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Religion: Dominican Looks at the U.S.

6 minute read
TIME

Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, a French Dominican friar, is an explosive combination of scholar, priest and chevalier: a contemplative and cultured man who has also done violent deeds with machine gun and typewriter. In World War II, Father Bruckberger enlisted as a poilu, later volunteered for the French Commandos. He was seriously wounded, twice captured by the Germans (both times he managed to get away) and became Chaplain General of the Resistance. At the liberation of Paris, while German snipers were still firing inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, he welcomed General de Gaulle into the church for a service of Thanksgiving. His wartime heroism was rewarded with the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.*

After the war, Dominican Bruckberger got into hot water again: he urged mercy for certain collaborationists, and founded a controversial magazine called the Trojan Horse, in which he attacked not only the Communists but also the “Jacobinism” of France’s secularist democracy. Pretty soon his superiors sent him off to the Sahara, where he spent a year as a Foreign Legion chaplain.

Two years ago, Father Bruckberger came to the U.S., where he has been stationed at a Dominican priory in Winona, Minn. Looking at America and Americans with an amused but affectionate and admiring eye, he kept a journal of what he saw and what he thought about it. The journal (which also includes some of his experiences in France and North Africa) has now been published as a book, One Sky to Share (Kenedy; $3). Excerpts:

The Land. “Here, the land has not yet entered into communion with man, and man has not penetrated the mystery of the immense natural forces that shelter him. This land is terribly in need of blessing. The land is perhaps the promised bride of man, but she is not yet his. Most often she refuses to give herself or submits against her will. The land and man do not know each other in the flesh and in the spirit. Man is not able to take his pleasure with her . . .

“Where Nature is mistress . . . villages are tiny islands and refuges, and houses in the country have no more significance than rowboats on the ocean . . .

“At midnight and from high above, the most spread-out city in America [Los Angeles] appeared like an infinite garden of lights, with just the touch of fantasy-within-symmetry which is suitable to a garden à la française. When one looks at things in America from above, one is sure to find them beautiful. I think that is proof that they are beautiful. ..

“What do people mean when they say that American civilization is urban and that nine-tenths of the population is concentrated in the cities? It is necessary to see and know these cities, populated with squirrels and rabbits as well as men, in which almost all houses are of wood, scattered amid trees and green lawns. Cities that have no walls or gates and have never had any, cities whose right-angled streets disclose the absence of an urban tradition.”

The People. “In every American—including the women—there is a journalist and a detective. The American wants to find out and he has at his disposal a method of investigation that is often annoying, usually very efficient, and in the end rather touching. For actually it is very good of him to be interested in the whole world . . .

“If I were young and taking my degrees here, I would be tempted to use as the subject of a thesis, ‘Cruelty in divorce cases in America.’ I would search the archives of the courts, and by methods both psychoanalytical and sociological I would attempt to sift out the personalities from the documents. In this way one would obtain a very interesting picture of the American woman . . .

“How I wish there were a great saint in the United States, Dominican and Negro, a saint such as St. Francis of Assisi who could inspire a whole generation of youth and create in this country spiritual forms as universally intelligible as the music of Harlem: sainthood in blue . . .

“Today, on his feast day, I was thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas. If he came to America, he would certainly be well received. But he would have to teach 20 hours a week, hear confessions every Saturday, give two sermons every Sunday, and make three speeches a month. Under those conditions, how could he become St. Thomas?”

The Faith. “In the United States I breathe freely, and on analyzing this impression. I find myself in profound accord with the political thought and the institutions of this nation. To use a great word that sums up everything, for the first time in my life I breathe in a climate of legitimacy. Here, it is evident that democracy is legitimate, that is, it springs from an undefiled source. For a Frenchman, it is an immense surprise and a deliverance to feel so …

“Americans are changing their myths . . . They no longer believe in American omnipotence, nor in the absolute inviolability of their territory and their way of life . . . Politically America has just arrived at maturity—that is, at a state of awareness of personal risk . . . Korea has killed the myth of the happy ending . . .

“America—and France, too—is completely the contrary of a nation of prey. Nothing is more foreign to her character than the maxim of every tyranny since the world began: ‘Hate me if you will, provided that you fear me.’ America is wretched over the necessity for making herself feared, and she cannot bear to be hated. Her great errors have always been in the realm of the emotions . . .

“This nation is Christian … It is in the religious domain that we can see most clearly that America does not make a part of the ‘modern world.’ The great Annunciation of this modern world, of which Nietzsche was the herald, ‘God is dead,’ has missed America. One has the impression that it did not reach this far. Or if it is noticed, it is not understood. It has no grip on this nation. This nation is pious. Perhaps it is necessary to be 40 centuries old in order to feel and live atheism as certain Europeans feel and live it.”

* At an official luncheon in Chicago, Father Bruckberger appeared with a strip of red Cello phane tucked in his lapel. “Legion of Honor?” asked the French consul. “No,” answered Bruck berger, “Lucky Strike.”

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