by Czeslaw Milosz

CZESLAW MILOSZ is the winner of the 1978 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the author, most recently, of Road-side Dog and Milosz's ABC's.

To deny, to believe, and to doubt absolutely -- this is for man what running is for a horse. --Pascal

If only this could be said: "I am a Christian, and my Christianity is such and such." Surely there are people who are capable of making such a statement, but not everyone has that gift. The power of dispossession, of disinheritance, is so great that language itself draws a boundary line. "In that dark world, where gods have lost their way" (Theodore Roethke), only the path of negation, the via negativa, seems to be accessible. It is worthwhile to ponder the difficulty of labeling oneself a Christian. This difficulty is marked by somewhat different characteristics in each branch of Christianity; to speak of "Christianity in general" would be to forget about many centuries of history and that we each belong to a particular, more or less preserved, tradition. In my case, the difficulty lies in calling myself a Catholic.

The obstacles I encounter derive from shame. We always experience shame in relation to someone; that is why, instead of dilating on religious concepts, I am obliged to make an effort to picture the faces of people before whom I am ashamed. A milieu which is hostile to religion, which thinks of religion as a relic of a past era, would probably arouse my violent opposition and a manifestation of my own religiosity. I am not dealing with such a milieu, however. Actually, I ought to explain the word milieu. What I mean by this is a certain number of people, scattered among various cities and countries, but present in my imagination. When I speak about my time or my era, I refer to events that touch me directly, as well as to what I know from books, films, television, the press; but more reliable knowledge is connected to people, to those whose way of life and thinking is familiar to me, to some extent, thanks to our personal relationships. I call this group "my contemporaries" under the assumption that they can be considered to be representative of a much more inclusive group, although it would be inappropriate to base any far-reaching generalizations on them.

My contemporaries treat religious faith with respect and a lively interest, but almost always faith is something held by others that they have rejected for themselves. During the first three-quarters of the twentieth century such radical changes took place in the way people lead their lives that customs which were still universal in 1900 have acquired the characteristic of exceptions, and my contemporaries experience these changes both as progress and as a loss about which nothing can be done. Once upon a time, the fundamental events of human existence were consecrated by rituals marking a person's entrance into life, fertility, and death. The birth of a child was followed immediately by his acceptance into the community of the faithful, which meant, among Christians, baptism. Then the child submitted to rites of initiation (First Communion, confirmation studies, the sacrament of confirmation). In the countries where I have spent most of my life, in France and America, the existence of these rites, even of baptism, is becoming more and more problematic. They require a decision by the parents, so they are not perceived as self-evident. One of my contemporaries, Albert Camus, once asked me what I think: Is it not a little indecent that he, an atheist, should be sending his children to First Communion? But a decision in favor of the religious education of children does not offer much help, since the language in which the catechist speaks is countered by the impression the surrounding scientific-technological civilization makes upon the imagination.

The existence of marriage rites, rich in symbolism and providing a sense of the succession of generations, is becoming even more problematic. (The central place of this rite in Polish theater -- in Wyspianski's Wedding, Gombrowicz's Marriage, Mrozek's Tango -- should give us something to think about.) Increasingly, the institution of marriage is being replaced by simply living together, which has followed upon the sundering of the link between sex and fertility. This is not just a revolution in the area of moral norms; it reaches much deeper, into the very definition of man. If the drive which is innate in man as a physiological being conflicts with the optimum condition that we call a human way of life (sufficient food, good living conditions, women's rights), and therefore has to be cheated with the help of science, then the rest of our firmly held convictions about what is natural behavior and what is unnatural fall by the wayside. This distinction between the natural and the unnatural was based on the harmony of Nature, which enfolded and supported man. Now we are forced to recognize that anti-naturalness defines man's very nature. And yet, isn't a belief in salutary cyclicity inherent in every ritual? Doesn't the ancient notion that infertility, whether of a woman's womb or of a sowed field, is a disaster provide negative confirmation of this fact? And isn't every kind of ritual dealt a blow when a species has to oppose the cycles of nature?

My contemporaries generally adhere to the rituals accompanying death, because they have to. Faced with the fact that someone has died, a particular sense of helplessness overwhelms family and friends; something has to be done, but no one knows what. This is a moment when the living gather together and form a community which unites, for the occasion, into a farewell circle. It is possible that the more activity that takes place around the deceased, the easier it is to endure the loss, or that lengthy prayers ease sorrow by virtue of something having been done. Burying someone who was movement and energy is too repulsive and at odds with our humanity for us to accept it without a prescribed form: the more conventional it is, the better, for as long as the deceased takes part in our tradition-sanctioned gestures and words, he remains with us; this dance, as it were, includes him in our rhythm and language -- in defiance of that great Other about which the only thing we are able to say is that for us it has no properties. That is why over the course of millennia mourning rituals became richly differentiated into liturgy, the lamentations of professional mourners, the funeral feast. Of course, scientific-technological civilization cannot cope with death, because it has always thought only about the living. Death makes a mockery of it: new refrigerators and flights to other planets -- what does the one who is lying here care about them? In the face of death the circle of those saying goodbye senses its own buffoonishness, just like the participants in a "demonic vaudeville," to borrow Kirillov's phrase from Dostoevsky's The Possessed. Whatever may be the beliefs of those gathered there, they accept a religious funeral with a sense of relief. It frees them from the necessity of an almost impossible improvisation at a time when, at best, one can come up with a moment of silence and the playing of a Mozart recording.

I feel obliged to speak the truth to my contemporaries and I feel ashamed if they take me to be someone whom I am not. In their opinion, a person who "had faith" is fortunate. They assume that as a result of certain inner experiences he was able to find an answer, while they know only questions. So how can I make a profession of faith in the presence of my fellow human beings? After all, I am one of them, seeking, as they do, the laws of inheritance, and I am just as confused. I have no idea at all how to relate to the rituals of initiation. What form should the catechization of children take? How and when should they be prepared to participate in the Eucharist? I even suspect that in a world that is alien to it, religion is too difficult for a young mind, and that in the best of circumstances it will take on the form of an alternate system in that mind, a system of "as if," having no connection with reality. One can imagine a state (let this be science fiction for the moment) in which most of the population is educated from childhood in a mundane, materialistic philosophy, only the highest elite has religion, and the citizens of that country are not allowed to concern themselves with religious problems until they are at least forty years old. Furthermore (let us enlarge upon this), this proscription was introduced not to preserve privilege but, sorrowfully, when it was noticed that despite everyone's desire, the simplest religious ideas were as difficult to comprehend as the highest mathematics and that they had been transformed into a kind of gnosis.

A Catholic ought to know what to think about today's sexual morality and about marriage, shouldn't he? Yet I have no opinion about these matters, and it is not because I am indifferent to them. On the contrary, I believe they are crucial. In this regard, it is important to remember that ideas from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have triumphed: "free love" was a slogan uniting atheists and anarchists like William Godwin, apocalyptic prophets like William Blake, and utopian socialists. The particular dialectic tension of the Industrial Revolution in its early stages, of repressive morality and the revolt against it, made their appearance. But that revolt would lead to change only thanks to science, which was developing in a context of repressive morality. Taken together, all of this bears scant resemblance to the eighteenth-century libertinism practiced by dissolute aristocrats and their ladies. It is probably not one of those revolutions of moral tolerance which occur repeatedly in history and which alternated with periods of severity. As a representative of a transitional generation, I cannot assume the role of Cato, since sexual freedom was already accepted by my generation, even if not too openly. At the same time, however, the Catholic upbringing I received imposed a severely repressive morality. This is one reason why I tend to distrust my own judgments. I can say nothing good about repression, which crippled me in some ways and poisoned me with pangs of conscience, so that I am not fit to be a teacher of conservative ethical rules. But at the same time, I ask myself this question: These inhibitions and self-imposed prohibitions, without which monogamous ties are impossible -- do they not have a fundamental significance for culture, as a school of discipline? Perhaps the proponents of "free love" would be quite distraught if they could see that today their sermons seem downright puritanical. I also have nothing to say about the rupture of the link between sex and fertility, other than that it has already happened. The subtle comments of theologians seem dubious to me, and I cannot discern a difference in the methods used since their causal effect is the same: the cunning of the human mind deployed against Nature. Which does not mean that I react to the Pope's exhortations like those progressive Catholics who hear in them only the voice of obscurantism. It is, as I have said, a deeper problem than it seems, and that the Church is privately tearing its hair out over this testifies to a sense of responsibility for our entire species at a time when it is undergoing a great mutation.

But what of death? I would say that it has made an especially spectacular appearance in my century and that it is the real heroine of the literature and art which is contemporary with my lifetime. Death has always accompanied us, and word, line, color, sound drew their raison d'être from opposition to it; it did not, however, always behave with the same majesty. The danse macabre that appears in late medieval painting signified the desire to domesticate death or to become familiar with it through its ubiquitous presence, a friendly partnership, as it were. Death was familiar, well known, took part in feasts, had the right to citizenship in the cité. Scientific-technological civilization has no place for death, which is such an embarrassment that it spoils all our calculations, but it turns out that this is not for the best. For death intrudes itself into our thoughts the less we wish to think about it. And so literature and art start referring to it incessantly, transforming themselves into an areligious meditation on death and conducting "pre-casket somatism," to borrow a phrase from contemporary Polish poetry.

Here, perhaps, is where I part ways with many people with whom I would like to be in solidarity but cannot be. To put it very simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is: "Yes." So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: "Yes or no?" I answer: "Yes," and by that response I nullify death's omnipotence. If I am mistaken in my faith, I offer it as a challenge to the Spirit of the Earth. He is a powerful enemy; his field is the world as mathematical necessity, and in the face of earthly powers how weak an act of faith in the incarnate God seems to be.

I must add immediately that when thinking about my own death or participating with my contemporaries in a funeral ceremony, I am no different from them and my imagination is rendered powerless just as theirs is: it comes up against a blank wall. It is simply impossible for me to form a spatial conception of Heaven and Hell, and the images suggested by the world of art or the poetry of Dante and Milton are of little help. But the imagination can function only spatially; without space the imagination is like a child who wants to build a palace and has no blocks. So what remains is the covenant, the Word, in which man trusts. Who, however, will inherit life? Those who are predestined to do so. I know that I ought not play the role of a judge, yet I do, prompted by the human need to evaluate. So I divide people; that's right, I divide people -- as artists used to when painting the Last Judgment -- into those who go to the right and those who go to the left, into the saved and the damned. There are many among both the living and the dead whom I call bright spirits, whom I respect and admire, and so I have no doubt that they belong among the saved. But what about the others, those who are like me? Is it true that we ourselves were guilty of all those falls and internal conflicts that tear us apart, of the evil that stifles the weak impulses of our good will? Where does the responsibility for our illnesses lie -- for us, patients in hospitals and psychiatric clinics, whatever our illnesses may be, whether physical or spiritual? My criteria are inadequate; I understand nothing.

My contemporaries, or, at least, those whom I value most highly, strive not to lie to themselves. This obligates me. Alas, two traps lie in wait: hypocrisy and exaltation. A man who derives from his own scrupulous fulfillment of religious prescripts a sense of superiority over others, because they are not as scrupulous, is called a Pharisee. The Church as an institution imposes rules concerning participation in its rites; attendance at Mass and confession are not a matter of the heart's needs but a self-imposed discipline accepted by the faithful. In our new conditions, however, a new temptation is born: the more I resemble my contemporaries who are leaving the Church, the more my decision to comply with these rules takes on the appearance of arbitrariness. I respond with a shrug of my shoulders -- "Well, what of it?" -- to all the reservations I come up with, and although I don't want to, I grab myself by the scruff of the neck. Alas, I take pride in being able to do that: a Pharisee. As a matter of fact, I don't really believe in these acts; for me, confession is a purely symbolic test of strength. What will win out -- revulsion at the completely senseless activity of confessing imaginary sins or obedience to the prescriptions of our mother Ecclesia? In this regard, my attitude comes close to Lutheran conclusions: Man cannot know his own true evil; all he can do is trust in divine mercy, knowing that the sins he confesses to will almost certainly be nothing but a mask and a disguise. In other words, I am with all those people who have proclaimed their distrust of Nature (it's contaminated) and relied solely on the boundless freedom of the divine act, or Grace. That is why, among all the figures of the twentieth century, my writers were Lev Shestov and Simone Weil. In naming them together, I do not wish to obscure the essential differences between them which arose, first and foremost, from the fact that Shestov struggled against Greek philosophy, whereas Weil was fundamentally a Platonist. Nevertheless, even though she often quarreled with Pascal, she was closest to his thinking, and as for Shestov, he, too, praised Pascal and also Luther. That I was drawn to Shestov and Weil was also a function of their style. It is no accident that their language -- Russian in Shestov's case, French in Weil's -- is clear, severe, spare, superbly balanced, so that among modern philosophers they are the best writers. In my opinion, this proves that in a period when the sacral is available to us only through negation and repudiation of what is anti-sacral, the self-restraint and intellectual rigor of those two places them on the outermost boundary of the very best style, beyond which verbosity begins.

At one time I was prepared to call these tendencies of mine Protestant. With great relief, since nothing links me intellectually with Anglo-Saxon Protestants, I became convinced that it was only a few old Christian currents which had been labeled heretical after the schism and the Tridentine Council, since the warring sides needed to underline and even to invent their differences. The breathtaking casuistic distinctions developed by Catholics attempting to capture the riddle of free will and grace in Aristotelian-Thomist language do not seem convincing to me, and even Jacques Maritain's attempt to resolve this problem toward the end of his long life smells too much of casuistry. It's the same with predestination. It was part of the teachings of the Church long before Martin Luther appeared (those who are predestined to do so will inherit life), and we have been informed erroneously that this is a distinguishing feature of Protestantism.

Hypocrisy and exaltation: struggling with my two souls, I cannot break free of them. One: passionate, fanatical, unyielding in its attachment to discipline and duty, to the enemy of the world; Manichaean, identifying sex with the work of the Devil. The other: reckless, pagan, sensual, ignoble, perfidious. And how could the ascetic in me, with the clenched jaws, think well of that other me? He could only aim for false sublimations, for deceptive Platonisms, convincing himself that amore sacro is his calling, and smothering the thought that I am entirely on the side of amore profano, even if I clasp my hands and primly purse my lips like a well-behaved young miss. Those two souls have also led me down some strange byways where it was necessary to establish my own relationship to the community, ranging from a thoroughly patriotic devotion akin to that of the nineteenth-century Philomaths all the way to fits of rage and egotistical indifference, which, of course, forced my disciplined half to adopt various disguises and enact various comedies in relation to myself. Alas, I cannot avoid mentioning those internal altercations; they demonstrate that Saint Francis's cheerfulness is not for me. Although, I must say, one of my old English friends once told me that there is a lot of gaiety in me, which is probably true, and means that there is such a thing as a despairing cheerfulness.

Nowadays, we tend to exaggerate the difficulty of having faith; in the past, when religion was a matter of custom, very few people would have been able to say what and how they believed. There existed an intermediary stratum of half-conscious convictions, as it were, supported by trust in the priestly caste. The division of social functions also occurred in the field of religion. "Ordinary" mortals turned to the priests, setting the terms of an unwritten contract: We will till the soil, go to war, engage in trade, and you will mutter prayers for us, sprinkle holy water, perform pious singing, and preserve in your tomes knowledge about what we must believe in. An important component of the aura that surrounded me in my childhood was the presence of clergy, who were distinguished from those around them by their clothing, and in daily life and in church by their gestures and language. The soutane, the chasuble, the priest's ascending the steps before the altar, his intonations in Latin, in the name of and in lieu of the faithful, created a sense of security, the feeling that there is something in reserve, something to fall back on as a last resort; that they, the priestly caste, do this "for us." Men have a strong need for authority, and I believe this need was unusually strong in me; when the clergy took off their priestly robes after Vatican II, I felt that something was lacking. Ritual and theater are ruled by similar laws: we know that the actor dressed up as a king is not a king, or so it would seem, but to a certain extent we believe that he is. The Latin, the shimmering chasubles, the priest's position with his face toward the altar and his back to the faithful, made him an actor in a sacral theater. After Vatican II the clergy shed not only their robes and Latin but also, at least here, where I write this, the language of centuries-old formulas which they had used in their sermons. When, however, they began speaking in the language of newspapers, their lack of intellectual preparation was revealed, along with the weakness of timid, often unprepossessing people who showed deference to "the world," which we, the laity, had already had enough of.

The child who dwells inside us trusts that there are wise men somewhere who know the truth. That is the source of the beauty and passion of intellectual pursuits -- in philosophical and theological books, in lecture halls. Various "initiations into mystery" were also said to satisfy that need, be it through the alchemist's workshop or acceptance into a lodge (let us recall Mozart's Magic Flute). As we move from youthful enthusiasms to the bitterness of maturity, it becomes ever more difficult to anticipate that we will discover the center of true wisdom, and then one day, suddenly, we realize that others expect to hear dazzling truths from us (literal or figurative) graybeards.

Among Catholics that process was until recently eased by the consciousness that the clergy acted in a dual function: as actors of the sacred theater and as the "knowledgeable caste," the bearers of dogmas dispensed, as if from a treasure house, by the center, the Vatican. By democratizing and anarchizing, up to and including the realm of what, it would seem, were the unassailable truths of faith, aggiornamento also struck a blow at the "knowing" function of the clergy. An entirely new and unusual situation arose in which, at least in those places where I was able to observe this, the flock at best tolerates its shepherds, who have very little idea of what to do. Because man is Homo ritualis, a search takes place for collectively created Form, but it is obvious that any liturgy (reaching deep into one or another interpretation of dogma) which is elaborated communally, experimentally, cannot help but take shape as a relative, interhuman Form.

Perhaps this is how it should be, and these are the incomprehensible paths of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of man's maturity and of a universal priesthood instead of a priesthood of one caste? I do not want this to sound like an admission that the Protestant isolation of individuals is correct, on the basis of which each individual may treat religion as a completely personal matter; this is delusive and leads to unconscious social dependencies. It would be useless for man to try to touch fire with his bare hands; the same is true of the mysterious, sacral dimension of being, which man approaches only through metaxu, as Simone Weil calls it, through intermediaries such as fatherland, customs, language. It is true that although I would characterize my religion as childishly magical, formed on its deepest level by the metaxu which surrounded me in my childhood, it was the adhesions of Polishness in Catholicism that later distanced me from the Church. I cannot say how I would react to this today, because I have lived for a long time outside the Polish-speaking religious community. With rare exceptions, for me Catholics are French, Italian, and Irish, and the language of the liturgy is English. In other words, what happened inside me, of necessity, was a division into two spheres, or rather a change in only one of them, since I myself stuck with the Polish language and with everything that this language carries with it. The pain and fits of anger that "national religion" (i.e., parochialism) provoked in me, and the right-wing political ideology among those who took part in the rituals, remain in my memory, but perhaps they no longer interfere with my looking at these matters from the broader perspective of time. Catholicism, divorced by now from borscht with dumplings and nationalistic programs, seems to me to be the indispensable background for everything that will be truly creative in Polish culture, although I feel that the present moment is preparatory and portends an era of fundamental rethinking.

Though circumstances disconnected me from the community of those praying in Polish, this does not mean that the "communal" side of Catholicism vanished for me. Quite the contrary; the coming together of a certain number of people to participate in something that exceeds them and unites them is, for me, one of the greatest of marvels, of significant experiences. Even though the majority of those who attend church are elderly (this was true two and three generations ago, too, which means that old age is a vocation, an order which everyone enters in turn), these old people, after all, were young however many years ago and not overly zealous in their practice at that time. It is precisely the frailty, the human infirmity, the ultimate human aloneness seeking to be rescued in the vestibule of the church, in other words, the subject of godless jokes about religion being for old ladies and grandfathers -- it is precisely this that affords us transitory moments of heartbreaking empathy and establishes communion between "Eve's exiles." Sorrow and wonder intermingle in it, and often it is particularly joyous, as when, for example, fifteen thousand people gather in the underground basilica in Lourdes and together create a thrilling new mass ritual. Not inside the four walls of one's room or in lecture halls or libraries, but through communal participation the veil is parted and for a brief moment the space of Imagination, with a capital I, is visible. Such moments allow us to recognize that our imagination is paltry, limited, and that the deliberations of theologians and philosophers are cut to its measure and therefore are completely inadequate for the religion of the Bible. Then complete, true imagination opens like a grand promise and the human privilege of recovery, just as William Blake prophesied.

Ought I to try to explain "why I believe"? I don't think so. It should suffice if I attempt to convey the coloring or tone. If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts, which we may call proprium, or self-love, or the Specter. The proposition that even if some good is attainable by man, he does not deserve it, can be proved by experience. Domineering impulses cannot be rooted out, and they often accompany the feeling that one has been chosen to be a passive instrument of the good, that one is gifted with a mission; thus, a mixture of pride and humility, as in Mickiewicz, but also in so many other bards and prophets, which also makes it the motivator of action. This complete human poverty, since even what is most elevated must be supported and nourished by the aggression of the perverse "I" is, for me, an argument against any and all assumptions of a reliance on the natural order.

Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually. One can draw momentous conclusions from this: despite their complete entanglement in earthly causality, human beings have a role in something that could be called superterrestrial causality, and thanks to it they are, potentially, miracle workers. The more harshly we judge human life as a hopeless undertaking and the more we rid ourselves of illusions, the closer we are to the truth, which is cruel. Yet it would be incomplete if we were to overlook the true "good news," the news of victory. It may be difficult for young people to attain it. Only the passing of years demonstrates that our own good impulses and those of our contemporaries, if only short-lived, do not pass without a trace. This, in turn, inclines us to reflect on the hierarchical structure of being. If even creatures so convoluted and imperfect can accomplish something, how much more might creatures greater than they in the strength of their faith and love accomplish? And what about those who are even higher than they are? Divine humanity, the Incarnation, presents itself as the highest rung on this hierarchical ladder. To move mountains with a word is not for us, but this does not mean that it is impossible. Were not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John miracle workers by virtue of their having written the Gospels?

Excerpted from To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays by Czeslaw Milosz, edited and with an introduction by Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2001 by Czeslaw Milosz. Translation and introduction copyright 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52,  No 1.