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A few years ago, I stumbled across a thin, pocket-sized
paperback called The Atheists Mass by Honor de Balzac. Intrigued by
the title, and having been on the look-out for any of the renowned
A few years ago, I stumbled across a thin, pocket-sized paperback called The Atheists Mass by Honor de Balzac. Intrigued by the title, and having been on the look-out for any of the renowned French writers work, I was compelled to buy it - and pleasantly surprised by the touching story.
The tale touches on the many absurdities of a Parisian surgeon described as the illustrious Desplein, who flashed across science like a meteor, and is written as if told to the author by Despleins star student and friend, Horace Bianchon. At heart, the essay illuminates the very absurdities that make us all human, and acts as a gentle yet timeless reminder that compassion and gratitude cost nothing more than our pride, but is worth the world for those who receive it.
We are all heroes of the moment, but we will be remembered, as much for our words as for our actions, by our friends, our families, and other loved ones. What will act as our lasting legacy is the mark we leave on those who survive us.
All humans, no matter our social class, culture, or religion, have eccentricities that can seem contradictory to those who do not know and love us. The gentle and kind can have a great temper at times, just as anyone who is characterised by their great temper have a gentle nature too. This is known, in some circles, as the duality of man - the double-edged sword of human nature.
Desplein is characterised as a staunch atheist, as many Western scientists are even today, and it surprises his friend when he is seen entering one of the many Parisian churches. Out of respect, nothing is mentioned, but exactly a year later Bianchon catches Desplein entering the chapel once more. Curiosity getting the better of him, Bianchon speaks to the sacristan in charge of the church and discovers that his friend has not only been attending the mass four times a year, but actually funds it!
It takes another seven years before Bianchon finds a suitable opportunity to discuss the matter with Desplein after silently attending the service with his friend.
Desplein then reveals his history as an incredibly poor student who was eventually evicted from his meager lodgings along with his neighbour, an equally impoverished water carrier named Bourgeat. Together, the two find new accommodation, and Bourgeat becomes the young mans benefactor - in much the same way that Desplein takes Bianchon under his wing many years later. Bourgeat makes many sacrifices to help the aspiring doctor achieve his dreams, and never once asks for anything in return.
As his own means of showing gratitude, upon Bourgeats eventual death the now highly successful Desplein fulfills his benefactors dying wish as a staunch Catholic for a mass, and not only funds the service but devotedly attends it to offer a prayer for his friend.