About a year ago I did a piece on the French scientist and engineer Adhémar Jean Claude Barré de Saint-Venant, whose combination of scientific prowess and Christian conviction made for an interesting career in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary France. When he died in 1886, Karl Pearson, as well-known an enemy of Christianity as, say, Richard Dawkins is now (albeit with far more class), had this to say about him:
Saint-Venant stood out for the younger mathematicians of the English schools as a link between the past and the present. Intimately related to the great period of French mathematical physics he had continued to produce down to our own day, and we felt him to be as real a personality as Helmholtz and Thomson…He took up elasticity where Poisson left it, a mathematical theory, he leaves it one of the most powerful branches of mathematics applied to physics and practical engineering; not a small amount of this transformation is due to his researches or indirectly to his influence.
Turning to the personal character of the man, we find in him the essential characteristics of the scholar and the student, his truest modesty, the complete absence of self, the single-minded devotion to his study. Saint-Venant, whose researches on elasticity undoubtedly far surpass those of Navier and Clebsch, is yet content to appear as their Editor. But what an editing it is. The original text is hidden and disappears, almost as completely as Peter the Lombard’s Sententiae in a mediaeval commentary–nay, he even praises Clebsch for inventing a term in 1862, which he himself had first proposed in the privately distributed lithographed sheets of 1837. Ever ready with advice and assistance, perfectly free from jealousy, Saint-Venant was a typical scholar.
Part of the “class” Pearson exhibits is an appreciation of the virtue of humility. That virtue has gone out of fashion, replaced by the ubiquitous arrogance we see in so many talking heads in and out of academia. Such an attitude is dangerous in the sciences; today’s absurdity is tomorrow’s reality.
Not all of Saint-Venant’s work product was scientific. One exception was his posthumously published work St. Bénézet, Patron des Ingénieurs. The lives of saints is generally the work of other saints (St. Athanasius’ Life of Anthony is a good example) but Saint-Venant’s work comes from someone whose main claim to fame was in mechanics and not the faith. His choice of saints, however, was definitely tied up in his life’s vocation.
St. Bénézet (the Provençal version of Benedict) was born around 1163. While tending his mother’s sheep, he received a vision from Jesus that he should build a bridge at Avignon. He promptly went to Avignon, where he was met with scorn by the bishop and a receptive audience with the mayor. The bridge construction began according to Bénézet’s specification (and with Bénézet doing part of the work) but he died before its completion, and was buried in the bridge’s chapel. Part of the bridge, the famed “Pont d’Avignon” is still standing, and of course the Popes which lived there during their captivity had use of same. Bénézet’s work was not unique: it was the first of several religious brotherhoods dedicated to the building and maintenance (with the offering plate at the bridge itself) of bridges and other public works.
Saint-Venant, in good Catholic fashion, was devoted to St. Bénézet, a logical patron saint for him. But he had a larger idea. Beyond wanting to promote devotion to the saint, his concept was this:
Our profession, which, by God’s providence, was also his, is not only a glorious profession, but it is something consecrated and holy. It is a work of active charity, embracing travellers and traders and missionaries of every kind; but more than that, benefiting even the sedentary portion of the population, for lack of proper communication breeds famine, and the dearth of excess of water bring in their train loss of life, devastation and impoverishment.
He also expressed the wish that his nation, then and now very secular in emphasis, might come back to its Christian faith.
One of the great political disputes we have these days is whether the state is the best purveyor of public benefit. I draw that broadly; the usual debate centres around what we call these days “entitlements”, and right at the moment the Obamacare fiasco has focused attention on that part of it. But behind direct benefits to people are the indirect ones, and what we call transportation infrastructure is certainly a part of that. As Saint-Venant notes, the lack of such an infrastructure will bring great suffering to the population.
The collapse of the Roman Empire signalled the end of the state’s support for many things. The Church, the only institution broad enough to carry out large-scale projects of any kind, ended up taking over state activities such as civil marriage and public works. Mediaeval Europe, divided feudally, was in no place for these to be carried out by the “civil” authorities in place. Unless the Church got them done, they often were left undone, and that was the case for large-scale public works. Unfortunately there were too few St. Bénézets to carry out the work.
From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to modern times, the whole history of Europe can be seen as the emerging nation-states wresting the role of God from the Church to themselves, which is a major explanation as to why Europe is so secular now. Infrastructure construction and maintenance became “public works” carried out by the state either centrally, locally or both, with fitful privatisation.
Today we know that the mediaeval Church isn’t the only institution laggard in its support of infrastructure construction and maintenance. The reasons behind this are complex, relating to a falling birthrate and a society too satisfied with its present state and too short-sighted to see that it’s perfectly capable of blowing the lead it has. But for those of us who actually work in the transportation field, we need to ask ourselves the question: is what we do a ministry?
Christians routinely struggle with the concept that their secular work is a vocation, because Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox alike are prone to the concept that the only people really called in a special sense are those who enter the priesthood, religious life or ministry. Without going into the whole business of laity ministries, those of us who are involved in public works are, in fact, doing a ministry in the same sense as those who do relief work. That’s true in spite of the fact that we get paid for it (most of the time; deadbeats are a serious problem in our industry).
That being the case, it’s our duty, not only to our employer and the public but to God, to perform our task, be that design, construction, inspection or maintenance, to the best of our ability and with integrity. That’s not always easy in the complex legal, regulatory and economic environment we work in, but that’s the task in front of us, and with God’s help we can do it.
Saint-Venant himself envisioned that engineers would adopt St. Bénézet as their patron saint (thus the title of his work) and call upon him for intercession. In a passage that echoes Bossuet, he said that “By his (Bénézet’s) intercession we shall obtain from God at the right moment more things and better things than we have ever dared to ask”. The intercession of the saints in heaven is a controversial subject. I am inclined to think that we need to cultivate intercession among the saints on earth to the One who assured us before his Passion, death and Resurrection that “In truth I tell you, he who believes in me will himself do the work that I am doing; and he will do greater work still, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12 TCNT)
With all the tight places we find ourselves in during the realisation of transportation infrastructure, we’ll need all the help we can get.