Book Review: “Death Comes for the Cathedrals” by Marcel Proust (With New Translation by Dr. John Pepino) ~ Liturgical Arts Journal

In the history of the Church, episodes of storm or frost are only too common which destroy the blossom in our orchards and blight their rich promise of fruit.  To anyone who has traveled through Europe and seen the cathedrals — today empty shells with no congregation or clergy — this book will resonate with a strong message. 

Book Review: “Death Comes for the Cathedrals” by Marcel Proust (With New Translation by Dr. John Pepino) ~ Liturgical Arts Journal

In the history of the Church, episodes of storm or frost are only too common which destroy the blossom in our orchards and blight their rich promise of fruit.  To anyone who has traveled through Europe and seen the cathedrals — today empty shells with no congregation or clergy — this book will resonate with a strong message.  

The splendor of the Gothic cathedrals of Gaul are the greatest embodiment and achievement of French culture.  With a wisdom deeper than ours, the medieval child understood this clearly.  In the Middle-Ages history was seen as the progressive accomplishment of God’s saving design and the Incarnation was seen as its centre and the key to its meaning.   The cathedrals were not built as museums, but were intended to be the center of a living liturgical tradition that had maintained its roots in the rich soil of tradition.       

Our good friends at Wiseblood Books have published a classic French book in English with a new translation that touches on the subject.  In my opinion this short and interesting book is a must on every Catholic shelf.  The title is Death Comes for the Cathedrals (La Mort des Cathédrales), an essay by Marcel Proust that was first published in Le Figaro (1904).  Although Proust was a lost soul, he obviously had immense respect for the Gothic which he described as, “probably the highest, and unquestionably the most original, expression of French genius” and the sacred rites which he described as having a “historical, social, artistic, and musical interest whose beauty alone surpasses all that any artist has ever dreamed.”  

The fresh new translation and introduction are by Dr. John Pepino, a very well respected professor at the FSSP Seminary in Denton, Nebraska.  The afterword is by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, a Catholic intellectual who is well known for his brilliant commentaries and insight into the subject of the liturgical praxis of the Classical Roman Rite.  The book is graced with beautiful images of Chartres Cathedral, recognized by art historians as the epitome or high point of French Gothic.  

Without giving too much detail away, the gist of the story is the author addressing the political and religious debate of that time concerning the so-called Briand Bill.  This was a controversial parliamentary proposal that once imperiled the fate of the cathedrals of France.  Proust draws a clear picture of the irreplaceable beauty of the cathedrals and the importance of their living liturgy of the ages as a spiritual inheritance of Medieval France and of all humanity.  Pending preservation, the loss of the liturgical rites have thus far since the 1960’s left France and the world more impoverished, making this book in some ways a prophetic voice into the future.  

Indeed, Proust gives prophetic voice to his own assertion that one day France may be transformed into a land emptied of the life that once inhabited the cathedrals in past ages, making them simple museum objects frozen in time.  This is where we have arrived today, evidenced by the empty cathedrals across the land in Amiens, Reims, Lyon, Mechelen and everywhere else in the former Kingdom of France and in Europe.  

Without doubt, the opening first paragraphs of the book propose a thesis that is one of the most interesting I have ever heard or though of.  In short, it is prophetic.  What if?  Herewith is the first paragraph by which I was immediately hooked:

“Suppose for a moment that Catholicism had been dead for centuries, that the traditions of its worship had been lost. Only the unspeaking and forlorn cathedrals remain; they have become unintelligible yet remain admirable. 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 life back 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 theater of Orange” (Death Comes for the Cathedral, p. 7).  

From the translator in the introduction, Dr. John Pepino writes: “The text we here present holds an eerie, even uneasy, relevance to our own time. Marcel Proust’s 1904 warning that the forces of early-twentieth-century freethinking might (in just sixty years, it turned out) snuff out the liturgy for which the great cathedrals, indeed all the churches, of France were consecrated amounts to an uncomfortable prophecy. The lyricism with which he describes the then-threatened rites and liturgical texts makes us, in the twenty-first century, wince […] The cathedrals of France and the traditional liturgy of the Roman rite are the spiritual patrimony of the Church; of this, there is no doubt. But what Proust is here saying, what Agatha Christie and a host of English-language non-Catholic intellectuals and artists said to Paul VI in 1971, what Chaim Potok wrote in his Asher Lev novels (and his own painting) on the crucifix, is this: the material, artistic, and religious aspects of Catholicism are part of the patrimony of all humanity and ought to be preserved and defended for that reason as well” (Death Comes for the Cathedral, pp. 1, 5).  

The brilliant afterword by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski proposes the question of whether life may yet return to the cathedrals?  This is an important question because it could still go either way.  He tells an inspiring story of his first visit to Chartres Cathedral in 2015, putting Gothic beauty in perspective in the timeline of ecclesiastical arts.  He writes of the liturgical rites of old that filled the cathedrals: 

 “As Pope Benedict XVI lucidly declared, the Church’s liturgical tradition does not need the permission of any pope in order to exist or to continue to exist. The classical Roman Rite is a monument of tradition that can never be abolished, abrogated, or abandoned. The Holy Spirit Who formed this rite in the womb of Holy Mother Church would never allow such a betrayal, nor would the devoted children of that same Mother tolerate it. Cathedrals may rise and fall, revolutions ignite and subside, but this divine worship will endure until the Parousia. Proust’s marveling words will never fail to be true somewhere on the face of the earth, whether it be Chartres or a cabin in the woods where a hunted priest hides: ‘It still does exist and has not really changed since the great century when the cathedrals were built.’  Every age is indebted to cultural figures like Marcel Proust and Agatha Christie who have the good sense to protest ever-renewed assaults on Western civilization and the Catholic Church. But a still greater need there will always be, and a greater reward, for stubborn believers who cling to tradition and give it continual life. They will be found adoring Host and Chalice elevated above the altars of a former or future Christendom, adoring the Victor who reigns beyond the veil after all His enemies have licked the dust (Psalm 71:9). The Traditional Mass survives not by the sufferance of its overlords but by the ever-renewed love of the little ones in Christ, who, however unworthy, join centuries of pilgrims to Chartres, to the Virgin, and to the Mass, threefold image of a single heavenly Jerusalem” (Death Comes for the Cathedrals, p. 43).  

In concluding, I sincerely hope readers will seek out and purchase this fine book.  It will no doubt have a profound effect on different readers for different reasons.  For me the message that hit home was one of metanoia, of conversion and change in the face of the greatness of the genius of both the Gothic and the Roman Rite, each an outstanding example of beauty and the theophany of the highest possible absolute meaning and the presence of the divine.  
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