Today the Church marks the memorial of St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868), whose name may not be familiar to you, but whose influence certainly is. If you have ever seen the work of the great French artist Auguste Rodin, such as his iconic sculptures “The Kiss” or “The Thinker”, then you have his friend St. Peter Eymard to thank for such work having been made at all. The relationship between Fr. Eymard and Rodin is further proof, if needed, that God can work through even the most hardened sinner, and why we must never give up on those who seem to be out of step with Christ.
French priest St. Peter Eymard founded the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in 1856, to help promote the 40 Hours devotion to the Holy Eucharist. In 1862 the young Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) joined the Congregation as a novice, following the death of his sister Maria – an event which hit him very hard. Rodin gave up his career as a budding artist to seek spiritual comfort and direction, and probably would have remained in some sort of limbo, searching for meaning in his life, had it not been for Eymard’s counsel.
Fr. Eymard embraced, and in fact openly encouraged the creation of painting, sculpture, and architecture to honor the Blessed Sacrament. “For the Eucharist, nothing is too beautiful,” he once wrote to a friend. Yet he was also an experienced enough religious to know when someone was not suited to the consecrated life. While the Congregation might have benefited from having its own Fra Angelico, as did the Dominicans in early Renaissance Florence, it became clear to Fr. Eymard that Auguste Rodin was not going to be that person.
Following the counsel of Fr. Eymard, Rodin eventually left the Congregation and re-entered secular life, around the time he completed a bust of his friend and spiritual advisor. Fr. Eymard himself did not care for its overly showy, wavy hair, but it eventually came to be recognized as an early masterwork by the young artist. As the reader is well-aware, Rodin subsequently went on to become probably the greatest sculptor of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. And Fr. Eymard himself was later canonized, interestingly enough, on the 100th anniversary of Maria Rodin’s death.
For Catholics like Rodin, being touched by a connection to a saint like Eymard is not some sort of magic trick, whereby one is permanently insulated from committing sin, doubting the power of God, and the like. We need only look at the Apostles themselves, men who knew Jesus personally and witnessed His Resurrection, to see that. Sin comes with birth; sainthood is only achieved after death. The membership of the Church on Earth, or the “Church Militant” as it used to be called, is one made up exclusively of sinners, rather than saints.
In the case of Rodin, following his return to the art world the sculptor became something of a letch as he became more and more famous, living with his long-term mistress Rose Beuret (and mother of his son) at times; at other times he abandoned her to pursue other women. He had affairs with numerous famous and infamous women of his day, even as he continued to explore Christian themes in his art, including the creation of a stunning “St. John the Baptist” which was under-appreciated in its day, and probably his most spectacular work, “The Gates of Hell”, based on Dante’s poetry. Rodin eventually married the long-suffering Rose shortly before her death in 1917. He himself died a few months later, and the two were interred together beneath a cast of “The Thinker”.
However, the personal behavior of Rodin as a man, does not detract from the impact of Rodin the artist on consideration of eternal matters, such as salvation and damnation. Anyone who delves into the backgrounds of those great artists and writers who have reflected on the eternal truths of Christianity, will often not have to go very far before uncovering some rather ugly, sinful behavior or attitudes. This does not mean that Catholicism is any the less true, or any the less of an impact on these creative people personally. As the great Evelyn Waugh – himself no living saint – once admitted, “If I was not a Catholic, I’d be much worse.” And St. Paul tells us in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians that in this life, “we see through a glass, darkly,” and that we will not perceive the realities of existence in this world, bound as we are to temporal concerns and temptations.
Getting to know a saintly person is no guarantee that the heavens will part and we will have a vision of the hereafter. Even if we did receive such graces, they would be no guarantee against our falling into sin over and over again. In this case, Fr. Eymard probably saved Rodin from placing himself in the position of even graver sin than a combination of adultery and fornication, i.e., the likelihood of Rodin proving unable to embrace the chastity demanded of a vow of celibacy.
Father Eymard came to understand, as did Rodin himself, that the tortured young man who entered the Congregation at the age of 22 was not meant to spend the rest of his life as a priest, but rather as a professional artist. The gifts God had given to Rodin were to be shared with the world in ways which neither Rodin nor Ft. Eymard could foresee, but following God’s Will was more important than perceiving how things would play out. The art world owes this saintly man of the Church a tremendous vote of thanks.