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Thomas International Center
November 2008


Ralph McInerny


Out of the Depths



Our Lord's assurance that there is more joy over one sinner who is saved than over ninety-nine just is a consoling one, since most of us rightly consider ourselves that 1%. On other occasions we may be tempted by the churlish attitude of the Prodigal Son's brother, or grumble like those workers who labored all day and were paid no more than the late-comers.

There are souls who seem to have to explore the sub cellars of hell before they are ripe for conversion. J-K Huysmans was such a one. As a young man he put away his faith and lived a profligate life. One of his first novels was a "brothel novel," a genre unto itself in late nineteenth century Paris. But then he went on to diabolism, black masses, all the frightening and blasphemous underside of the spiritual life. It was the art and liturgy of the Church that were instrumental in his conversion. He became fascinated with the monastic life and eventually became a Benedictine Oblate and built a house in the shadow of the monastery. Whereupon the French government drove the religious orders from the country and Huysmans returned to Paris.

Even after his conversion he kept up contacts with sorcerers and magicians, but gradually his faith was purified, largely through devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Huysmans' "Catholic novels" continue to be read. En route, The Cathedral, The Oblate. They have helped many regain their faith, as Huysmans hoped they would. For the humdrum Catholic they provide insight into a fascinating journey from the depths. If nothing else, Huysmans' fiction can bring home to us how much we take the faith for granted, how routine it has become for us. Seeing it through the eyes of an author who knew the face of evil can be a spiritual awakening.

On his death bed Huysmans received a gift of candy from a fallen lady he had known in his youth. "Ah, the fruits of prostitution," he murmured. "We have all tasted those."  But he had heard another voice. "Taste and see that the Lord is sweet."


Ralph McInerny