The Key to the Bastille: Learning from the Past with Benedict XVI

“Show me what a man remembers of his past,” the late Fritz Wilhelmsen once said, “and I will tell you what kind of man he is.”  Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelmsen was inclined to bold affirmation and even bolder denial, and was wont to frame his statements in the irrefragable terminology of metaphysics. The gallant Thomist even shared a certain existentialism with the grim nihilist, as on this very point: “We remember what is of use to the intentional thrust of our existence . . . everything else from our past we tend to forget.” Herein lies the essential problem for man, the forgetful animal: the fallible and finite tool that is the memory, must be commanded by the will and illuminated by the intellect. It cannot properly fulfill its office unaided or undirected.

“Show me what a man remembers . . . and I will tell you what kind of man he is.” The statement not only describes, it also prescribes. We all have hopes for the future that dictate our sense of what should be recalled from the past. And because our highest strivings are typically directed toward common goods, our intentional remembering is often made public and solemnized in monument, celebration, reenactment, and display.

As an instance of intentional remembering, consider the key to the Bastille prominently displayed in the central hallway of Mount Vernon. The key came to George Washington as the gift of the Marquis de Lafayette, who sent it as a “tribute” from “a missionary of liberty to its patriarch.” Lafayette could not have known in 1790 when he sent the key that the fall of what he called the “fortress of despotism” would become the first step in the attempt to dechristianize France, an attempt carried to the point of abolishing the seven-day week and resetting of the calendar by counting years from the date of the deposition of Louis XVI. Nor, of course, can Lafayette be held responsible for the opinion of those who, in our own day, would praise the French Revolution for its “systematic effort to erase completely the institutions and consciousness of the past and replace these across the board with the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

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That chilling statement, by Jonathan Israel, author of a trilogy of books celebrating the Enlightenment, points to the single fact that memory is a battleground, both in public and in our own souls. In that battle there are those who, as John Paul II put it, are trying to “create a vision of Europe,” and, indeed of the modern world, “which ignores its religious heritage and, in particular, its profound Christian soul, asserting the rights of the peoples . . . without grafting those rights on to the trunk which is enlivened by the sap of Christianity.” And on the other side there is Benedict XVI, who with his dozens and dozens of general audiences on the saints between March 2007 and April 2011 and with his constant reference to the concrete manifestations of holiness in the history of the Church is trying to place us in contact with the “vital sap” of our Christian heritage: the great trunk that is the Providential history of the world that centers upon the person of Jesus Christ.

Few Catholics will be tempted to purchase the Key to the Bastille paperweight or keychain that may be had for a few dollars at the gift shop at Mount Vernon. And still fewer will want to celebrate the 14th of July as a birth of the kind of liberty that is worth fighting for. Yet the modern world offers countless other keys to the Bastille that misshape our minds in more subtle ways by supplanting the Christian past in our memories.  How are we to ensure that our memories strengthen rather than undermine our Christian identity?

It is the liturgical year of the Church, the Holy Father pointed out in his general audience on Holiness, that “invites us to commemorate” not only the central saving acts of our holy Faith, but also “a host of saints,” some famous, others less so, but all of them men and women who “lived charity to the full” and “tell us that it is possible for everyone to take this road.” And we truly need a “host” of saints, for not all of us are equally moved by the same examples.

With Benedict XVI as our teacher at “the school of the saints,” we can learn to appreciate some of the most essential lessons of the Faith: with St. Thomas Aquinas, “to fall in love” with the Blessed Sacrament; with St. Jerome, to “love the Word of God in Sacred Scripture;” with St. Leonard Murialdo and St Joseph Cottolengo, to make “the total gift” of our life “to the poorest, the neediest, and the lowliest” by finding an “inexhaustible source” for charitable action in our “relationship with God;” and with St Catherine of Siena, to learn “the most sublime science: to know and love Jesus Christ and his Church.”

These and other lessons are contained in the Pope’s general audiences on the saints, which, taken together, surely constitute one of the more remarkable interventions of the Papacy in recent decades. On the face of it, the Holy Father’s request could not be more modest: “I would like to ask you to become better acquainted with the Saints, starting with those you are called after, by reading their life and their writings.” Yet if Catholics were to take this advice to heart, nothing less than a cleansing and regeneration of our memories could be accomplished.

“Show me what a man remembers . . . and I will tell you what kind of man he is.” As we remember, so do we live and so do we become. By replacing the keys to the Bastille that lurk in the nooks and crannies of our minds with the deeds and words of the saints, we contribute—however modestly—to the crucial task of breathing new life into the Christian identity of the communities of which we are a part. What is more, these same acts of remembering will allow us to enter and indeed to live in the communion of saints, where, as Benedict XVI assures us, “we enjoy their presence and their company and cultivate the firm hope that we shall be able to imitate their journey and share one day in the same blessed life, eternal life.”


  • 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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