Incoming dCEC director lectures on the “book that changed her life”

Professor Jennifer Newsome Martin of the Program of Liberal Studies and Department of Theology delivered the dCEC’s “Book that Changed my Life” lecture on April 15. The focus of the lecture was the 1911 book by French Catholic writer Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. Martin will begin her tenure as the next director of the dCEC on July 1, 2024.

Each event in the dCEC’s “Book that Changed my Life” series features “a prominent Notre Dame faculty member speaking on a book that changed his or her life and shaped the ways in which he or she was—and is—uniquely changed, challenged, and enriched by it.”

Martin’s pick, a long narrative poem, delves into the theological virtue of hope and holds a significant place within Péguy’s broader poetic trilogy.

The Portal of the Mystery of Hope is situated amidst a trio of interconnected works, flanked by The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc and the Mystery of the Holy Innocents. Martin highlighted the unique structure of Péguy’s poetic endeavor, emphasizing that the poem unfolds within a longer dialogue between a Franciscan nun named Madame Gervaise and St. Joan of Arc.

In her introduction to Péguy’s work, Martin told the audience, “This is a book that took me quite by surprise.” She recalled encountering Péguy while studying Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics, in which he elaborates on 12 theological styles representative of different aesthetic responses to divine revelation.

Péguy, Martin noted, was Balthasar’s 12th style: “For Balthasar, Péguy is the pinnacle of the Catholic theological aesthetic, insofar as in his prose and poetry he is able to unite together the aesthetic with the ethical.”

Describing her initial reaction to The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Martin recalled being immediately captivated: “​​I only got about 10 pages into reading the Portal of the Mystery of Hope when I realized I was in trouble.” She recalled being “enthralled by the simple rhythms of the poetry [and] the audacity with which the poet has God speak.” Martin further emphasized the transformative power of Péguy’s work, both intellectually and spiritually.

Reflecting on her encounter with Péguy’s work, Martin stated, “Péguy’s poem awakened in me the deepest echo, the most ancient echo.” Addressing the profound impact of Péguy’s poetic theology of hope, Martin remarked, “Once this word of hope has bitten into the believing or unbelieving heart, no pleasure will ever more be able to erase its teeth marks. That’s the thing about Péguy’s poetic theology of hope. It’s really not for the faint of heart. It’s got teeth, [it] leaves teeth marks.”

Commenting on Péguy’s portrayal of hope as a powerful force, Martin noted, “Though Péguy personifies hope in this poem as a little girl … there is nothing jejune or precocious about her. She is rather an extraordinarily powerful force, who hiddenly propels her older sisters, the virtues of faith and love.”

Martin continued, “Péguy, in the voice of Madame Gervais, marvels even at the crushing brutality of hope, for hope allows us no peace. She makes us start the same thing over 20 times; she makes us return over 20 times to the same place, which is generally a place of disappointment.”

Exploring Péguy’s transformative perspective on the world, Martin explained, “In Péguy, the temporal, physical, earthly, and finite, are transfigured. The spiritual is in the bodily, the eternal is in the temporal. This world, this reality, is the very place where God has pitched his tent. Péguy employs the humblest and most ordinary images with no apology either for their own unpretentiousness or their physicality, their fragility or their vulnerability.”

The event concluded with a Q&A session, during which attendees engaged with Martin in discussion about Péguy’s work and its relevance. Martin was asked about the relevance of Péguy’s life experiences, particularly his death in battle early in World War I. Martin noted that he was reported as saying, “For God’s sake, push ahead.”

A reception followed the talk, and free copies of The Portal of the Mystery of Hope were distributed to attendees, ensuring that Péguy’s insights into hope would continue to resonate with a wider audience.

Marcelle Couto is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology. She can be reached at

Photo Credit: Wm. B. Eerdmans

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