A writer-philosopher in Jerusalem

By: Cécile Leca/ lpj.org - Published: October 14 Fri, 2022

A writer-philosopher in Jerusalem Available in the following languages:

Interview with Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, author of Oscar and the Lady in Pink and the play The Visitor, recently performed in Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM – On Wednesday, September 21st His Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, received at the Latin Patriarchate Mr. Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, a French-Belgian playwright, writer and director.

A first visit to the Holy Land. It was at the request of the Vatican that Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt visited the land where Christ was born, more than twenty years after he began his famous Cycle of the Invisible, a series of novels dealing mainly with different types of spirituality.

  • Why did you choose to come to the Holy Land now?

I didn’t choose, I was chosen. Lorenzo Faccini, who works at the Vatican, contacted me and suggested that I go to the Holy Land and come back with the journal of my trip. This is my very first visit to the country; I have had many opportunities to come before, but for many reasons it never happened. In general, it is difficult for me to find a time in the year to go abroad for several weeks at a time. This year, I only had one availability, in September.

  • Can you tell us more about this project?

Actually, no… simply because I don’t know yet what I’m going to write! Today I feel mostly emotions, some deeply personal, but I will talk about them nonetheless because I want my journey to be subjective – how could it be otherwise anyway? Because Jerusalem is not one city, it is several cities; it does not have one history, it is a bundle of histories, and we arrive there rich or poor of what we are. The book that I am going to write will therefore be a very personal, very existential, and also very spiritual journey, because my faith has been enriched since my arrival on this land. However, I don’t know exactly what form it will take. I always need books to have an organic form; coming from philosophy and theater, I like things to be constructed, even if they seem to be unstructured at first. There has to be a path, and in my case, that path is not yet marked out or finished.

  • You talk about your emotions. What has marked you since your arrival here?

First of all, being in a multi-religious place for the first time. When you go to Lourdes or to Mecca, you are in a mono-religious space. Here, immersed in this multi-religious space, my experience is very strong because I find myself both familiar and foreign. At the same time, I feel that the deep faith of a Muslim or of a Jew is close to my deep faith as a Christian. I am touched by our common points, by what we share, but also – and this is the second striking element – by the feeling of being a minority. Certainly, today in France, we, the believers, are beginning to feel like a minority. But here, I feel like a minority as a Christian. In France or in Belgium, despite the current evolution of society, I am immersed in a civilization formed by Christianity. Here, I am not. And this allows me to refresh my faith, to refocus it, to redefine it. I have never wondered so much about the difference between Jewish and Muslim faiths – because there are many! – than here, because my Christian faith is questioned, summoned to define itself. It has been strengthened by this. Here… I felt the presence of Jesus as never before in my life. My personal adherence to Christianity was forged through reading the Gospels. To be able to feel the presence of Christ not only in the texts but also physically, through the senses, this is what Jerusalem offers me and that I did not expect. I had anticipated all sorts of reactions but not this one. I was taken by surprise. Delighted.

  • You recently met the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Mgr Pierbattista Pizzaballa. What did you learn from this meeting?

I appreciated the rigor and the modesty of his speech. Rigor because he expressed himself with great depth, truly nourished by knowledge of texts, people and history. And, at the same time, his willingness to talk to other religions is something I don’t often see. I think that’s what we need. 

I also liked his way of avoiding frontal opposition, of dealing with problems in a flexible way, without confronting the other, without rushing or irritating him or her. He demonstrated a remarkable sense of diplomacy. I was very impressed by this meeting. And I’ll also mention his smile. I really appreciate a smile in someone who has faith, because to me, faith is joy. And I believe that the best way to bring the others to this faith is by spreading this light. 

  • What other encounters have brought you something?

There are so many… If I accepted the Vatican’s proposal to come here, it was partly because Mr. Faccini proposed to organize meetings. Not only with the Patriarch, but also with Fr. David Neuhaus, for example, who has a truly fascinating background… We spoke about the Old Testament, on which I work a lot. Since this text poses many problems of interpretation for me, I submitted to him some opinions which he took the time to listen to. He also suggested other ways of reading, for example, the book of Joshua, which I cannot understand at all. It was very interesting. I actually left with some of his articles.

These discussions that I was lucky enough to have were also enriched by my meeting with Vincent Lemire, a historian at the CNRS. I was already familiar with his books, but meeting him allowed me to discover another Jerusalem, one geographically and historically different. He wrote his thesis on the history of water in the Holy City – The Thirst of Jerusalem – and his work is truly remarkable. As someone who likes to look at things from a historical perspective, I really enjoyed talking to him. 

I also made other encounters, all rich, sometimes more personal, not only through my own network of acquaintances but also by chance. I am more deprived on the Muslim Palestinian side, but my stay is not yet over, so maybe opportunities will come up.

This reminds me of something Fr. Neuhaus said: the distinction between the territories and the border. I had come up with the idea that what makes Jerusalem suffer is territoriality, that is, the desire that a land belong to one or the other, the object of all the fights for centuries. But Fr. Neuhaus pointed out to me that the problem was not so much territoriality as the border that one seeks to impose on the other. At the time, I told myself that this was not only right and true, but also, perhaps, the path of the future.