Blaise Pascal (16231662). Letters. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Letter to Madame Perier and Her Husband, on the Death of M. Pascal, Pere
OCTOBER 17, 1651.
AS1 you are both now informed of our common misfortune, and as the letter which we commenced has given you some consolation by the recital of the happy circumstances that accompanied the subject of our affliction, I cannot refuse to you those which remain in my mind, and which I pray God to give me, and to recall to me several which we formerly received from his grace, and which have been newly given to us by our friends on this occasion.
I know not now where my first letter ended. My sister sent it away without noticing that it was not finished. It only seems to me that it contained in substance some particulars of the conduct of God over life and sickness, which I would repeat to you here, so deeply are they engraven in my heart, and so solid is the consolation that they bring me, if you could not have seen them yourselves in the preceding letter, and if my sister did not intend to make to you a more exact recital of them at her earliest con-venience. I shall, therefore, only speak to you here of the conclusion which I draw from them, which is that, except those who are interested by the feelings of nature, there is not a Christian who should not rejoice at it.
Upon this great foundation, I shall commence what I have to say to you by a remark that is very consoling to those who have sufficient liberty of spirit to conceive it in the midst of grief. It is that we should seek consolation in our ills, not in ourselves, not in men, not in any thing that is created; but in God. And the reason is, that all creatures are not the first cause of the accidents that we call evils; but that the providence of God being the only and veritable cause, the arbiter and the sovereign of them, it is indubitable that we must resort directly to the source and go back to the origin to find a solid alleviation. If we follow this precept, and if we regard this event, not as an effect of chance, not as a fatal necessity of nature, not as the play of the elements and parts of which man is composed (for God has not abandoned his elect to caprice and chance), but as a result indispensable, inevitable, just, holy, useful to the good of the Church, and to the exaltation of the name and the greatness of God, of a decree of his providence conceived from all eternity to be executed in the plenitude of its time in such a year, such a day, such an hour, such a place, such a manner; and, in short, that all that has happened has been from all time foreknown and foreordained of God; if, I say, through a transport of grace, we regard this accident, not in itself and apart from God, but apart from itself, and in the inmost part of the will of God, in the justice of his decree, in the order of his providence, which is the true cause of it, without which it would not have happened, through which alone it has happened, and in the manner in which it has happened; we shall adore in humble silence the impenetrable loftiness of his secrets, we shall venerate the sanctity of his decrees, we shall bless the acts of his providence, and, uniting our will to that of God himself, we shall wish with him, in him, and for him, the thing that he has willed in us and for us from all eternity.
Let us regard it, then, in this manner, and let us prac-tice this precept, which I learned of a great man in the time of our deepest affliction, that there is no consolation except in truth alone. It is certain that Socrates and Seneca have nothing consolatory on such an occasion as this. They have been in the error that has blinded all men in the beginning: they have all taken death as natural to man; and all the discourses which they have founded upon this false principle are so futile that they only serve to demonstrate by their inutility how weak man is in general, since the most elevated productions of the greatest among men are so weak and puerile. It is not the same with Jesus Christ, it is not thus in the canonical books: the truth is there revealed, and consolation is also as infallibly joined with it as it is infallibly separated from error.
Let us, then, consider death in the truth which the Holy Spirit has taught us. We have this admirable advantage, of knowing that death is really and actually a penalty of sin imposed on man in order to expiate his crime, necessary to man to purge him from sin; that it is the only one that can deliver the soul from the concupiscence of the members, without which saints come not into the world. We know that life, and the life of Christians, is a continual sacrifice, that can only be completed by death; we know that as Jesus Christ, being in the world, regarded and offered himself to God as a sacrifice, and a veritable victim; as his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his presence in the Eucharist, and his eternal seat at the right hand are only a sole and single sacrifice; we know that what has been accomplished in Jesus Christ should be accomplished also in all his members.
Let us, then, consider life as a sacrifice; and let the accidents of life make no impression upon the minds of Christians, except in proportion as they interrupt or accomplish this sacrifice. Let us only call that evil which renders the victim of God the victim of the devil, but let us call that good which renders the victim of the devil in Adam the victim of God; and by this rule let us examine the nature of death.
For this consideration it is necessary to have recourse to the person of Jesus Christ, for all that is in men is abominable, and as God looks upon men only through the mediator Jesus Christ, men should also look neither upon others nor themselves except mediately through Jesus Christ. For if we do not take this course, we shall find in ourselves nothing but veritable misfortunes, or abominable pleasures, but if we regard all things in Jesus Christ, we shall find full consolation, full satisfaction, and full edification.
Let us, then, consider death in Jesus Christ, and not without Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ it is horrible, detestable, the horror of nature. In Jesus Christ it is altogether different; it is benignant, holy, the joy of the faithful. Every thing is sweet in Jesus Christ, even to death: and this is why he suffered and died to sanctify death and suffering and, in common with God and man, he has been all that was great, and all that was abject, in order to sanctify in himself all things except sin, and to be the model of every condition.
To consider the nature of death, and of death in Jesus Christ, it is necessary to see what rank it holds in his continual and uninterrupted sacrifice, and for this to remark that in sacrifices the most important part is the death of the victim. The oblation and sanctification which precede are the details; but the accomplishment is the death, in which, by the annihilation of life, the creature renders to God all the homage of which it is capable, in annihilating itself before the face of his majesty, and in adoring his sovereign existence, which alone exists in reality. It is true that there is another part, after the death of the victim, without which its death would be useless, that is, Gods acceptance of the sacrifice. This is what is said in the Scripture: Et odotatus est Dominus suavitatem. And the Lord smelled a sweet sacrifice. This it is that really consummates the oblation; but it is rather an action of God towards the creature than of the creature towards God, and does not hinder the last act of the creature from being death.
All these things have been accomplished in Jesus Christ In entering the world, he offered himself: Obtulit semetipsum per Spiritum Sanctum. Ingrediens mundum, dixit: Hostiam noluisti Tunc dixi: Ecce venio. In capite, etc. Through the Eternal Spirit he offered himself. When he cometh into the world, he saith, sacrifice and offering thou wouldst not. Then said I, Lo, come. This is his oblation. His sanctification was immediate upon his oblation. This sacrifice lasted all his life, and was accomplished by his death. Ought he not to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? Though he were a son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered. But in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears unto him that was able to save, he was heard in that he feared: and God raised him from the dead, and sent him his glory, prefigured formerly by the fire from heaven that fell upon the victim to burn and consume his body, and to make it live the spiritual life of glory. This is what Jesus Christ has obtained, and what has been accomplished through his resurrection.
Thus this sacrifice being perfected by the death of Christ, and consummated even in his body by his resurrection, in which the image of sinful flesh was absorbed by glory, Jesus Christ had wholly finished his part; it remained only that the sacrifice should be accepted of God, that, as the smoke ascended and carried the-odor to the throne of God, thus Jesus Christ was, in this state of perfect immolation, offered, carried to, and accepted at the throne of God himself: and this it is that has been accomplished in the ascension, in which he mounted on high and by his own power and by the power of his Holy Spirit, which surrounded him on every side, was carried away; as the smoke of the victims, the emblem of Jesus Christ, was carried on high by the air that sustained it, the type of the Holy Spirit: and the Acts of the Apostles indicate to us expressly that he was received up into heaven, in order to assure us that this holy sacrifice accomplished on earth was welcome and acceptable to God, and was received into the bosom of God, to shine in glory through ages upon ages.
This is the state of things as regards our sovereign Lord. Let us consider them now in ourselves. From the moment we enter the Church, which is the world of the Faithful and especially of the elect, into which Jesus Christ entered at the moment of his incarnation by a privilege peculiar to the only Son of God, we are offered and sacrificed. This sacrifice is continued by life and completed at death, in which the soul truly quitting all vices, and the love of the world, with the contagion of which it is always infected throughout life, achieves its immolation and is received into the bosom of God.
Let us not grieve then like the heathen who have no hope We did not lose our father at the moment of his death: we lost him so o say, when he entered the Church through baptism. From that time, he belonged to God; his life was devoted to God; his actions regarded the world only for God. In his death, he became totally separated from sin and it was at that moment that he was accepted by God and that his sacrifice received its accomplishment and its consummation. He has performed therefore what he had vowed: he has finished the work that God had given him to do; he has accomplished the only thing for which he was created. The will of God is accomplished in him, and his will is absorbed in God. Let not our will then separate what God has joined together; and let us stifle or moderate, by the understanding of truth, the feelings of a corrupt and fallen nature which has only false images, and which troubles by its illusions the sanctity of the feelings which truth and the Gospel should give us.
Let us then no longer look upon death like the heathen, but like Christians, that is with hope, as St. Paul commands, since this is the especial privilege of Christians. Let us no longer regard a corpse as putrid carrion because deceitful nature figures it thus; but as the inviolable and eternal temple of the Holy Spirit, as faith teaches. For we know that sainted bodies are inhabited by the Holy Spirit until the resurrection, which will be caused by virtue of this spirit which dwells in them for this effect. It is for this reason that we honor the relics of the dead, and it was on this true principle that the Eucharist was formerly placed in the mouth of the dead, since, as it was known that they were he temple of the Holy Spirit, it was believed that they also merited to be united to this holy sacrament. But the Church has changed this custom, not in order that these bodies shall not be holy, but for the reason that the Eucharist being the bread of life and of the living, it ought not to be given to a, the dead.
Let us no longer regard a man as having ceased to live although nature suggests it; but as beginning to live, as truth assures. Let us no longer regard his soul as perished and reduced to nothingness, but as quickened and united to the sovereign life; and let us thus correct, by attention to these truths, the sentiments of error so deeply imprinted in ourselves and those emotions of honor so natural to mankind.
To subdue this dread more effectually, it is necessary fully to comprehend its origin; and to paint it to you in a few words, I am forced to tell you in general what is the source of all vice and all sin. This I have learned from two very great and holy personages. The truth covered by this mystery is that God has created man with two loves, the one for God, the other for himself; but with this law, that the love for God shall be infinite, that is without any other limits than God himself; and that the love for self shall be finite and relating to God.
Since, sin being come, man has lost the first of these loves; and the love for himself being left alone in this great soul capable of an infinite love, this self-love has extended and overflowed in the empty space which the love of God has quittedand thus he loves himself alone, and all things for himself, that is, infinitely. This is the origin of self-love. It was natural to Adam and just in his innocence; but it became criminal and immoderate after his sin.
Here is the source of this love, and the cause of its defect and of its excess. It is the same with the passion of ruling, of indolence; and others. The application is easy. Let us come to our single subject. The dread of death was natural to innocent Adam, because, his life being pleasing to God, it must have been pleasing to man: and death was terrible when it ended a life conformed to the will of God. Since, man having sinned, his life has become corrupt, his body and soul enemies to each other, and both to God. This horrible change having infected so holy a life, the love of life has nevertheless remained; and the dread of death being equally felt, that which was just in Adam is unjust and criminal in us.
Such is the origin of the dread of death and the cause of its faultiness. Let us then illumine the error of nature by the light of faith. The dread of death is natural, but it is in the state of innocence; death in truth is terrible, but it is when it puts an end to a pure life. It was just to hate it when it separated a holy soul from a holy body; but it is just to love it when it separates a holy soul from an impure body. It was just to flee it, when it broke the peace between the body and he soul; but not when it calms the irreconcilable dissension between them. In short, when it afflicted an innocent body, when it took away from the body the liberty of honoring God, when it separated from the soul a body submissive to and co-operative with its will, when it put an end to all the good of which man is capable, it was just to abhor it; but when it puts an end to an impure life, when it takes away from the body the liberty of sinning, when it delivers the soul from a powerful rebel that contradicts all the motives for its salvation, it is very unjust to preserve the same feelings.
Let us not therefore relinquish this love for life which nature has given us, since we have received it from God; but let this be for the same life for which God has given it to us and not for a contrary object. In consenting to the love that Adam had for his innocent life and that Jesus Christ himself had for his own, let us bring ourselves to hate a life contrary to that which Jesus Christ has loved, and only to fear the death which Jesus Christ has feared, which comes to a body pleasing to God; but not to fear a death that, punishing a guilty body, and purging a vicious body, ought to give us quite contrary feelings, if we have any thing of faith, of hope, and of charity.
It is one of the great principles of Christianity that every thing that happened to Jesus Christ should take place in the soul and the body of each Christian: that as Jesus Christ suffered during his mortal life, died to this mortal life, was raised to a new life, ascended to heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; so the body and soul should suffer, die, be raised from the dead, ascend to heaven, and sit at the right hand of God. All these things are accomplished in the soul during life, but not in the body. The soul suffers and dies to sin in penitence and in baptism ; the soul i raised again to a new life in the same baptism; the soul quits the earth and ascends to heaven at death, and takes its seat at the right hand of God at the time that he appoints. None of these things happen to the body during this life; but the same things befall it afterwards. For at death the body dies to its mortal life; at the judgment it will rise to a new life; after the judgment, it will ascend to heaven and will sit at the right hand of God. Thus the same things happen to the body and the soul, but at different times; and the changes of the body come only when those of the soul are accomplished, that is at the hour of death: so that death is the consummation of the beatitude of the soul and the commencement of the beatitude of the body.
These are the admirable ways of the wisdom of God for the salvation of his saints, and St. Augustine teaches us on this subject, that God has arranged them in this wise for fear that if the body of man should die and rise again forever at baptism, men would only enter into the obedience of the Gospel through the love of life; whilst the grandeur of faith shines forth far more when it tends to immortality through the shades of death.
This is, certainly, our belief and the faith that we profess, and I believe that there is in this more than is needed to aid your consolations by my small efforts. I should not undertake to carry you this aid of myself; but as these are only repetitions of what I have learned, I give them with assurance, praying God to bless these seeds, and to give them growth, for without him we can do nothing, and his most holy words will not take root in us, as he himself has said.
It is not that I wish that you should be without feeling; the blow is too sensible; it would be even insupportable without supernatural aid. It is not therefore right that we should be without grief, like the angels who have no sentiment of nature; neither is it right that we should be without consolation, like the heathen who have no sentiment of grace: but it is right that we should be afflicted and con-soled like Christians, and that the consolations of grace should overcome the feelings of nature; that we should say with the apostles: We are afflicted but not cast down, in order that grace may not only be in us but victorious in us; that thus, in sanctifying the name of our Father, his will may be made ours; that his grace may reign and prevail over nature, and that our afflictions may be as the substance of a sacrifice which his grace perfects and annihilates for the glory of God; and that these individual sacrifices may honor and precede the universal sacrifice wherein all nature should be perfected by the power of Jesus Christ. Thus we derive advantage from our own imperfections, since they serve as material for this sacrifice; for it is the aim of true Christians to profit by their own imperfections, because all things work together for good to the elect.
And if we pay close attention to this, we shall find great advantages for our edification, in considering the thing truly as we said just now. For, since it is true that the death of the body is only the type of that of the soul, and since we build upon the principle that in this chance we have all possible reason to hope for its sure salvation, it is certain that if we cannot arrest the progress of grief, we should derive this benefit, that since the death of the body is so terrible that it causes in us such emotions, that of the soul ought to cause in us those far more inconsolable. God sends us the first, God turns away the second. Let us then consider the greatness of our blessings in the greatness of our ills, and let the excess of our grief be in proportion to that of our joy.
There is nothing that can moderate it, except the fear that he may languish for some time in the pains which are destined to purge the remains of the sin of this life, and we ought carefully to apply ourselves to appease the anger of God towards him. Prayer and sacrifices are a sovereign remedy for his pains. But I have learned of a holy man in our affliction that one of the most solid and useful charities towards the dead is to do the things that they would command were they still in the world, to practise the holy advice which they have given us, and put ourselves, for their sakes, in the condition in which they would wish us at present. By this practice, we shall in some sort revive them in ourselves, since their counsels are still living and acting within us; and as heresiarchs are punished in the other life for the sins into which they have drawn their votaries, in whom their venom is still living, so the dead are recompensed, exclusive of their own merit, for those to whom they have given succession by their counsels and their example.
Let us strive then with all our power to revive him in us before God; and let us console ourselves in the union of our hearts, in which it seems to me that he still lives, and that our reunion in some sort restores to us his presence, as Jesus Christ makes himself present in the assembly of his faithful.
I pray God to form and to maintain these sentiments in us, and to continue those which it appears to me he has given ; me, of having more tenderness than ever for you and for my sister; for it seems to me that the love that we had for my father ought not to be lost, and that we should make a division of it among ourselves, and that we should chiefly inherit the affection which he bore to us, to love each other still more cordially if possible.
I pray God to strengthen us in these resolutions, and in this hope I entreat you to permit me to give you a counsel which indeed you could take without me; but I shall not refrain from giving it. It is that after having found grounds of consolation for him, we shall not come to lack i! them for ourselves by dwelling upon the need and the utility that we shall have of his presence.
It is I who am the most interested in it. If I had lost him six years ago, I should have lost myself, and although I believe my necessity of him at present to be less absolute, I know that he would still have been necessary to me ten years and useful all my life. But we should hope that God having ordered it in such a time, such a place and such a manner, it is doubtless the most expedient for his glory and for our salvation.
However strange this may appear, I believe that we should regard all events in the same manner, and that, however sinister they may appear to us, we should hope that God would draw from them a source of joy to us if we will but intrust the direction of them to him. We know of persons of condition who have feared the death of relatives which God has perhaps averted at their prayer, who have caused or been the occasion of so much misery that there was reason to wish that the prayers had not been granted.
Man is assuredly too weak to judge soundly of the result of future things. Let us therefore hope in God, and let us not weary ourselves by rash and indiscreet forecasts. Let us commit ourselves then to God for the direction of our lives; and that grief may not prevail within us.
St. Augustine teaches us that there is in every man a serpent, an Eve and an Adam. The serpent is the senses and our nature, the Eve is the concupiscible appetite, and the Adam is the reason. Nature tempts us continually, concupiscible appetite often fills us with desires, but the sin is not consummated if reason does not consent. Let the serpent and the Eve therefore act if we cannot hinder it; but let us pray to God that his grace may so strengthen our Adam that he may remain victorious; and that Jesus Christ may be the conqueror over him and may reign eternally in us. Amen.
Note 1. Fragments of this letter have figured in a great number of the editions of Pascal, under the title of: Thoughts upon Death, extracted from a letter written by M. Pascal upon the subject of the death of his father. M. Cousin, upon this indication, sought for and found the letter, such as we publish it here.W. [back]