Spirit Rejected in Paris

Laurence Cossé, A Corner of the Veil, trans. Linda Asher. Scribner, 1999. 269 pp. Out-of-print, but used copies available.

Morning in a small town in France. An eccentric recluse, a priest who long ago relinquished public ministry to devote himself to coming up with a solid proof of God’s existence, awakens at his desk. Scattered before him are 7 or 8 hastily scribbled pages.

He reads them with growing excitement. When he finishes, he realizes that he holds in his hands something that could only have come from the Holy Spirit; although the manuscript is in his handwriting, but he has no recollection of composing it. It is an irrefutable, absolutely convincing, inescapably perfect, proof of the existence of God.

With trembling fingers, he stuffs the proof into an envelope and mails it to a renowned theologian who is a member of the Paris-based Casuist Order (a fictional order pretty clearly modeled on the Jesuits). When the theologian reads the manuscript, he too is absolutely convinced by it. So is everyone else he shows it too. At last: the mystery of God, the question that’s haunted humanity from the very beginning – does God or doesn’t God exist? – has been once and for all solved. Hosanna!

This Spirit-revelation is the hub around which Laurence Cossé’s wickedly funny and deeply provocative novel A Corner of the Veil turns. We’re never told what the earth-shaking proof is, but only that it is absolutely indisputable. You’d think that this would be an unimaginable blessing to the world.

But it’s not. As the priests – and the French prime minister, who also reads and believes – discover to their dismay, neither the secular nor ecclesial authorities want the proof disseminated. The former think that if the existence of God were proved beyond a shadow of doubt, the world would descend into chaos. As one of them worries, personal ambition would dissolve and commerce would cease. The world would become a huge monastery of prayer and contemplation. Quelle horreur!

Laurence Cossé

Religious authorities are just as adamantly opposed. Release the proof to the world, they warn, and the authority of the Church is finished. If there’s no longer any doubt about God’s existence, people will lose the fear and desperation that frequently drives them to seek out the help of theologians, priests, and princes of the Church. In an intriguing riff on Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, Cossé’s church authorities argue that people (and certainly the ecclesial establishment) would actually be better off living in the tension of uncertainty when it comes to God.

Although wildly popular in France, the American reception of Cossé’s novel was lukewarm, probably as a consequence of a scathingly unfair review of it in the New York Times. But it’s well worth reading, not only because it’s satire at its best, but also – and primarily – because it invites us to do some serious reflection on the questions it raises. Would we be better off knowing with absolute certainty that God exists, or does our humanity demand the back-and-forth of the doubt-faith dynamic? When the Holy Spirit illuminates – when it lifts a corner of the veil – what are the likely individual and social responses? Cossé suggests that God may be a major inconvenience to authority of any kind, while at the same time being a Source of immense comfort and counsel to individuals. If she’s right, what does that say about a culture for which any sign of divine presence is a threat? Cossé, a secularist with a sharp Gallic sense of humor, seems not to be overly disturbed by this possibility. But those of us who believe ought to be.

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