Words of Past Experience

The Mystery of the Infant God (1958)

By François Mauriac (1885-1970) - Bordeaux and Paris, France



The following text is the full first chapter of Le Fils de l'Homme (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1958) as translated by Bernard Murchland (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1960). The text appears on pages 17 to 32 of Murchland's edition.



Even in our old age we have much in common with the little child in the crib; we recognize ourselves in that child and in a sense we are that child. One part of our being, a most hidden part, is the child who has not experienced evil; by this fact a part of being is like unto God. For God is not only a Father; He is also an Eternal Child. I say this not because I adore the weakness and helplessness of the child. On the contrary, it is the child's strength which enraptures me: his all-powerfulness. Over the cadavers on Nietzschean heroes and the slaughter-houses which they filled with martyrs before adding to them the corruption of their own bodies, the purity of the child stands firm and triumphs. Even in our own lives, no matter what they might have been, it is possible to discover that triumphant purity and to reawaken it.


After Communion a Christian enters within himself, crosses the thick layers of irreparable acts that coat his conscience, the heavy accumulation of forgiven sins. When I do this, I discover the child who returned to his place in the left pew, on the twelfth of May, 1896, in the chapel of a school that no longer exists. I am still that child; nothing has changed except that my body is already half destroyed. But you are always there; You are there as the love I have seen reflected in the faces of the saints I have encountered during my life, the love to Whom I so often said: 'Depart from me!'


Today I know what Scripture means by 'man of blood.' I have seen men of blood. I will not be ashamed of my childhood before them. I put myself on the side of childhood -- on the side of the assassinated child Abel as well as on the side of the victorious child David; of the child Joseph who reigned in Egypt and of the Hebrew children who sang their joy in a furnace and were subjected to lions and flames. I am, above all, on the side of the Infant God who promised happiness to the meek. In the eyes of the world the strong man is the brute propelled by the power of his instincts to those extremes -- the mere sight of which is itself a defilement! -- that my generation has seen in Spain, in Germany, in Russia, and even, unfortunately, in my own country. After proclaiming the death of God by the mouth of Nietzsche, humanity sank into infamy, into an unspeakably foul cowardice which has culminated in the desperate zeal of executioners and police forces against unarmed and defenseless people.


But the Infant God naked upon the straw is the only one who is really all-powerful. He has within His fragile being the double torrent of two natures: 'The Word was made flesh.' By analogy, and infinitely distant from this mystery of mysteries, carnal and sinful man is united to the incarnate love of this Child through the grace he received upon his entry into this world. I, too, possess an eternal childhood and a sinful flesh; but I cannot bring them into harmony; one rises up over the other and each in its turn leads to death. This tide of flesh and blood, O God, this ebb and flow which both covers and uncovers my childhood, and the spume which seems to bury my childhood forever (although suddenly it is once more intact and I am like the little boy who wept in his pew on May 12, 1896) -- how can this tidal pull of human nature ever be brought into submission to You?


How difficult it is to keep my attention fixed on Your childhood, not to be drawn toward the abyss of your tortured humanity, toward Your passion and Your death. I am attracted to Your passion by our resemblance in suffering; because suffering summed up and, as it were, defined Your humanity, an instinct precipitates those who love You to the call of Your halting voice, toward the moments of agony and suffering in Your life. But it is not at the foot of the Cross that we are closest to You; it is perhaps while kneeling before Your manger, before the God-Child who has just been born. O Infinite Child, we do not expect You to forgive us for crimes which You do not yet understand.


What attracted me to Your adult body -- tortured, crucified, and pierced with a lance -- was its conformity to mind. O sorrowful Christ, in whom I seek myself and in whom I find myself, give me the grace to stop by Your manger, to lean at length over Your Infinite Being, totally captured within a little flesh. The sentiment of adoration which overcomes me when I hold the infant in my arms in no way resembles the bitter happiness I experience when I remember the Cross upon which is nailed a body like mine. For in the manger is Him whom we call God (but that is not His real name) and who is not yet called Jesus. he will receive the name of Jesus later in His life, although, in another and very real sense He undoubtedly received this name from all eternity. But upon the straw of Bethlehem He is still 'He who is'; not the Child-God but the God Who has become a Child: the God-Child, a child who is like a river uncontaminated by human sinfulness.


Trembling with job, kneeling over the common graves of Europe and carrying within me the memories of concentration camps, the charred cadavers of children and women in the ruins of French, Germany, Russian, and Japanese cities, I adore Him. I believe in you, God-Child, because you are a love that is still blind, that is still ignorant of innumerable crimes. To know them would in some way be to participate in them; but the Child of the manger is a stranger to this spilled blood, He is ignorant of the human stain. He will later see all of this before expiating it. But the Child of the manger knows nothing of it at this time. He still radiates infinite innocence. God in Him, omniscient God, has as yet undergone nothing, experienced nothing.


He is of course eternal knowledge; in a few years He will experience the suffering of mankind along the roads to Galilee and Calvary. But meanwhile, the newborn in Bethlehem is innocence ignorant of itself, love which does not know itself, fire which is not aware that it is fire. Or perhaps He is aware? In any event, it is not what He knows about the human condition that attracts us; it is rather what He brings with Him from a kingdom that is not of this world.


All other children of men are born out of nothingness. This one emanates from Being, passes from eternity to time, from the eternal to the ephemeral. I turn for a brief instant from the face that bears the insults of our crimes to press the newborn close to my heart. On this Christmas night, I will not speak of my sins to Him; I will lull Him to sleep in my love as I would my first-born son. I cannot speak of evil to the incarnate ignorance of evil.


The open door through which, on the paternal side, a torrent of heredities submerges us, opens for this child upon infinite Being: upon the Father. From this source He inherits an ocean of divinity while we sinners reap the hidden passions of the dead of our race: a sinister torchlight procession in which each man leaves after him the torches that will consume his descendants and whose flames will end by setting fire to a world bowed to murder and to abominable vices. O Lore who has escaped this heritage under which we groan and weep, who not only knows the secret of hearts but also those of the body, whom grace draws less toward the bad will of those who love You than toward the dark germs deposited by our ancestors, toward the 'thorn in the flesh' that tortured Saint Paul, have mercy upon the madness of those who sometimes awaken in an abyss into which they fell long before their birth.


I will become a child to be near you, O God-Child. There is neither death nor old age for those who love You; otherwise how would they be saved? For if it is true that the Lord asks those who follow Him to carry their cross, He does not enjoin them, except for a small number of saints, to be crucified as He was; on the other hand, He declares to all, whoever they might be, that they must become as little children to enter the kingdom and that they must receive the kingdom of God with the heart of a child. 'Unless you become as one of these little ones . . .'


There is therefore no other means of salvation than to become like a child. How easy it is for an old author, bitter and cynical as he is, to accept this condition! No one but you, O God, could believe it; You know it. My burning brow seeks You as a child seeks its mother's embrace: as a refuge, a shelter far from life's atrocities! You were as involved as anyone else in this life; yet You detected the child in everyone. Therefore those who seem ferocious to me undoubtedly carry within them this same child.


Human ferocity is like an encrustation formed by the alluvium of life; but the mystery of childhood remains at the center of our being. True, our childhood has been wounded by original sin; this is why Freud is partly right. But I believe none the less in the sanctity of childhood, in that good faith, in that hope, in that sacred weakness which we will conceal until our last breath. This is the angelic part of human nature which is called to see the Resurrection, to eternal contemplation of the Divine Face. The world accused You of having calumniated life and of creating an unfit and sickly race; yet, as You raised Lazarus from the dead, so You raised up beyond our infamous daily mediocrity a child: an eternal child.


Men always amuse themselves like children. If, sitting in the shadows of my loge in the theater, I turn my back on the actors who are interpreting my play, I notice rows of attentive or tired heads. I am always struck by how much they resemble the public before the Punch-and-Judy shows of my childhood. They have not changed; they laugh or weep with their whole hearts. In Alsace I saw the military leaders treating themselves to a parade every day of the week; they found a source of inexhaustible joy in playing (as children they played with lead soldiers) with soldiers of flesh under a leaden sun. Men will, it seems, distract themselves with marbles and balls until the very end of life. Today they have real horses and real weapons. They no longer have to imagine, to invent, to re-create the real: this is the real horse which they feel between their legs and the gun in their hands kill 'for real.' Their crimes are also like those of a child: the Nazis, for example, pulled off the legs of human insects! The child's profound insensitivity to the suffering of animals betrays itself in the horror of what we have seen during these bloody years.


But if the corruption of childhood is the worst kind, then the sanctity of childhood is what most resembles God. This is what must be redeemed in every human being. Absolution revives it in most men only a little before death; it awakens innocence in the last tear on the cheek of a dying man. Blessed is he, O Lord, who does not call you He who damns, as you remarked in a vision to my patron, Francis de Sales, but who calls you Jesus, He who saves. And when the unspeakably foul wave of sinful nature covers us, according to the ineluctable laws of the tides (what ominous star regulates the rise and fall of this filth in us?), there is no explanation or excuse to be given to the infant God: as a child, He would not understand.


We cannot hold this Child responsible for the incomprehensible creation which He came to save but which, since hell-fire will continue through eternity, He did not save completely. Though infinite, He has been swallowed up in a finite that is pockmarked with crimes. He establishes His claim in this world with two crossed pieces of wood; yet in the name of that cross, millions of martyrs and executioners have been raised up, people have been burned at the stake, crusades and wars have been unleashed, and human beings have been dominated by inhuman laws. The gentle child shivers with cold on the edge of a criminal world while angels promise peace to men of good will -- a peace that can be discovered only after a full measure of suffering; but in the shadows of His birthplace Herod's soldiers sharpen their knives for a slaughter of innocents that will apparently never end.


This is the Christian paradox; these are the parts of an undecipherable mystery to which the Child has the secret word. When He became a man, He did not tell us what that word is; still, we know that it exists. Christ implied as much when His disciples murmured: 'Man can do nothing; but all things are possible to God.' This last secret word will not be given to us until our malice can no longer use it as an excuse for satisfaction of our vices. Until the end of time the little child will keep the secret, which man would use only to glut himself. A nature or a definition of God does not exist; but there is a Love Which Knows Itself and which is reflected in creatures mysteriously wounded from their birth.


This wound is envenomed and irritated by that somber angel who is master of the world; the world, however, no longer even believes that Satan exists. Penetrated as it is with an essential malignancy, history is more determined than modern man realizes. And there is no one to disturb this maleficent order except the Infant God. Sometimes I wanted to withdraw from You. I could no longer bear Your silence, Your absence. For what can be more absent than a newborn child? With whom is one more alone than with a little child in his arms? To accept the risk of our unmanageable anger, to mingle with the crowd of those who believe only in man on earth, in his strength, in his body (whose flesh is gorged with riches and full of hidden powers), who do not try to be either good or pure -- at certain moments, I desired all these things. But it was not permitted to me to have them since I have been branded from childhood. 'You are simply a product of influences of your childhood,' my demon mockingly whispered. 'Until your last breath,' he seemed to say, 'you will feed in this false and empty pasture.' Sometimes, in my hours of grace, I believed I had lost this demon in the crowd behind me. I no longer felt his breath on my neck. Then I knew what the saints experienced; I caught a glimpse of their life, and already I was stripping myself on the edge of an ocean of life. The peace of Christ intoxicated me. How did I ever consent to live without this joy? How simple death would be if it were a passage from ecstasy to contemplation, from the desire of God to the possession of God!


But then my peace would be shattered. A vague sadness would overcome me, a desire to be walking the streets, to look into the cold, impassioned face of a prostitute; there would be a contempt for my life, for what I have been, for what I am, a hatred for my destiny. How I desired to blur those images and to disappear: to leave of myself nothing but a castoff garment, to forget my name and my age in a world which does not reflect God or give me any reminder of Him. Infant God, you know that we do not love peace; we do not love happiness. The emptiness of heart, the eternal vacuity of incipient old age, the insipidity of the idle days which You give us, the residue of a life which stagnates in academies and in official places -- how all of this gives savor to the bitterness of dead passions!


Not that I was ever very far away from Your manger; but it was unnecessary even to leave it at all. There was no need for a single thing, or even the shadow of a thing, to come between us and to prevent me from seeing You, O Child, above all creatures! The saints have overcome the obstacles of flesh and blood, have gone beyond the limits of sinful nature. But how many Christians have failed to do so? Who will ever know? The saints have gone beyond earthly barriers to the place where You are supposed to await them; sometimes You are not there or at least seem not to be there. And sometimes, hidden, You watch the disappointment of those who, at the price of their poor human happiness, hastened to the rendezvous You assigned them: You see that they seek You but do not find You; yet they believe; they know that You are there. How can they turn back? They can only go forward into the desert of your divinity. What is important for them is not to grow weary but to possess a heart that will not fail. The callousness and insensitivity of an old man are what remain in him after the ebb and flow of love has failed to reach its object; but he discovers this object, this being, this love, on the Blessed Night of Christmas. He recognizes it; he presses it against his breast like a sleeping child.


The Eucharist is the childhood of God; it is in me as a little child who falls asleep and whose head rests lightly on my shoulders. But it is an ardent sleep, a presence that both burns and pacifies. I bear it away with me hidden, as it were, under my cloak. God has not answered my questions laden with despair: He has simply given Himself to me.