlemen, do as Madame de Sevigne says, throw your tongue to the pawns… college style. I show the object. Here, ladies and gentlemen, I say ladies for euphony; here is my find.”
And raising his hand, he showed, to the general amazement, a… rosary!
“A rosary! A rosary! exclaimed everyone! A rosary!
– That is indeed funny!
– No way!
– That’s the last thing I would have thought of.
– Who the hell here would think of having this amulet in his pocket?
– Of course, it wasn’t a student who lost it. Yet I don’t see any old devotee here to drop the object.
– The lovely occupation, instead of studying Laplace or Jomini.
– Would any of us, by any chance, say his prayers?
– Go to mass?
– Go to confession?
– It’s not me!
– Not me! Not so bigoted!
– The rhyme is rich.
– I bet well that the rosary will not find its master; the one to whom it belongs, if it belongs to somebody, will not be so stupid as to claim it.
– So much the worse! We’ d have a laugh! the poor frater, what guffaws at his expense!
– The ignoramus! on him from morning to night what showers of jokes, of good words… nasty.
– You see, gentlemen, said the man holding the rosary, through this barrage of epigrams, you see that I was not overtaxing. Isn’t this an original find? A rosary! and worth a lot in the eyes of an amateur. The beads are made of carnelian and mounted in silver. The object, I am sure, comes from Italy, and my grandmother, who is a good devotee, would pay me a lot for this gift. Come on, once, twice, is anyone claiming it?
– Go and see if they come?
– Would one dare?”
Here a student who had been standing before a table laden with drawings and books, for some moments had raised his head, and, with arms crossed, calmly, but at times with an indefinable smile, contemplated this strange scene. On his noble face, on his high forehead, in the air of his glance, at the same time bold and serene, radiated intelligence. And these outward signs did not deceive. Among the elite students, Henri shone in the leading position, if he was not even the first. Let us add that the kindness of his character had won him the friendship of the majority as well as the esteem of all for his solid science.
“I am not joking, especially on such topics”, said Henri, who was not disconcerted by the sneering smile of some and the sorrowful look of others who seemed to pity him; “Yes, gentlemen, this rosary belongs to me and I claim it! This rosary comes from my dying mother, dying, do you hear? to whom I promised to keep it always, remaining faithful to my convictions. Gentlemen, just now, here, I heard the most holy things spoken of with a lightness that can only be explained by the profound ignorance, too common, alas! on these matters, the only ones that one disdains to study; I heard it asked with an accent of derision if any of us went to mass? I don’t know what the others do, but as far as I’m concerned, God forbid that I should fail to do so, and my first visit on Sunday is to church. I don’t stop there. Yes, gentlemen, I am a believer in the example of Vauban, our illustrious master, in the example of Turenne, Condé, Villars, those valiant men! in the example of Fénelon, Bossuet and so many other great souls. I consider myself to be in good and glorious enough company to draw honor from it, far from having to be ashamed of it.”
This firm declaration of principles so robustly stated made an impression. Many who were floating hesitantly, not knowing whether to approve or to mock, others who were already beginning to sneer, recoiled before this bold jouster. The majority, intelligent and generous youth, admiring the courage of Henri, applauded and held out their hands as a sign of esteem to the valiant Christian athlete.
The young man who had found the rosary, was one of the first to step forward:
“Are you not angry with me? he said to Henri.
– God forbid, my friend; only I can’t help but think that you acted a bit…
– As a blunt fool, as a scatterbrain, don’t be afraid to say the word; for I see now that I was wrong; your words have made me think, and I have great regret now for this outburst and for the foolish things I have said.”
By the energy of his attitude, not only had Henry conquered freedom for himself, but more than one, perhaps, who had hitherto been weak and timid in concealing his true feelings, took advantage of the circumstance to emancipate himself, and being a Christian at heart, he no longer assumed, by another kind of hypocrisy, the mask of impiety.
Human respect is an insignificant cowardice and an unforgivable weakness. In the world there is not enough blame for the ungrateful son who, blushing at his obscure origin, denies his father, a craftsman or a farmer. He is condemned, but not surprised, as this is unfortunately not a rare occurrence. But would we understand the son of an illustrious man, the pride and honor of the country, who would be ashamed of the glory of his father and would consider himself ridiculous and dishonored if, for this father, of whom he should be proud, he testified in front of all his respect and his affection? The world, witnessing this strange scandal, would cry out for foolishness, ineptitude, insanity. But does the cowardly Christian do anything else? He does even worse, he who is afraid to confess his respect for the heavenly Father, to proclaim his filial obedience to the King of kings.
A foolish calculation, moreover. A loyal declaration of principles, with a firm attitude that does not surprise the mockers, almost always disconcerts the bad jokers and closes their mouths. They choose to remain silent, seeing that they are wasting their time.
(In the shade of the Flag, by Bathild Bouniol)
Sign of the Cross
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and of the Mother of God. Amen.
O Jesus! We are going to walk with You on the road to Calvary which was so painful for You. Make us understand the greatness of Your sufferings, touch our hearts with tender compassion at the sight of Your torments, in order to increase in us the regret of our faults and the love we wish to have for You.
Deign to apply to all of us the infinite merits of Your Passion, and in memory of Your sorrows, show mercy to the souls in Purgatory, especially to those who are most abandoned.
O Divine Mary, who first taught us to make the Way of the Cross, obtain for us the grace to follow Jesus with the sentiments Your Heart was filled with as You accompanied Him on the road to Calvary. Grant that we may weep with You, and that we may love Your divine Son as You do. We ask this in the name of His adorable Heart. Amen.