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Philosopher Transformed by the Bible

Philosopher Emile Cailliet was born in a small French village near the end of the 19th century. His early education was committed to naturalism, leaving no room for God or supernatural intervention in human affairs. But his naturalistically inspirited studies in philosophy proved of little help during his front-line experiences as a lad of 20 in World War I. Confronted with the horrors of war, he asked:

What use, the ill-kept, ancient type of sophistry in the philosophic banter of the seminar, when your own buddy—at the time speaking to you of his mother—dies standing in front of you, a bullet in his chest. Was there a meaning to it all? A [person] can endure anything if only it appears meaningful…. I, too, felt—not with my reason, but with my whole being—that I was naked and, war or no war, destined to perish miserably when the hour came.

One night a bullet found Cailliet, too. An American field ambulance crew saved his life, and after a nine-month hospital stay, he was discharged and resumed his graduate studies. But he had to admit that the books no longer seemed like the same books, nor was his motivation the same. Reading at length in philosophy and literature, he found himself probing in depth for meaning. He testifies:

During long night watches in the foxholes I had in a strange way been longing—I must say it, however queer it may sound—for a book that would understand me. But I knew of no such book. Now I would in secret prepare one for my own private use. And so, as I went on reading for my courses, I would file passages that would speak to my condition, then carefully copy them in a leather-bound pocket book I would always carry with me. The quotations, which I numbered in red ink for easier reference, would lead me as it were from fear and anguish, through a variety of intervening stages, to supreme utterances of release and jubilation.

At last, the day came when he put the finishing touches on, as he said it, "the book that would understand me." He describes a beautiful, sunny day in which he sat under a tree and opened his precious anthology. As he read, however, he was overcome by a growing disappointment. Instead of speaking to his condition as he expected, the passages only reminded him of their context—of the circumstances of his labor over their selection. Then, Cailliet says, he knew that the whole undertaking would not work, simply because it was of his own making. It carried no strength of persuasion. In a dejected mood, he put the little book back into his pocket.

On that same day, Cailliet's wife had come into the possession of a Bible by extraordinary circumstances. Emile had always been adamant that religion would be taboo in their home, and at the age of 23 had never even seen a Bible. But at the end of that disappointing day, when she apologetically tried to explain how she had providentially (as he would later realize!) picked up a copy of the Bible, he was eager to see it. He describes what happened next:

I literally grabbed the book and rushed to my study with it. I opened it and "chanced" upon the Beatitudes. I read and read and read—now aloud with an indescribable warmth surging within…. I could not find words to express my awe and wonder. And suddenly the realization dawned upon me: This was the Book that would understand me! I needed it so much, yet, unaware, I had attempted to write my own—in vain. I continued to read deeply into the night, mostly from the Gospels. And lo and behold, as I looked through them, the one of whom they spoke, the one who spoke and acted in them, became alive in me.

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