Our Books

The Oblate

Author: J.-K. Huysmans

Translator: Brendan King   Cover design: Marie Lane  

The Feast of the Assumption was over; since dawn the pontifical office had been unfolding with all the glory of the plainchant, and with the solemn coming and going of mitred bishops, with the pomp of the finest vestments, and the church, now empty, exhaled its natural odour of the tomb mixed with the soothing perfume of stale incense and extinguished candles; it symbolised pretty well the sepulchre where the beshrouded Virgin rose to take her place next to her son, amid celestial fragrances and singing, effortlessly climbing the unfurling stairway of the clouds, a shining figure attended by a throng of angels and saints who came to meet her.
All day the heat had been overwhelming. After the Benediction, preceded by the solemn procession instituted by Louis XIII in memory of the consecration of his kingdom to the Madonna, Durtal, on his return home, sat down in the shade of the great cedar tree in his garden.There he meditated on the festival which for him was a feast of liberation, of freedom from pain, the chief festival of Our Lady; it prompted him to contemplate the mother under a special aspect, because it brought him face to face with the terrible problem of Sorrow.
Indeed, did it not play a strange role, both huge and at the same time limited, in the life of the Virgin? To try to understand the reason for this appalling benefactress, for this salutory goddess of vengeance, one must go back to the first ages of the world, to that Eden, where the moment Adam became conscious of sin, Sorrow was born. It was the first born of man’s work, and it had pursued him on earth ever since, beyond
the tomb, to the very threshold of Paradise.

Sorrow was the expiatory daughter of disobedience, the one that baptism – which effaces original sin – could not prevent. To the water of the Sacrament she added the water of tears; she cleansed souls as best she could with two substances borrowed from man’s own body: water and blood.Despised and detested by all, she martyred generation after generation; from father to son, antiquity handed down a hatred and fear of this representative of the divine work, this torturer, incomprehensible to a paganism that turned her into an evil goddess, unappeased by prayers or by gifts.For centuries she marched under the weight of humanity’s curse; weary of eliciting nothing but anger and abuse from her work of reparation; she, too, awaited with impatience the coming of the Messiah who would redeem her of her terrible reputation and remove the hateful stigma she bore.
She awaited him as her redeemer and also as her betrothed,destined for her since the Fall, and she reserved for him the frenzy of a lovesick Maenad, which had long been repressed, becauseuntil she fulfilled that ghoulish mission, that holy and dreadful mission, she could only hand out tortures that were just abouttolerable; she reduced her grievous caresses to the size of mankind; she did not unleash herself completely on those desperate souls who repulsed and insulted her, even though they could only sense her pacing around, without ever coming too close to them. She was never truly the magnificent lover except with the Man-God. His capacity for suffering exceeded all that she had known. She crept towards him on that awful night, when, alone, forsaken in a cave, he took on himself the sins of the world, and she rose up as soon as she embraced him, and attained a grandeur that was never hers till then. So terrible was she that he swooned at her touch; his death agonies were his betrothal to her; her sign of alliance was, as it is with all women, a ring, but larger, a ring in form only, which was at the same time a symbol of marriage and an emblem of royalty: a crown. She placed it on the head of her bridegroom, even before the Jews had braided the thorny diadem she had ordered, and his forehead was encircled by beads of ruby-red sweat, adorned by a circlet of pearls of blood. She showered him with the sole blandishments that were hers to offer, atrocious and super-human torments; and like a faithful spouse she devoted herself to him and never left him again. Mary, the Magdalene, the holy women, could not follow in his footsteps to the end, but she accompanied him to the praetorium, to Herod, to Pilate; she counted the barbs on the whips, she adjusted thethorns of his crown, she made sure the iron hammers were heavy, that the vinegar was bitter, that the spear was sharp, and she jealously filed the iron nails to a point. And when the supreme moment of their wedding feast had come, when Mary and the Magdalene and St John stood weeping at the foot of the cross, she, like the poverty St Francis speaks of, deliberately climbed onto the bed of the gibbet, and in the union of these two outcasts of the earth, the Church was born; it came forth in a torrent of blood and water from the victim’s heart and then it was over; Christ, impassive, escaped for ever from her embrace, she became a widow the very moment she had finally been loved, but she descended from Calvary rehabilitated by that love, redeemed by that death. Spurned, just as the Messiah was, she was raised up with him and she too dominated the world from the top of the cross; her mission was ratified and ennobled, and henceforth she was comprehensible to Christians and she would be loved until the end of time by those souls who appealed to her to hasten the expiation of their sins, and by those others who loved her in memory and in imitation of the Passion of Christ.
She had held the son in her grip for eleven hours – the number of transgression – if you count from the arrival in the Garden of Olives to the moment of his death; over his mother, her grip was of longer duration. And it’s here where the strangeness of this unwarranted possession reveals itself.The Virgin was the one human creature who, logically speaking, she had no right to touch. The Immaculate Conception should have put Mary beyond her reach, and what’s more, having never sinned during her earthly life, she should have been unassailable, exempt from her reparative ills and sorrows. So to dare to approach her, Sorrow required special permission from God and the consent of the mother herself, who, to be the more like her son and to co-operate as far as she could in our redemption, agreed to experience and to suffer, at the very foot of the cross, the sovereign agonies of the final catastrophe. But in no way did Sorrow have free reign with her. No doubt she left her mark on her from the very moment when, responding to the angel Gabriel’s “Fiat”, Mary saw a premonition of the tree of Golgotha standing out against the divine light; but after that Sorrow had to step back and keep her distance. She saw the nativity from afar, but could not enter the cave of Bethlehem; it was only later, when Joachim’s daughter came for the presentation at the temple, that, given permission by the prophet Simeon, she leaped from her ambush and implanted herself in the Virgin’s soul. From that moment on she took up her abode there. She had, to use a vulgar phrase, got her foot in the door; however, she wasn’t absolute mistress there because she didn’t live there alone.

Joy cohabited with her; the presence of Jesus was enough for the mother’s soul to overflow with pleasure. She therefore had little room to manoeuvre, only a limited power at her disposal. It was certainly like this until the treachery of Judas Iscariot. Then Sorrow took her revenge, showing herself to be despotic, absolute, and she overwhelmed the Madonna so terribly that it might have been thought she had drained the cup to the last dreg. But it was not so. If for her the blinding grief of the Crucifixion had been preceded by the sly, stabbing pain of the trial, it was followed by yet another period of all-consuming, persistent suffering, the uncertain expectation of that day when she would finally rejoin her son up above, far from this earth which had so despised them.
It was therefore, in the soul of the Virgin, like a sort of triptych. All-powerful Sorrow, attaining its most intense state filled the centre panel, while on either side was anguish and the pangs of suspense; the two side panels differed, however, in this sense, that the suspense before the crucifixion was one of fear, while that afterwards was one of hope. Even so, for the Virgin there could be no going back. She
had accepted the heavy task bequeathed to her by Jesus, that of bringing up the child born on the cross. She received it and, for twenty-four years, according to St Epiphanius, or for twelve asother saints affirm, like some gentle grandmother she watched over this weakling, who the world, like another Herod, would search to destroy; she conceived a little church and taught it to be a fisher of souls; she was the first pilot of that bark which began to sail forth upon the ocean of the world; when she died, she had been both Martha and Mary; she had united the privilege of the active life and the contemplative life here on earth; and that is why the gospel for today’s Mass is aptly taken from the passage in St Luke recounting Christ’s visit to the house of the two sisters.
Her mission was thus accomplished. Entrusted to the care of St Peter, the Church was now strong enough to sail alone, without towing. Sorrow, who had not left Mary’s side during this period, was now forced to flee; and indeed, just as she had been absent at the moment of Our Lady’s childbirth, she likewise withdrew when the moment of death came. The Virgin died neither from old age nor from sickness; she was carried away by the vehemence of pure love; and her face was so calm, so radiant and happy, that her death was referred to as ‘falling asleep’. But before attaining that longed for night of eternal deliverance, how many years of torments and desires she endured! Because being a woman and a mother, how could she not have longed to be rid of her body, which however glorious it was to have conceived the Saviour, nevertheless kept her attached to the earth, and prevented her from rejoining her son. Also for those who loved her, what a joy it was to know that she had at last been exonerated from her prison of flesh, resurrected like Christ, crowned, enthroned, so simple and so good, so far from our worldy filth, in the blessed regions of a celestial Jerusalem, in the endless beatitude of the heavens.


RRP: £10.99

No. of pages: 367

Publication date: 09.12.2022

Re-print date: 09.12.2022

ISBN numbers:
Printed book
978 1 912868 95 7
978 1 915568 06 9

Dedalus World English rights in this translation