“Since that night, I have a fire within me, which I cannot quench. I tried knowing God through reason. But now I must share the truth and the certainty that God has confirmed in my heart. I never thought a sense of peace and the passion of fire could reside in one’s heart simultaneously.”
Editor’s Note: The following is a piece of historical fiction based on Pascal’s “night of fire,” as told from the perspective of his sister, Jacqueline, whom he visited at her convent not long after the experience.
I rise from my kneeling position and straighten my black habit skirt. I brush my hand across the letter my brother sent me, informing me of his plan to visit Port-Royal. Accordingly, my Sisters have given me a special blessing to speak with him, and as far as I am aware, he should arrive within the hour. My chest tightens a little. He said he had important news to share with me that he could not describe on paper. Had a new illness come upon him? I suppose if that were so, he likely would not be able to travel. A novel scientific discovery perhaps? Or, in the past, he has had gambling interests: Had he lost in a game the inheritance Father had left for him? He cannot demand my portion of the inheritance—it belongs to Port-Royal now. Surely whatever it was would be simple to explain, and he never before had a problem saying what he meant—like when he pleaded with me and made a rigid point that I should not enter a convent. His biting words have yet to cease their echo from my memory.
I suppress my bitterness and ask God for forgiveness, whispering the prayer under my breath. As I head to the entrance of Port-Royal, my footsteps click on the ivory marble floor like a poorly made clock with uneven ticks. I clasp my hands firmly, struggling to keep from wringing them.
The crisp air does little to comfort me and makes me shudder. Soon I hear the clop of horses’ hooves on the pavement before the muddy carriage rolls into view. A moment after it stops, the door of the carriage opens wide to a thin, sickly form. Thinner than I remember when I left home three years ago. My previous suspicion of the new illness returns to my mind, and I bite my bottom lip.
That same pale face with the same sloping nose appears from the shadow of the carriage roof, but something seems different—I just cannot say what exactly. Yes, his cheeks are a bit gaunter, but his countenance has a shining quality as it often did when he rambled in enthusiasm about those mathematical things I could never really wrap my mind around.
When he recognizes my form, a smile brightens his countenance further. I suddenly feel the urge to cry. I could not remember the last time I saw him smile. He was in such a disturbed, needy state when I joined the convent. He even refused to say goodbye when he realized he could do nothing to persuade me to stay and be his caretaker.
He embraces me in the doorway.
“Jacqueline,” he says, “it’s so good to see you.”
“Blaise,” I whisper with a slight hitch in my voice. I pull away from his arms and examine his face. “I received your letter. I was not able to respond. What is it that brings you here?”
With a shrug, Blaise rubs his chest pocket. “A friendly visit, I suppose?”
“Friendly? If this is about trying to get me to return home—No, I will not be trapped in domestic life again, I have told you before,” I blurt out, anticipating this light-faced façade’s fall to reveal a less friendly intent.
“That’s not what I’m here for.” A look of disappointment shatters his smile. He wants to say more, be angry, but something plugs the sharp words, which I myself failed to withhold. I am ashamed that resentment leaped back up, so near to my happiness moments before.
“Forgive me,” I say. “Again cuts my wicked tongue.”
Blaise shakes his head. “Really, I should apologize. I shouldn’t have said—well, much of what I did.”
I exhale deeply to calm myself and muster the strength to put on a brighter countenance. “Let’s put that aside. Come in.” I usher him inside. “After Eucharistic Adoration, we may talk.”
Blaise stares long upon the consecrated Eucharistic host, all the while caressing his breast-pocket. His mouth forms words so soft, I cannot hear them. The humble way he kneels and speaks is as a child would have to the Good Shepherd incarnate. The tears that spring to his dark eyes reflect the yellow candlelight, seeming as little suns. As Blaise finally turns away, the words “I will not forget thy word. Amen” reach my ears. It is a Psalm, I know. It takes me a moment to recognize them from Psalm 119.
Still deep in meditation, Blaise approaches me, and I whisper to him, recalling the ninth verse of the Psalm, “‘Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word.’”
His head jerks in my direction. He pauses before he replies, quoting the tenth verse, “‘With my whole heart have I sought thee; O let me not wander from thy commandments!’” He emphasizes the word heart, and his hand accordingly presses against his chest. I nod in silence, a bit surprised he for once took the time to memorize all the verses from the longest Psalm.
We walk into the hall, side by side, while I clasp my hands in prayer, waiting for my brother to speak first. Two of my Sisters pass in reverent silence, hands also held in prayer. I try to convince myself that my brother brings good news, and that our conflict is a thing of the past, but I cannot fully suppress that anxiety. Blaise draws his eyebrows together and pinches his lip.
“Fire,” he says at last. “November twenty-third. Nearly two hours long. Before that night, I never thought a sense of peace and the passion of fire could reside in one’s heart simultaneously.”
I study him carefully. He seems to look beyond the walls and into a realm which I could not see. I am not entirely certain he speaks to me.
“I’m not sure what you mean, brother,” I reply as anxiety starts to rise up again. “Was fire set on our estate? Are you…homeless, Blaise?”
“No, nothing like that.” He shakes his head and brings his hands to his lips as though in prayer. Then he sighs as though the next inhale would bring the explanation to his lips.
What he explained that occurred that night I can only repeat by my own creative imagining, for it is long and took nearly two hours to fully recount to my eager ear, and he often had to retell many parts which I did not at first comprehend. I regret to admit that I cannot remember the exact words he used to explain, but this is my attempt to recapture what he experienced:
A few minutes before ten o’clock, I lay in bed, my body weak and racked with illness and pain. I sweated under the agony which I had suffered for the past three days. I was too tired to muster the strength to even cry, or if I could, I would melt away with those tears as Ovid’s Byblis did. My lamp beside my copy of the Bible was dim and flickered irregularly as if to remind me to snuff it out. I was too preoccupied with lonely thoughts to remember my surroundings. The only thing that had yet to abandon me was the feeling of abandonment—by my father who had died, my married sister, and Jacqueline; I ventured even to say by God, for I had not known and prayed to him as I should have and doubted that he would really help me now. They say God never abandons his people, but what about a young man who had ignored him half of his life and only read his Word with an unseeing eye? I wanted to believe it, but I knew I would not deserve any such favor.
A sudden pain surged through my belly, contracting my sore muscles. I longed for a cool, wet cloth to touch my forehead, neck, and torso, hoping it would dissipate the hot, sickening feeling. The hand clenching my white sheets began to throb.
A thought I was not fully sure was my own crossed my mind: What did Christ feel on the cross when he cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”? For several unquantifiable moments, the question hung in the air of my mind like a ponderous mist. As the mathematician that I was, I tried to calculate the amount of pain Christ would have experienced when the whip with bits of glass and bone tore the flesh of his back, when the crown of thick thorns sunk into his holy head, when the long nails pierced his hands, when he suffocating pushed up from his nailed feet just so he could gasp a breath of air in his parched mouth, when the spittle of a thousand men whom he could crush with the mere sound of his voice spattered in his face, when his disciple betrayed him with a perverted gesture of brotherhood for a bit of silver, when nearly all of his closest friends denied and abandoned him. When God the Father himself looked away as the enormous lead block of sin fell around his neck. Divine and perfect Christ bore the sin of those who shamelessly mocked him, the Creator and Savior of the world.
I could not fathom what it felt like—did his brow sweat like mine, did his bowels feel like they twisted against him in feverish madness, did he look around and see no one who loved him even though he held the key, the one thing they truly needed? I knew his agony was a kind I could never experience myself or imagine. And all this he suffered—for what? To redeem mankind? To bring glory to the Father? How could this have been good at all?
Realization like a dread wave washed over me: my actions put Christ on that cross, and my actions were the ones that cut me off from God. Something I had known before, which the priests had taught me years ago, but this comprehension somehow seemed different and new. No, God had not abandoned me; I had abandoned him. I was the Judas Iscariot, trading the Way, the Truth, and the Life for perishable coin.
How could a man like me know God and that kind of majesty? I had tried a number of times to reason proofs to explain his essence and infinity, all of which were one step short, or perhaps a thousand. Now I had no energy to attempt such a strenuous mental task, but I longed to have answers. What about the men in the Bible? What did they do to know God?
Abraham—he believed in God, spoke with God, trusted God, obeyed God. Isaac the same. Jacob wrestled with God, humbled himself before God. On the mountain, Moses saw a glimpse of God’s grandeur. They did this by no philosophy, no proofs, no in-depth study of the elements of the world or the stars or physics. Simply reading or hearing his word, obedience, and faith.
Faith. Yes, all of them had faith. Certainty because they had a relationship—face-to-face like the twelve disciples.
I looked at the Bible on my nightstand, where Jacqueline had left it for me. I flipped it open where I had stopped reading last. To the Gospel of John. After skimming for a while, my gaze fell upon the words “My God and your God.” Could I call him mine? Did I dare?
“Oh God!” I choked. I fell prostrate on the floor beside my bed as I suddenly craved to know God. The hole in my chest pressed against my lungs as though to threaten to consume me in the void. “Oh God! Forgive me! I need You. The God of Abraham, the God of Jesus Christ. May their God be my God! You will never pass away as the world will. Help me to have faith! Faith in You alone.”
The tears I could not cry before streamed then down my face. I cried for myself, my sin, my circumstance. I realized that daily I had made that decision and fall again and again into that habit of standing far off out of pride or selfishness or apathy and enjoying my sin and worldly things more than God who created the universe. And this sickness was only a fraction of what I deserved—a sinner whose occasional good works were soiled rags compared to God’s perfection. I wanted a change.
I lay there praying, praying, as I had never done before. All my words I could not recall later, but I remembered asking for forgiveness, faith, and God’s favor to show himself to me like he did for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yes, face-to-face like Moses and the disciples.
It was then when a sense of certainty pressed on my heart like a heavy blanket. Tears were no longer that of a penitent sinner who barely dared to hope for salvation but that of one who experienced true joy and peace for the first time. I could not plug the tears.
“Let me not be cut off from him forever!” I cried out, holding my hands towards heaven. “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” I spoke until my voice was hoarse. I imagined over and over the blood gushing from his hands, his head, and his feet. These crimson drops washed my upturned face. They burned but not like the feverish sensation caused by my infection. No, like a cleansing, a melting of dross. They burned as holy fire. Bringing complete cleansing.
My body shook with elated humility. The pain of my ailment still remained, but I now joyed in it—I suffered in some small way as Christ suffered. It reminded me of his sacrifice when I had cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him, but he still chose to offer me redemption. He allows me to draw close to him through an unfathomable price which I could never repay.
“Christ, I submit to you!”
The effort of these words in exchange for everlasting joy—how was that possible? How was that reasonable? How was that fair? This was beyond a transactional matter.
It is mercy.
I was certain of it. I remembered the verse from Psalm 119, that one of the priests encouraged me to memorize, and said it aloud, “I will not forget thy word.” Never, God, never would I forget Your word or this fire.
Fire burning around me, fire burning on me, fire burning in me. In my heart.
A while later as a calming sense of peace bathed me, I raised my head and turned to check the time. Half past twelve.
It was a new day: sweet and total renunciation of worldly things and the embrace of a new life.
In the writing above, I have done my upmost to recount the night of November 23rd as well as I can. To try to describe spiritual matters is to often fall short. I am not Teresa of Avila who wrote with a profound simplicity and clarity about her religious visions. Nor am I John of the Cross, who related spiritual matters in beautiful metaphors. I am only a girl who aims to share my brother’s incredible experience the best way I know how.
After Blaise finishes his story, he touches my arm, trembling slightly, “Jacqueline, I know I must write.”
“Write what?” I ask softly, still captivated in amazement. “Write about your experience?”
He shakes his head. “An apologetic. I must write an apologetic. I finally realized why Jesus Christ’s words held more power, more attractiveness than those of the philosophers, why Christianity has endured over the centuries. I have a fire within me, Jacqueline, which I cannot quench. A fire, a passion, an urge to write. I tried knowing God through reason. But now I must share the truth and the certainty that God has confirmed in my heart.”
Tears fill his eyes again as the resolution and passion of his voice seeps into the air and chills my skin with a delightful shiver.
* * *
That night after we eat supper together and I retire to my room, I dream a vision that is part memory, part fantasy. In the dream, I returned to the year 1646 when my father broke his hip, only I was not the young adult I was then. Instead I took on the form of a little girl of eight or nine years who hid under Blaise’s bed, as I did often at that age. I believe I was intent on some kind of mischief as I watched my brother’s legs sway back and forth next to my concealed face, but I stopped when I heard him speak to the two Jansenist priests before him. I do not remember what he said to them, but one of them asked softly, his voice musical and low, “So do you think God has created you to explore mathematics, young Pascal? It is quite an ambitious endeavor.”
“Well, Père Prêtre, I’m not able to donate to the poor or serve often in the Church or pursue politics like some as I am often ill.” My brother made excuses in a shrill and uncertain tone. “Mathematics is something I can do in my own time.”
“Yes, your father mentioned that you are quite a prodigy,” the other priest replied. “You can become very accomplished with your sharp intellect, I’m sure. Have you ever considered writing though? You might have a talent in that area as well. God often pairs the gift of study with writing.”
“Write? If you mean poetry, Père, that is Jacqueline’s talent, not mine. She is the one who enjoys that kind of activity. If I suddenly began dabbling in poetry or the like, my family would say I am copying my sister and should do what I am proficient in. I have never been able to write a rhyming line or wonderful story.”
“Son, I believe you are mistaken.” The priest’s words filled me with uncomfortable warmth like sitting too near a blazing fire. It was not altogether unpleasant, but it made me squirm. The next thing I remember was seeing two quills beside a bottle of ink. I had been lying upon the pens and a sudden jerk of my elbow spilled the ink, but nothing broke. When I picked up the bottle whose ink had been emptied, it was now full of a liquid that resembled a fiery fluid, thick and glossy. A little of this flaming ink dripped on my hand and burned my skin. The thought that the source of this heat that I felt was coming from the ink crossed my mind. The dream ended with my brother finding me under his bed and holding a piece of chaff.
I do not attempt to explain this dream as I am not fully certain what it might signify and do not want to misinterpret or attribute some meaning to mere nonsense. I cannot help, though, but to recall Thomas Aquinas who claimed all his previous work was chaff after his spiritual experience. I wonder why Blaise might be clutching chaff, and I slip out of my bed to pray that God will reveal to my brother what he needs to throw away. Afterwards, I return to sleep.
In the morning, after my prayers and daily routine, I find Blaise in the courtyard with paper laid out before him. His pale complexion stands out against the reddish rooftops above him, making him appear to be a marble statue in the midst of an autumn forest when the leaves have turned the color of fire. He seems to be deep in study or thought, and, falling into my childhood spying habits for an unexplainable reason, I hide myself from his gaze and watch him in silence. He taps his lap with his dry pen. Three or four times he almost dips the tip into the ink but changes his mind as though he disregards the thought that he has supposed he would write down or thinks some sort of inspiration would suddenly appear as he moves to write but it did not occur. His chest heaves in a long exhale, and he sets down his pen and closes his eyes. I wait in expectation that he would all of a sudden begin to write and fire would flow instead of words—as soon as this thought appears in my mind, I dispel it and wonder at its fantastical impossibility. Blaise bows his head and seems to whisper a prayer. After he finishes, he pauses for ten minutes or so before dipping his pen and setting it to paper. He writes very slowly but deliberately. The longer he writes, the faster his pen moves in his hand. After a while, he lays down his pen and rubs his breast-pocket. I feel the urge to see what he has written. Eventually, I act upon my increasing curiosity and walk towards him.
“Blaise,” I say. He looks at me, a bit startled. “Is this the apologetic?”
“Parts of it, yes. Some notes.”
He is reluctant to show me at first because of my critical eye, but I convince him that I will not say a word. I peer over his shoulder at his slanted script and read silently, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: We know this in countless ways. It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason. The only knowledge which is contrary alike to common sense and human nature is the only one always to have existed among men: Christianity. Only Christianity makes men both happy and lovable: The code of the gentleman (that is, honnêteté) does not allow you to be both happy and loveable. Religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature—attractive because it promises true good.” And I smile.
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