Les Miserables 40: Petit-Picpus

Here is one of those asides which annoy many readers of Les Miserables.  After settling Jean Valjean and Cosette’s fate for the time being and explaining how Javert got wind of Valjean and lost him again, Victor Hugo takes a rather lengthy pause to explain a little about the history of this Petit-Picpus convent where Valjean has found himself.

This convent was a community of Bernardines who were attached, not to Clairvaux, but to Citeaux.  This made them Benedictines.  They followed a very strict rule, which called for them to wear a black guimpe (something like a turtleneck) which came all the way up to the chin and a veil with a fillet that came all the way down to the eyes.  They abstained from meat all year and fasted all through Lent and on many other special days.  They get up at 1 AM to chant matins for two hours.  They sleep on straw with coarse woolen sheets year-round.  They never bathe.  They never light a fire.  They scourge themselves every Friday.  They observe the rule of silence and speak to each other only at recesses, which are very short.  They wear a hair shirt for six months, from mid-September until Easter.  Even this is a modification; the original rules called for them to wear the hair shirt year-round, but that was unbearable during the summer months.  Seems like ol’ Saint Benedict was a little rough on the ladies, wouldn’t you say?

The rule of Saint Benedict which these nuns lived by took the idea of separation from the world to an almost insane extreme.  We see this in the following quote:  “Never did a toothbrush enter the convent.  To brush the teeth is the top rung of a ladder whose bottom rung is–to lose the soul.”  But are we evangelicals really all that different?  There are many of us who see such simple things as a beer, a glass of wine, a tattoo, a body piercing, a night at the theater, an hour of secular radio, etc. as the top rung of that ladder whose bottom rung is to lose the soul.

Each of them, in turn, performed the reparation.  This involved praying for twelve hours straight for all the sins of the world.  The nun who performed the reparation would kneel on a stone slab facing the Sacrament.  If she got too tired to remain in that position, she would prostrate herself on the stone, laying herself out in the shape of a cross.  Victor Hugo says of this:  “In this attitude, she prays for all the guilty in the universe.  This is greatness touching on the sublime.”

This is reminiscent of these words from Father Zossima of The Brothers Karamazov:

When he [the monk] realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then can the aim of our seclusion be attained.  For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man.  This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man….

There is only one means of salvation.  Make yourself responsible for all men’s sins.  As soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that you have found salvation.

There was a boarding school for girls attached to the convent, for the purpose of educating young nobility.  The children in this school were the source of many delightful moments in the life of the convent; Victor Hugo gives many examples of this.  There was also another building on the convent property; this was called the Little Convent and it was a retirement community for nuns from various orders who had been displaced by the French Revolution and a few high-society ladies from the outside community.

The convent had a small chapel that was open to the public for Mass.  Imagine going to Mass at this chapel and experiencing what Victor Hugo describes here:

Imagine a church, whose choir is seized by a gigantic hand and bent around to form, not, as in ordinary churches, a prolongation behind the altar, but a sort of room or dark cavern to the right of the priest; imagine this room closed off by the curtain seven feet high already mentioned; gather together in the shadow of this curtain on wooden stalls the nuns of the choir on the left, the pupils on the right, the sister servants and novices in the rear, and you will have some idea of the nuns of the Petit-Picpus attending divine service.  This cavern, which was called the choir, communicated with the cloister by a narrow passage.  The church received daylight from the garden.  When the nuns were attending services in which their rules ordered silence, the public was advised of their presence only by the sound of the rising and falling stall-seats.

After the time described in this story, the Petit-Picpus convent fell on hard times.  By 1840 the Little Convent and the school were gone.  By 1847 the prioress was a young woman under the age of 40; the convent had dwindled so much that they didn’t have a lot of other options.  Victor Hugo describes the mood in the convent at that time as follows:

The rules of the Perpetual Adoration are so rigid they inspire horror; those called to the religious life are repelled, and recruits go elsewhere….As the number diminishes, the fatigue increases; service for each one becomes more difficult; they could see the moment approaching when there would be only a dozen sorrowful, bowed shoulders to bear the hard rules of Saint Benedict.  The burden is inflexible and remains the same for the few as for the many.  It used to weigh down, now it crushes.  So they die.  Since the author of this book lived in Paris, two have died.  One was twenty-five, the other twenty-three.

Those of you who have worked at companies following large layoffs and have had to deal with having the same amount of work to do with fewer people to do it, can probably identify with what these poor nuns of Petit-Picpus felt during the final years of their convent.

After telling us about the history of Petit-Picpus, Victor Hugo pulls back and looks at the convent and its role in society.  Tune in next time for his thoughts on this.