Editor’s Note: This piece was first published in 2017.
Sometimes my job sends me on flights. Sometimes the need to call on far-off family sends me on them. And often now they are smaller planes, from a regional airport. Some travelers don’t do as well with small planes. They react to the slightest bump or dip of turbulence with little yelps and moans. Some people giggle at them. And they giggle at themselves. But when those yelps and moans happen, I sometimes bring it to mind that the little dips and and jitters of a plane, the ones you want to discount with a giggle, would also be the first sign of real peril. So when the yelping comes from some passenger, I try to recall when I gave my last confession and say a prayer.
I do this because I’m haunted by the story of the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. The plane disappeared into the Atlantic. At first most people thought it was a bomb, an act of terrorism. But years later, when the bodies and the black box were retrieved, the real story came out. I remember reading five or six accounts about how it happened. The plane hit a column of ice crystals in the sky. The autopilot mode shut off and the alarms started going crazy. The air-speed sensors were malfunctioning. All the pilots had to do was hold the plane steady. In one minute or so, the problems caused by the ice column would have cleared themselves up and the alarms would have ceased.
But the pilots responded by pulling the nose up. Already at a high altitude, the plane, predictably, went into a stall. Pulling the nose up meant losing lift, and the plane began to fall like a rock. A rock pointed upward. The pilots needed to push the nose of the plane down, and dive, to achieve lift again. They kept pulling up and the harder they did, the faster they fell.
Years later, when the tapes of the pilots were released, and the true cause of the crash became known, all the great world tabloids — the Daily Mail, the New York Post — ran headlines of the final words of the pilot, blanked out: “F***, We’re dead!”
Back to that in a minute.
One hundred and thirteen years ago, Marcel Proust wrote an essay in Le Figaro titled “La Mort des cathédrals.” A couple of years ago, near the beginning of a year of terror attacks in France, a popular Catholic blog translated it into English. Proust was responding to a piece of anti-clerical legislation. He asked readers to imagine a future, centuries hence, in which the Christian religion had vanished from France, but the Gothic cathedrals — monuments to French genius — were still standing and admired. He wrote:
Then suppose that one day scholars manage, on the basis of documentary evidence, to reconstitute the ceremonies that used to be celebrated in them, for which men had built them, which were their proper meaning and life, and without which they were now no more than a dead letter; and suppose that for one hour artists, beguiled by the dream of briefly giving back life to those great and now silent vessels, wished to restore the mysterious drama that once took place there amid chants and scents — in a word, that they were undertaking to do what the Félibres have done for ancient tragedies in the theatre of Orange.
He asked: “Is there any government with the slightest concern for France’s artistic past that would not liberally subsidize so magnificent an undertaking? “
Well, in 2017, the rites of the Catholic religion aren’t yet entirely unknown in France. But I recently discovered that, contrary to Proust, there are limits to state subsidy. The French state does own the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and knows it is a major draw for tourists to Paris. The government kicks in about 2 million euros a year for basic maintenance. But pieces of the cathedral have been falling off it for years. Major repairs haven’t been tried since Marcel Proust was a teenager. The archbishop of Paris is now seeking about 100 million euros to do the work that needs to be done. And this fund-raising campaign is aimed partly at Americans.
I giggled at the solicitation for funds. Maybe the archbishop read one of those misleading Pew surveys that tout how “religious” America is compared with Europe. Maybe Americans are suckers for this kind of pitch: By contributing to the campaign to save Notre Dame, they’ve put an imaginary down payment on that long-dreamed-of trip to Paris.
There is a lot of gloom about Europe lately. A large Islamist terror cell tried to blow up the cathedral in Barcelona a few weeks ago, an as yet uncompleted modern masterpiece. Douglas Murray’s haunting and elegiac book The Strange Death of Europe dwells on how Europe lost its faith in Christ, and then lost faith in all the substitutes for Christianity: Fascism, Communism, human rights next, probably. Murray is not quite a believer, but he writes, “I cannot help feeling that much of the future of Europe will be decided on what our attitude is towards the church buildings and other great cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst.”
So what is the attitude to Notre Dame? Though the French state is its owner, it will not spend the money for necessary repairs. The local archbishop does not believe that he can raise the funds to keep this astounding testament to French history and genius locally, from the descendants of those who built it.
When I read the fundraising pitch I giggled, because my stomach contorted the way it does when a plane drops a little. But, surely, the pilot is still in control. It’s just the normal turbulence of secularism. And the slightly panicked whinny in the plea for money is just a silly overreaction. The plane will steady itself, right? I’m putting it out of my head.
Then again, Notre Dame is another rock that is pointed upward — and Notre Dame is falling down. I’m moving up my plans to go to Notre Dame, and maybe I will offer a confession there. Maybe more of us should, or someday the tabloids will record our last words about Notre Dame. “F***, we’re dead!”