The Wrack of the Storm Part 8

[Footnote 8: Delivered in Paris, at the Trocadero, 18 December, 1915.]





The other day I went to see a woman whom I knew before the war--she was happy then--and who had lost her only son in one of the battles in the Argonne. She was a widow, almost a poor woman; and, now that this son, her pride and her joy, was no more, she no longer had any reason for living. I hesitated to knock at her door. Was I not about to witness one of those hopeless griefs at whose feet all words fall to the ground like shameful and insulting lies? Which of us to-day is not familiar with these mournful interviews, this dismal duty?

To my great astonishment, she offered me her hand with a kindly smile.

Her eyes, to which I hardly dared raise my own, were free of tears.

"You have come to speak to me of him," she said, in a cheerful tone; and it was as though her voice had grown younger.

"Alas, yes! I had heard of your sorrow; and I have come...."

"Yes, I too believed that my unhappiness was irreparable; but now I know that he is not dead."

"What! He is not dead? Do you mean that the news...? But I thought that the body...."

"Yes, his body is down there; and I have even a photograph of his grave. Let me show it to you. See, that cross on the left, the fourth cross: that is where they have laid him. One of his friends, who buried him, sent me this card, with all the details. He did not suffer any pain. There was not even a death-struggle. And he has told me so himself. He is quite astonished that death should be so easy, so slight a thing.... You do not understand? Yes, I see what it is: you are just as I used to be, as all the others are. I do not explain the matter to the others; what would be the use? They do not wish to understand. But you, you will understand. He is more alive than he ever was; he is free and happy. He does just as he likes. He tells me that one cannot imagine what a release death is, what a weight it removes from you, nor the joy which it brings. He comes to see me when I call him. He loves especially to come in the evening; and we chat as we used to do. He has not altered; he is just as he was on the day when he went away, only younger, stronger, handsomer. We have never been happier, or more united, or nearer to one another. He divines my thoughts before I utter them. He knows everything; he sees everything; but he cannot tell me everything he knows. He says that I must be wanting to follow him and that I must wait for my hour. And, while I wait, we are living in happiness greater than that which was ours before the war, a happiness which nothing can ever trouble again...."

Those about her pitied the poor woman; and, as she did not weep, as she was gay and smiling, they believed her mad.


Was she as mad as they thought? At the present moment, the great questions of the world beyond the grave are pressing upon us from every side. It is probable that, since the world began, there have never been so many dead as now. The empire of death was never so mighty, so terrible; it is for us to defend and enlarge the empire of life. In the presence of this mother, which are right or wrong, those who are convinced that their dead are forever swept out of existence, or those who are persuaded that their dead do not cease to live, who believe that they see them and hear them? Do we know what it is that dies in our dead, or even if anything dies? Whatever our religious faith may be, there is at any rate one place where they cannot die.

That place is within ourselves; and, if this unhappy mother went beyond the truth, she was yet nearer to it than those despairing ones who nourish the mournful certainty that nothing survives of those whom they loved. She felt too keenly what we do not feel keenly enough. She remembered too much; and we do not know how to remember. Between the two errors there is room for a great truth; and, if we have to choose, hers is the error towards which we should lean. Let us learn to acquire through reason that which a wise madness bestowed on her. Let us learn from her to live with our dead and to live with them without sadness and without terror. They do not ask for tears, but for a happy and confident affection. Let us learn from her to resuscitate those whom we regret. She called to hers, while we repulse ours; we are afraid of them and are surprised that they lose heart and pale and fade away and leave us forever. They need love as much as do the living. They die, not at the moment when they sink into the grave, but gradually as they sink into oblivion; and it is oblivion alone that makes the separation irrevocable. We should not allow it to heap itself above them. It would be enough to vouchsafe them each day a single one of those thoughts which we bestow uncounted upon so many useless objects: they would no longer think of leaving us; they would remain around us and we should no longer understand what a tomb is; for there is no tomb, however deep, whose stone may not be raised and whose dust dispersed by a thought.

There would be no difference between the living and the dead if we but knew how to remember. There would be no more dead. The best of what they were dwells with us after fate has taken them from us; all their past is ours; and it is wider than the present, more certain than the future. Material presence is not everything in this world; and we can dispense with it and yet not despair. We do not mourn those who live in lands which we shall never visit, because we know that it depends on us whether we go to find them. Let it be the same with our dead.

Instead of believing that they have disappeared never to return, tell yourselves that they are in a country to which you yourself will assuredly go soon; a country not so very far away. And, while waiting for the time when you will go there once and for all, you may visit them in thought as easily as if they were still in a region inhabited by the living. The memory of the dead is even more alive than that of the living; it is as though they were assisting our memory, as though they, on their side, were making a mysterious effort to join hands with us on ours. One feels that they are far more powerful than the absent who continue to breathe as we do.


Try then to recall those whom you have lost, before it is too late, before they have gone too far; and you will see that they will come much closer to your heart, that they will belong to you more truly, that they are as real as when they were in the flesh. In putting off this last, they have but discarded the moments in which they loved us least or in which we did not love at all. Now they are pure; they are clothed only in the fairest hours of life; they no longer possess faults, littlenesses, oddities; they can no longer fall away, or deceive themselves, or give us pain. They care for nothing now but to smile upon us, to encompass us with love, to bring us a happiness drawn without stint from a past which they live again beside us.




At the end of an essay occurring in _The Unknown Guest_ and entitled, _The Knowledge of the Future_, in which I examined a certain number of phenomena relating to the anticipatory perception of events, such as presentiments, premonitions, precognitions, predictions, etc., I concluded in nearly the following terms:

"To sum up, if it is difficult for us to conceive that the future preexists, perhaps it is just as difficult for us to understand that it does not exist; moreover, many facts tend to prove that it is as real and definite and has, both in time and eternity, the same permanence and the same vividness as the past. Now, from the moment that it preexists, it is not surprising that we should be able to know it; it is even astonishing, granted that it overhangs us from every side, that we should not discover it oftener and more easily."

Above all is it astonishing and almost inconceivable that this universal war, the most stupendous catastrophe that has overwhelmed humanity since the origin of things, should not, while it was approaching, bearing in its womb innumerable woes which were about to affect almost every one of us, have thrown upon us more plainly, from the recesses of those days in which it was making ready, its menacing shadow. One would think that it ought to have overcast the whole horizon of the future, even as it will overcast the whole horizon of the past. A secret of such weight, suspended in time, ought surely to have weighed upon all our lives; and presentiments or revelations should have arisen on every hand. There was none of these. We lived and moved without uneasiness beneath the disaster which, from year to year, from day to day, from hour to hour, was descending upon the world; and we perceived it only when it touched our heads. True, it was more or less foreseen by our reason; but our reason hardly believed in it; and besides I am not for the moment speaking of the inductions of the understanding, which are always uncertain and which are resigned beforehand to the capricious contradictions which they are accustomed daily to receive from facts.


But I repeat, beside or above these inductions of our everyday logic, in the less familiar domain of supernatural intuitions, of divination, prediction or prophecy properly so-called, we find that there was practically nothing to warn us of the vast peril. This does not mean that there was any lack of predictions or prophecies collected after the event; these number, it appears, no fewer than eighty-three; but none of them, excepting those of Leon Sonrel and the Rector of Ars, which we will examine in a moment, is worthy of serious discussion. I shall therefore mention, by way of a reminder, only the most widely known; and, first of all, the famous prophecy of Mayence or Strasburg, which is supposed to have been discovered by a certain Jecker in an ancient convent founded near Mayence by St. Hildegard, of which the original text could not be found and of which no one until lately had ever heard. Then there is another prophecy of Mayence or Fiensberg, published in the _Neue Metaphysische Rundschau_ of Berlin in February, 1912, in which the end of the German Empire is announced for the year 1913. Next, we have various predictions uttered by Mme. de Thebes, by Dom Bosco, by the Blessed Andrew Bobola, by Korzenicki, the Polish monk, by Tolstoy, by Brother Hermann and so on, which are even less interesting; and lastly the prophecy of "Brother Johannes," published by M. Josephin Peladan in the _Figaro_ of 16 September, 1914, which contains no evidence of genuineness and must therefore meanwhile be regarded merely as an ingenious literary conceit.


All these, on examination, leave but a worthless residuum; but the prophecies of the Rector of Ars and of Leon Sonrel are more curious and worthy of a moment's attention.

Father Jean-Baptiste Vianney, Rector of Ars, was, as everybody knows, a very saintly priest, who appears to have been endowed with extraordinary mediumistic faculties. The prophecy in question was made public in 1862, three years after the miracle-worker's death, and was confirmed by a letter which Mgr. Perriet addressed to the Very Rev. Dom Grea on the 24th of February, 1908. Moreover, it was printed, as far back as 1872, in a collection entitled, _Voix prophetiques, ou signes, apparitions et predictions modernes_. It therefore has an incontestable date. I pass over the part relating to the war of 1870, which does not offer the same safeguards; but I give that which concerns the present war, quoting from the 1872 text:

"The enemies will not go altogether; they will return again and destroy everything upon their passage; we shall not resist them, but will allow them to advance; and after that we shall cut off their provisions and make them suffer great losses. They will retreat towards their country; we shall follow them and there will be hardly any who return home.

Then we shall take back all that they took from us and much more."

As for the date of the event, it is stated definitely and rather strikingly in these words:

"They will want to canonize me, but there will not be time."

Now the preliminaries to the canonization of Father Vianney were begun in July, 1914, but abandoned because of the war.

I now come to the Sonrel prediction. I will summarize it as briefly as possible from the admirable article which M. de Vesme devoted to it in the _Annales des sciences psychiques_.[9]

On the 3rd of June, 1914--observe the date--Professor Charles Richet handed M. de Vesme, from Dr. Amedee Tardieu, a manuscript of which the following is the substance: on the 23rd or 24th of July, 1869, Dr.

Tardieu was strolling in the gardens of the Luxembourg with his friend Leon Sonrel, a former pupil of the Higher Normal School and teacher of natural philosophy at the Paris Observatory, when the latter had a kind of vision in the course of which he predicted various precise and actual episodes of the war of 1870, such as the collection on behalf of the wounded at the moment of departure and the amount of the sum collected in the soldiers' kepis; incidents of the journey to the frontier; the battle of Sedan, the rout of the French, the civil war, the siege of Paris, his own death, the birth of a posthumous child, the doctor's political career and so on: predictions all of which were verified, as is attested by numerous witnesses who are worthy of the fullest credence. But I will pass over this part of the story and consider only that portion which refers to the present war:

"I have been waiting for two years," to quote the text of Dr. Tardieu's manuscript of the 3rd of June, "for the sequel of the prediction which you are about to read. I omit everything that concerns my friend Leon's family and my private affairs. Yet there is in my life at this moment a personal matter, which, as always happens, agrees too closely with general occurrences for me to doubt what follows:

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