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The New Life of Véronique

Icon of the Holy Face (Jim Forest/Flickr)

A friend and reader in France sends along news of a conversion to Catholicism: Véronique Lévy, the younger, ne’er do well sister of Bernard-Henri Lévy, has written a book revealing that in 2012, she became a Catholic. Here is a story about it in Le Figaro; the translation from the French of these excerpts below is mine, with the help of Google.

The story begins with Véronique, a daughter of one of the most prominent Jewish families in France (though one that is completely secular), first hearing about Jesus from a childhood playmate on the beach. Over the years of shared vacations, Coralie taught her Christian prayers. And then, when Véronique was twelve, her beloved maternal grandmother died, plunging her into a dramatic personal crisis that lasted for many years, and apparently included becoming promiscuous and wild. She was a hot mess. Once her father asked her in front of guests what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said, “A whore.” Her parents sent her to boarding school. There she saw the Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth, and remembered her childhood catechism. From the newspaper account:

Over twenty-five years, Jesus pursued her, inviting himself in her desultory existence. She tries to live: literary studies and nursing, theater classes, jewelry design, love stories; she eventually fails at or tires of everything. Something is missing without her knowing what. In recent times, those preceding her conversion, the landscape darkens. It was at night, in a Bastille bar which became her home, “accompanied by a horde of drifting misfits of the underworld,” misfits she likes because she knows that “in their excess, there is a quest, a longing for an absolute.” 

Responding to a phrase heard during one of her dreams — “I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” — she opened her body to the winds. Perched on high heels, draped in black, awaiting mad love. The darkness holds her tight: she is passionate about vampires. This is where the harvest of a strange man too attractive to be honest, leads her to the Saint Gervais church before disappearing. [Note: The sense sentence is clear, but I’m not precisely sure if the writer is speaking figuratively or literally; the original French is: “C’est là que la cueille un homme étrange et trop séduisant pour être honnête qui l’entraînera à l’église Saint-Gervais avant de disparaître.” — RD] When the father Pierre-Marie Delfieux, founder of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem installed in Saint-Gervais, located Véronique in a span of his church, she is in ruins. “In a few weeks, God has rebuilt me,” she said.

Her brother [BHL] agrees: “In the life of Véronique, she has been body-to-body with evil, the worst of it coming just before her conversion; there were also the grace and redemption: she became someone else. She redid her soul. This kind of spiritual adventure touches being in all its dimensions, from top to bottom.” The more she prayed, the more the new spirit became incarnate within her. She writes: “The Church is the hospital of broken souls, those whom psychiatry or psychoanalysis couldn’t help. It offers what the secular world has forgotten: forgiveness, redemption. It opens the way to liberty, unties the knots. The Eternal does not divide, He unites, names and puts things in order, and this order is goodness.”

Her conversion restores her. It first gave her back her damaged femininity — if you accuse the Church of being misogynistic, it guts you. It also returned her Jewish identity, in the sense of, “I was rootless: In this new beginning, I found my home.” Because the Gospels, she says, reveal the essence of Judaism. In her book, she calls out the Pharisees with the freedom of a daughter of Israel: “Their rejection of Christ was the unofficial act of a divorce from the holy vocation of witnessing to the people,” she writes. And again, “Did the globalization of salvation scare them?” The little sister of the author of The Testament of God [Note: a book in which BHL argues that the Hebrew Bible offers a guide to humanistic socialism. — RD] does not mince words.

She who had never read anything devours the Bible and the writings of the mystics, theologians, church fathers. When inspiration strikes, she calls her big brother, her bed full of pages. Did she not afraid of tiring him? She replies: “I appeal to the Promised Land that is within him.”

BHL is agnostic. He says: “Well, for me, the problem of the existence of God does not exist.”

The newspaper account says his sister’s conversion did not leave him indifferent, especially because of a disturbing coincidence. While she was converting without his knowledge, BHL was running around Europe, visiting museums as part of a project he was curating on truth and painting. He was particularly searching for examples of the “Veil of Veronica,” or “The Holy Face,” an image of Jesus that ancient Christian tradition says was imprinted on a cloth St. Veronica used to wipe the sweaty, bloody face of Jesus as he carried the cross to Golgotha. Whatever its origins, the Orthodox, who call it the Mandylion, consider the image to have been the first icon. The name “Veronica” comes from the Latin meaning “true image.” As the Le Figaro story points out, the Mandylion is an image that shatters the Jewish ban against representing God. In a separate interview, BHL says that the coincidence “struck me like a thunderbolt.”

More from the newspaper:

This coincidence was troubling, he acknowledges. As it happened, at the same time, their brother Philip  fell from the sixth floor on the day of his birthday. The diagnosis was hopeless. But while Bernard-Henri struggles with doctors, Véronique installs icons at his bedside, places miraculous medals under his pillow, and prays day and night. When she arrives at the hospital on Christmas morning, Philip awoke and breathed without assistance. She began to read the Gospel miracle when her brother burst into the room. Embittered by this demonstration of Catholic piety, accusing her of taking advantage of the weakness of the wounded, he rakes her over the coals. But he agreed to let Véronique leave the image of the Holy Face on the night stand and to pray — but only in silence.

A few months later, at the request of his sister, Philip attends a service in Saint-Gervais church. That day, mysteriously, the monks will sing the Shema Israel and sing the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew. The Levy family saw the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the flesh.

Amazing. So the difficult and broken and obscure baby sister of France’s most famous public intellectual sees something that he cannot, and responds to it. This is a very Christian story. The friend who passed this story on to me says it reminds him of Charles Featherstone’s stunning spiritual autobiography, and even the sad story of Robin Rinaldi, who sought the Absolute by devoting herself to sexual frenzy.

“Sometimes you ain’t got nobody and you want somebody to love/Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see His face.”


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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