Adventures in Bookland: The Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal

It’s unusual to read a contentious book where one agrees wholly with the arguments the author is making, finds his irony biting and his jokes (written 350 years ago!) still funny, and yet remain glad that while the writer undoubtedly won the literary battle, he lost the theological war. For Blaise Pascal wrote in defence of the rigour of his spiritual brother at Port-Royal, the Jansenist school and convent that, following an Augustinian view of the depravity of human nature, produced as the sculptural expression of their theological view versions of the crucifix where Jesus’ arms are raised above his head, the hands almost touching, to indicate the narrow way to salvation and that few shall walk that narrow path. But, significantly, around the same time as Pascal was writing and the Jansenist controversy was at its height, St Mary Margaret Alacocque, also in France, had visions of Jesus in which he told her to spread the devotion to his sacred heart. The pictures and statues – perhaps the most typical of popular Catholicism – show Jesus with his arms spread wide, open to all. So while Blaise Pascal had by far the best of his argument with the lax-minded Jesuits and their tendency to write off sins – and by way of a side effect, inventing French lettres and paving the way for Montaigne – God answered personally against the Jansenist tendency to restrict the Divine Mercy. But then, God did speak to Blaise Pascal, in fire and light, and answered for him as well, in the Sacred Heart.


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