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Pensées, Reality, and le Coeur (Part Two)

In Part One of this Pascalian reflection, we considered Pascal’s first step in the path of the spiritual quest. At nearly every point of his Pensées, Pascal goads his readers to pay close attention to the movements of the soul in response to the wonders of the created world. There, he insists, you will find flickers of light, glimmers of reality breaking through the darkness. Those sparks, however, are the beginning, and not the end. Too many stop here, collecting and curating spiritual experiences as so many frissons of mystical delight and vague intimations of transcendence. But to placate oneself with this spiritual teasing is to be always a dilettante, always an armchair tourist and never an explorer.

Reality: Take the Path

Curiosity alone can become an endless game of cat and mouse. Unpursued wonder, unpacked awareness, and unaddressed questions can devolve into mists of emotional indulgence or simply wither away into banalities. Evelyn Underhill regularly referred to the transcendent—the truth about God and the world—as Reality, with a capital R, thus forcing the reader to confront his or her own unreal versions of life. We easily satisfy ourselves with scintillating alternatives and lose sight of Reality. Spiritual hunger must be fed with spiritual truth.

In beginning with the “lurch,” that groping and hungry awareness, rather than with knowledge or truth, Pascal ran afoul of Church protocol, which proposed as the first step on the spiritual journey an engagement with scripture and tradition. The Church insisted that the authority provided by special revelation—dispensed in the teachings of the magisterium, derived from scripture, and extending from natural revelation—should be the starting place of any real formation. This, however, would mean that the process began with reason, with facts and information and content, with “translation” of natural revelation rather than with the soul’s response to it. Yet the Church over the centuries has been full of people with lots of right answers and not a lick of transformation. The facts are clearly not enough, but the “trigger” without the quest for Reality leaves us without nothing but a vague, shadowy itch or experiential anomalies.

Pascal brought in scripture only after the quickened soul found itself suspended in the abyss of longing. The anxiety created by the individual’s suspension between the infinite God and the nothingness of human existence can only be resolved by salvation history. The Pensées contain lengthy notations on Old Testament scriptures, especially the prophets. Pascal relied on a 13th-century document called the Pugio Fidei, written by the Spanish Dominican Raymond Martin, to understand and argue the drama of salvation history through the Jews. Today we may read Pascal’s scriptural commentary in Pensées and set it aside because it lacks the sophistication and nuance provided by intervening centuries of biblical and historical criticism. Pascal, however, was not using scripture as proof or evidence, but as a “translation” of the Reality he experienced—as the narrative that made sense of his mute longings, just as de Waal’s discoveries “translated” his understanding.

Scripture, then, and the traditions of the Church are incomplete starting points and work even less effectively as proofs of any kind; they serve rather as the tonic for the soul’s sickness. The gospels, along with all the scriptures and prophets before Christ, contain the truths that “cure” our souls. They are the language of God, and they make meaning out of our own sense of desolation. They interpret our desperate situation and point to its deliverance:

It is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him. … Jesus Christ is the object of all things, the centre towards which all things tend. Whoever knows him knows the reason for everything. … God is a God of love and consolation: he is a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses (f. 449)[i]

Certainty: Know from the Heart

Here Pascal is at his most original, for his spiritual counsel would argue that the journey affords certainty. Yet, Pascal’s certainty was not the certainty of a mathematician at the end of his calculations, nor the certainty of a scientist at the end of an experiment, but the certainty of le Coeur, the heart, after quest and encounter. Modern readers often make the mistake of thinking that Pascal’s Coeur is a reference to emotions—but perhaps a better translation of le Coeur would be the heart-intellect, something far meatier than sentiments or feelings. It is an intellectual capacity for the supernatural that comes with faith. Neither reason (mind-intellect) nor observation (sense-intellect) alone can achieve this certainty, only the heart-intellect can. Faith—quest/search plus encounter/salvation history—grants a new kind of knowledge.

Because this certainty does not lie primarily in the intellect, it is entirely compatible with doubt. God remains hidden, and obscurities only serve to keep us humble (f. 236)[i]. “It is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed” (f. 446)[ii]. Our seeking has no end. As Karl Barth once wrote:

A man who believes once believes once for all. Don’t be afraid; regard even that as an invitation. One may, of course, be confused and one may doubt; but whoever once believes has something like a character indelibilis. He may take comfort of the fact that he is being upheld. Everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.[i]

The world remains full of unknowns, indefinite possibilities, and unexplored realities, and therefore we who live in it retain a perpetual posture of asking, seeking, and knocking. That practice, however, is no longer absolute. There is a level of certainty that the heart-intellect can provide. This is the certainty that Pascal spoke of in his Memorial.

We see each of these components of the spiritual life in Pascal’s Memorial: fire, the God of Abraham and of Jesus Christ, and “certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace … he can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels” (f. 913)[i]. Ignition, Reality, Certainty.


Pascal’s counsel for the spiritual journey is largely counterintuitive to much of evangelical methodology. We usually prefer to begin with “discovery,” or the revealed parameters of Reality. We urge people to take the path and trace the story. We fill them with knowledge—biblical narratives and good theology and helpful applications. We answer all kinds of questions no one asks. We seem convinced that if they know the information, they will love the truth. We then hope they have some real experience of God that comes from the truth, but we are quick to tell them that they can’t rely on emotions and that no matter the dullness of their feelings, it is their choice to believe that matters. And of course, we make no promises of certainty, since we find doubt so ever-present.

We live in a world increasingly given to extremes where the gray beauty of inquiry, persuasion, suggestions, possibilities, and enigmas has lost appeal. Everything these days seems to have straight lines, sharp angles, and clear boundaries. In spiritual formation contexts, however, inexorable precision brings no blessing. There is a reason the language of pilgrimage so permeates spiritual writing. Those who have left off seeking because they have all the right answers are those who have stopped moving forward. Pascal would tell us that we abort the process when we begin with special revelation and hope half-heartedly that the pilgrim will have the desire to seek.

This is not to say that there are no right answers, or that it’s not possible to know them. Mystery and revelation ought to go hand in hand. As one writer once put it, “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” The more we really know, the more questions we have, which keeps us in a perpetual place of discovery. We who are in Christ are yet groping toward God; all still asking, seeking, and knocking; all still pressing on; all still yearning, even as we are filled with “certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.”

Kathleen Mulhern is an associate professor of Christian Formation and Soul Care at Denver Seminary. Raised in the Evangelical Free Church, she is now an Episcopalian. She holds a Ph.D. in European History, an M.A. in French Literature, an M.A. in Church History, and a book in each hand.

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