Sartre in Bethlehem
55 years ago a Jesuit fellow-student in Munich gave Paul Andrews a remarkable typescript: Christmas writing from an unexpected source. In the autumn of 1940 the Nazis captured and deported Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and playwright, to a labour camp in Germany. Before Christmas Paul Feller, a Jesuit fellow-prisoner, persuaded Jean-Paul to write a nativity play for the French Christians who shared his captivity. Sartre, baptised a Catholic, was by this time a declared atheist, but as a gesture of solidarity with his French fellow-prisoners, he wrote Barjona, Jeu scénique en six tableaux. A narrator describes the scene in the stable at Bethlehem: this is how Sartre sees Mary (translation by Paul):
Sartre on the Virgin Mary
The Virgin is pale, and she looks at the baby. What I would paint on her face is an anxious wonderment, such as has never before been seen on a human face. For Christ is her baby, flesh of her flesh, and the fruit of her womb. She has carried him for nine months, and she will give him her breast, and her milk will become the blood of God. There are moments when the temptation is so strong that she forgets that he is God. She folds him in her arms and says: My little one.
But at other moments she feels a stranger, and she thinks: God is there – and she finds herself caught by a religious awe before this speechless God, this terrifying infant. All mothers at times are brought up sharp in this way before this fragment of themselves, their baby. They feel themselves in exile at two paces from this new life that they have created from their life, and which is now peopled by another’s thoughts. But no other baby has been so cruelly and suddenly snatched from his mother, for he is God, and he surpasses in every way anything that she can imagine. It is a hard trial for a mother to be ashamed of herself and her human condition before her son.
But I think that there are other rapid, fleeting moments when she realises at once that Christ is her son, her very own baby, and that he is God. She looks at him and thinks: “This God is my baby. This divine flesh is my flesh. He is made from me. He has my eyes, and the curve of his mouth is the curve of mine. He is like me. He is God and he is like me.”
No other woman has been lucky enough to have a God for herself alone, a tiny little God whom she can take in her arms and cover with kisses, a warm-bodied God who smiles and breathes, a God that she can touch, who is alive. And it is in these moments that I would paint Mary, if I was a painter, and I would try to capture the air of radiant tenderness and timidity with which she lifts her finger to touch the sweet skin of her baby-God, whose warm weight she feels on her knees, and who smiles.