Chateaubriand's memoirs, II, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book II - Chapter 6
First Communion – I leave Dol College

The time for making my first communion approached, the moment when in my family the child’s future state was determined. This religious ceremony took the place among young Christians of the assumption of the toga virilis among the Romans. Madame de Chateaubriand had come in order to be present at the first communion of a son who, after being united to God, would be separated from his mother.

My piety appeared sincere; I edified the whole school: my looks were ardent; my fasts were frequent enough to give my masters concern. They feared excessive devotion; enlightened religion sought to moderate my fervour.

For confessor I had the superior of the Eudist seminary, a man of fifty with a stern appearance. Every time I presented myself at the confessional, he questioned me anxiously. Surprised at the triviality of my sins, he did not know how to reconcile my distress with the lack of importance of the secrets I confided to him. The nearer Easter came, the more pressing the priest’s questions became. ‘Are you hiding anything from me?’ he asked. I replied: ‘No, father.’ ‘Have you committed such and such a sin?’ ‘No, father.’ It was always: ‘No, father.’ He dismissed me doubtfully, sighing, and gazing into the depths of my soul, while I left his presence pale and unnatural like a criminal.

I was to receive absolution on the Wednesday in Holy Week. I spent the night between Tuesday and Wednesday in prayer, or reading with terror the book of Painful Confessions. On the Wednesday, at three in the afternoon, we left for the seminary; our parents accompanying us. All the idle fame that has since attached itself to my name would not have given Madame de Chateaubriand one iota of the pride which she experienced, as a Christian and a mother, in seeing her son ready to participate in the great mystery of religion.

Arriving at the church, I prostrated myself before the altar and lay there as if annihilated. When I rose to go to the sacristy, where the superior awaited me, my knees trembled beneath me. I threw myself at the priest’s feet, and it was only in the most strangled of tones that I managed to pronounce my Confiteor. ‘Well, have you forgotten nothing?’ the man of God asked me. I remained silent. His questions continued, and always the fatal, no, my father, issued from my lips. He meditated, he asked for counsel of Him who conferred on the apostles the power of binding and loosing souls. Then, making an effort, he prepared to give me absolution.

If Heaven had shot a thunderbolt at me it would have caused me less dread. I cried out: ‘I have not confessed all!’ This redoubtable judge, this delegate of the Supreme Arbiter, whose face so inspired me with fear, became the most tender of shepherds; he embraced me, and melted with tears: ‘Come now,’ he said to me, ‘my dear boy, courage!’

I will never know such another moment in my life. If the weight of a mountain had been lifted from me, I could not have been more relieved: I sobbed with happiness. I venture to say that it was on that day that I became an honest man; I felt that I could never survive remorse: how great it must be for a crime, if I could suffer so much from hiding childish weaknesses! But how divine that religion is that can seize on our best instincts in this way! What moral precepts could ever replace these Christian institutions?

The first step having been made, the rest cost little: the childish things I had concealed, and which would have made the world smile, were weighed in the balance of religion. The superior was greatly embarrassed; he would have wished to delay my communion, but I was about to leave Dol College and would soon be entering the Navy. With great sagacity he discovered in the very character of my youthful sins, insignificant as they were, the nature of my propensities: he was the first person to penetrate the secret of what I might become. He divined my future passions; he did not hide from me the good he thought he saw in me, but he also predicted the evils to come. ‘After all,’ he added, ‘you have little time for penitence; but you have been cleansed of your sins by a courageous, though tardy, avowal.’ Raising his hand, he pronounced the formula of absolution. On this second occasion, that fearful hand showered only heavenly dew on my head; I lowered my brow to receive it; what I felt partook of the angels’ joy. I ran to fling myself on my mother’s breast where she waited for me at the foot of the altar. I no longer seemed the same person to my masters and schoolfellows; I walked with a light step, head held high, with a radiant air, in all the triumph of repentance.

The next day, Maundy Thursday, I was admitted to that sublime and moving ceremony whose image I have vainly attempted to describe in Le Génie du christianisme. I might have felt my usual little humiliations there too: my nosegay and my clothes were not as fine as those of my companions; but that day all was of God and for God. I know exactly what Faith is: the Real Presence of the Victim in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar was as manifest as the presence of my mother at my side. When the Host was laid on my tongue, I felt as though all were alight within me. I trembled with veneration, and the only material thing that occupied my thoughts was the fear of profaning the sacred bread.

The bread I offer you
Serves the angels for food,
For God has made it too
From his crops good and true.

I again understood the courage of the martyrs; at that moment I would have been able to witness to Christ on the rack, or surrounded by lions.

I like to recall those felicities, which in my soul only just preceded the world’s tribulations. In comparing that ardour to the transports I am going to portray; in viewing the same heart experiencing during the interval of three of four years all that innocence and religion possess of what is sweetest and most salutary, and all that the passions possess of what is most seductive and disastrous, you may choose between two joys; you may see in what direction we should search for happiness, and above all peace.

Three weeks after my first communion, I left DolCollege. A pleasant memory of that place remains with me: our childhood leaves something of itself in the places it has embellished, as a flower transfers its perfume to the objects it touches. I still feel moved to this day when thinking of the dispersal of my first schoolfellows and my first masters. The Abbé Leprince, appointed to a living near Rouen, did not survive long; the Abbé Egault obtained a curacy in the diocese of Rennes, and I saw the principal, the good Abbé Portier, die at the start of the Revolution: he was learned, gentle and simple of heart. The memory of that obscure Rollin will always be dear and venerable to me.