The Rue de la Ferronnerie is a small, two-block long street in Paris on the right bank, less than a quarter of a mile southeast of the Église Saint-Eustache. On that street on May 13, 1610, François Ravaillac of Angoulême committed tyrannicide. A fervent Catholic, he confessed himself and received from a monk a small bag containing fragments of the cross on which his Saviour was crucified. His blow was so powerful that the knife blade exploded his victim’s heart, killing him instantaneously. Ravaillac was tortured, but took full responsibility for his act, was torn apart by horses and his body burned in a public square. Ravaillac, described as a man tortured by visions, felt that God had chosen him to liberate France from the Protestant doom.
Once there was a great king of the Kingdom of France. He came to a throne torn by religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestant Reformers. Christian belief has two faces. For some, it is a vision of angels and paradise; the promise of a sweet golden eternity to redeem our sufferings on earth, enfolded in the arms of the Creator. And for others, it is a vision of hell; of cruelty, suffering and pain eternal, which dwarfs our own in time if not in scale; a vision where surcease is reward enough.
Henry of Navarre was one of these Reformers. Whether he believed in the suffering of the cross, the rewards of heaven, or the fear of hell, we don’t know. We know only that he watched his fellow believers kill and be killed. Christian murdered Christian. Like the Shi’ites and the Sunni, the thin edge of a difference was razor enough to split the believers. He believed that the Kingdom of France had a heart great enough to encompass both Catholics and Protestants. Navarre became King Henry IV and determined to end these wars. He did not insist on the doctrine of Cuius regio, eius religio, “Whose realm, his religion”. Instead, Henry proclaimed freedom of religion with the Edict of Nantes and Protestants gained the right to practice their religion. Henry brought his world to peace. And in a tiny corner of the great Kingdom – in a land of battles long fought over religious and dynastic successions – a man fell asleep in a church.
In the Église Saint George in Vivonne, a village south of Poitiers, Ravaillac belatedly discovered his purity. He wondered what he might accomplish for his God, in the name of his God. He sat silent in this dark Romanesque church, listening, waiting for an answer, until he fell asleep. In the quiet and dark, he dreamed. He awoke from his dream and above him, recessed on the wall of a window, was the image of a hunter with a bow, another of a falcon with torn prey in its mouth, and Ravaillac knew their meaning. And so the naked blade was raised to bury itself in the breast of Navarre.
François Ravaillac assassinated King Henry IV of France.
Without a champion, the tide of religious tolerance in France turned. The Edict of Nantes was revoked. 400,000 Huguenots left the Kingdom for the New World. Catholic power was consolidated by the ruthless and capable hands of Cardinal Richelieu who wielded that power for Louis XIII. This led to the absolutism of Louis XIV and Mazarin, and shortly after, La Deluge. The Revolution.
This time the French were not content to knock off the hands and faces of the saints and idols, but they pulled down the very house of God itself. The purity of Ravaillac destroyed even itself.
We carry inside us these two great strains of purity and fanaticism. Like twin pairs of a DNA helix, they twine and intertwine in new combinations, but always, somewhere at its heart, a Ravaillac dreams his dreams and unsheathes a blade; a blade that leads us inexorably to absolutism and self-destruction. Polarization forces us to choose between these two strains, and that choice has its price and we have yet to learn the price that we will pay.
And who knows that in some small church a true believer sleeps on his bench, visions whirling in his head, dreaming Ravaillac’s dream.