Pascal’s Epiphany

This 17th-century mathematician embraced a life of faith following a heavenly vision that he called “a night of fire.”

- Posted on Mar 20, 2015

An artist's rendering of the 17th-century mathematician and man of faith, Pascal

Paris, France, 1662. A great man had died, one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists of his age, and his servant was going through his clothes one last time. Folding a doublet, he felt something in the lining. It made a crinkling sound, like paper.

He snipped a seam and removed a piece of parchment. Wrapped inside was a faded scrap of paper with notes scrawled on it. The servant recognized the handwriting. His master had written thousands of pages on arcane topics. But these two pieces of paper held an answer to a greater question, the heart of who Blaise Pascal was and a night that changed him forever.

Pascal defied expectations at a young age. He devised mathematical proofs as a teenager, including one that so astounded Descartes that the distinguished scientist refused to believe it wasn’t the work of Pascal’s father.

Pascal designed and built the first modern calculator. His work on probability, initially to investigate the odds of winning in games of dice, influenced the development of economics and the social sciences.

Yet in his later years, Pascal turned his mind toward a more impenetrable subject—God. In a now famous mental exercise that bears his name, Pascal’s wager, he wrote, “God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two. You must wager.”

What were the benefits of believing versus not believing? You couldn’t know for sure whether heaven existed or not, but Pascal came down strongly in favor of the former. “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” So did Blaise Pascal choose faith just because of some mental gymnastics?

Pascal grew up an observant Catholic in a tight-knit, well-off family, his father a prosperous government bureaucrat who, falling on the wrong side of the king’s minister, the all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu, lost his fortune.

Thanks to Pascal’s sister’s love of poetry and a recitation that charmed Richelieu, the father was restored to the king’s good graces and became the commissioner of taxes in Rouen. It was there that Pascal built his calculator, helping his father keep track of tax revenues.

The family was drawn to Jansenism, a rigorous vein of Catholicism that stressed a penitential life. Pascal had never been very healthy, suffering severe headaches, insomnia and crippling indigestion. No doubt a sharp turn to a strict spiritual observance offered some relief. But with him it didn’t last long.

His father died in 1651 and he fell into the life of the beau monde, with well-born Parisian friends. (He helped the gamblers among them with his mathematical turn of mind. He even invented a precursor of the roulette wheel.)

In 1654, Pascal’s life took its dramatic turn. No more idle evenings with his gambling friends, no more languorous weekends in the country, no more math. Even when the famed mathematician Pierre de Fermat suggested that the two of them meet, Pascal declined, saying he was too sick to “sit a horse, nor even travel by coach more than three or four leagues.”

As for their shared passion, he added, “I am now involved in studies so far removed from mathematics that I can hardly remember what that subject is all about.”

On his mind was the life of faith, and what it meant. He wanted to show how reasonable it was to embrace something that couldn’t be explained by reason. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not,” he wrote.

Sometimes his arguments ran several pages; others were short, tantalizing sentences on scraps of paper. Perhaps he expected to arrange all of them into some long argument that would move forward step-by-step, but that job would be left until after his death, when editors compiled his thoughts in his masterwork, the Pensées.

Pascal gave to charity and would have liked to serve the poor, but his health kept him from leaving the house—so he gave it to a homeless family and moved in with his sister.

By the end he couldn’t sleep or eat, could barely drink, but still he wrote, stressing the mystery of faith: “God is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being indivisible and without limits, he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is.”

The parish priest was called and Pascal received the last rites “with tears rolling down his cheeks,” according to his sister. His last words echoed his renewed faith: “May God never abandon me!” Biographers believe it was stomach cancer that took his life, on August 19, 1662. He was only 39 years old.

Pascal’s contemporaries might have wondered what had caused his transformation. Was it all just philosophizing that had turned him to God? Was that the point of all those pages of writing?

Then the servant found those two documents sewn into the lining of the doublet. One a hastily written note, the other meticulously inked on parchment. Together, they formed Pascal’s account of an unforgettable night, Monday, November 23, 1654. He was in his Paris apartment when he had a vision, what he called “a night of fire.”

“From about half-past ten in the evening,” he wrote, “until about half-past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace. The God of Jesus Christ.”

What a feeling it was. “O just Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy,” he wrote. “This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God and J.C. whom you have sent.”

He promised to become someone different. “May I never be separated from him. One preserves oneself only by way of the lessons taught in the gospel. Renunciation total and sweet.” And he quoted Ruth’s words in the Bible: “Your God will be my God.”

Did God appear to him? What was the fire? His notes didn’t make it clear. What is clear is that an encounter with the divine had informed the last eight years of Pascal’s life—and the Pensées.

These notes were written not in the dazzling prose that made him famous, but were clearly meant for himself only, hidden in his clothing. The story they told was beyond reason, beyond any logical argument. Whatever he witnessed that night, God’s existence became more to him than just a wager. Pascal had proof—and he kept it close to his heart.

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