Through my college days in France I was an agnostic. Strange as it may seem to the reader, I graduated without having ever seen a Bible. To say that the education I received proved of little help through front-line experiences as a lad of twenty in World War I would amount to quite an understatement. 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? The inadequacy of my views on the human situation overwhelmed me. One night a bullet got me, too. An American field ambulance saved my life and later restored the use of my left arm. After a nine-month stay at the hospital, I was discharged and resumed graduate work.

Needless to insist that the intellectual climate had changed as far as I was concerned. Reading in literature and philosophy, I found myself probing in depth for meaning. During long night watches a few yards from the German trenches, as I looked at swollen bodies dangling in the barbed wires, I had been strangely longing for …—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 use. And so, as I went on reading for my courses, I would file passages that spoke 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. The day came when I put the finishing touch to “the book that would understand me,” speak to my condition, and help me through life happenings. A beautiful, sunny day it was. I went out, sat under a tree, and opened my precious anthology. As I went on reading, however, a growing disappointment came over me. Instead of speaking to my condition, the various passages reminded me of their context, of the circumstances of my labor over their selection. Then I knew that the whole undertaking would not work, simply because it was of my own making. In a rather dejected mood, I put the little book back in my pocket.

At that very moment, my British-born wife—who, incidentally, knew nothing of the project I had been working on—appeared at the gate of the garden pushing the baby carriage. It had been a hot afternoon. She had followed the main boulevard only to find it too crowded. So she had turned to a side street which she could not name because we had only recently arrived in the town. The cobblestones had shaken the carriage so badly that she had wondered what to do. Whereupon, having spotted a patch of grass beyond a small archway, she had gone in with the baby for a period of rest. At this point in her story, she had a moment of hesitation. As she resumed her account, it turned out that the patch of grass led to an outside stone staircase which she had climbed without quite realizing what she was doing. At the top, she had seen a long room, door wide open. So she had entered. At the further end, a white-haired gentleman worked at a desk. He had not become aware of her presence. Looking around, she noticed the carving of a cross. Thus she suddenly realized that this was a church—a Huguenot church hidden away as they all are, even long after the danger of persecution has passed. The venerable-looking gentleman was the pastor. She walked to his desk and heard herself say, “Have you a Bible in French?” He smiled and handed over to her a copy which she eagerly took from his hand; then she walked out with a mixed feeling of both joy and guilt. (I should confess at this point that I had once for all made the subject of religion taboo in our home.) As she now stood in front of me, she meant to apologize. This was the way things had happened … She had no idea … But I was no longer listening:

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“A Bible, you say? Where is it? Show me. I have never seen one before!”

She complied. 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 undescribable warmth surging within … I could not find words to express my awe and wonder. And all of a sudden, the realization dawned upon me: This was “the book that would understand me.” I needed it so much that I had attempted to write my own—in vain. I continued to read deep 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 to me. The providential circumstances amid which the Book had found me now made it clear that while it seemed absurd to speak of a book understanding a man, this could be said of the Bible because its pages were animated by the Presence of the Living God and Power of his mighty Acts. To this God I prayed that night, and the God who answered was the same God of whom it was spoken in the Book. A decisive insight flashed through my whole being the following morning as I probed the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

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I still proceed on the old theme of “the Book that understands me,” the main difference being that I now capitalize the B. My devotional life springs from my conversations with Holy Writ. Whenever I am confronted with difficulties, with a puzzling situation, or with a call on which more light is needed, I turn to a set of similar circumstances as presented in Scripture. Or it may be that as I read the Bible as a normal, daily practice, a passage “jumps at me” and lights up the way I must go. Whatever the case may be, I pray over the page, waiting upon Him who speaks through it in a joyful eagerness to do his will. I have learned to beware of putting too much trust in the immediate feelings that may thus be awakened in me, for I know that at such a time, first impressions may amount to mere wishful thinking. Rather, I allow life to take its course, in this way emulating the faith of the Centurion. What is it that the Lord is trying to show me as actual situations develop? Thus I learn to “read” daily happenings in the light of Scripture. The margins of my Bible are marked with dates together with brief reminders of occasions when such a passage “spoke” to me and directed me.

An unexpected result of this approach has been its effect on whatever amount of scholarship I may be credited with. Thus it has sharpened my sensitiveness to the working of the Word in the achievements of such outstanding Christians as Pascal. Some of my students have caught the vision and proceeded upon it. It profoundly moves me to see how the faltering steps I have taken in the light of Scripture have become in their case a firm, steady walk. I think, for example, of some admirable young scholars who are interpreting patterns of Christian thought and life in great writers such as Milton, Bunyan, and Shakespeare. So true it is that any real achievement generally points to an enlightened insight of youth brought to fruition by maturity.

Theological hairsplitting may well suggest to some that a dividing line should be drawn between the scholarly and the devotional approaches to the Bible. All I can say is that things have not worked out this way in my case. My experience of the Bible, unsophisticated though it has continued to be, has actually inspired and directed the best of my efforts as a liberal-arts student.

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Voice For Today

Samuel, is that you

Do you hear nighttime voices, too?

Lie down, lad, listen and obey the One

Whose torments augur judgment on my day.

The Word of hope, before I die

May come to you. Alas, tis Hophni

That I hear within the sacred door

Carousing with some drunken whore,

And Phinehas, with unctious, cadenced

Beat, intoning prayers and cheating

On the offered meat.

What need more sin to weigh?

Samuel, what does Jehovah say?


Dr. Emile Cailliet held professorships in French literature at Scripps College, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School, and Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut) before going to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was Stuart Professor of Christian Philosophy until he became emeritus professor in 1960.

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