I. Five years already
It’s been five years already (written on 10 December 1897). We were still kids really.
The original founders of Le Sillon (The Furrow) magazine were anxiously looking for a manager as none of them had reached the age of majority. We were still in college, all hemmed in by arid exam preparations. The Ecole Polytechnique (Polytechnic School) loomed ahead, a seductive mirage that seemed to flee at our approach. Alas, it was much less entrancing when it finally opened up to our desires and what had once seemed like an oasis metamorphosed into a prison.
The nagging emptiness of college life soon dawned on us, with nothing to inspire us or to change our lives, nothing but the inanities of a correct, highly regimented life cloistered inside the cold pigeon holes of a conventional good education. From that perspective, it was easy to persuade ourselves of the irremediable folly of human life but with our youthful passion we knew we could not just leave it at that.
A dream of democratic and social Christianity
In any event, the things that we wanted to destroy with one hand, we planned to rebuild with the other. It is true that we wanted to pull up the boring and unhealthy weeds that lay around us, but this was only so we could put down the roots of a genuine “democratic and social Christianity,” the only idea that we regarded as completely genuine and fruitful.
Thus, we felt an overwhelming need to discuss the dreams that burned inside us. We wanted to get to know each other, to develop a kind of “common soul” that would unify us and tear us away from the vulgarities of a totally bleak material existence without a future. We wanted to prepare ourselves in a kind of fraternal vigil of arms for the great battles that we knew lay ahead.
We were looking for a sublime and meaningful goal for which we could offer up our boring daily grind that would thus be transfigured and lovingly accepted by us.
Each week we were allowed to meet together in an underground room that we soon re-baptised “The Crypt.” There we talked about everything or even nothing at all, with all our inexperience and perhaps with a certain audacity, but also with the great conviction that we had to do something. But we were not looking for success or glory. We simply wanted to become good and faithful workers for Jesus Christ. That is how the conferences of the Crypt first began.
Evidently it was all a bit vague and uncertain. But we were almost proud of the fact that we did not have a pre-determined program. We wanted to sincerely look for answers. We also had a firm belief that the manifestations of Christ’s life in the world would evolve just as the world itself was evolving. So it was necessary to not become attached to old-fashioned or worn-out clothes.
We were ardent democrats. And when one day we invited a Christian worker from Lille to come and speak to us on the social question we just about carried him aloft in triumph, proud of our audacity, full of faith in a future that, in a moment of youthful enthusiasm, we felt was almost within reach ….
And so we organised our great events. From time to time we invited a speaker to address us and we certainly learnt from these experiences but we were not ready to accept ready made doctrines from any speaker. We refused to recognise any infallible authority, bar the Church.
Oh! What apostolic fever! Conversations without end, trying to win disciples to our cause, visiting other classes to launch various initiatives, battling the general attitude of indifference. The dedication of a good number of our friends who made a point of visiting youth clubs in working classes areas each day after their classes. This was in response to an appeal by Father Soulange who had awakened us poor recluses one day to the fact that the “people” were right there beside us and that there was indeed a way to make contact with them.
For a long time, all this pent-up enthusiasm, energy for the future and dreams of action remained locked up in our small underground Crypt, our much loved birthplace. And I think that for the rest of my life whenever I feel the surge of great ideas within me I will always remember that small room with its long graded benches illuminated by a few electric lights, hidden mysteriously underground.
This was where we all crowded and jostled together with a feeling that we had a great task to accomplish for which we were preparing amid the shadows…
I can still hear the far off echo of those young firebrand voices, full of passion and faith. I can still see the much loved figure of the priest who knew how to preserve our freedom and who worked with a totally disinterested ardour to remove any barriers that might have destroyed our initiative. He never sought to impose his own personal views but he did so much to assist our efforts, always with that intelligent delicacy that persuaded us that we alone had done it all ourselves.
Leaving the cradle
All these memories are holding me back and I now need to turn quickly to the beginnings of “The Crypt.”
So many former students returned at each meeting to join their comrades. They brought with them a broad range of new friends from the Ecole Normale, the Ecole Polytechnique and from the Faculties of Letters and Law. The younger collegians welcomed their elders as we met together in that far too narrow hall. At first the newcomers were a little unnerved to enter a college that most had never seen and then descend to the basement. But quickly they felt quite at home once they understood that it was simply a gathering of friends with nothing formal or official about it.
Alas, it soon became necessary to leave the cradle. It was quite a difficult separation with a genuine sadness at leaving our family “home”. But yet, isn’t it when the fruit is ripe that it falls from the tree so that it can germinate for the future? And so we left our old “Crypt” to the young Stanislas students. Now for the past year we have welcomed our growing number of friends at a room kindly made available by the Cercle de Luxembourg, where despite our wide range of backgrounds we have found ourselves united by a single spirit. We promised those whom we had left that we would never forget them, and that we would return often to visit but with no desire to interfere with their own personal growth by a return to our past. We also invited them to our new meetings. Then, with a little apprehension perhaps but with confidence in spite of everything, we turned to the future.
Paris and the provinces
And the “Crypt” continued to grow. New friends continued to arrive from all corners of Paris and even the provinces. The Crypt made contact with many already existing and similarly oriented groups. Somewhat regretfully, we even found it necessary to create a Committee in order to provide the necessary minimum “body” to go with the “soul” of our group, as we used to say.
The “Crypt” had at last outgrown its baby clothes. It now had its own newsletter. Our founding members, who no longer required the care of a governess, felt that we did not need to hide ourselves from view any more. We were ready to read and write in broad daylight.
And now in our meetings there are only two things left from our old “Crypt” – our spirit which had become clearer but which had not changed, and our name, which was such a cherished memory that we wanted to keep it both as a token of our fidelity and a portent for the future.
When I think that the fifth year of the Crypt has just ended, I can’t help myself from marvelling at how it kept going when – let’s face it – it had no clear and determined goal, when it never had even the bare bones of an organisation, when no-one worked to found it and that it developed almost through its own efforts…
These are some of the impressions that come back to me… the intellectual and moral imprisonment, the special study program focused on exam success, being cut off from everything that was alive, the feeling of a painful exile among a group of companions who were too resigned and somewhat unused to freedom…
Moreover, there was also my own weakness in the midst of such a depressing environment, which hurt even more since I found it impossible to submit myself to the school regime and to suffer in silence… And yet there was a nagging feeling that others also felt like me, were suffering and searching like me. Although we lived side by side, we were like total strangers united only by the useless and sometimes unhealthy bonds of a conventional and totally superficial comradeship.
From that pell-mell first meeting in the Crypt of our college, however, I remember the students who came from many different classes, not knowing exactly why they had been invited. And we also had the school “censor” in our midst. He did not know exactly what we were going to do, but he stayed confident all the same…
A common soul
And so quite simply I shared with them all the feelings that I had stored up inside me and they understood. I proposed that we get to know each other, that we love one other, that we create a “common soul” among ourselves and prepare ourselves in a kind of “vigil of arms” to life for the people, for Christ… So it was that we developed the bonds of a friendship of which undoubtedly only new souls like ours could experience the generous embrace.
Thus the “Crypt” dates from that first meeting. In fact, it could not have had a humbler beginning and it is perhaps worthwhile to recall this when we often tend to think of it as some kind of ambitious foundation. It is also not unimportant to inform our new friends of the humbleness of our original task, limited as it was inside the walls of the college, and to help them appreciate its almost rash audacity since it aimed ultimately to attain, to transfer, to unite all that which was most intimate in the human soul. We demanded the total gift of self to the cause – with no second thoughts – to the cause for which we earnestly desired to be the apostles.
Certainly, for those of us who experienced the early days of the “Crypt”, there is a kind of charm and comfort in reliving those old memories. Once again we feel those enthusiasms of long ago re-awakening inside us. All these tedious and painful daily obstacles, which separated our ideas from our action, suddenly evaporate under a new light. It seems as it once did that our goal is again within reach. Forgetting for a moment the cruel bitterness of the route and the slow detours on the way, we raise our eyes and perceive the high white peaks that beckon us and whose grave and silent call warms our hearts and hastens our steps.
The real meaning of life
Indeed, how not to pause over such memories? Ultimately, the “Crypt” always remained true to its origins. It was simply a fraternal and spontaneous call to find the real meaning and objective of life, to raise ourselves above the obstacles accumulated from our education, the preconceptions of class and milieu, the multiple forms of vanity and egoism, with the ultimate objective of the liberation of souls?…
However, this work, which is at once so fundamental and so simple that it causes some to scoff, is so necessary and so universal that our “Crypt” was able to relaunch in the most diverse forms simply because it truly was the “Crypt.” In those friendly recreation time meetings in the barracks of the Ecole Polytechnique we tried to raise ourselves a little bit above the narrow, egotistical and often puerile life that was ours in order to speak openly about the important issues that claimed our attention and our devotion.
They were strange meetings, open to each and everyone, where anyone, whatever their origins, their ideas, their religion, could speak freely simply on the condition of being sincere. And our meeting certainly did not fail to trouble those who were most hostile to novelty in any form, those who were in fact the most antipathetic to our action, and who were no doubt astonished and somewhat disarmed by so much simplicity and good faith.
A leaven within the mass
And it was really the “Crypt” again in those small assemblies reserved this time simply to the believers where, still at the School, a few of us gathered in silence, in the depths of some isolated barracks to pray, read our spiritual books and meditate aloud together in order to strengthen and encourage each other. In the midst of all the moral profanity and religious indifference that seemed to surround us on all sides, we were happy and proud to be able to make heard the divine words of the Master. And far from remaining turned in on itself, we wanted our small group to become like a generous leaven destined to transform the whole inert or hostile mass.
When addressing their troops, our officer friends try to explain the greatness of a task freely accepted for love of the country. They make the effort to enliven and make each detail of military life come alive by highlighting its patriotic value and moral meaning. They endeavour to convince them of the fundamental equality and democratic brotherhood that in spite of appearances should unite us all in devotion to the same country. In the depths of the silent dormitories they work to vanquish the cold and defiant timidity of the soldiers and to help them to regain consciousness of their dignity as men and citizens.
And the latter, astonished but confident, slowly begin to understand that their years of service need not be simply an odious drudgery. They slowly re-descend into their own depths where, beneath the artificial bark of preconceptions, grudges, desires and egotisms, they may perhaps discover the pure and good truth which still remains.
When they work with such determination and love, isn’t this surely the real work of the “Crypt” continued a thousand times more faithfully than when, at our old subterranean Crypt we used to passionately debate the moral role of the officer?…
Study circles and worker groups
In those youth club study circle talks and in the worker groups there was all the more reason for the speaker to discuss than to talk. Yet despite the differences in milieu and occupation between us, we appreciated very quickly the strength of the bonds of brotherhood that united these sons of the same cause.
And we launched appeals to take initiative in the provincial colleges, where our friends battled to convince their young audiences that one cannot act in them without them, and that they must themselves become their own educators. They must not remain like soft wax in the hands of their masters but must become hotbeds of life and action.
These appeals were not made to simply remain theoretical. In fact, the other day a meeting that we had started ended without us as the young students to whom we spoke took to heart immediately what we had said. As we ourselves had done at an earlier time, they took over with their own personal and spontaneous work, replacing our friends on the stand. And their masters were only too happy to come down and to leave them in all the enthusiasm of their freedom. They were just waiting for the signal to break out the narrow barriers of conventional shyness and to stride generously towards the future…
We made ourselves
And it was in these meetings in modest village halls where we battled to explain to the humblest farmers that the great national task was also their own, that it was necessary that they truly become citizens, that they pick up the courage to understand their rights in order to better appreciate their duties. They were genuinely brotherly meetings in which we felt that we had truly reached the people. We always left with hearts full of hope, feeling uplifted by the naive promises of effort that we saw in their eyes and on their faces. It felt like a kind of viaticum keeping us alive in the struggle.
I don’t want to make excuses for haphazardly repeating so many personal memories because this is perhaps the best way of showing that we wanted to be something more than useless dreamers. I wanted to express how deeply our spirits were gripped by these ideas, which caused nearly everyone around us to scoff but which harsh realities that could break the wings of chimeras failed to destroy.
How were we wrong then when we felt the birth and growth in us of the irresistible and evident insight into our future roles? Was it not at least a fact that our interior experience could recognise?
“IIn the end, what did the Crypt achieve?” someone ironically asked one of our friends recently.
“What did it achieve?” he responded. “It made us who we are.”
Marc Sangnier, Le Sillon, 1897
Also in Marc Sangnier, Autrefois, Bloud et Gay, undated (1936?), 298pp. at p. 2 – 29.
Translated by Stefan Gigacz, August 2010