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Chapter Six: Our Sister Vera

I said a few words about Vera in the preceding chapter. I would like to speak of her more, and to make the present chapter a kind of memorial dedicated to her. Shall I succeed in doing so? Will she permit it? She always kept her treasures carefully hidden, but I have a duty of justice regarding her. And then I suppose that in the eternal light, while knowing well that, according to the saying of Mélanie, "the eyes of men are thieves," one no longer fears having these hapless eyes see what on earth one kept for God alone.

When Vera was born, her parents no longer lived in Rostov-on-the-Don, but in another city of southern Russia, Marioupol (which is now called Djanovgrad), on the shore of the sea of Azov. She was born in 1886, the 20th of June in the Russian calendar -- which, in the Latin calendar, corresponded to the 2nd of July, on which the Catholic Church celebrates the Visitation. Raissa was also born on a day of the Blessed Virgin, the 12th of September, feast of the Holy Name of Mary (in the Russian calendar, the 31st of August 1883). In Les Grandes Amitiés Raissa speaks of their childhood infinitely better than I can do. This childhood, this garden of an unforgettable fragrance, in which they had made so many marvelous discoveries, always haunted their hearts, and I relived it with them, I did not tire of questioning them about it, nor they of replying to me. I had my entries into the world of Pifo and of Mimo. "My little sister was growing up. From the time she knew how to speak we talked together a great deal. And we had our own special game, a game which lasted throughout our entire childhood. We imagined that she was my little mother, that I was her little boy and that we lived in a world entirely different from that inhabited by man. It was a world where no one cried or was sick, where flowers and fruits grew all the year round, where children played with birds and could fly like them, where ages are fixed and never change. Mothers never grew old and children were always the same age as they were when they were found in the well, that is, they were always the age at which they were 'born.' Thus I was always two years old. We lived in this world all our playtime hours, and after a fashion, it grew as we grew. When we were big enough to have an idea of good and evil, the very idea of evil had to be shut out of our world. We also had to watch ourselves so as not even to mention words which indicated evil, wickedness -- even words which by contrast might make one think of evil. Thus we must not say 'well' in order not to have to think of 'ill,' nor 'good' in order not to think of 'bad.' It was an extraordinary exercise for the little minds of children, and we often made mistakes, but we would catch ourselves and would try to correct our way of speaking and thinking.

"There was nevertheless a sort of permissible imperfection -- joking, teasing, playing tricks. It was the imagination's revenge, in which all kinds of absurdities and nonsense were permitted. For example, Pifo -- that was my name in this game -- would perch upon a growing cherry (we thought that the pit grew first and then the fruit) and the cherry would grow all about the child and hide him from the eye of his mother who was looking for him. But Pifo would eat the cherry and fall into the arms of his mother, Mimo. This game we played endlessly. We were still playing it when my sister was eight years old and I was nearly eleven."{1} To tell the truth, this game, in which refinement and ardor of spirit had such a part, had a fundamental importance for the two sisters; in it they revealed themselves to one another, and it foreshadowed what they were to be for one another all through life, the vital depth of their mutual attachment. The tenderness of Vera with regard to Raissa always preserved something maternal. And Raissa always felt herself surrounded by this tenderness and protected by it. Raissa forged ahead; her initiatives, infinitely more serious than those of the little Pifo, were those of a humility which braves the perils of the unknown by a mad, boundless love for justice and for truth, she took her risks, she risked everything when it was necessary. The humility of Vera inclined her to efface herself, but in reality it was not so much this humility which caused her to keep withdrawn, it was rather an admirable virtue of discretion, the discretion of a mother proud of her child who keeps herself quite close to him, but a little behind and always on the alert, always ready to assist him and to defend him. And by a high grace from God, I also, her brother, was admitted into the strength and the goodness of this maternal protection. It was necessary for Raissa and myself to face the world. The first task of Vera was to watch over us. And blessed be her great heart, in it she found her joy: "I would like to learn the language of birds, in order to sing the happiness of having a ewe and a lamb."{2}

Outside of the game of which I have just spoken, I have little to say concerning the very young Vera in Russia, except (as I was told) that she showed herself, at those moments when children feel hurt by some injustice or some offence, more carried away than her elder sister. Outraged and indignant, Raissa retreated without raising her eyes; Vera stamped her foot. She flared up so quickly that people liked to call her "little match" (spitchka).

At Marioupol she attended the classes of the elementary school, but not, like Raissa, those of the high-school (Raissa was admitted there at the age of seven, and Vera was this age when the family, having left Russia forever, established itself in Paris). Younger and less well prepared, the school years in Paris were more difficult for her. Without a shadow of jealousy (nothing was more foreign to her nature) she admired Raissa all the more; moreover it was on Raissa that the mind of their parents concentrated for that ascent into the world of science which is the great ambition of Jewish families. But it was not only because she experienced little attraction for the Sorbonne, it was above all out of necessity, because of her failing health, that after several years of secondary schooling Vera gave up regular studies, without giving up for all that her curiosity of mind, her love of books, her passion for everything which ennobles humanity. The doctors had detected an attack of pulmonary tuberculosis, which however was cured in a few years. She was sixteen or seventeen, I believe, when she spent a winter in Pau, where she boarded with the family of another doctor. She was a quite romantic young girl (the poems of Ephraïm Mikhaë delighted her), of an extraordinarily delicate charm, and of an extreme gentleness from which sparks did not fail to fly. Independent and proud of her independence, she had repulsed with a flick of the wrist the timid apostolic advances of two old ladies whom she often visited and who tried to interest this unbeliever in the Catholic religion. Protestantism had no more luck one or two years later (my chronology is very uncertain), when she sojourned in Switzerland where Raissa came to join her for the vacation, and where both met the future minister Paul Vergara, whom they introduced to me afterwards and who remained our friend.

When a year after our marriage Raissa and I came to know the Bloys, in 1905, we naturally immediately spoke of them to Vera. She went to see them with us, read like us the books of Léon Bloy and those of the spirituals whom he recommended to us. And certainly she had her own problems, she loved beauty too much to be able to satisfy herself with the human condition. But of what passed within her, never a word; our mutual confidence had no need of words. When the two of us had finally reached the decision to ask for baptism, Raissa informed her of it, and she replied simply, as a thing which was a matter of course: I am ready. She was baptized at the same time as we were, the 11th of June, 1906 -- with many tears. On that day she gave herself to God forever, even making to Him, in imitation of her godfather, some of those unreasonable requests which He is only too ready to grant; -- Raissa, who dreaded everything which seemed exaggerated, merely asked Him for "something";{3} full measure was given to both of them, by way of suffering and love.


It is easy to picture to oneself Raissa as a Mary devoted to contemplation, and Vera as a Martha devoted to the active life, a Sister of charity par excellence. In reality, Raissa was as active as Vera, although on another plane; goodness, tenderness, devotion to neighbor were likewise ardent in her. And like Raissa, Vera lived by prayer, she also knew that it was necessary to give everything to Jesus, everything, absolutely every thing;{4} she also had made unity in herself under the peace which God gives. (It was certainly moreover the case of Martha and Mary themselves; the diversity between them was exaggerated by the function principally assigned to each -- diversity of lighting which made appear deep-seated a contrast wholly secondary to tell the truth.)

If it is a question afterwards of character, of temperament, of natural dispositions, the contrast between the two sisters was very great. Raissa took more after her mother, Vera after her father. Raissa herself had a taste for wisdom, Vera for temerity. Raissa scarcely liked to go outside, "the humble kingdom of her house" mattered to her first; appropriateness in the arrangement of things, the very simple harmony of her room was the repose of her eyes, she had a passion for order, undertook projects for arranging things which she rarely had the strength to carry through (it was an annoyance for her, and we did not help her enough), she had a respect for the humblest objects which she knew was required by the spirit of poverty, kept the same clothes in perfect condition for an improbable number of years. It displeased her if a woman made herself ugly or neglected herself, she liked pretty dresses -- ready-made dresses of the most moderate price, which one "adjusted" at home (it was on this occasion that at Princeton she came to know a black woman of great heart, a seamstress by profession, who quickly became a very dear friend, and who assisted us in the most difficult moments until the end; in hearing Jane Somerville speak to us of her father, who as an adolescent had been a fugitive slave, the tragedy of the South, the suffering and the courage of a whole race became suddenly tangible).

Vera, who was also a woman, and did not detest being pretty, was however naturally inclined not to care a bit about her clothes, and it took a long time before she one day thanked her sister for having taught her to become "a little stylish." She let things lie about anywhere, forgot them, preferred her dreams. Her room was precious to her also, above all her little room in Princeton in which she found a peace near to her heart (she said that there she was in the house of St. Joseph), it was our consolation to feel her happy there. But still she had an instinctive horror of everything having to do with ordering, arrangement, rules of organization, and left to her native dispositions she would have lived in the midst of a disorder cheerfully increased or renewed each day (which never happened because she did not wish to displease her sister; and even, in the last years, she had almost been converted to the advantages of "order"). She liked the nickname of "Barbed Cat"; her taste for extremes and for a certain irrationality caused us to call her the surrealist of the house. However disarmed she was, for she was in a holy ignorance of the century's sharp practices, she had no fear of facing the external world, of protecting me against invaders and of showing so much inflexibility to friends who asked for me on the telephone that she drew the resentment of many, of discussing with tradesmen and of imposing her authority on the maids, before whom Raissa and I trembled miserably. During our stays in the United States, Raissa, who knew English much better then she, and who read it easily, never wished to speak it -- because she feared pronouncing it badly, and above all because she waited obstinately, and in vain, to "know the irregular verbs" to perfection (the time that she would have liked to devote to English lessons she gave to Les Grandes Amitiés). Vera, on the contrary, shamelessly spoke an imaginary English thanks to which furthermore she made herself understood as much as she wished, and won, first in New York, in the quarter of the "village" where we lived, then in Princeton, the esteem and the friendship of managers of drugstores, grocery stores and stationery stores, not to mention the supermarkets where she gaily pushed about the small shopping cart in which she stacked her purchases.

Raissa's sleep was of an astonishing tranquility; one could hardly hear her breathe, she hardly budged the whole night, did not make a crease in her sheets. Vera threw everything into disorder while she was sleeping; in the morning her covers were on the floor.

Striking at first, all these differences between the two sisters were only differences of temperament, which covered a fundamental likeness of a much greater importance.

They had the same voice, or very nearly -- astonishingly pure, gentle and clear; Massignon, when he telephoned us, complained of not knowing which of them he was speaking to. They had that same quickness of mind, that same delicacy of sensibility, of almost airy perceptiveness, that same sense of humor in tears which stems in the children of Israel not from blood nor from the flesh, nor from racial heredity, but from the kind of refinement or of sharpening of nature which since Abraham and Moses grace has effected in this people and in its culture. Such a quality, which is also a particular aptitude for suffering, can become exacerbated in certain persons, but in others it is the seal of a kind of royal dignity (Raissa's voice and that of Vera made me dream of the harp of David). Our friend Dr. William Welch, who tended them in their illnesses in Princeton over a long period, called them regal. (Shall I tell, but so much the worse for the Gentiles, that he added that his other patients were "horses"?) The true words which it would be necessary to use for them have nothing to do with the stateliness of pomp, one would have to say "humble grandeur."

They had the same purity and uprightness of heart, the same candor, the same horror of all falseness. The only lie that Vera committed was not a lie, but a slip dictated by the unconscious and which amused the three of us very much. She was on good terms, at Versailles, with the Mère Supérieure des Auxiliatrices du Purgatoire, a very distinguished and somewhat solemn person. In the course of a visit which Vera paid to her, this good Mother questioned her concerning her godfather and asked her the title of his books. Vera, in recounting the conversation to us, told us quite calmly that when she came to the Journal of Léon Bloy she had enumerated its different volumes, le Mendiant Ingrat, l'Invendable, Quatre ans de captivité à Chalons-sur-Marne . . . And it was only after our surprise that she realized, bursting out laughing, that without noticing it she had translated for the sake of a Mère Auxiliatrice too well brought up to endure a swear-word, the title of this last book, which is, as one knows, Quatre ans de cap tivité à Cochons-sur-Marne (Cochons-sur-Marne is Lagny).

The two sisters had the same love of truth and of beauty, the same simplicity, the same humility, the same liberty of spirit, the same indifference to worldly conventions. Their Christianity had the same evangelical quality, the same tenderness for souls which was but one with the love of Jesus, the same spirit of poverty, which with the years was going to cause both of them to enter, without any noise betraying their steps, into the narrow path of interior destitution and of the complete divesting of self. Speaking of the imprudent generosities of her father and of the terrors which resulted at the end of the month, Raissa writes in Les Grandes Amitiés: "In this fashion I learned what the acquisition of a little money can cost in effort, what suffering the lack of a little money can occasion. And when several years later I saw Léon Bloy in the grip of poverty and misery, it was easy for me to understand and to sympathize. This won for me the very high privilege of being welcomed and considered by him as belonging to his own sorrowful world, the world of those who do not look at poverty from the outside."{5} As to Vera, her spirit of poverty was such that she never thought of the fact that she depended on her sister and on me for everything and had nothing of her own, except her clothes, her books, her identity card, and that famous private law, signed by President Truman, which we had obtained with some difficulty and which permitted her to reside hors quota in the United States.{6}

The silence which she generally observed at the meetings in Meudon signified neither timidity nor indifference, and did not prevent her from expressing her own judgment about people, sometimes more severe than ours. She detested pretension, affectation, and sentimentality. It was by reason of the intensity of her own interior ardor that she exposed herself so little.

Served by the vivacity of her character, she could moreover display a flawless boldness as soon as the cause of justice was at stake. At the time of Meudon and of the battles which I then fought, she could publicly refuse her hand to a male friend whom she judged had betrayed me; and I myself, when she related this adventure to me on her return home, was so stupid and so fatuous as to criticize her for this as a breach of charity. I still have regrets for having made her weep that day.

Her compassion was not greater than Raissa's, but it was of a little different quality, because of the maternal nuance it contained. Her pity for human beings was so profound that, paradoxically, she, so strict with herself, sometimes seemed, when it was a question of sinners, to look upon sin as not much, as a paltry accident of the human condition. I mean that she regarded with a kind of immediately pardoning indulgence, not, to be sure, the proud and the cruel, but those whom the weakness of the flesh, or the work of our poor passions, or misery leads astray.

A particularly beloved book for her, in the last years, was Requiem for a Nun, which she read in the excellent translation of Coindreau. For very different reasons she also placed very high (less high however than the great book of Faulkner) The Sea, of Conrad, and above all Le Lotissement du ciel, of Blaise Cendrars, whose resplendent baroque pleased her in the extreme. She loved Saint-Exupéry; and, more profoundly, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire, and Reverdy. There was also, of course, Union With God of Albert the Great, the opusculum on The Divine Ways attributed to St. Thomas and which Raissa had translated, The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, Grignion de Montfort, Caussade, L'Abrégé de la Doctrine spirituelle de saint Jean de la Croix done by Charles Henrion, the writings (or rather stenographed copies of retreats) belatedly published by Father Dehau. And, a treasure entirely apart, the books of Raissa, and her poems, as also the volume on The Living Thoughts of Saint Paul which I had published. Although she had received no philosophical formation she also read my other books, and she understood them very well, if not technically, at least through the heart.

If intelligence was the native land of Raissa, the proper climate of Vera was the quickness and the exactness of sensibility. She amused herself, though without attaching any importance to it, by pencilling sketches, birds, boats, exaggerated silhouettes and then writing satirical captions under them ("A father-in-law, here is my daughter", "A sad lady on a visit"; "An acid lady". . . .) On her sickbed she still drew them with her trembling hand, was happy as a child with the sketch-books and the colored pencils we brought her. She wrote stories for children in which all the animals of the earth figured, short fanciful poems which could have been very good if she had wished and which Raissa begged her to work on, but which she left as seedlings. From a small number which I have found I extract and regroup these few lines.

The ox escorting the tortoise
thinks of the lost paradise. Do you hear the carillon of the Antilles,
the swarms of the withered flowers?
Along the ponds unicorns sing
the story of the ewes.
All the stones of the universe are moved to pity
and tears flow all along craters.
O my friends these are songs
of love and of agony.{7}

And a small poem for C.J.:

Lamb with blue eyes -- impossible dust, luminous diamonds -- hard head, serried like truth, gentleness of angels, implacable tenderness, drop of water which hollows out rocks, impregnable, peaceful, tranquil.{8}

She had a passion for the sea, our crossings of the Atlantic put her entirely at ease, and the more the boat tossed the happier she was. The voyage to South America on the Florida was her great joy, nothing pleased her so much as her little cabin which was however not very comfortable, and in walking about on the bridge in the storm she felt more secure than on the streets of Paris.

But let us speak of things which matter more. If Raissa and Vera both welcomed the slightest joy with tenderness and gratitude,

Protect your happiness by thanksgivings
Surround it with a hedge of roses,{9}

it was Raissa, though so grave, who had the most humor and the most playfulness, and the most need of a certain light gaiety. By her natural instinct she would have asked only to be overjoyed at the beauty of the world. In looking at her one thought, sick at heart, of these lines of Baudelaire on the poet:

And the Spirit which follows him in his pilgrimage
Weeps to see him gay like a bird of the forests.

And it was she who had to bear the heaviest burden, entered farther into the thickness of the Cross. All of which does not mean that the cross of Vera was light, for she also had entirely sacrificed herself -- patiently, silently, all the time, in a kind of luminous darkness, without anything, except our mutual love, coming to give her any human encouragement, but with the consolations of Jesus.

She did not have the extraordinarily broad culture and the genius of her senior, and was not at all humiliated by them: for she loved her Creator enough to be happy with what He had made her, and she possessed in any case enough exquisite natural gifts not to have to complain about her lot. In a general way I shall say that along with an astonishing spiritual relationship and a similar attitude before life, Raissa, in all things, whether it is a question of human experience or of spiritual experience, and of intuition, and of suffering, advanced farther and deeper. But nothing was more beautiful and more moving than to see the two sisters move thus through life, Raissa first, Vera second, inseparable, and this so simple and so generous acceptance of the role of second, and of the function of assisting, conferred on Vera a similar and eminent dignity. For it was an equally great love which caused both of them to act, fraternal love for one another, love of God, love of neighbor.

I have said that there was something adventurous and rash in Vera. But it was Raissa who, at sixteen, had declared that she wanted a life "which would not be quotidian." She often reminded us of this remark, which amused all three of us, for we had indeed been served. Vera would certainly have been able to say the same thing, the meaning however would have been a little different. Raissa knew too much of it to love adventure for itself, even if only in imagination; it was on life and death that she was engaging herself.


Here I would like to include a parenthesis concerning Raissa. Because of the firmness of her will Maunce Sachs, in Le Sabbat, said of her, if I remember rightly, that she was "a woman of steel." Such an expression is suitable for what they call in America "metallic women"; applied to Raissa it is a flagrant absurdity. Raissa had nothing of feminine ruses and of feminine swoons -- she had all the grace, the ardor and the fragility of femininity. Airy delicacy, light sweetness of the little hands of Raissa! Vera also had hands of an admirable sweetness, but larger, less fairy-like. Raissa's incomparable spirit of childhood must also be spoken of, a spirit which she kept intact until the end. This innocence, which one attributes to children -- she truly had it. Her simple attitude in the presence of things and of persons, the way she carried her head, that way of standing up straight without the slightest stiffness and of looking people in the eye without the slightest arrogance, or apprehension, or precaution, that presence which consisted simply in being there without deceit, that welcome without premeditation -- it was enough for me to see it to be overwhelmed by the feeling of this innocence -- innocence exposed to all blows. In Raissa there was no steel, but an ardent flame. Or, if one holds to the idea of steel, one must say that the blade was enclosed in an incredibly vulnerable and tender sheath. She was very quick at repartee, but she was totally defenseless. I always reproached her for being "without a shell," and for not wanting a shell or a shield. "She reminds me of a lily of the valley which too heavy a ray of sunshine would bend on its stem. In this charming and so frail creature there lives a soul capable of making oaks kneel,"{10} Léon Bloy, from the first meeting, had divined his beloved goddaughter. As I said in the Foreword of Raissa's Journal, "In no one (and certainly not in myself) have I known such strength and such unflinching courage of will, nor such lucidity." Well, nothing had more need of being protected than this strength, because, even already as mere gift of nature, it was not of this world, in the sense in which poetry is not of this world either. It was enough to enable her to triumph, at any cost, over fear and over anguish, it was not enough to spare her from them. Through the blessing of a complementarity which love alone can produce, the admirable courage of Vera before the chicaneries, perfidies, calumnies and cowardices which one rubs up against as soon as one acts, protected the strength which made oaks kneel by protecting the lily of the valley, the too vulnerable envelope, the heart of Raissa open to all suffering as well as to all beauty.

Before finishing this parenthesis, I note also that one would be completely mistaken if because of the long agony of soul which is spoken of in the Journal, and of the trials of all kinds which Raissa had to endure, one saw in her only struggle and austerity. I have insisted above, as also in the Foreword which precedes the Journal, on the gaiety and the playfulness which were in her a need of nature and which she was always able to preserve, as well as on her untiring interest in the works of men and the movement of life. In writing these lines I think of a photograph of her at sixteen, wholly radiant with the ardor of living. With what passion she willed happiness -- and first Truth -- happiness in Truth, without knowing then at what a bloody price such a happiness is bought. When she began to know it, she never drew back. As a friend who had known her well, the eldest daughter of Pierre Termier, wrote to me, after having read the Journal, "her gifts, truly exceptional from all points of view, seemed to promise her an easy life, a life filled up to the brim; and one sees her in these pages at grips with heart-rending difficulties, traversing months of anguish and of agony, because she chose the highest possible life, the desolation of the great altitudes."{11} In order to face this desolation, as well as to sympathize with all the sadness of which she was the confidante without wasting away with sorrow, she needed the never changing freshness of her native gaiety. She could amuse herself with a trifle. She loved -- much more than Vera -- play and dance. Very young, as she related in Les Grandes Amitiés, she used to go dancing -- in her everyday dress -- at the balls of the Russian students; Isadora Duncan had delighted her, and if afterwards there was no longer ever any talk of dance for her, it was much less for reasons of moral severity than because in fact our kind of life included no occasion for worldliness. As for the dance of David or of the Hassidim, she found them again in Chagall and in her own poetry. In her last illness she made gentle fun of the doctors who tended her, and whose powerlessness she knew. One day, in the course of one of those absurd and distressing examinations which a great specialist in neurology made her periodically undergo ("Madame, what is this?" he asked her while unexpectedly presenting his watch or tie, or his wedding ring -- as if the memory could be jogged without the help of an associated train of thought) he asked her: "Madame, what would you like to do at this moment?" "Doctor, I would like to dance," she replied, raising her beautiful laughing eyes to this man with whom, immobilized in her bed, she had found a means of playing because she knew him to be superlatively intelligent (but did he deserve the favor of such a game at such a moment, I doubt it very much).

To tell the truth, when she was not taken up by prayer, poetry, or suffering, her relations with things and with people were a kind of game which she kept up by instinct, and which were a great help to her in enduring the perpetual emotions and the harassment of the life of Meudon. The game in which she delighted most (and which was much more than a game) was that of conversation with her friends. At Princeton another game, it also much more than a game, consisted in selecting and cutting out among the multitude of photographs of children which one found at that time in American periodicals, the pictures of those whom she called beings. It is natural that very often the child, in his devouring eagerness to see and to touch, exercises only the most common vitality, but at other moments certain children, especially certain little children, seem -- and with what almost unbearable gravity, in comparison with which the countenance of adults is ridiculous and affected -- solely and mysteriously occupied with existing, turned towards the act of being and absorbed in it. Abolition of appearance! These latter were beings.

Being astonishes in the eyes of the child
and refuses to see the world{12}.

Still another game enchanted Raissa -- it was a game of reflections. Are windows in America made with thicker glass than in Europe? At any rate it behaves more, at certain moments, like a mirror. When twilight came, the windows of our rooms began to reflect the objects and the lights inside our house with brilliant vividness; and since at the same time they continued to show the things on the outside, there resulted fantastic pictures; one saw the dining room table suspended in the midst of a tree, a bed on the lawn of the garden, one of us seated on a chair in the clouds, our lamps or the books on our shelves straddling the door or the wall of the neighboring house. Raissa always called Vera and me to come share the pleasures of this spectacle, which we could vary in all sorts of ways simply by changing our position.

We laughed a great deal in our house. On certain evenings, when Raissa was sick, I went to her bedside to read to her, imitating the accent of Marseilles, and thanks to this very simple stratagem there were crystalline bursts of laughter in which Vera joined. We detested both bohemianism and bourgeois conventions. I was (I am still) very foul-mouthed. This displeased Raissa very much, but what to do about it? At Meudon an agreement was finally established between her and myself (at my expense), once a month I had the right to employ a certain forbidden word which relieved my bitterness, but only after twenty-nine days of constraint.

What chatter! After everything that I have just told you, do you think that I am intelligent enough to enable you to understand Raissa and Vera? Myself, I admired them and loved them with all my heart, and I knew them well indeed. But was I capable of understanding them? One never understands a soul.

Among the friends whom Raissa and Vera saw most frequently at Meudon, I shall name three particularly dear children of Israel, who had devoted themselves to Jesus with all their heart; Jeanne Linn, the very sweet and very faithful Jeanne Linn (she and her husband Pierre also lived in Meudon); -- Achsa Belkind, who had been sent to us from Palestine (as was formerly, at the time of Bures, the noble and ardent Absalom Feinberg; he did not become a Christian and returned home where, during the First World War, he sided with the Allies in order to better serve the cause of Zionism; and was put to death by the Germans); Achsa is also from a family of Zionist pioneers, but the courses ot Guignebert at the Sorbonne, with their anti-Christian bias, caused her to reflect so well that she became the goddaughter of René Schwob and of Raissa; -- and Babet Jacob, so radiant with intelligence and with life, who during the second war, in the so-called free zone, was to be handed over to the Gestapo by the Vichy police, together with her old mother of eighty years and her brother Emmanuel, my godson; these Christian Jews, who had put too much confidence in France (they loved her to the point of almost being militarists) were deported to Germany, Babet and her mother thrown into the gas-chamber of Buchenwald, Manu assassinated one knows not where, their death darkened our hearts forever.

In general our friendships were common to all three of us. Vera however had also her private friendships; in the first place Marie-Louise Guillot, her great confidante (she was a cousin of Father Garrigou-Lagrange, we had known her through Father Dehau; one saw in this tall, chaste young woman an unforgettable light and an unforgettable courage, an unforgettable gaiety, an unforgettable piety; she died at the age of seventy-two, the 21st of September 1962).

It was also to Father Dehau, I believe, that Vera owed another friend to whom she was very attached, Mme Aline Masurel, who lived in the North of France and who came from time to time to Paris. Vera saw her each time, in Paris or in Meudon.

There was besides -- chronologically I should have begun with her, for it is a question of very early times -- the Mother Superior (Mother Rosalie) of a Community of which I have forgotten the name, which took care of the poor and the sick, somewhere in the vicinity of the Gare du Nord. Vera admired her very much, and she always returned happy from the visits she went to pay her (sometimes bringing back some penitential instrument which she procured for herself at the gate-lodge of the convent).

There was above all (many years later, at the height of the Meudon period) Mother Madeleine, that Dominican nun of an incomparable generosity and an incomparable liberty of spirit, who, very much in advance of her time, saw in manual work{13} and in a perfect availability to the requests of compassion for one's neighbor the privileged soil of an authentic contemplative life. With the aid of Father Bernadot she had founded a Third Order Regular ("of St. Catherine de Ricci"); and this wholly evangelical small community which Mother Madeleine still animates and which resides now in Crépieux, lived then in Meudon. They were very close to the heart of all three of us; but it was Vera who, more free to come and go than Raissa and I, saw Mother Madeleine most frequently.

And there was, for a certain time, Gwen John, a difficult friend whom it was a question of aiding in her anxieties and her torments. An excellently endowed painter, she lived in Meudon as a recluse buried in her art and in her reverie. She went to Mass every morning, and it was there that she had seen us, before in a moment of great moral anguish it occurred to her to approach us.{14} From that time she confided in Vera, whom she saw after Mass, on Mondays especially. Vera did all she could for her, and the burden was heavy, In the end it became clear to her that it was better to break off. But she always kept Gwen John in her prayers.


Since she had come to join us in Heidelberg, in December of 1906, Vera always lived with Raissa and myself. We served our apprenticeship together as converts, each using a total frankness towards the other two, and trying to aid each other while aiding oneself. At that distant time she was still very touchy, and often felt offended by trifles; she quickly cured herself of this natural susceptibility, and I believe that in not sparing her from our jokes we did her a service. It was from that time that the three of us formed a closely united little community in which, while employing at first, at the very beginning, some idiotic practices of piety (such as the daily reckoning of faults and of "victories" over oneself) -- this did not last long -- and some illusory means of mortification suggested by the Lives of the saints which we devoured without discernment but with delight (belts equipped with nails, hair shirts, bitter power discreetly thrown onto the plate, and what not),{15} -- this also passed quickly enough -- then, without great profit, the reading and private meditation on the Exercises of St. Ignatius -- and a little later (this finally was reasonable) certain practices borrowed from monastic life such as the regular "chapters" (one would say today, in the discount vocabulary with which people feel comfortable, the "revisions of life"), we took our first steps towards a Milky Way which recedes in proportion as one advances.

Our life in Heidelberg was discussed in a preceding chapter. Afterwards it was Paris (rue des Feuillantines), than Versailles (rue de l'Orangerie, then rue Neuve, named later rue Baillet-Reviron). In February 1909, Vera, in spite of her shaky health, decided that she would be a nurse, and began to serve her apprenticeship at Hôpital de la Pitié, one of the most dilapidated and squalid hospitals of Paris, but with which she was delighted. We still lived on rue des Feuillantines; but in October of the same year we were going to move to Versailles, and it was from there that at the cost of great fatigue, soon complicated by pulmonary troubles, Vera continued to go regularly through her course at the hospital. She had entered the surgical department of Dr. Walter, and always kept a vivid gratitude for this man who was as good as he was learned, who had quickly become attached to her. During these hours spent at Pitié she saw from close up human suffering and human misery, sometimes human hideousness, and her compassion for the poor of Jesus Christ grew not only in extent, but in strength and determination. At the end of a little more than a year it was necessary for her to withdraw, Dr. Walter having intimated to her that the work for which she believed herself cut out was absolutely incompatible with the weakness of her health. It was a very hard blow for her. But to have been a nurse always pleased her magnanimity, and she always considered herself to be such (not only was she a very good judge in all departments of first aid, she also enforced over us the inescapable symbols of antisepsis: absorbent cotton, alcohol, the obligatory passing of the least instrument in flame or in boiling water). More truly and in a more profound sense, she was all her life a Nurse par excellence.

I suppose that she had like everybody a period of hesitation concerning the paths in which she would direct her life, not being attracted by marriage and wondering what God wished of her. Everything became clear when (at what moment, I cannot say, perhaps when we became oblates of St. Benedict at Oosterhout, she under the name of Agnes, Raissa under the name of Gertrude, myself, by antiphrasis apparently, under that of Placidus) the three of us decidedly understood that our little lay community formed a unity apart, was something in the midst of the world which was not of the world, without having need for all that to belong to any secular imitation of the religious state, or to any pious organization. It is true that at the outset we regarded ourselves a little as lay monks and lay cloistered nuns, and that not without some bravado and much naiveté I carefully inscribed a Benedictine pax at the head of letters which most often had nothing pacific in them. But these illusions soon vanished. We were laymen, engaged unreservedly in the state of lay life; and the more the years passed, the more we felt ourselves simple laymen, laymen of the common run of the people. But this little flock of three belonged to Jesus Christ.

It was in this spirit, and with a perfect clearness, that Vera became conscious of her destiny. If she chose to remain with Raissa and me, it was for no kind of temporal reason, be it for love for her sister, it was by reason of her personal vocation and of her free gift, and of a call which she knew came from the depth of eternity.

The vocation of which I have just spoken is the supernatural root of the sublime devotion which she had for us. It explains also why she felt herself at no moment a sister and a sister-in-law a little isolated in the presence of the couple Raissa and Jacques. There was between the three of us a profound and tranquil unity, a radical unity which we always considered to be an immense grace from God. The number three is a particularly holy number and one which signifies the most complete plenitude -- this is the idea or the impression which our hearts never ceased to experience. When Vera departed for the other life, what inconceivable solitude suddenly pounced upon two beings even though united by such a great love! Raissa could not survive it; Vera had prepared a place for her. And now, for my part, I survive the two of them. But the truth is that I also survive myself.

However profound and however total the human affection was which united the three of us, we knew very well that more profoundly and more totally still it was another love, come from on high, which united us also. We knew likewise, scarcely without formulating it to ourselves, for in itself it was rather inexpressible, that we were engaged together in a certain work for which it was necessary to follow as one blind a hand which guided our steps. Raissa and Vera knew it better than I, but I knew it also, in my own manner, in the manner of an apprentice-philosopher engaged to explore caverns in search of captive truths -- all of which presupposed, at the same time as a certain amount of temerity, the disquieting, sometimes distressing help of those gratis datae motions which are not given for the sanctification of the one who receives them. (The she-donkey of Balaam was a good example of this truth, and I thought, not without reason, that the best image of the Christian philosopher is that young donkey for which St. Augustine has a gentle word; asinus es, he says to it, sed Christus portas.) [You are a donkey, but you carry Christ.] Well, the three of whom I speak were surrounded and aided all their life by very precious friendships, true gifts of Heaven. Furthermore I must say that they followed a wholly solitary path. Whether it is a question of what we did at Meudon, or what we did in America, or of the poetry of Raissa or of my philosophy, we took our risks and our initiatives all alone, without maneuvering with any group or playing the game of any party.

But let us leave this digression, and return to what concerns Vera in particular. Everywhere and always she was for Raissa and me a great helping Angel, I refer to the angels intentionally, she seemed on such good terms with them. (There are insignificant things which pass by us in time, but like a sign which one seizes on the wing and whose memory imprints itself on the soul. One day, in New York, while I was giving a lecture I know not where, and Vera had suddenly fallen gravely ill -- Raissa saved her by changing doctors -- our friend "Maou" -- Marguerite Baudains -- who claimed to be a strong spirit and rejected any belief, exclaimed in entering her room: "But there is nothing to fear, she has a crowd of angels around her bed. . . ."

Naturally the aid which Vera gave us manifested itself first on the plane of visible things. Let it not be thought that Raissa shifted the responsibility for the whole care of the house on her, Raissa took most attentive care of all the details of the house; but Vera aided her considerably in the affairs of the household -- especially of the kitchen (when their mother was no longer there to take charge of them) -- and in "external relations"; just as she aided me on all occasions; she prepared with me the orthographical Dictionary in the Tout en Un [Everything in One] of Hachette, she was my secretary, the manuscripts of all the books written at Versailles and at Meudon were typed by her. She not only aided us, she defended us, as I noted above, and this first of all in all the little difficulties of life. She had assumed this function of defence and protection with joy, and I believe that she drew from it a kind of humble pride. She would have liked, but Raissa prevented her,{16} to take for herself all that was less good. She was always available and always enterprising. It was she who after many vain searches found the house at Meudon. (Raissa, betrayed by her physical strength, was depressed at not being able to look with her for such things. It was intended that she be so disappropriated as never to be able to examine beforehand, in order to consider its merits, the place where we were going to live, whether it was our different successive dwellings or merely vacation places; it was Vera and I who made the choice; and almost always -- in the case of Meudon in particular -- the first contact was a rude shock for Raissa, what she saw not corresponding at all to the idea she had formed from our descriptions. She never chose her abode -- and neither, my goodness, her last abode -- here on earth.)

We could have said about Vera what the weeping St. Bernard said of his brother Gerard: "The eyes of Gerard preceded all my steps, my cares were more known to his heart than to mine, he was more preoccupied with them, felt their urgency better." And that whole long lamentation, that immense sorrow which St. Bernard emits in the 26th sermon on the Song of Songs, because his beloved brother is no more, I recall how much Raissa was touched by it, and how she blessed the saint for it when the visible presence of Vera was taken from her.

I have said that Vera aided us and defended us first on the plane of visible things, and in all the little difficulties of everyday life. It is necessary now to go much further, to try to speak of the spiritual assistance which she constantly gave us, and of the fortitude of this defenceless one whose support never failed us. Here, I am afraid to speak of things too mysterious and too pure for me. I noted above that Raissa's exceptional strength of soul, and the invincible will which attached her to the absolute, because they inhabited a fragile body and a defenceless sensibility, made her more painfully vulnerable to all the cruelty, stupidity, treachery and meanness that there is in the world; far from dispensing from anguish they were, like the "giant's wings" of which Baudelaire speaks, an inconvenience on the paths of the earth, and in this sense, they themselves had need of being protected. It was to protect them that Vera employed her own strength, more at ease in the confusion of the here-below. And thus the weaker supported and protected the stronger.

But the words which I use scarcely satisfy me, and could lead to error. For if Vera's strength of soul did not have the extraordinary intensity of her sister's, how much even so I would have liked to have Vera's strength, not so much before men and human grandeurs, which have never impressed me much, but in the face of long and cruel physical sufferings endured without lament, and in the face of trials of the spirit, I say before the threat of the most serious, and at certain moments, it seemed, the most hopeless, external events, I say in the total confidence in God and the total abandonment to His will, and the hoping against all hope! The strength of soul of our little sister aided the least strong among us as it aided the strongest.

Of this blessed aid it seems that Heaven wished to give us a particular sign. Here I touch on one of the secrets of Vera; and I know well that aside from an exception of which I am going to speak presently, she did not want to confide anything of these things -- she destroyed all her notebooks (except one which escaped her by chance, lost among other papers).{17} However since I am trying here to sketch her portrait, how can I not say a word about her prayer, which was the life of her life? I believe that unlike Raissa she received many sensible graces, and that she was fortified by their sweetness, as well as by the sweetness of tears -- she wept with tenderness and with amazement much more often than with sadness. (At Rome, when I presented the two of them to Pius XII, Vera never left off streaming with tears the whole time that this audience lasted. I teased her a lot afterwards. . . .)

She needed to talk to Father Dehau longer than Raissa, in order to submit to him, as her spiritual guide, the details of her secrets with God. Concerning these secrets silence reigned for years. And then, one day, fraternal charity made her divulge something of them to Raissa and to myself, when in September 1939 she saw us overwhelmed by the horror of the war which had just been declared and which we knew well would be monstrous. Then she decided to confess to Raissa that Jesus often spoke to her (in the depth of her heart, without any material sound) and that now He allowed her to transmit messages of His mercy. "I told you," Raissa wrote to Henry Bars (19th of January, 1969), "that her spiritual life was wholly secret. We suspected that God spoke to her often. And in an altogether particular case, when it was a question of strengthening us during our exile and the anguish of war, she made an exception. She communicated to us the words which she heard from time to time, above all during Mass, and which transfigured her with joy, and which always told us to have confidence, to fear nothing, to know that God watched over us."

All three of us knew very well that "extraordinary graces" in the mystical life are only an entirely secondary accessory;{18} they are often liable to illusion, and it is a classical rule not to take one's stand on them, but on faith and reason, for the acts which one has to do (although under the New Law they are given, according to the teaching of the theologians, only ad directionem actuum humanorum: which signifies that they are given, not in order for themselves to direct action, but only in order to aid, like flares, the virtue which directs action, and whose name, although degraded by centuries of philistinism, is Prudence). However everything in Vera was too clear, too pure and too simple, her whole conduct too balanced, and the so-to-speak substantial peace, the recollection, the joy, the light which emanated from her when she brought to Raissa, sometimes to me, the few lines cast by her on a scrap of paper, bore a too evident witness for us to imagine the slightest illusion in her. She herself never doubted that what was said to her came from Jesus.

As to the danger of regulating our actions according to these brief messages, it would have been very difficult to detect, for in actual fact no indication concerning something to be done was ever contained in them, they were only testimonies of love and mercy, and a constant exhortation to fear nothing. Sometimes, in certain difficult circumstances, it was said that, whatever it was, the decision that we would come to would be blessed; this decision to be made was always left to our free will.{19}

Raissa kept all her sister's messages like treasures, she and I copied them in our notebooks. They were for her and for me a help and a blessing from Heaven. Moreover, as much as we felt moved, encouraged and strengthened in receiving them, we reproached ourselves afterwards for not thinking of them more; what they brought us was a kind of habitual climate, or rather a kind of support as secret as the movement of life.

In the letter to Henry Bars which I cited above, "we spoke to nobody," wrote Raissa, "of these messages received by Vera, and given to us by her. It must be noted that she gave all of them to us without keeping anything for herself, she no longer had to re-read these papers, what they transmitted was in her. Several months ago she asked us to destroy everything which concerned her correspondence with Father Dahau and Father Charles Henrion, which she kept in two packets. But she added: As to the messages which I gave to you, they belong to you." I have no desire to infringe the laws of discretion with respect to them; it is better however to cite a very small number of them, in order that one can have some idea of their simplicity and their sweetness.

"Fear not. Do not be afraid, my little children. I shall guard you." (Fontgombaud, 5th of September 1939.)

"The sufferings of your little sister are transformed into graces and blessings. . . . Tell her that she has received the dew of fire --but let her not lose her composure, I am in her and with her. . . . Spiritually she is stronger than you, it is necessary that I aid you in a more sensible manner. She is a true little ewe of Israel. I shall guard you, I shall protect you, my children." (29th of July 1945, they were both on the point of leaving New York to join me in Rome.)

I ask much of her, but I have few friends from whom I can ask so much. Let her fear nothing, never. Let her know that she is to participate in My joy and in My glory some day." (Princeton, 10th of April 1949.)

"Yes, I shall be merciful to you, to you, to your little sister, to your brother, to all those who are here and who will come here. Tell your little sister that her sufferings are precious to me, that I have need of them for the salvation of souls. I keep her in my heart (I understood: like a little bird in its nest). Be sure to tell her that her sufferings are precious to me, it is I who send them. Let her be confident of my tenderness. As regards yourself, my little daughter, he who has not given everything has given nothing." (Kolbsheim, 17th of July 1949.)

"Your little sister suffers for the salvation of the world. I Myself take into account each second of her sufferings. Let her fear nothing, let her be wholly confident in Me. The sweetness of My Heart will come into her heart. You also (I understood. Jacques and myself), be confident, My love watches over you. Fear nothing (this was emphasized). You are My little people. My love watches over you." (Princeton, 1st of January 1953.)

Halt, poor Jacques! Too pure a memory is not bearable. One thing however which it is important to note also, is the manner in which Vera was treated with regard to the sensible aids which she received. She was severely deprived of them at the most difficult times, in which it would have seemed that she had the most need of them. And she bore this privation without ever bending or complaining. She had been strengthened; it belonged to her to conduct the combat. Consoled, long consoled; but in order to become capable of facing desolation.

There was first the time of war. When the latter broke out, the assurance that France would be saved was given to her immediately (5th of September 1939) and several times renewed. At the moment of the disaster it was said to her: "France will be saved. Your hope will be your cross, but after the cross there is the resurrection." (New York, 14th of June 1940.) Four months later: "The darker your night will be, the more your confidence must be unshakable. I ask for your confidence as an act of faith in my love." (27th of October 1940.) And it was then that came the three terrible years, during which misfortune did not cease to persevere, and despair to strike at the windows. And during these three long years 1941, 1942, 1943, total silence and total night for her who had confided her secrets to us. She was harshly led, the little Vera. She experienced interior distress, she aroused pity -- her certitude remained absolutely unshaken. If, in spite of the anguish renewed each day by the events, all three of us were able, as we were often told, to contribute to maintain among our compatriots in exile an atmosphere of firm hope, Raissa and I were immensely indebted in this to the aid which we received from Vera and from her obstinate confidence, seemingly absurd at certain moments, in the final victory of France. It was only in the first months of 1944 that the grace of the interior words returned for her.

But I am thinking above all of the time of her last illness, and of the long twilight of suffering in which she advanced towards death. On the 15th of May 1958, Holy Thursday, it was said to her at Mass, a little before the Elevation: "Your sacrifices are like a dew for me, tell this to your little sister and to your brother. You are my little flock. I am always with you and I shall be always with you, fear nothing. I guard you and shall guard you." It was the last message which Vera gave us,{20} the last words of Jesus which she heard. From that time, nothing and nothing but dryness, until her death, a year and a half later. "I abandon myself entirely to the Blessed Virgin," she had said to Raissa.

She quickly understood that it was over for her with guarding by her daily zeai the two beings whom she had been missioned (this also had been said to her) to protect as her children. It belonged to Raissa and to myself, now, to watch over her and to torment ourselves for her. A total renunciation was required of her. She accomplished this sacrifice in her own silent, elegant and gentle manner. Do you suppose that she said a word to us about it? A giance sufficed. It was as if she kissed the hands of Him Whom she loved, and to Whom she gave back everything. Thus we saw consummate itself, in the pure and naked grace of the three theological virtures, a life full of abandonment to God and of disappropriation.

She was in bed in her little room, surrounded with her familiar objects, tended as well as possible by Raissa and a little by myself with the aid of a day nurse and a night nurse. These "practical nurses" (non-certificated nurses) were not dragons like many French nurses. They let us look after Vera, give her her medicines, talk with her as we wished. But we could not remain constantly with her. In order for her to feel at peace, it was necessary that the pace of our life continue, or have the appearance of continuing. During the hours of solitude in which she did not sleep under the influence of sedatives, she read (a great deal during the first months, less and less when fatigue gained the ascendancy), drew in sketch-books on her little bed-table, prayed above all, said rosary upon rosary. And in proportion as the illness advanced, and the suffering, it became more difficult for her to concentrate; sometimes a word which she sought escaped her, like the word "dying" which she asked me for one day while she was praying for the dying (which she did very often). Then, in spite of the sufferings (in the bones) which ravaged her arm, she began to write endlessly prayer after prayer (there are pages of them), thus she held at least for an instant, by dint of will, the fugitive expressions of what she wished to say to God. Sensible graces were remote. It is a heart-rending thing to see these poor scribbled lines of a hand which could scarcely hold the pencil, with these words unceasingly taken up again and repeated, in which passes the supreme appeal of a generous and humble soul.

Lord, give me patience and peace. Courage, help me. My Lord and my God, I love You, have pity on me. The cicadas sing in the summer, in the winter they can only suffer. The birds of Paradise do not come here. Whence comes courage? Sent by God. Patience is a virtue given by God.

It is necessary still to hope for a little from all of this. I cannot write anything but I wish (phrase interrupted).

It is necessary to have imagination, it is necessary to have patience, it is necessary to have hope. Who says patience says hope. What to do. What do do. Nothing. It is not very much.

My God, I love you more than I can say. Lord my God, have pity on me. I am weak and without strength, give me will, peace, courage, patience and perseverance.

The weather is mild but the flowers have gone. The birds are hidden in their nests. The caravan for Heaven slowly gets organized. Peace will come some day. But when.


I would like, in order to conclude, to note a few more memories concerning the last illness of Vera.

Vera, I note first of all, was always frail and suffered physically in one manner or another (like Raissa) and like Raissa she surmounted everything by her courage.

She had long suffered from pains in the stomach. An admirable old doctor in New York, a doctor like the kind they don't make any more (Dr. Roy Upham), whose waiting-room was filled with patients who sang his praises, apparently not bothered by the small rubber tube, extremity of a stomach-probe, issuing from their nostrils, had finally, in 1949, I believe, by a series of examinations and of x-ray photographs, discovered the cause of these disorders: a congenital malformation of the stomach, which caused a hernia through the diaphragm and compressed the heart and the lungs. And in proportion as she advanced in years the troubles thus caused tormented her more.

In 1956 she had a heart attack, no doubt caused in part by the shock she experienced one day, during the preceding summer vacation, in Paris, when Raissa, who was beside her, had been knocked over by a motorcycle which had suddenly emerged from a streetcorner (Vera thought that she had been killed instantly -- she did not have a fracture, but had to remain in bed several weeks).

At the end of 1956 the great anguishes began, the threat of cancer. Dr. Welch thought her still too weak to be operated on; a little later, having left Princeton to install himself in New York, and having consulted a surgeon in whom he had particular confidence, he settled on the operation -- removal of a breast. Vera was taken to Doctor's Hospital in New York, where a marvellous American friend, Doris Dana, who had been the guardian angel of Gabriela Mistral, shared her room, unravelling all the practical problems and serving as interpreter with the nurses. Raissa and I had put up at a hotel in New York; Raissa could scarcely stand, but we went to see Vera twice a day. The operation -- very long -- took place on the 28th of May 1957. Doctor and surgeon were radiant with optimism, they had dug to the very deepest of the tissues, the cancer was checked.

In the summer of 1957, at East Hampton, in spite of fatigue and sufferings which without being grave symptons almost never ceased (the scar did not stop being painful), Vera resumed her activity (less briskly, alas!), somewhat directed again the affairs of the house; each visit to the surgeon confirmed the hopes of complete recovery. Raissa and I were then able to write Liturgy and Contemplation.

The respite lasted a little less than eighteen months. And then towards the end of Autumn of 1958 pains in the joints appeared. The doctor in Princeton who had succeeded Dr. Welch thought at first that the lumbago from which she suffered was going to disappear of itself. Indeed she felt better, was able to attend Mass on Christmas Day (and it was the last time that she was able to go to Church). But immediately after Christmas the pains began again.

On the 23rd of January 1959 a strange incident took place. On that day they had taken{21} an x-ray photograph. In the evening, the doctor telephones, delighted to announce good news; the photograph is excellent, no suspicious shadow, it is a question surely of a mere arthritis. What joy for the three of us! We are happy, completely reassured. -- The next morning the doctor rings at the door and asks to see me; he announces the catastrophe to me: he had been too quick to telephone us, after having examined the still wet photographs. The dry photos reveal without any possible doubt that the cancer has passed into the bones.

In agreement with the doctor I kept the news to myself, the intensive radiotherapeutic treatment which was necessary being the same as in the case of a grave arthritis. I even tried for some time to hide from Raissa what, I knew, would be a mortal blow for her; but one day she said to me: "Jacques, it is serious, isn't it?" There was no question of lying to her, I myself sank the dagger. From that time her strength of soul did not flag for an instant, but all that remained to her of physical defence was destroyed little by little. As to Vera, the incident of which I have just spoken allowed us to leave her in ignorance. To tell the truth she had so given up everything to God that the name itself of her illness no longer mattered to her. We had a presentiment of this mystery, and wished to respect it. We knew that she was ready; and we knew also, the Curé of Courneuve had often repeated it to us, that man must always take care not to add on his own initiative a supplementary weight to the one with which a soul is burdened. With what love and what passionate attention Raissa saw to it that nothing occurred to trouble the last steps, more and more light, in the midst of a transparent but each day more profound darkness, which on this poor earth Vera took toward her God.

The x-ray treatment was a kind of torture. Each day, from the 26th of January to the 9th of February, Vera descended the stairs, at the cost of what sufferings, so that we might take her to the hospital and bring her back from it by taxi. To accept the suffering of those whom one loves is the most difficult thing in the world. One day when I was saying the rosary for her recovery, beseeching God, in a total dryness of spirit, I heard a few words (it is not my custom); words hard as stone; "You must not deprive her of her glory."

The radiotherapeutic treatment succeeded in removing the sufferings of the back, but completely exhausted her. She was almost prostrated, not eating or scarcely so, for two months, with incessant nauseas. A complementary treatment, with a base of hormones, had had no effect and had had to be discontinued. We then consulted a doctor of great renown, Dr. Irving Ebrenfeld, of Passaic (a city not very far from Princeton). This man, whose intelligent goodness I will never forget, did not tire of telling the invalid that she should be optimistic, and will to be cured (to which she applied herself, the poor child, with all her heart); nor did he tire of explaining to us, Raissa and me, that this will to be cured has a fundamental biological importance, even, alas, in incurables. He and our doctor at Princeton henceforth formed a team. A new medicine was prescribed, with a base of cortisone, which restored Vera's appetite and momentarily succeeded.

But before they had begun to give this medicine, Vera told us one day: "I had a marvelous dream last night -- was it a dream? At any rate it is very important, I must tell it to you. I saw Papa radiant with youth and with light, he approached me, I said to him: Papa, are you coming to take me? And three times he replied to me: No, not yet." She herself was radiant. It was the 10th of April.

Since the month of March she had begun to suffer, from "migratory pains" which scarcely ceasing in one place appeared in another; perpetual pains but all the same nearly tolerable, which tablets of an ordinary sedative sufficed to alleviate after a certain delay, then she slept for some time (but it was necessary to increase the dosage little by little). She struggled against the illness with a great courage, surprising the doctor by progress of which she was proud (leaving her bed to spend a few hours in an armchair, taking a few steps in her room, then even going, with the aid of the nurse and wholly bent in two, from one room to the other). She thought of all her friends, worried about each, offered her pains for them -- and for the unknown persons for whom the Blessed Virgin was solicitous.

She was able to see -- very rarely -- a few friends in her room; at one moment, about October, we believed there was a real improvement. Then the "migratory pains" moved to the legs, putting a stop to her progress in getting about. She received Holy Communion when she could. The last time was two days before Christmas. Everything seemed to continue as usual, the doctors said that the illness, while worsening little by little, would last several years. And the day after Christmas the pains suddenly (a new metastasis in the bones of the hip had occurred) became atrocious -- entirely intolerable as soon as one moved her ever so little; she did not utter a cry but wept with grief. It was necessary to have recourse to drugs. Dr. Ehrenfeld then put Raissa and me to the rack by insisting that she be taken to the hospital, which alone was well equipped (from this point of view he was right) for such grave cases; he did not understand that this was impossible, she would have felt abandoned and in frightful distress, no longer physical but moral, our presence was her whole human support; moreover our doctor in Princeton affirmed that she could not be transferred, nor above all placed on the metal table employed for the radiotherapeutic treatment. Ehrenfeld was to come to Princeton on the 4th of January for a decision which in one way or another could only be abominable.

On Thursday the 31st of December, Vera fell asleep after an injection of morphine at 10:30 in the morning. Then, instead of awakening at the end of four hours, she continued to sleep. We thought at first that it was a good sign. But the sleep or half-sleep continued, interrupted by a little delirium, incomprehensible words, except the word papa, papa, which she said several times. We became anxious, telephoned to the doctor. He replied that there was no reason to be alarmed, that her general state excluded all idea of an imminent danger; it was entirely unnecessary that he come, we had only to gently awaken her gradually. We tried to awaken her, she seemed to hear us but could not open her eyes, the breathing was difficult; she took two spoonfuls of tea.

And at 7:30 in the evening she turned her head a little, breathed twice deeply, her face became white as snow, she was dead. Dead, under our eyes, of a death so gentle that it seemed to have shattered nothing. The doctor arrived upon our call, could only establish the death, saying: "It's a blessing, it's a blessing." The parish priest immediately informed gave her the Anointing of the Sick. The next day the 1st of January, her body was in our home in the open coffin, her face of an astonishing beauty, without a trace of suffering. Friends prayed near her with us; in the evening, according to the local custom, the parish priest recited the rosary before her. The funeral Mass took place on the 2nd of January (1960). The grave of our sister is in the little cemetery adjoining the Catholic Church in Princeton.

At the end of a long letter which Raissa and I, by turns, wrote to Henry Bars on the 19th of January, and which I have already cited, Raissa said: "When we were converted, and when I announced to Vera that we wished to ask for Baptism, she immediately replied: 'I too, I am ready.' I did not question her then, I knew that God acted in her; but a few weeks ago I asked her how things had taken place. 'I was in the country,' Vera said, 'in the house of peasants. I was reading a book of Bloy, La Femme Pauvre, I believe. Suddenly I threw myself on the floor, and I said: I believe.'

"She was an extremely pure and ardent soul, very secret also, of a very lively sensibility, of an unshakable firmness. Limitless devotion, humility, concern to efface herself did not at all prevent a perfect liberty of judgment and of decision, and a sort of poetic liberty in her behavior. . . .

"You know that during the fifty-two years that she lived with us she had assumed the role of Martha, yes, but it was a way of hiding a life of prayer and of union with God which she hardly spoke of, but which we knew to be very profound. She was a very loved spiritual daughter of Father Dehau, who, until his retirement at Bouvines and our departure for America was director for the three of us (and whom the character "Theonas" reflects, while veiling a lot of things, for the great concern of this extraordinary friend of God was to remain absolutely hidden). Vera loved very much some young girls who left the world to form a small contemplative community. They then invited her to join them. Vera refused. At the time we knew nothing of this incident, she spoke of it to me only much later. I mention it because it shows an important aspect of herself. If she preferred to remain with us, it was certainly not only because of the love which bound us to each other, it was first and above all because she believed that this was her own religious vocation, and her manner of consecrating herself to God."

I cite another passage written by Raissa, at the outset of this same letter to Henry Bars: "The spiritual strength of Vera, her love, her union with God, were a pillar of our life. Now it is necessary to proceed alone. She is not separated from us, that is impossible, how could such a union break asunder? Vera will aid us. But the physical absence, the void which has taken her place -- how to endure this!

"It seems to me that to confide to you certain things which better reveal Vera, her greatness of soul, her sufferings also, is a duty towards her."

It was for the same reason that I wrote this chapter, while the memory of so much beauty which it was given to me to see, and of so much suffering, silently enveloped a solitary old man.

{1} Les Grandes Amitiés, pp. 20-2 1 (Eng. trans.: We Have Been Friends Together, pp. 6-7).

{2} Fragment of a draft of a letter, undated.

{3} Cf. Raissa's Journal, p. 76 (3rd of August, 1918).

{4} From the sole notebook (1912-1913) that Vera forgot to destroy (16th of April, 1913).

{5} Les Grandes Amities, p. 44 (Eng. Trans.: Vol I, We Have Been Friends Together, p. 30).

{6} "Private Law 357, 82nd Congress, approved October 25, 1951."

{7} Rome, 1946; Princeton, 1950.

{8} Rome, Christmas 1945.

{9} "Aime le don de Dieu," in Au Creux du Rocher.

{10} L'Invendable, p. 301.

{11} Letter of Mme Jeanne Boussac, 7th of January, 1964.

{12} "L'Echelle," in Poèmes inédits of Raissa Maritain, Nova et Vetera, No. 3, 1963, p. 161. [Cf. Raissa Maritain, Poèmes et Essais, Paris, Desclée De Brouwer, 1968, p. 175. -- Tr.]

{13} At the outset, embroideries of liturgical vestments; afterwards, and definitely, weaving, learned from the last artisans of Lyons, and done by the Sisters in the community.

{14} See the Appendix to the present chapter, "Apropos of Gwendoline and Augustus John."

{15} Raissa disapproved of these practices; for her part she was content -- and this was much better, but scarcely wiser -- with ruining her health a little more by going to Mass at all costs every morning, which was then very much beyond her strength.

{16} This propensity of Vera drove Raissa frantic, she could not stand Vera "wanting to sacrifice herself": these were the only times that Raissa got angry with her, then Vera went to cry in her room, returned, promising not to do it again, and the two sisters kissed, laughing and weeping at the same time.

{17} See above, p. 190, note 1.

{18} In the past, edifying literature attached too much importance to these kinds of graces, and to the formidable rhetoric in which the communications often abound, even when they are authentic (it is indeed clear that for these communications the divine action uses, as instrument, the material of images, of ideas and of stylistic forms habitual to the subject). I am inclined to believe that today, by reaction, we mistrust them in a too systematic manner; for finally there is the liberty of the Holy Spirit, and there is also human weakness with its need of being aided.

{19} One example: "Whatever decision your brother arrives at you can consider as mine; and let him be in peace, and let my peace dwell in him." (New York, 11th of January 1945. I was then in great anguish concerning the mission to Rome which I was being asked to undertake and which I tried in vain to escape.)

{20} Raissa always kept in on her; it is still in the purse which she carried in her hand, and which is now in Kolbsheim.

{21} In order to avoid all confusion, I note that the examination mentioned in Raissa's Journal (p. 329) is another examination, very much earlier, which took place on the 21st of November 1956.

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