Penances and Mathematics: the Life and Death of Blaise Pascal

The Death Mask of Blaise Pascal

My wife is pregnant with baby number six and we are currently debating the name “Blaise” after Saint Blaise of Armenia – the patron saint of throat health. My wife likes the name “Blaise,” but I’m not entirely persuaded.

In doing research, I started reading more about Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623 – August 19, 1662). Blaise Paschal was a Catholic mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher. He is sometimes credited as a “pre-inventor” of the computer (I have no idea as to how to verify this – anybody want to help me out?).

In 1654, Pascal had a mystical experience and abandoned his scientific pursuits. He recounts his encounter with God in this way: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars. I will not forget thy word. Amen.”

Subsequently, he became a Jansenist – a form of Catholicism later condemned as heretical. Jansenism was extremely rigorous, emphasizing penance and predestination. It held that only a very few were worthy to receive Holy Communion, and that only a very few were saved. Jansenism emphasized God’s justice and de-emphasized God’s mercy. Jansenists also seem to have been mildly opposed to devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are sometimes called “Calvinistic Catholics.” (I would add that Paschal was said to pray the Holy Rosary every day which means that he didn’t fall under the Jansenist error of opposition to Marian devotions.)

Toward the end of his life, Pascal increased his mortifications. He would not eat fruit, because its taste was too sensuous. He wore a cincture of nails which he drove into his flesh at the slightest thought of vanity. At this time he is reputed to have said, “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.”

He died at the age of thirty-nine, after having received the Holy Eucharist in a state of ecstasy, crying out as he sat up in bed: “May God never abandon me!” He likely died of stomach cancer. He was a brilliant and tormented man who died young.

To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of Blaise Pascal. I’m all for penance and devotion, but Jansenism is just plain creepy. T. S. Eliot called him “a man of the world among ascetics, and an ascetic among men of the world.”

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