Napoleon Bonaparte: The Portrait of The Unintentional Disciple As A Young Man

There is much talk these days about discipleship among the flock. Moving beyond the individual call to holiness, questions surround the call of the faithful on how to live the vocation of being a disciple of Christ. When Jesus ascended into heaven, an event commemorated by the Church today throughout the world, he made an announcement to all who were present,

“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

As St. Luke reminds us, a couple of angels came down and said, “snap out of it!,” as folks gazed longingly up at the sky. Then, as now, the questions on how to be a disciple began. How to practice the gospel?  How to encourage discipleship? How to define the word? How to build a culture that helps  us spread the gospel?

Fast forward to today, and many are apt to get nostalgic for the way things used to be. You now, when the Catholic culture ran deep through the heart of the people. When the culture was so steeped in the Faith, that these questions didn’t even need to even be asked. Lest you think that is true, Hilaire Belloc is here to say “snap out of it!” with a little portrait of the reality of the way things were in a culture that had all of the looks of the Faith, but not much more than that.

He does so in a biography he wrote about an obscure Corsican who made a name for himself by practicing the military arts with verve and aplomb.

It was midway through his school days that there came to Napoleon what often comes to boys of that age (his twelfth to thirteenth year) at least to boys of the Catholic culture and surrounded by an unescapable routine of religious practice—the failure of religious faith.

That this  should not have come to him in the ‘eighties of the eighteenth century at such a place and time would have been astonishing enough—that it did come to him was normal to the circumstances. It was the moment when the mind of France had moved furthest from Catholicism, and had most forgotten that creative influence whence all our civilization, through the long centuries of its formation, had proceeded.

The decline had been rapid and universal. It had been more complete because all the externals stood. It is always so. When the clothing, the trappings of a failing thing, the mechanism, the social habit of its expression, are destroyed, there remains no grievance against it; men cannot and do not accuse it of oppression or false claims. They are more moved to pity and to inquiry. They wonder whether, after all, the thing be as significant as it appears. But if the externals are maintained when life seems to have departed from within, there is a strong reaction against them; they do not justify themselves; they have the effect of a personal coercion—and whatever affection remained for the living Thing to which these forms were the adjuncts is destroyed by detestation of unrealities imposed. There was daily Mass; there was a fixed, regular and frequent forced date of Confession; the routine of religion kept mechanically at work. The more did that routine contrast with the ambient spirit if the time.

The little boy had been fervent enough as a child. His preparation for his first Communion he always remembered and that day stood out for him all his life; but when the first active use of reason came it found no food on which to exercise itself so far as religion was concerned. To all the questions upon the unseen no answer was given but dusty affirmation, often insincere. It was so in bulk  with the training of youth, the youth of the gentry at least, throughout the world of the 1780’s in France. For things to have fallen otherwise with the boy Napoleon there would have been needed either some strong association of ideas by which the things he loved were so interwoven with the spirit of the Faith that to abandon it was to abandon them, or else something in the child himself utterly original and of a different stuff from the generation to which it belonged. Normally, as things were then, the loss of Faith must come to Napoleon just in those years, especially as he was cut off from his home. Nothing he loved was connected directly and vitally  with the formal religion about him. It did not represent to him his country nor those things which he had been taught to admire, nor the practice, the example and daily effect of personality whom he revered or would follow. And as for that strong eccentric quality which sometimes launches an individual into conflict with all the spirit of his time, Napoleon was never of that kind. He was wholly of his time, and though made upon a scale far greater than his contemporaries, he was of the same texture, the same stuff. The errors he made were their errors, the enthusiasms he had were their enthusiasms, the things he took for granted were the general postulates of the day. The older boys among his comrades talked as all talked in the current skeptical speech of their fathers. They were what he would himself become. There was no contrasting example to make him pause, and even the imposed ritual was perfunctory, hurried, not vital.

It is significant that among the community in whose charge he was there came defections when, later, the Revolution set men free to break their vows. The brother of the Principal was notorious for his unfrocked career when once the new laws had given him license to break his vows openly. Napoleon had not, looking back on his childhood in that place, any remembrance of strong intelligent belief. But on this point it must be remembered that the lad who lost his Faith in his thirteenth year retained that underlying foundation which is only rejected by a conscious deliberate effort and never disappeared unless there has been bred in the character, by some accident or some ill-doing, a positive hatred of that which it has lost.

Such hatred Napoleon never felt either in youth or in manhood, therefore the foundations remained.

The things he said upon the matter of religion were often merely political, commonly superficial either in praise or in blame, and in saying them he was but talking the language of his contemporaries, the only language he knew. But that mind of his was too profoundly rooted in the soil out of which he had come not to nourish him throughout his life, and that is why towards the close of it we shall find religion again apparent—uncertainly, and only at the very close, but increasingly, until in the final hour, while consciousness remained. He always rebuked atheism. A cynical denial disgusted him, and when, at his Coronation there was a question of his receiving the Sacraments he made no objection to Confession, but as to Communicating he hesitated, and said, “No. It would be hypocrisy.” He was at the last, when he came to die, in full Communion again.

The eclipse of religion coming in the critical moment of adolescence served to increase his isolation from his kind. For though he was thus to be at one with the general philosophy around him, he was left unprovided with a motive for approaching his fellows. He was divorced from spiritual curiosity and left indifferent to, and disdainful of, what might be passing in other minds.

Such is the story of Napoleon’s first annealing, of that process which continued on and on for years until the time came when, a very young man so formed by isolation, he was to emerge suddenly, equipped for greatness, and to become famous in a moment during the business of Vendémiaire.

It is a book very much worth reading, as is Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Belloc’s biography of Napoleon helps us to remember that God writes straight with crooked lines, tracing the paths, narrow and innumerable, which his pilgrims trod as Jesus leads them into his fold. Weddell’s book helps us rekindle what was lost when the fires of Catholic culture seemingly burned themselves out, and the God-Man ascended into heaven: a personal relationship with Christ.

Because in the end, though Napoleon knew who Jesus was, his lack of intention early on pointed toward what he, like many of us, had been missing all along.

Snap out of it!


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