Michel Houellebecq, France’s best-known contemporary novelist, published his novel “Submission” in 2015. The novel takes place in 2022, when the candidate of an Islamist party wins the presidential election and starts dismantling the democratic order in France.
The book was released Jan. 7, 2015, the same day two Islamic terrorists attacked the offices of the satiric weekly “Charlie Hebdo” and massacred 12 people. The magazine had published irreverent cartoons and jokes about the prophet Muhammad.
In Houellebecq’s dystopian novel, the country of Joan of Arc and Thérèse of Lisieux starts to become a Muslim theocracy. The main character, Francois, an alcoholic, womanizing college professor, decides to flee Paris in terror. He ends up in Rocamadour, the site of one of the oldest sanctuaries to Our Lady.
The protagonist says: “Early in my stay I fell into the habit of visiting the Chapel of Our Lady. Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin – the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe.”
After many visits, the character gives up. He realizes that he has lost the faith he is now trying to recover: “The next morning, after I filled up my car and paid at the hotel, I went back to the Chapel of Our Lady, which now was deserted. The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot.”
I had been thinking about “Submission” since the fire that damaged Notre Dame Cathedral three weeks ago. The novel has been criticized as anti-Muslim. I see it as a reflection of the fate of France in a post-religious world. Francois, a symbol of his country, knows that going back to the faith of his ancestors is the only way to rebuild his life. At the same time, he realizes that he is no longer capable of believing. Francois goes back to Paris and fakes his conversion to Islam.
The fire of Notre Dame could be seen as a metaphor for the dechristianization of France – and the Western world, for that matter. Certainly, France has the necessary resources and the expertise to rebuild the temple. But do we have the faith that built it in the first place? Do we need – or deserve – Notre Dame without the faith of the many generations of builders that erected the beautiful Gothic cathedrals from Spain to Poland during medieval times?
Do we realize – as Francois does – that the idea of France without the Christian faith is a chimera? Are the French capable of doing what Francois could not – returning to their Christian roots?
These questions, so relevant to the French people today, are the same questions we are supposed to ask ourselves during Eastertide, the joyful season that started on Easter Sunday and finishes on Pentecost Sunday. We are called to reflect in the very reason of our faith – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to rebuild the temples of our souls.