Mysticism and Dogma in ‘A Simple Heart’ (A school assignment)
Flaubert’s short story, “A Simple Heart,” illustrates a path to the divine that is not dependent on rational understanding of religious dogma. However, the mystical path followed by the simple-hearted heroine of the story, Felicité, is supported by and intimately connected with the liturgy and sacramental life that of which is arguably the most heavily dogmatic religion of them all, Roman Catholicism. While this poor servant has very little intellectual understanding of the religion that she devoutly practices, her devotion sustains her all her life, through many hardships, and never wavers, though it takes on rather unorthodox tones. In her humility, and in her suffering, she is more like Christ than those around her who have greater knowledge and desire greater external successes in life and in church. Here I will present evidence that Felicité is a Catholic mystic.
Mysticism, from the Greek μυστικός, means, literally, “seeing with the eyes closed.” Throughout Flaubert’s story, Felicité does just this. Many references are made to her “seeing” in her “mind’s eye” (e.g., By the end of the story, she has literally gone blind, and seems to “see” the Corpus Christi procession outside her window through the eyes of another character, before receiving her final vision of the Holy Spirit as a parrot. By this point some of her other senses, such as hearing, have also failed her, and I will return to this scene at the end.
One of the most common symptoms displayed by budding mystics is an experience St. John of the Cross calls the “dark night of the soul.” This experience is usually characterized by extreme inner turmoil and doubt, followed by a ‘giving in’ or ‘letting go’ release of the will, which is then followed by an often-joyous sense of union with the divine. This pattern has been likened to the death and resurrection of Christ and descriptions of it can be found in the writings of many of the saints as well as more modern Catholic spiritual writers, such as Thomas Merton. Something akin to this “dark night” happens in Felicité’s early life, after the boy she loves abandons her. “Her grief was uncontrollable,” writes Flaubert. “She flung herself on the ground, screamed, called on God, and stayed moaning all alone in the fields until sunrise” (7). The next day she left the place where she was living, changed her life completely, and became happy again. After this rebirth, Felicité lives in a state of “fear and trembling” (7; language often used to describe awe of God), and will pay no more need to ordinary earthly romance, only likening her parrot, which will become for her a symbol of the Holy Spirit, to a lover (31).
As it is commonly used, mysticism refers to a type of perception that goes beyond logic, rational thought, and intellectual comprehension. Felicité is explicitly lacking these mental faculties, but, although she is ignorant, she is dutiful. Perpetually the good Catholic girl, she follows the rules. Early on in the story, she is seen getting up at dawn to go to Mass and saying her rosary at night, and these religious duties are listed alongside her daily household chores (4). She is also described on the same page as “perpetually silent,” and “driven by clockwork,” which are hallmarks of a rhythmic monastic life of contemplation, the lifestyle most commonly associated with mystics of the Christian traditions. She seems to go through the motions without questioning them or even stopping to ask herself why she obeys. She knows to genuflect at the door of the church, but admits that she does not know the first thing about the catechism: “As for dogma, she did not understand, did not even attempt to understand, a word of it” (15).
A minor character, Monsieur Bourais, stands in stark contrast to Felicité on these matters. Unlike Felicité the servant, M. Bourais’ profession is that of solicitor. He has “pretensions to knowledge of Latin” (8), and thus would be able understand the words of dogma Felicité does not, as well as the Latin prayers spoken at Mass, where he partially “blocks [Felicité's] view” (16) during the pivotal First Communion scene discussed below. Where Felicité is humble, M. Bourais is a “spectacle” and an “exceptional man” (8). He knows the world, and laughs at Felicité’s ignorance of geography (so great is her ignorance of “worldly” things that she does not even understand how to use a map!) (21). The holy parrot dislikes him (29), and he finally commits suicide and is shown to be a dishonest cheat (35). Thus Felicité’s goodness and purity are all the more striking in comparison to the immorality demonstrated by her more-knowledgeable superiors, such as M. Bourais (and Madame Aubain, whom I won’t discuss here).
Mysticism is characterized by the perception of a hidden truth behind everyday occurrences. The Eucharist itself, which plays a central role in the story, is a perfect example of this: the elements of Holy Communion look like ordinary bread and wine, and yet, according to the Church, become, substantially, the Body and Blood of Christ. Felicité’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is apparently quite intense, as it would appear that the feast of Corpus Christi (which celebrates the Eucharist) is her favorite in the liturgical calendar.
Mystics seek union with the divine. Felicité feels a profound unity with other people, particularly Virginie, the child she cares for, and Victor, her nephew, and, later, Mme. Aubain, all of whom she must suffer the loss of in the course of the story. In Catholic thought, it is impossible to understand God without an understanding of community, because God, though One, is a triune God: the Blessed Trinity represents a community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term “Corpus Christi,” meaning “body of Christ,” is used to refer both to the consecrated host in the Eucharist, and to the Church itself. The Church is a community of believers, and it is considered to be a mystical body of which Jesus is the Head and all members form the various appendages. Thus all members of the community are thought to be connected.
These two meanings of Corpus Christi are juxtaposed in the moving scene in which Felicité, watching Virginie receive Holy Communion, feels so intimately connected with her that it is as if she it receiving the Sacrament herself. “It seemed to her that she herself were that child; the child’s face became her own, she wore the child’s dress, the child’s heart beat in her breast; when the moment came to [receive the Eucharist] Felicity all but fainted.” (16). Felicité’s direct experience of what is held to be a spiritual truth (the connectedness of people in the Body of Christ) could be called a “mystical experience.”
Felicité also experiences trials similar to those of Christ, a recurrent theme in the lives of many Christian mystics, some of whom have even reportedly received the bleeding wounds of the Cross, known as the stigmata. Felicité goes looking for her nephew, soon to depart for sea never to return, at “the Calvary” (18), which is also the name of the site of Christ’s crucifixion, and, as she passes it, she “commends to God all that she held most dear” (19). Later in the story, while she is on the road to take her parrot to be stuffed, a coachman thrashes her with a whip, and she falls to the ground, bleeding (32). This scene calls to mind the Passion of Christ. Afterward, she looks to the bird (again, representing the Holy Sprit, one of the three persons of God) for comfort, and has a second great eruption of feeling, similar to her first “dark night.”
It is after this second emotional ordeal that Felicité comes to overtly associate her parrot with the Holy Spirit, and tries to formulate an intellectual understanding of Him: “the Holy Spirit… became more lifelike and reading intelligible in her eyes” (34). This attempt to form some a conceptual understanding of the Holy Spirit is a step away from the mystical path toward the dogmatic approach (although her dogma is unorthodox) and, arguably, this shift leads her to become “confused” and to teeter dangerously close to idolatry.
However, Felicity’s conceptual understanding of the Holy Spirit passes through other stages before the last one. She first ponders the various representations of the Spirit on the walls of her church and in the Bible (“not just a bird, but a fire as well, and at other times a breath” (14)), which is the ordinary religious approach. She then goes on associate the Spirit with various movements within her own life (like “light fluttering on the edge of the marshes” (14), the wind, etc), which is more like the mystical approach, which seeks to avoid concepts altogether in favor of direct experience. But when she associates the Spirit with the parrot, she even goes so far as to explain why she believes that the parrot is a better symbol than the traditional dove, because parrots can talk, and this seems to represent her own personal doctrine.
In the end, Felicité sacrifices even her stuffed parrot, her most treasured possession, placing it as an offering to her God on the altar of repose. Thus, when she relinquishes her own doctrine, Christ comes to her in Blessed Sacrament, which is carried to her house in the Corpus Christi procession. She then, in her last breath, inhales the liturgy of the Church with one of the few functional senses she has left. Finally, only after having given it up to God, she is granted the very vision she always desired.