Editor’s note: In 1995 I wrote to Julian Green in Paris. Green was 95 years old and was considered, and still is, one the greatest French writers of the modern age. His many novels, memoirs, dairies, and books of reflection on saints and cities kept him in the public eye from his first novel at age 26, Mont-Cinère (Avarice House) to his death in 1998. Green is the only American, having been born in Paris to American parents, to have been elected to the Académie française,succeeding the Catholic writer François Mauriac in 1971. Green himself was a Catholic convert in spite of a fiercely Calvinist mother who inhabits much of his fiction. I was thrilled when I received this manuscript, in French, in only a few weeks. I was even more thrilled to find that Green had sent something so personal and revealing. To publish Julian Green in Crisis Magazine was one of the most satisfying moments of my 12 years as publisher and editor. (Green used both English and French spellings of his given name.)
Published 1, 1995
I was born into the American Protestant religion of the Episcopal Church. My mother who strongly adhered to her faith brought me up in the daily reading of the Bible, and I have kept this habit until the present. Broadly speaking, nearly all the information that I received from her was situated in the human person of Jesus. It seems to me that even in the rhythms of the Our Father that she made me recite from memory with my head on her shoulder, I felt the supernatural tenderness of her own faith.
In my childish imagination, it was possible to touch the hand of the Lord himself, even though for me He remained invisible, but as well as I remember, I said nothing. Constantly, she stressed the continuous protection and love that He had for me. This love, which she bequeathed to me as an inheritance, was the equal of a more scholarly theology. My leaning toward the Catholic faith occurred without my being aware of the reason for it.
My mother died on December 27, 1914. According to the custom of many Protestants, her body was left unattended in her bedroom. All of us stayed in the house, which was thrown into a silence so terrible that I locked myself alone in a room on the third floor. But presently the urge came over me to slip softly outside and quietly go down the stairs to the death chamber. I stared at the door, which sent me into feelings of terrible dread alternating with curiosity. Finally, I walked right toward the bed.
My surprise was enormous. I expected to find a face deformed by suffering. Instead, my mother’s face gave the impression of a person buried in a deep meditation. Never had I seen her so mysteriously pensive. Her beauty surprised me even more. All the lines of age had disappeared and left a smooth surface resembling youth. With a heavy heart I told her that I loved her, and I repeated it to be certain that I had heard the sound of my own voice. But I could not bear to stay any longer, and left.
The minutes that followed escape my memory. I only remember the horrors of a country burial, in particular, the ceremony at the Protestant church of Vesinet, with the flowery, redundant language of the minister falling around the catafalque under which I was supposed to believe that my mother lay. All of a sudden, I felt her real presence; not the one who had been able to touch the hand of the Lord, not the statue-like sleeping beauty with smooth cheeks, but Mama with all her wrinkles, Mama with all her age, the one now under a black pall… and my heart broke, but I did not cry.
On returning to the house, a sadness bordering on despair began to weigh on all of us like a silent storm. My father composed himself with difficulty. I tried to continue reading my Bible and reciting my prayers as always but there was an emptiness in my loneliness which was unbearable. On my days off I occupied myself with writing in my room, which had been my mother’s, my bed being the same one where she had died. Everyone left me alone.
One afternoon in the autumn of 1915 a curious incident occurred. I was writing when I suddenly felt that I was not alone: someone, at the same instant, seated herself next to me. I felt no fear. It was not an illusion, simply the supernatural presence of my mother. I recognized her immediately as one would recognize a voice, a look, and I waited because I understood that she wanted to draw my attention to something.
Without a word she drew me toward a small antechamber near where my father always dressed himself in the morning. There on the open shelves where his shirts were arranged I discovered a book, The Faith of Our Fathers by Cardinal Gibbons.
The book was an explanation of the Catholic faith and I started reading it with a passionate eagerness. It taught me, in fact, an enormous number of things that my mother had never mentioned, but which I was willing to accept without doubt. Page after page I believed everything I read as unvarnished truth. I spent the whole day there reading the book, but I said not a thing of my secret reading. When I came to the sacraments and to the real presence in the Eucharist, I thought about my mother and my emotions were very strong.
The following day I completed my reading. And then, what? How could I deal with this that had changed everything? I wanted to become a Catholic. To whom could I confide such a secret, and toward whom to turn except to my father who I knew to be forbearing. He listened to me, nodded his head and said simply, “I became a Catholic myself, several months ago, in England.” What astounding news! This conversion of my father deserves a separate recounting by itself because it led him so far that when he died in 1927 he was buried in the frock of a third degree Franciscan. But we return to my mother who died faithful to her Protestantism.
The Gospel painstakingly read and reread made her weep over and over with love. At times she had to admit to herself that she was in love with the Savior. Day after day the book repeated the same thing, but each time in a different way. She believed that at each rereading, the book was transformed: an enlightenment beyond human language shone behind each familiar page. In fact, the book did not change; it was my mother who became a different person. Death revealed everything to the eyes of those who saw her in her eternal sleep. Her radiant face told the truth of her secret conversion. If she had been able to see her own face, she would have agreed.
She had only one wish: to pass on the knowledge of her conversion to her beloved son. Here begins the mystery, the meaning clearly appearing if one analyzes the events. My father, while in England, must have read the book that I now hold in my hands. On his return to France, The Faith of Our Fathers was slipped under his shirts where no one would look and where my mother made me discover it. Those who have died have resources about which we are unaware.
What then did this book tell me? It revealed to me that even if I were alone in the world, Christ would come to save me. And it was the same for each of us. Why? For what reason? For love. God is love. When one has said that, one has said everything.