St. Jean de Brébeuf

Why, there is Echon come back again . . . my nephew, my brother, my cousin, you have finally come back to us!”

Thus with the warmth typical of their people did the Huron Indians greet their beloved father, Jean de Brébeuf. In the Huron tongue Echon meant “the strong one” or “the one who carries the load.” Brébeuf had earned the name in 1626 by carrying birch-bark canoes and other heavy burdens through the dozens of portages of the Ottawa River on his first grueling trip from Québec to Huronia, some fifty miles north of present-day Toronto. There he lived, for the greater part of the next twenty-three years, and labored for the conversion of the Hurons. There he died, on March 16, 1649, a martyr to the savagery of the invading Iroquois, who tore his still-beating heart from his body and ate it, thinking thereby to ingest his great courage.

Like his much more famous contemporary, René Descartes, Brébeuf was born in the northern part of France at the end of the sixteenth century and was educated in the incomparable secondary schools of the Society of Jesus. The newly-minted Ratio Studiorum of the Jesuits prescribed a noble and demanding course of studies, with special emphasis upon the linguistic arts of the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—all taught entirely in Latin. Both young men were very gifted. The mature Descartes—if those two words can be so joined without contradiction—wrote a limpid, supple French, and applied his gift of expression to such technical matters as optics, meteorology, and geometry, as well as to what is called philosophy. The influence of his writing, both in French and in Latin, was immediate, widespread, and lasting, but ambiguous.

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Jean de Brébeuf brought to his arduous schooling a special gift for language and still more remarkable gifts of temperament and attainments of virtue. He had not been at Québec for more than three months when he leapt at the chance to spend an entire winter alone with the Montagnais tribe on their winter hunt, arriving back in civilization just in time to celebrate the Easter mysteries. Later that year, he left for Huronia. But his immersion in the Montagnais tongue gave him only the most limited foretaste of the challenge ahead. The Huron language had few similarities with the Montagnais and was much more difficult to learn, for it was, as he put it, “very abundant, and as different from our European languages as Heaven is from earth.” The Hurons, as he explained in his own account of their tongue, spoke mostly with vowels, lacked “all the labial letters,” such as b, f, m, and p, and “open their lips so awkwardly” that “we can hardly understand them when they whistle or when they speak low.” Yet though their vocal sounds were indistinct, they were certainly significant, having almost as many differences in tense and mood as a classical language and a bewildering use of gender. To prospective missionaries back in France, Brébeuf warned that they must be prepared for their academic pride to be laid low: “The Huron language will be your Saint Thomas and your Aristotle; and clever men as you are, and speaking glibly among learned and capable persons, you must make up your mind to be for a long time mute among the Barbarians.” His fellow Black Robes had no misconceptions about what had been required for him to conquer this tongue: “it was the fruit of the humility of Father Brébeuf, who, at an age of almost forty years, submitted to the cruelest humiliations for three years, living amidst the cinders and smoke of the cabins, in order to find this treasure.” Another Jesuit suggested that it was thanks to his “amiable mildness” that Brébeuf had been able to learn Huron. Yet it was most especially thanks to his faith: “Ah! How much pleasure there is,” he once exclaimed, “for a heart devoted to God to make itself the little scholar of a savage and of a little child, thereby to gain them for God, and to render them disciples of Our Lord!”

Jean de Brébeuf soon learned that the task of evangelization—the task of bringing truth and order to the souls of the Hurons—could not be undertaken without the reform of the Huron language. “As they have hardly any virtue or Religion, or any learning or government, they have consequently no simple words suitable to express what is connected with these.” The difficulty of translating even the most basic of catechetical instructions was enormous: “we are at a loss in explaining to them many important matters.” Relative terms, moreover, were to the Hurons always possessive: there was no word for father other than “my father,” “his father,” or “our father.” This characteristic of their language made the Sign of the Cross almost untranslatable. “Would you judge it fitting,” Brébeuf asked his superior, “while awaiting a better expression, to substitute instead, In the name of our Father, and of his Son, and of their Holy Ghost?” It was a fitting compromise, born of theological meditation, linguistic precision, and pastoral care: the very same excellences that his masters had sought to build up in him during his years of formation.

Back in the Old World, Descartes was even then putting the finishing touches on his Discourse on Method, a tract in which he recounted his frustration with the search for truth, declared his independence from all existing philosophical schools, and published his resolution to seek to “uproot from my mind all the wrong opinions I had previously accepted” in order the better to practice that introspection he considered to be the only secure starting point for philosophy. While Brébeuf labored to squeeze the richer meanings of Latin and French into the impoverished tongue of the Hurons, Descartes, with appalling temerity, was emptying philosophical discourse of its content. Substantia, ousia, that great pillar and ground of truth, had its significance whittled down by the canny Frenchman into “only two ultimate classes of things,” res cogitans and res extensa, the thinking and the extended things, each, in turn, perfectly simple, perfectly clear and distinct, but now shaped not for the pursuit of wisdom, but for the cogs and wheels of his mechanical philosophy. “We tie all our concepts,” he bemoaned, “to the words used to express them,” and we too often “give assent to words [we] do not understand.” As a result, it is only by “laying aside all our preconceived opinions,” that is, the meaning of words as we commonly use them, and by rigorously insisting upon the notes of clarity and distinctness that we can make any progress in the search for truth.  And all this, he said, while “the existence of any body,” even our own bodies, “has not yet been proved.”

Brébeuf’s linguistic adventures were so much more respectful, joyful, and fruitful. He appreciated the nuances of the Huron tongue, noting that the chief distinction between the masculine and the feminine in Huron was that feminine forms often lacked the consonant ‘h’ as a break between vowels. This difference made the feminine words softer and more flowing, “perhaps to give the women to understand that there ought to be nothing rough or coarse in their words or in their manners, but that the grace and law of gentleness ought to be upon their tongues.” And he delighted in their proverbs, such as Tichiout etoatendi, which he translated “Behold the fallen star,” explaining that they said it “when they see someone who is fat and corpulent, for they hold that once upon a time a star fell from Heaven in the form of a fat goose.” This gentle, bemused account of their language came from a man who looked upon the Hurons as the children God had given him to raise up to eternal life, and, with the help of the Holy Spirit and his brother priests, this is just what he did. Substantially the entire Huron nation, some 7,000 souls in all, accepted the Faith prior to being slaughtered and driven from their homeland by the cruel Iroquois in 1650.

Although he was a great and accomplished linguist, Brébeuf knew that his own proficiency was not the measure of the art. He “took pleasure” in the catechetical instruction offered by Louis de Sainte-Foi, one of the first of the Hurons to convert. Louis was able to explain the Christian mysteries “with grace, and showed that he had understood them and made them his own. Ah! How I wish I could speak Huron as well as he does, for indeed in comparison with him I only stutter, and yet the way of saying a thing gives it an entirely different meaning.” Here we see the great ideal of a liberal education realized: a well-formed judgment able dispassionately to distinguish the excellent from the merely good. How very, very different was the mind of St. Jean de Brébeuf from the self-absorbed and self-refuting one of the author of cogito ergo sum.

Saints of the American Wilderness


  • Christopher O. Blum

    Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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