The mysterious case of Marguerite Périer
The ins and outs of salvation are important, but we've got to stop putting each other on trial for it.
The miraculous healing of a 12-year-old girl brought the French army to a standstill in 1656. The girl was Marguerite Périer. She was Blaise Pascal’s niece and a boarding student at an abbey just outside of Paris called Port-Royal-des-Champs. Marguerite was suffering from an incurable physical ailment: an eye abscess. Several doctors had examined the wound, performed blood lettings and tried other procedures, all without any success. While Marguerite prayed for healing, her teachers were praying for divine intervention on a grander scale.
Pilgrimage and revival
The Port-Royal boarding school was known for its association with Jansenism, a theological movement that smacked of Calvinism. These were anxious times between Catholics and Protestants, so the Pope had declared Jansenism a heresy in 1653. As you can imagine, the powerful people with armies were unimpressed that a group of nuns tucked away in the hills outside of Paris were still teaching predestination and encouraging lay people to read scripture three years later.
So here’s how the story goes: With the abbey’s closure imminent, a Jansenist priest arranged for a reliquary containing a sliver from Christ’s crown of thorns to be displayed at the abbey. When young Marguerite approached the sacred space, a nun motioned for the girl to touch her swollen eye to the object. Later that evening, a nun overheard Marguerite say to one of her friends that “my eye has healed. I no longer feel any pain in it.” When the vicar general arrived to oversee the convent’s closure, he began calling witnesses and experts to verify the miracle instead of dispersing the students. Suddenly, the convent became a pilgrimage site for all those eager to experience their own supernatural healing. Amid this excitement, Anne of Austria, France’s regent was forced to cancel her closure plans and Port-Royal experienced a revival. The convent continued to function as a stronghold of Jansenist theology until 1711, when Louis XIV said “enough is enough” and levelled it to the ground.
Bell the heretic
Anxiety around theological purity is nothing new. In his book Restless Faith, Richard Mouw begins a chapter on “Embracing Mystery” with a discussion about Rob Bell. Since 2011, Bell’s universalist perspective on salvation has summoned the ire of theologically traditional keyboard warriors. If we lived in 1656, you can bet blood would have been spilled over the publication of Love Wins. But Mouw offers a more level-headed response: “For each seemingly controversial issue that Rob raised, you could find some solidly orthodox theologian in the past exploring similar territory.”
Mouw cautions readers against getting overly zealous in our theological boundary keeping. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary for two decades and a descendant of the theologically rigorous Christian Reformed tradition, Mouw says we need to keep our love of clarity in balance with a healthy respect for mystery. “There is much mystery that we need to allow for in theology,” writes Mouw. He offers our theology of the Trinity as the best example of a mysterious contradiction or tension that all Christians accept.
Being less sceptical
If we accept Mouw’s argument that some mystery is always baked into Christian theology, then the next logical question is: how much? If a miraculous healing à la Marguerite happened at Synod or General Assembly or at a council or session meeting, would we drop our carefully constructed rational arguments and take part in pilgrimage and revival? Janensim didn’t suddenly align with orthodox Catholic theology at the moment of the miracle. They still disagreed about how salvation worked. The holiness of the miracle was just greater than the dissonance of the theology. But it’s hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to set aside neat and tidy theological clarity for the messiness of embodied knowledge and experience.
In her book This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley lends an ear to the cynical when she talks about divine mysteries, like the time she heard God’s warning about hitting a deer. She sheepishly told her friends about the revelation – chuckling at the absurdity – and then sure enough that evening was able to anticipate the prophesied collision and yell for her husband to brake.
“I don’t need there to be anything special about it,” she admits, “but as one who believes that mystery swells the womb of every given moment, I’ve made a point never to preclude it.” Arthur Riley was raised in a more charismatic tradition, but her honesty resonated with the Reformed upbringings of the six women sitting in my living room last month clutching her book between cups of tea and glasses of wine. Like Arthur Riley, we feel a little sceptical when someone says they “heard God’s voice.” We’re more comfortable with well-argued articles and carefully-written sermons than we are with mystical encounters.
It’s easy to attack Marguerite’s story of healing with scepticism too: How do we know that she didn’t fake the healing to save the convent? What if her teachers told her what to say? Maybe there was no eye abscess to begin with. A thorn from Christ’s crown? Give me a break. Whether or not you believe the miracle happened, we worship a God powerful enough to do such a thing. We live in a world strange enough that scientists spend their entire lives chasing mysteries. So why not be open to the impossible? Isn’t that a way of respecting God’s sovereignty?
Life and death stuff
Christians have been killing each other over correct theology for thousands of years and forcing each other to flee if they don’t. There’s a reason my closest European ancestors spoke Dutch and not French and they didn’t migrate for the weather. There’s a reason the only remaining Jansenist church is in Utrecht in the Netherlands. Of course, the ins and outs of salvation is important stuff. It’s literally life and death. But we’ve got to stop putting each other on trial for it. Of the Reformed tradition, Mouw says, “more than any other branch of Christianity, we still conduct our own versions of heresy trials.” Maybe it’s time to spend less time looking for heretics and more time meditating on mysteries.
If God worked something miraculous in the people whom we call heretics, would we notice? Like the inquisitors at Port-Royal, may we have the guts to call off our armies and turn to pilgrimage and revival.