Sacred Space and Other Thoughts

I do my readings and prayer often from Sacred Space. Today I clicked on to the last newsletter that the folks from ‘the space’ produced, just before Christmas. They do a champion job those guys. Father Paul Andrews wrote the following piece that has a translated story or play written by an existentialist athiest no less!! A beautiful piece of work and it’s no wonder he recommitted his life to Jesus in the end. You pick up thye strong catholic Mary emphasis toward then, but then again, when you read the bible, Joseph does really move to darkness. I love the way when you read this you feel that you are there watching Mary and the baby Jesus, somehow that the experience is touching you, that in some strange way the baby actually knows you are there, really, like you are there, but in fact you are not…or were we…in a way?
Here it is –

Here is a piece of spiritual writing that has meant a lot to me; it is from Barjona by Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and playwright. In the autumn of 1940 the Nazis captured and deported Sartre, to a concentration camp in Germany. Before Christmas, a Jesuit fellow- prisoner, Paul Feller, persuaded Jean-Paul to write a nativity play for the French Christians who shared his captivity. Sartre, baptised a Catholic, was by this time a declared atheist. Writing a Christmas play ran against the grain. But as a gesture of solidarity with his French fellow-prisoners, he wrote Barjona, Jeu scénique en six tableaux.

To my knowledge the play was never published in Sartre’s lifetime. He presumably saw it as a jeu d’esprit, like a piece written for a Christmas party among friends. As an atheist and existentialist, he would not appreciate its location in a spiritual setting. However, the play is of such searing beauty that whenever I have quoted it, people have looked for the text and marvelled.

Barjona is the headman of a village near Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. He is a Sartre-like figure, a strong man consumed by existentialist despair. The villagers are starving and powerless under the yoke of Rome, and he cannot help them. In the play he has just persuaded his fellow villagers into a joint pact that they will bring no more children into the world, in protest against the oppression of Rome and the silence of God. Then the Magi enter, following a star. Barjona abuses them as doting, deluded old men, and points to the misery of the crowd who had gathered, torn between despair and hope.

However, the villagers follow the Magi to Bethlehem in search of the new-born King. Barjona, determined to eliminate this illusion before it catches the imagination of his friends, takes a short cut over the mountains to Bethlehem, where he plans to kill the baby. There is a gap in the text – Sartre’s note reads: Il manque trois pages – and when it resumes Barjona is on his knees, watching from the shadows as the villagers gather in the stable. Sartre will not describe a conversion, but he leaves the door open for hope. Barjona, his fellow-villagers and the Magi kneel round the manger, and a narrator describes what they see.

(The translation below is by the author.)
The Virgin is pale, and she looks at the baby. What I would paint on her face is an anxious wonderment, such as has never before been seen on a human face. For Christ is her baby, flesh of her flesh, and the fruit of her womb. She has carried him for nine months, and she will give him her breast, and her milk will become the blood of God. There are moments when the temptation is so strong that she forgets that he is God. She folds him in her arms and says: My little one.

But at other moments she feels a stranger, and she thinks: God is there – and she finds herself caught by a religious awe before this speechless God, this terrifying infant. All mothers at times are brought up sharp in this way before this fragment of themselves, their baby. They feel themselves in exile at two paces from this new life that they have created from their life, and which is now peopled by another’s thoughts. But no other baby has been so cruelly and suddenly snatched from his mother, for he is God, and he surpasses in every way anything that she can imagine. It is a hard trial for a mother to be ashamed of herself and her human condition before her son.

But I think that there are other rapid, fleeting moments when she realises at once that Christ is her son, her very own baby, and that he is God. She looks at him and thinks: “This God is my baby. This divine flesh is my flesh. He is made from me. He has my eyes, and the curve of his mouth is the curve of mine. He is like me. He is God and he is like me.”

No other woman has been lucky enough to have a God for herself alone, a tiny little God whom she can take in her arms and cover with kisses, a warm-bodied God who smiles and breathes, a God that she can touch, who is alive. And it is in these moments that I would paint Mary, if I was a painter, and I would try to capture the air of radiant tenderness and timidity with which she lifts her finger to touch the sweet skin of her baby-God, whose warm weight she feels on her knees, and who smiles.

So much for Jesus and for the Virgin Mary.

And Joseph? I would not paint Joseph. I would show no more than a shadow at the back of the stable, and two shining eyes. For I do not know what to say about Joseph, and Joseph does not know what to say about himself. He adores, and is happy to adore, and he feels himself slightly out of it. I believe he suffers without admitting it. He suffers because he sees how much this woman whom he loves resembles God; how she is already at the side of God. For God has burst like a bomb into the intimacy of this family. Joseph and Mary are separated for ever by this explosion of light. And I imagine that all through his life Joseph will be learning to accept this.

That is how Joan-Paul Sartre, a male, an ex-Christian, a prisoner in a labour camp, saw the Holy Family. Is it surprising that at the end he returned to his baptismal faith?


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