Becoming Neo-Pascalian: Fire

When Pascal died, those who prepared his body for burial found sewn into the lining of his jacket a small piece of paper. Apparently he carried it with him everywhere he went, transferring it from jacket to jacket as they were changed, through the last eight years of his life. Clearly, this paper, called the Memorial, records something that Pascal believed to be pivotal to his view of the world, worth remembering every morning when he dressed, directive of all his actions. It is included in his Pensées as fragment 913.

Here it is in its entirety:


The year of grace 1654

Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.

Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.

From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

 

Fire

‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.

Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.

 

God of Jesus Christ.

God of Jesus Christ.

 

My God and your God.

‘Thy God shall be my God.’

 

The world forgotten, and everything except God.

 

He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.

Greatness of the human soul.

‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have cut myself off from him.

They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.

‘My God wilt thou forsake me?

Let me not be cut off from him for ever!

 

‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.’

 

Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ.

 

I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.

Let me never be cut off from him!

He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.

Sweet and total renunciation.

Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.

Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.

I will not forget thy word. Amen.


A careful noting of the date and time, just like a scientist. The simple heading: Fire. Then a non-linear, fragmented, and deeply passionate series of declarations, quotations from scripture, and prayers, torn between longing and bliss.

This is the only record of a stunning experience, an encounter with God that could only be called “fire.”

John the Baptist warned us about such things. “He who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt. 3.11).

This, then, is the time and place of Pascal’s fundamental experience, his discovery moment, his experiment with the reality of God’s presence and call on his life. No deductive reasoning or tradition could compete with this two-hour face-to-face burning certainty. In the lab, knowledge came when the experiment was conducted and the results made evident. In faith, knowledge came when the reasons and arguments, traditions and testimonies all gave way before the burning reality of meeting Christ.

And here I come to a screeching halt. Let’s be honest. How many of us have had, well, spiritual fire? I have not. How many of us have had this all-consuming “certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace” that Pascal describes? I have not. And if we haven’t? Are we lesser creatures of faith? Second-class? Sub-par? How much weight do we put on an experience? How can we be neo-Pascalians if this is not part of the package?

You know the verse: “If you decide in your head that Christ is Lord and then have a crazy powerful experience, preferably for several hours, of his presence so that you feel consumed and maybe a little out-of-bodyish, you shall be saved.”

No? No.

Despite this description of Pascal’s extraordinary experience, is this the kind of experience that Pascal is actually talking about when he argues for experimentation rather than tradition or deductive logic? Or is there something else? Some other means of access to authentic, personal spiritual discovery?

Oh yes … le coeur.

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About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.


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