When the celebrated scientist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, died in Paris in 1662, a curious document was discovered in his possession. Sewn into the lining of his coat was a single sheet of paper. The manuscript opened with the image of a cross, and, just below it, the date: “The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.” Then, “From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight, FIRE.”
What followed this word, set apart on its own line, was the record of an experience that marked Pascal for the rest of his life.
We don’t know exactly what happened on that “Night of Fire.” This document, which has come to be known as the “Mémorial,” is our only clue. What it tells us is that Pascal had a sudden encounter with God’s presence. He writes, “GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.”
This was not some vague sense of an overwhelming, impersonal Being-as-Such, nor a faraway creator unconcerned with our lives. It was, rather, the apprehension of a personal God who is profoundly interested in us, and who makes Himself known to particular people in history. In fact, the phrase “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” is an allusion to the passage in the Bible that documents another moment of encounter with supernatural fire: Moses speaking with God at the burning bush. And Pascal, one of “the philosophers and the learned” himself, distinguishes their natural knowledge about God from the intimate knowledge of God that can only come when God reaches out to us, Himself.
In an emotional crescendo, Pascal notes the impressions washing over him; “Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ.” And, later, “Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.”
The Mémorial is not a poem or a narrative. Its language is far too immediate, even stumbling — as if Pascal is searching for words to capture a phenomenon that completely escapes him. This is all the more remarkable coming from one of the premier scientific minds of the 17th century, a man who had made major developments in probability theory, invented an early form of calculator, and experimentally proved a vacuum can exist. Yet here was data that could not be so easily described.
That ecstatic data — whatever it was — led Pascal to the overwhelming apprehension of a single person: Jesus. He writes, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him.”
The title “Mémorial” is especially fitting. Not only did Pascal keep the paper on his person, the better to remember that night, but the text itself is a kind of meditation on memory. He opens by situating his experience on a precise date; he alludes to precise historical moments reported in Scripture; he closes with, “Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth. Not to forget your words. Amen.” Throughout, Pascal demonstrates an intense desire to remember eternity — by remembering a moment when it seemed, however briefly, to reach down and enter into time.
Not everyone has the kind of experience that Pascal had that night. But most of us will have moments, however fleeting, when we become aware of a deeper reality beyond what immediately appears to us. Anything could trigger it: a moment of particular beauty on a hike, the birth of a loved one, a story of heroic self-sacrifice. In Pascal’s case, he allegedly survived a carriage accident that should have killed him. The “Night of Fire” came shortly after that brush with death. Howsoever it comes to us, this perception of a deeper, timeless reality reminds us that this world can never truly satisfy our most profound longings.
It also reminds us that reason can only go so far. Pascal developed this idea at greater length in the fragmentary work that would be published after his death as the Pensées, where he presents the famous thought experiment known as “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal argues that reason cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God, but that we must still decide the question, which involves overwhelming stakes. If God does not exist, then we neither gain nor lose anything substantial whether we believe or not; we are just left in the transitory joys and miseries of life. But if He does exist, then the result of our belief determines the fate of our everlasting souls. It behooves us, then, to believe in His existence, by which we stand to gain everything.
The Wager is a way that reason can judge issues that lie beyond its own limits, or rather, a way that reason can self-limit in favor of other criteria, such as the experience of God or faith in revelation. As Pascal writes,
It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.
The urgency of the Wager is, in some way, an unfolding of the logic already latent in the Mémorial. For Pascal personally, his memory of the “Night of Fire” was the deciding factor that brought him to bet on God.
Pascal’s thoughts don’t just matter because he was an important 17th-century scientist. They matter because they present some of the same existential challenges that reverberate in our own day. We, too, have to face the question of whether our longings for eternity correspond to an eternal God — and if so, to find out who that God is. The Wager is Pascal’s answer to the first question, and the Mémorial is his answer to the second.
Pascal says to us as much as to the readers of his own time: “You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?”