Blaise Pascal (16231662). Letters. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Letter from Pascal and His Sister Jacqueline to their Sister, Madame Perier
Paris, November 5, afternoon, 1648.
MY DEAR SISTER, Your letter has recalled to us a misunderstanding of which we had lost recollection, so absolutely had it passed from us. The somewhat too diffuse explanations that we have received have brought to light the general and former subject of our complaints, and the satisfaction that we have given has softened the harshness which my father had conceived for them. We said what you had already said, without knowing that you had said it, and then we excused verbally what you had afterwards excused in writing, without knowing that you had done so; and we knew not what you had done until after we had acted ourselves; for as we have hidden nothing from my father, he has revealed every thing, and thus cured all our suspicions. You know how much such troubles disturb the peace of the family both within and without, and what need we have in these junctures of the warnings which you have given us a little too late.
We have some to give you on the subject of your own. The first is in respect to what you say, that we have instructed you as to what you should write to us. 10. I do not remember to have spoken to you of it, so that this was a novelty to me; and, besides, even though this were true, I should fear that you had not retained this humanly, if you had not forgotten the person of whom you learned it to remember only God, who alone could have truly instructed you in it. If you remember it as a good thing, you cannot think to hold it from any other, since neither you nor the others can learn it except from God alone. For, although in this kind of gratitude, we do not stop at the men whom we address as though they were the authors of the good that we receive through their means, this nevertheless forms a partial opposition to the views of God, and chiefly in the persons who are not entirely divested of the carnal impressions which make them consider as the source of good the objects that transmit it.
Not that we ought not to remember those persons from whom we have received any instructions, when these persons have been authorized to make them, as fathers, bishops, and confessors, because they are the masters of whom others are the disciples. But as to us, it is different; for as the angel refused the adoration of a holy servant like himself, we tell you, in entreating you no longer to use these terms of human gratitude, to refrain from paying us such compliments, since we are disciples like yourself.
The second is in respect to what you say of its being unnecessary to repeat these things to us, since we know them perfectly already; which causes us to fear that you do not distinguish clearly enough here between the things of which you speak and those of which the world speaks, since it is doubtless quite enough to have learned the latter once and retained them well to be no further instructed in them, while it does not suffice to have comprehended once those of the other kind and to have known them well, that is, by the internal impulse of God, to preserve the knowledge of them in the same degree, although we may retain the memory. Not that we may not remember and as easily retain an epistle of St. Paul as a book of Virgil; but the knowledge that we acquire in this manner, as well as its continuation, is only an effect of memory, while to understand this secret language, unknown to those who are not of Heaven, it is necessary that the same grace, which alone can give the first knowledge of it, shall continue and render it ever present by retracing it without ceasing in the hearts of the faithful to keep it constantly existing there; as God continually renews their beatitude in the blessed, which is an effect and a consequence of grace; as likewise the Church holds that the Father perpetually produces the Son and maintains the eternity of this essence by an effusion of his substance, which is without interruption as well as without end.
Thus the continuation of the justice of the faithful is nothing else than the continuation of the infusion of grace, and not a single grace that subsists continually; and this it is that teaches us perfectly our perpetual dependence on the mercy of God, since if he suspends the course of it ever so slightly, barrenness necessarily becomes the result. In this necessity, it is easy to see that it is necessary to make new efforts continually to acquire this continual newness of spirit, since we can only preserve the former grace by the acquisition of a new grace, and since otherwise we shall lose what we think to retain, as those who wish to shut in the light shut in nothing but darkness. Thus we should watch unceasingly to purify the interior, which is constantly sullied by new spots while retaining the old ones, since without this assiduous renovation we shall be incapable of receiving that new wine that cannot be put into old bottles.
For this reason you should not fear to place before our eyes the things which we have in our memory, and which it is necessary to cause to enter into the heart, since it is unquestionable that your discourse can better serve as the instrument of grace than can the impression of it that remains in our memory, since grace is especially accorded to prayer, and since this charity that you have had for is among those prayers that ought never to be interrupted. Thus we never should refuse to read or to hear holy things, however common or well-known they may be; for our memory as well as the instructions which it contains, is only an inanimate and Judaical body without the spirit that should vivify them. And it often happens that God avails himself of these exterior means to make them understood and to leave so much the less food for the vanity of men when they thus receive grace in themselves. Thus, a book or a sermon, however common it may be, brings much more profit to him who hears or reads it with better disposition than does the excellence of the most elevated discourses which usually bring more pleasure than instruction; and it is sometimes seen that those who listen as they ought, although ignorant and almost stupid, are touched by the simple name of God and the words that menace them with hell, although these may be all that they comprehend and although they knew it as well before.
The third is in respect to what you say about only writing things to make us understand that you share the same feeling. We have equally to praise and to thank you on this subject; we praise you for your perseverance and thank you for the testimony that you give us of it. We had already drawn this confession from M. Perier, and the things that we induced him to say had assured us of it: we can only tell you how much we are pleased by representing to you the joy which you would receive if you should hear the same thing of us.
We have nothing in particular to tell you, except touching the design of your house.1 We know that M. Perier is too earnest in what he undertakes to fully think of two things at once, and that the entire design is of such magnitude that, in order to complete it, he must remain a long time without thinking of any thing else. We know, too, that his project is only for a part of the building; but this, besides being only too large alone, engages for the completion of the rest as soon as there shall be no farther obstacles to it, however determined he may be to the contrary, especially if he employs the time in building that it would take to undeceive him of the secret pleasure that he finds in it. Thus we have counselled him to build much less than he intended, and only what is actually necessary, although according to the same design, in order that he may not have cause to become absorbed in it, nor yet deprive himself of the opportunity of doing so. We entreat you to think seriously of it, and to resolve to counsel him likewise, lest it may happen that he may be far more prudent and bestow much more care and pains in the building of an earthly house than he is obliged to bestow on that mystic tower, of which you know St. Augustine speaks in one of his letters, which he has promised to finish in his conversations. Adieu. B. P.J. P.