Proust: Death Comes for the Cathedrals

March 9, 2023

Death Comes for the Cathedrals
Marcel Proust
With an Afterword by Peter Kwasniewski
(Wiseblood, 2021) [1904]
45 p.

In 1904, there was a bill in draft by the French government that might have shuttered the nation’s churches and deprived Catholics of their liturgy and public worship. In the same year, at least partly in response to this challenge, two appreciations of French Catholicism were published by eminent men of letters, one on each side of the Atlantic. Strangely, neither author was a practicing Catholic. The first was Henry Adams, who, in Mont St Michel and Chartres, explored medieval French piety and the cultural and artistic achievements to which it gave birth, and the second was this, much briefer, essay by Proust.

Proust opposed the most radical provisions under discussion, and he did so because he too saw Catholic piety, in its many and various expressions, as an essential part of French culture. If, he argued, Catholicism in France were, at some future time, actually dead, and the cathedrals empty, the French government would be justified in funding an effort to revive the liturgy as a way of preserving and appreciating France’s heritage. The government should, therefore, not only not threaten to close the churches, but even be willing to fund the churches today to assist them in maintaining their still-living tradition.

His argument, as proffered, is primarily aesthetic and cultural in nature, not specifically religious. The Catholic liturgy is, for him, a magnificent cultural achievement:

Catholic ceremonies have an historical, social, artistic, and musical interest whose beauty alone surpasses all that any artist has ever dreamed, and which Wagner alone was ever able to come close to, in Parsifal — and that by imitation.

This is true, as far as it goes, but it is not robust, just as a flower is not robust without roots. Without faith and devotion, the flower of Catholic liturgy withers away. To his credit, Proust understands this and has no patience with his non-religious contemporaries who wanted to enjoy the fruits of Catholic faith while holding the faith itself in contempt:

One sees how many representatives, once they have finished passing anticlerical laws, go off on a tour of the cathedrals of England, of France, or of Italy, bring back an old chausable for their wife to turn into a coat or a door-curtain, draw up secularization plans in offices where hangs a photographed version of the Entombment, haggle over an altarpiece volet with an antique dealer, go out into the countryside to fetch church stall fragments to serve as umbrella stands in their parlors, and, on Good Friday, “religiously,” as they say, listen to the Missa Papae Marcelli.

Proust himself understands that authentic faith is necessary for the cathedrals of France to make sense, and he wants to sustain that faith even if he himself is not a believer:

One may say to churches what Jesus said to His disciples: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you”. These somewhat mysterious yet profound words become, with this new usage, an aesthetic and architectural axiom.

That support and good will would be offered to the Church by such a giant of French culture is nothing to sneer at. Yet, at the same time, for a believing Catholic there is something undeniably topsy-turvy about the affair. Maybe he was the sort of man who appreciated cake because he liked icing, or who was grateful for the sun because he liked sunsets. He instrumentalises the primary reality to serve the secondary. He makes the transcendental subject to the immanent. And this, ultimately, would destroy the thing he wants to celebrate no less than the heavy hand of government would.


The editors at Wiseblood Books understand this and have, therefore, paired Proust’s essay with a piece by Peter Kwasniewski. Kwasniewski shares Proust’s appreciation of the music and art and architecture that have been created to serve the Catholic liturgy, but he is a man for whom the faith is a living reality. He sees that the beauties celebrated by Proust are not only the fruits of faith, but also means to faith.

He writes movingly about a visit to Chartres cathedral that was for him the occasion for a kind of religious conversion:

I could see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the glory of Christendom — even at a distance of so many centuries. It was a consoling sight, an invigorating melody, a captivating smell, a foretaste of heaven, a touch that wounded as it healed. It roused awake the sensus fidei, the sensus catholicus in my soul. Somehow — I think for the first time — I had an overwhelming sense of the humble glory of being Catholic.

Chartres will do that to a person. As time went on, Kwasniewski began to wonder why he had never had that vision before, despite having attended Mass all his life in America, and, as he explored the history of Catholic liturgy since Chartres was built, or even since Proust’s time, he came to believe, to simplify a complicated story, that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were, and are, a big part of the problem.

To our everlasting shame, it was not radical Jacobins but surpliced churchmen who undertook the more barbaric work of destroying the traditional Mass that constitutes the single greatest work of art in the Christian West.

In the intervening years, Kwasniewski has become known in the English-speaking Catholic world as an advocate of the traditional Latin Mass, and while I would not defend his claim that Vatican II “destroyed” the Mass, I will admit to wincing with recognition when he says that the new Mass puts us in the position of trying “to reconstruct Chartres with Lego bricks,” and I would not hesitate to endorse his claim that “the Novus Ordo could never have inspired Romanesque or Gothic architecture,” at least as that Mass is normally celebrated in a typical parish. The new Mass really can be very beautiful and solemn, but it does so insofar as it imitates the old Mass, and the places where it does that consistently are few and far between.

The value of pairing these two essays, one a defence of the ancient Catholic Mass against its cultured despisers from a sympathetic agnostic, and the other a defence of the same Mass against its misguided or careless caretakers (who are also, in some cases, not excluding the Pope himself, despisers) by a passionate believer, is to put the current controversies over the Mass into a broader historical context, to emphasize that we have lost something and ought not to be complacent about it, and to stir up a desire to restore the Mass to its full splendour, all of which are worthy ends.

The physical book, from Wiseblood Books, is, as is fitting to its argument, quite beautiful. Though both essays are short, they are ornamented with gorgeous, full-page photos of French cathedrals.

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