A Centurion Not of Caesar but of Christ

Undated photograph of Ernest Psichari (bottom center) posing with other soldiers.

Photo: Courtesy of Musée de la Vie romantique, Paris Musées

Searching for God and finding Him has been one of the great literary narratives for thousands of years. It is, of course, a great theme of Holy Scripture. Not surprisingly, in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, it is God, who knows all things, that is searching for us: “And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: Where art thou?” The story of the search for God, of conversion, runs beyond holy writ, from early martyrs and confessors, to Constantine the Great and Saint Augustine and to thousands of saints through the centuries and around the world.

France—specifically the France of the Revolution and the Commune, and of vicious late 19th and early 20th century anti-clericalism—was also a land rich in Catholic converts. It was during this age of rising modernism when a wildly popular work, Vie de Jésus (1863), by the influential progressive intellectual Ernest Renan (d. 1892), featured an “Aryan” Jesus, devoid of actual miracles and of divinity. Less broadly popular, but perhaps more influential in the long run, the Servant of God Dom Prosper Gueranger (d. 1875) revived the Benedictine Order in France, restoring the abandoned 11th century abbey at Solesmes and authoring a monumental work on the liturgical year that continues to be reprinted and loved by traditionalist Catholics to this day.

This fin de siècle era, filled with secularism, atheism, science, decadence, and innovation—such as innovation in great art, for instance—was also the era of the Little Flower, Saint Therese of Lisieux (d. 1897); the French Carmelite nun who was one of the most popular saints of the 20th century (she was canonized in 1925). Among prominent literary and intellectual converts, there were the poets Charles Peguy and Paul Claudel, the philosopher Jacques Maritain, the writers Joris-Karl Huysmans, Leon Bloy, and Maurice Barres, and many others. These converts were often agnostics or atheists; devotees of politics, hedonism, or revolution who ultimately reverted to the faith of their baptism.

Still another prominent figure from that era, who was just canonized this year, is the soldier and explorer Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). De Foucauld was deeply influenced by his sojourn in the North African desert, but it was years later in Paris when he converted, stating: “I began to realize, to glimpse that perhaps the Catholic religion was not so absurd.” After becoming a priest, it would be in the Sahara where de Foucauld would find his martyrdom.   

Some of these figures are well-known in the Anglophone world, although perhaps not as much as they should be. Sometimes it is just a question of timing; of translations and publishers that will turn an obscure work in one language to one that is immortal in another. One can only think of the huge English-language popularity, during the 19th and 20th centuries, of an obscure Persian poet of ancient Nishapur.

One figure worthy of rediscovery by English speakers, especially those of a conservative or religious inclination, is the French soldier and writer Ernest Psichari (1883-1914); also a Catholic convert and the grandson of the previously mentioned anti-Christian skeptic Ernest Renan. While de Foucauld converted after his journeys in the North African desert, Psichari evidently converted during his time as a soldier between 1909 and 1912, when he led mounted native troops in what is today Mauritania. Psichari’s spiritual autobiography, Le Voyage du Centurion, published posthumously in 1916, and translated and released in English as A Soldier’s Pilgrimage the following year, is a forgotten classic. It was described by acclaimed novelist Paul Bourget as “an essay in military psychology and also an essay in religious psychology”; a portrait of the “believing soldier.”  

Mauritania was a late addition to France’s global empire, beginning in 1903. During Psichari’s time there, it had been freshly and tenuously conquered, taken by France through a combination of force, tribal treaties, and playing off one local hereditary Sufi warlord, ethnic leader, or religious leader against another. France would not secure complete control over the restless locals until decades later. 

The fact that Psichari rejected his famous grandfather’s antagonism to the Catholic Church and to the military was not lost on contemporary Frenchmen, and he was very much a man of the pre-war French Right, epitomized by the likes of Barres, Charles Maurras, and Action francaise (long before it was condemned by the Church in 1926), although Psichari spent much of that period as a soldier in Africa. A product of a liberal ‘post-Christian’ home (his father was an exiled Greek philologist from Odessa), Psichari was a high-strung wastrel of a man as a youth (he tried to kill himself after an unrequited love for Maritain’s sister), whose life was probably saved by the Army. It was there that he found order and purpose, adventure, and eventually, religion.         

A Soldier’s Pilgrimage is written as an autobiographical novel. Maxence, the military protagonist presented in the third person, is Ernest Psichari, sub-lieutenant of colonial artillery; a character that is only lightly fictionalized. The novel is mostly narrative, with little plot aside from beautiful descriptions of the natural world, of silence, and of an intense interior monologue. Maxence’s physical expedition is, in the end, less significant than his internal journey. It is very much a piece of its time: Psichari was a proud French nationalist and unabashed imperialist, but the novel is also timeless in its questions of faith, loyalty, identity, and sacrifice.

Another of the novel’s protagonists is the African desert, with its solitude and the haunting panorama of sand, stone, and sky. These are the Tagant and Adrar plateaus, known today—to the extent they are known at all—for the old, crumbling, and mostly abandoned ksour (fortified villages) founded a millennium ago along the salt and gold caravan route crossing the Sahara, including Ouadana, Oualata, Shinqit (Chinguetti, the city of medieval Quranic manuscript libraries), and Tichitt (Psichari was mentioned in dispatches regarding a skirmish there). In a letter to Charles Peguy, Psichari wrote that the desert had a “beauty without grace,” adding that it was where “all life has retreated today and he remains a rough mineral skeleton where poor camel-haired tents and nomadic herds roam. The Moors of these desolate lands are among the toughest warriors in the world. They have made us feel it more than once, and will make us feel it again.”

If the desert was a protagonist, so was Islam—as were the Moors that Psichari commanded and fought against. He saw them as religious foes and enemies of France, yet also admired them deeply. This admiration was unfeigned: “everywhere was the same austerity, the same nobility and dignity.” He noted that the Muslims preferred the French to be actual Christians rather than atheists or secularists who mocked religion. As he wrote, the Muslims “seek God and they are humble.” But while admiring their faith and seeking to recover his own, he could still intellectually acknowledge that “twenty centuries of Christianity separates him from the Moors.”  

Even though he had not yet recovered his faith, Maxence (Psichari) found himself explaining to the Muslims that Christians worship one God and not three. Hearing the Surat al-Kafirun emanating from a mosque, he felt wounded pride while silently stammering “you have your religion. But I-I have mine. You have your prophet but I have my God, who is Christ Jesus … Is it possible … under the prick of shame, he calls himself the son (a prodigal son, indeed) of his Church.”

Maxence is described as feeling “very close to these Moors who he himself had picked out from among the tribes and who shared in the adventure.” The description of his expedition contains all the romance and heart-stirring barbarism of a forgotten world: cavalry; a baggage train, including camp followers consisting of servants, cooks, and scullions; “machine guns oscillating on the sharply outlined backs of the mules”; and, best of all, the Méharistes: the splendid French colonial dromedary corps or camel cavalry.

As someone with personal experience in these same deserts, albeit not in Mauritania but in Sudan and elsewhere, I was particularly moved by Maxence’s ebullient response to the “austere rule of Africa”: austere and happy. On the sand in the cool of the day, “leaning there upon his elbow, he was happy.” Despite the toil, he said “all the waters of Africa taste sweet to me.” But the African desert also made him love France more.

The tasks of enduring the desert and of leading native troops, as well as the challenge of Islam, gradually led him to a Christianity he never truly knew. He has a Gospel (“how consoling it must be to read the Gospel as a Christian”) and he receives a postcard with an image of Our Lady of Salette, but aside from that, he is alone in the desert “without even a fragment of stained glass or a whiff of incense.” However, nothing suits a soldier better than fidelity, and Maxence will be a “faithful knight.” He sees a pattern to the world: “In the system of order, we find the priest and the soldier. In the system of disorder, there is no priest and no soldier.” He must make a choice, and in the great silence of the desert, he believes: “everything bears witness to You, O Heavenly Father.” You are seeking me and all the time I am here, “the Son of God has shed his blood for this Maxence.”

Although it is not in the novel, we know from the 1916 French biography of Psichari by Henri Massis, that Psichari was formally received into the Catholic Church on February 4, 1913. As the biography recounts, “we find Ernest transformed, radiating joy.” Psichari thought of becoming a priest and took the first step towards becoming a Dominican monk, but decided that he could best serve as a faithful Catholic French Army officer. It is not mere chance that the book’s French title refers to the Roman Centurion, a commander and a man under authority who is also the one who utters the words spoken by every Catholic at every Mass: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Lieutenant Psichari of the 2nd Colonial Artillery Regiment, a Centurion not of Caesar but of Christ, died, along with most of the 3rd Colonial Division, at Rossignol on August 22, 1914—one of the bloodiest days on the Western Front during the early stages of World War I. As his unit was wiped out, Psichari stayed with his guns until almost the end of the battle, and was ultimately shot through the temple. His writings would remain an influential part of the French nationalist Catholic intellectual counter-culture for decades.

I have a crumbling, tattered original English-language edition of this book that I treasure, but today, A Soldier’s Pilgrimage is widely available in various inexpensive print-on-demand editions. It is in need, however, of a proper reprinting by one of the English-language orthodox Catholic publishing houses which have sprung up in recent years. That is where its true and appreciative contemporary audience is to be found, not as a museum piece but as a worthy document detailing a young man’s grappling with the great matters of the human soul.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.