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For several summers during the 1950s, I served as guest minister and preacher at the American Church in Paris, on Quai d'Orsay. It was the first American church founded on foreign soil and the oldest American institution in Europe. The famous American architect Ralph Adams Cram built the Gothic edifice following World War I. On my first trip to Paris, I found the timeless beauty of the building overwhelming. The design of both the Sanctuary and the educational wing was especially appealing in the use of space, which was efficient and functional. As I first entered the educational wing, I was greeted by the sight of people from all over the United States, and indeed all around the world, gathering, visiting, and laughing happily.
For many foreigners living in Paris, this church was an anchor, a refuge, an escape from the hustle-bustle world, and even a second home. Fine Casavant organ concerts attracted Parisians, students from the Sorbonne, tourists, and Americans of every degree: NATO personnel, members of Congress, and even ambassadors.
During my first weeks at the American Church, I became spoiled by the large attendance. Beginning with my first Sunday as guest minister, a renowned organist by the name of Marcel Dupré played for the services. He was scheduled to play throughout my first month in Paris, and he brought many listeners with him. So when a lesser-known organist replaced him, I counted many empty seats. I reminded myself that the French were not known as avid church-goers and found some consolation in the number of people who did choose toattend. After services, I greeted parishioners on the church steps and thanked each of them for coming.
It was from these steps that I first saw him. He was standing in the midst of a small crowd. Each of the people surrounding him held out a church bulletin to be autographed. His dress separated him from the crowd. Despite the warmth of the June morning, he wore a dark, single-breasted suit, a white shirt, and a dark tie. He was of medium height and build, but walked with a slight stoop. His face was pale with expressive, sad eyes, but the smile he wore while conversing was oddly attractive and charming. When he saw me, he smiled all the more while disengaging himself from the crowd. He walked toward me with his hand raised as if to draw my attention.
"Monsieur, Reverend, thank you, thank you for the service."
"Well, thank you for coming," I said, shaking the offered hand. "Who might you be?"
"I am Albert Camus. I have been here four Sundays and only today did I finally get a seat!" he said with a silent laugh. His face became thoughtful and somber, though, as he spoke again, "For these past Sundays, I came to hear Marcel Dupré play, but today I came to hear you. Would you have lunch with me tomorrow?"
"I would be honored," I said. He seemed pleased, and when we finished making the arrangements, he shook my hand again. "I look forward to our meeting," he said and left as quickly as he had appeared. I was amazed. I had read some of his work. My mind began to search through the many things I had heard concerning this man who had come to this church to hear me preach. Wasn't he a communist? As one of the best known existentialist writers of the day, certainly he was an atheist. I pondered the meaning of the meeting for the rest of the day.
That evening, I ate supper with the church's concierge, Jacques, and his family. Jacques and his wife had been the first people to greet me in Paris. He was a refugee who had been involved in the Spanish Civil War of 1934. He escaped from Spain to France where he changed his name from Juan to Jacques. Jacques told stories about how the socialists and the Popular Front fought against each other in Spain and how it all led up to the second World War. The family invited me to dine with them occasionally, and apparently I was one of the first people at the church to take an interest in them. My interest meant a lot to them, and after an enjoyable meal, I went off to bed contented with my evening.
It was about ten o'clock, but I was far from sleepy. My mind kept returning to the man outside the church, Albert Camus. To me, he was one of the most fascinating Frenchmen of the day. I wondered how formal our lunch would be. Would he be able to understand my English? I certainly knew little French. What could a Christian minister from the United States, a guest preacher, at that, possibly have in common with this great existentialist?
Existentialism, I knew, came from the word "existence," and was a response to the challenge of finding meaning in a seemingly absurd world. According to what I knew of Camus and his contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialists believe that we cannot explain the essence of man in the same way that we explain an article of manufacture. For example, we know that a spoon was made by someone who first had its ideaa vision of what the spoon would be used for and how it would be made. Even before the spoon was constructed, the intention was fated with a definite purpose. That is to say, we conceived of the spoon's purpose and method of manufacture, its essence, before it was actually created. Hence, essence preceded existence.
Christians think of a man in much the same way, believing that he was first conceived by God and then created. Existentialists, for the most part, reject God. Instead, they believe that man simply existed. As a result of this existence, man had to confront himself and his experiences in order to define himself and his purpose. In other words, his existence preceded his essence. In blunt terms, each man became his own god.
As I pondered existentialism and its implications, I began to wonder if Camus would try to convert me to his point of view. The conversion of a minister would perhaps be a great feat for him. I could think of no other sensible motivation for his desire to speak to me. My only recourse was to go to sleep and patiently await my lunch with this great writer.
He arrived for me at exactly one o'clock, in a convertible, again wearing a dark, double-breasted suit. He brought another man with him who he said had a better grasp of English, should language be a problem. After collecting me, he drove down the Orleáns road through farmland to a small restaurant. "We will not be bothered here," he said with a slight smirk. "The owners know that I will never come back if they advertise my presence."
The building was set amid open fields with cement walls that gave it the look of a miniature castle. There was only a small wood-burned plaque above the door to tell you that this was a place of business. When we were seated, I ordered a salad and onion soup. Camus ordered a veal chop. During lunch he asked me a bit about myself. I told him that I graduated from Yale College and Yale Divinity School. I told him that, after ordination, I had moved back to Ohio to be a minister and now lived there with my wife and three daughters. He smiled at my comments and nodded, listening intently. Then he asked more questions.
When we had finished our meal, Camus clasped his hands on the table and suddenly turned serious. "I came to the American Church for two reasons. First, to hear Marcel Dupré, whom I have listened to many times at Notre Dame. Second, because I am searching for something I do not have, something I'm not sure I can even define."
TELL ME A STORY PARACLETE PRESS
By Lisa Suhay
Copyright © 2000 Lisa Suhay. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
|THE WEARIED EXISTENTIALIST: CONVERSATIONS WITH CAMUS|
|THE MINISTERHEROES AND FRIENDS|
|The Berlitz Family||106|
|Dr. Norman Vincent Peale||140|
|The Robinsons and AuntMartha||143|
|The Children of Ohio||151|
|The School Board||155|
|Bud and Alice||157|
|Fritz Schaefer and my Blessed Pilots||166|
|The Ambassador in Warsaw and Archbishop Beran||170|
|The People Behind the Wall||175|
|Displaced Persons and the Deaconesses||179|
|My Immigrants: Six Couples and Alma||183|
|Dr. Albert Schweitzer||187|
|General Norstad and Ambassador Harriman||192|
|Death and Kindness||199|
|The Teddy Bear||202|
|The Shadow of Influence||208|
|Endowing God With Our Own Weakness||211|
What People are Saying About This
In sharing with the public his conversations with Albert Camus, Howard Mumma has not only given historians an important document, but he has also given us a glimpse of genuine human exchange over the deepest questions of life.
(Diogenes Allen, Ph.D. Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Princeton Theological Seminary)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dr. Mumma relates the conversations of his friendship with Albert Camus during the last two years of Camus' life. Camus, having already won the Nobel Prize, found himself failing to believe what he wrote. He was disillusioned with the world, and looked to Dr. Mumma as a man to explain the Christian faith. This is the book for any student of Camus, or for any person who has become disillusioned with life.