Camus and Questions That Matter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe left bank of the Seine is known for its cafés, and conversations, cigarettes and coffee too. But a church? And Albert Camus sitting in a pew, listening with the ears of his heart?

For most my life I have been in conversation with Camus, the celebrated French novelist who was also one of the primary voices in 20th-century philosophy. As a 20 year-old college dropout on a pilgrimage through Europe with questions about human existence running through my heart, I spent a day with other students seeing his novel-made-film, The Stranger, in a London cinema and talking for seeming hours afterwards in a Greek cafe.

When I returned to college, I was enamored with the seriousness of Camus’ questions about all things that mattered most for life in the world. Meaning in the universe, and in the human heart. Justice and injustice. Suffering and sorrow. He was known for his unflinching look at the human condition, and refusing to blink.

My academic interests were awakened when I began to see that it was possible to learn about things that had consequence for who we are and how we live. Over the years I have returned to Camus again and again, sure that his honesty was worthy of of my heart. Several theses along the way kept me in conversation with his questions, and I have only gone further up and further into them.

When I began to apprentice myself to Walker Percy I was fascinated to see that he too had been unflinchingly honest, but had come to a different place than Camus. Compared by the New York reviewers– “We now have an American Camus!” –he responded, “You’ve missed me. I am honest about the fragility of human existence, but there will always be a hint of hope in what I write.” Good for him and for all of us.

I have taken that image, a hint of hope, and written about it in the book, Visions of Vocation, arguing that being “hints of hope” can make sense of our best efforts in and through our callings and careers. Nothing triumphalistic, nothing astounding, just ordinary life by ordinary people. Hints of hope– I can live with that, and live into that.

This past weekend, Easter Sunday, we worshiped at the American Church of Paris, a remarkably and wonderfully international congregation with every tone and tongue of European, African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin peoples gathered to remember the resurrection. It was a taste of what worship will someday be. I was specially drawn to this place and people because Camus had worshiped here in the last years of his life. Sitting quietly in the rear, he eventually stayed for conversation with the pastor, and over time they became friends, sitting at cafés along the Seine to talk about things that matter most.

It is a longer story, and part of it is born of Camus’ experience in the French village of Le Chambon, watching the Huguenots, with an unusual courage and compassion, open their barns and basements to thousands of Jews during the Holocaust– while he was writing The Plague, his novel about our complex response to evil in the world. Eventually he found his way to a church, with questions he wanted answered, and hope in his heart.

I wanted to sit in the same pews that he did, hearing a word from God about human existence on the day we call Easter. Yes, I suppose I wanted to hear about hope– even a hint of hope.

(Photo is of the Eiffel Tower, the American Church of Paris, spire, and the Seine River.)

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