This morning I read these words that Victor Hugo said in a conversation, almost an argument, with his eldest son: “There are different ways of being a priest. Whoever teaches about the invisible world is a priest. All thinkers are priests.” This made me wonder if I’m a priest.
The conversation occurred in the context of Hugo’s son, a republican and atheist, deploring that his father had painted such a positive picture of a priest at the beginning of his great novel Les Misérables. Hugo did not belong to any particular faith, but he was not an atheist and prayed regularly.
I found the account of the life of Bishop Myriel and his interactions with “undesirables,” including Jean Valjean, the hero of the novel, one of the most powerful parts of a most powerful novel. The bishop gives away 90% of his income and travels through his mountainous dioceses on a donkey fearless of brigands. It is he who transforms Valjean from a criminal to something close to a saint by telling the police that he had given Valjean silver candlesticks that Valjean had in fact stolen. Valjean keeps those candlesticks with him throughout his life.
When the novel was published orthodox Catholics were offended by the account of the Bishop because it criticised implicitly the Catholic hierarchy.
I read Hugo’s statement that “all thinkers are priests” at the same time as reading Bertrand Russell’s letters to his lover Ottoline Morrell. Russell’s description of his love for Morrell is intoxicating, but a “black spot” in their relationship is arguments over religion. Morrell is deeply religious (despite her many affairs), while Russell is an atheist. He loves truth and reason, and he can’t understand how a woman he loves can ignore truth and reason and believe in the mumbo jumbo of Christianity. He tries to understand by debating with her as he would debate with a fellow philosopher. He is vehement (his word) in debate, while she is obstinate (his word again) in her beliefs. The result is mutual upset, which is eventually resolved.
Russell, it seems to me, would clearly qualify as a priest with Hugo’s definition. Russell was one of the great thinkers of all time, and he even wrote a book What I Believe, which I mean to read one day. But am I a priest?
I don’t subscribe to any religion, although I’ve flirted with Catholicism and Buddhism. I don’t believe in a god or an afterlife, although I’m completely open to there being “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.” Indeed, I rejoice in not understanding much in the world, and when I study calculus or read about quantum mechanics I feel the brush of infinity. Words, poetry, music paintings, and nature are all hugely important to me, and I recognise them as filling a space that religion might have filled. I’m not trained in philosophy, but I enjoy to read philosophy–usually unfortunately preferring to read philosophers like Russell writing about the philosophy of others like Aristotle or Plato rather than reading the words of the philosophers themselves.
So am I a thinker, a priest? I feel uncomfortable about claiming any special status, and I ask myself if there is anybody who doesn’t think? Doesn’t every conversation, every reading of a book or even a newspaper necessitate thinking? It surely does, but I don’t think that Hugo means that everybody is a priest. Although everybody might think to some degree, not everybody “teaches about the invisible world.” And I’m not sure that I do. I teach on publication ethics, medical journalism, and non-communicable disease, but are these “the invisible world?” I don’t think so, but I do give talks on death and am to address a conference in Ireland on truth in science. These, I conclude, are sufficiently invisible and qualify me not as a full priest but as a trainee priest. I must get on with my training.
Bellos, David. The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables (Kindle Locations 1673-1674). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.