The old war between Church and state was the least of the three religious dramas that inflamed this reign. Deeper by far was the conflict between the orthodox Catholicism of state and clergy and the almost Protestant Catholicism of the Jansenists and Port-Royal; and deepest and most tragical, the destruction of the Huguenots in France. But what was Port-Royal, and why so much ado about it in French history? It was a Cistercian nunnery situated some sixteen miles from Paris and six miles from Versailles, on a low and marshy site in what Mme. de Sévigné called “a dreadful valley, just the place in which to find salvation.” 9 Founded about 1204, it barely survived a hundred vicissitudes in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. Discipline and membership fell; and probably the convent would have disappeared from notice had it not fallen under the rule of Jacqueline Arnauld, and enlisted in its defense the pen of Blaise Pascal.
Antoine Arnauld I (1560–1619) made history by his eloquence and his fertility. In 1593, after Barrière’s attempt to assassinate Henry IV, Arnauld addressed the Paris Parlement in an indignant demand for the expulsion of the Jesuits from France. They never forgave him, and they looked with critical and ominous eye upon the operations of his family at Port-Royal. Of his twenty or more children at least four were involved in the story of that convent. Jacqueline Arnauld was made coadjutrix to the abbess of Port-Royal at the age of seven (1598), and a year later her sister Jeanne, aged six, became abbess of St.-Cyr. These nominations were made by Henry IV, and were confirmed by papal bulls obtained through falsifying the ages of the girls. 10 Presumably the father had sought these places for his daughters as an alternative to finding husbands and dowries for them.
When Jacqueline, as Mère Angélique, became nominal abbess at Port-Royal (1602), she found only the most genial discipline among the thirteen nuns. Each had her own property, displayed her hair, used cosmetics, and dressed in the fashion of the day. They took the Sacrament infrequently, and had heard no more than seven sermons in thirty years. 11 As she grew more conscious of the life to which her parents had committed her, the young abbess became discontent, and meditated flight (1607). “I thought of leaving Port-Royal and returning to the world, without notifying my father or my mother, to escape this unbearable yoke, and to be married.” 12 She fell ill, and was taken home, where she was nursed by her mother with such tender care that, on recovering, she returned to Port-Royal resolved, for love of her mother, to keep her conventual vows. However, she ordered a whalebone corset to’keep her figure in fashionable bounds. 13 She remained secretly averse to the religious life until, at Easter of 1608, now in the full glow of puberty, she heard a sermon by a Capuchin monk on the sufferings of Christ. “During this sermon,” she later reported, “God touched me in such a way that from that moment I found myself happier in the life of a nun . . . and I know not what I would not have done for God if He had continued the movement which His grace had given me.” 14 This, in her language, was the “first work of grace.”
On November 1 of that year another sermon—the “second work of grace”—filled her with shame that she and her nuns were so lax in observing their vows of poverty and seclusion. Torn between affection for the nuns and desire to enforce the Cistercian rule, she became melancholy, practiced austerities beyond her strength, and fell into a fever. She must have been lovable, for when the nuns asked the reason of her sadness, and she revealed her wish that they should return to the full rule of their order, they consented, pooled their private property, and pledged themselves to perpetual poverty.
The next step, seclusion from the world, was more painful. Mère Angélique forbade the nuns to leave the premises, or to receive visitors—even their nearest relatives—without express permission, and then only in the parlor. They complained that this would be a great hardship. To give them a fortifying example, she resolved not to see her parents on their next visit, except through a grate or lattice window in the door between the parlor and the convent rooms. When her father and mother came they were shocked to find that she would talk to them only through this guichet. The journée du guichet (September 25, 1609) became famous in the literature about Port-Royal.
The anger of the excluded family subsided, and the piety of Mère Angélique (now eighteen years old) so moved them that one Arnauld after another entered Port-Royal. In 1618 Anne Eugénie, sister of the abbess, took the vows. Soon other sisters joined them—Catherine, Marie, Madeleine. In 1629 their mother, now a widow, knelt at the feet of Mère Angélique, and begged to be admitted as a novice. In due time she took the vows, and lived humbly and happily under her daughter, whom she henceforth called Mother. When she died (1641) she thanked God that she had given six daughters to the religious life. Five of her granddaughters later entered Port-Royal. Her son Robert and three of her grandsons became “solitaries” there; her most brilliant son, Antoine Arnauld II, member of the Sorbonne, became the philosopher and theologian of Port-Royal. We marvel at such fertility, and cannot but respect such depth of devotion, loyalty, and faith.*
Step by step Mère Angélique led her flock back to the full Cistercian rule. The nuns, now thirty-six in number, observed all fasts with canonical strictness, maintained long periods of silence, rose at two o’clock in the morning to chant matins, and out of their communal property dispensed charity to the local poor. From Port-Royal the reforms spread; nuns trained there were sent to convents throughout France to spur them back to their rule. A convent at Maubuisson was especially lax: Henry IV had used it as a place of assignation with his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées; its abbess was surrounded by her own illegitimate daughters; the nuns moved freely from their home to meet and dance with the monks of a neighboring monastery. 16 In 1618 Mère Angélique was requested by her superiors to replace the abbess at Maubuisson; she stayed there for five years; when she returned to Port-Royal thirty-two Maubuisson nuns followed her into the mother convent of the reform.
In 1626 an epidemic of ague broke out at Port-Royal. Advised that the damp climate there was dangerous, Angélique and her nuns moved to a house in Paris, where, under the influence of Jansenism, they entered upon their historic conflict with the Jesuits and the King. The deserted and dilapidated buildings at Port-Royal-des-Champs—“of the Fields”—were soon occupied by the Solitaries, men who, while not taking monastic vows, wished to lead an almost monastic life. Here came several of the Arnaulds—Antoine II, his brother Robert Arnauld d’Andilly, his nephews Antoine Lemaistre and Simon Lemaître de Séricourt, and his grandson Isaac Louis de Sacy; some ecclesiastics joined them, like Pierre Nicole and Antoine Singlin; even some nobles—the Duc de Luynes and the Baron de Pontchâteau. Together they drained swamps, dug ditches, repaired the buildings, and tended the orchards and gardens. Together or individually they practiced austerities, fasted, chanted, and prayed. They wore the dress of peasants, and during the coldest winter they allowed no heat in their rooms. They studied the Bible and the Fathers of the Church; they wrote works of devotion and scholarship; one of these, L’Art de penser (The Art of Thinking), by Nicole and the younger Arnauld, remained a popular manual of logic till the twentieth century.
In 1638 the Solitaries opened petites écoles, “little schools,” to which they invited selected children of age nine or ten. These were taught French, Latin, Greek, and the orthodox aspects of Descartes’ philosophy. They were required to shun dancing and the theater (both of which the Jesuits approved); they were to pray frequently, but not to the saints; and in the chapel where they heard Mass there were no religious images. At Port-Royal-des-Champs and at Port-Royal-de-Paris the challenge of Arnauld piety to the immorality of the court became also the challenge of the stern Jansenist theology and ethic to the Jesuit mitigation of Christianity to the nature of man.