I read a fascinating news snippet yesterday, which informed me about a famous French theme park (and it’s not Disneyworld in Paris). It’s called Puy-du-Fou. What first caught my eye was the mention of the late Professor Jérôme Lejeune, the saintly pro-life champion and renowned geneticist, who discovered the extra chromosome present in Down’s syndrome. It seems that the creator of the theme park, Philippe de Villiers, became a great friend of Lejeune who had visited the theme park in its early days. De Villiers has now made a generous donation of 50,000 euros to the Jerome Lejeune Foundation, which helps those with Down’s syndrome and their families. In making the donation, de Villiers stated that “I wanted to express my loyalty to a man who … left a profound personal mark on me: Professor Jérôme Lejeune.”
One of the celebrated features of Puy-du-Fou is its unique evening show, the “Cinescenie”, which retraces the history of the Vendée region of France, a region which suffered in a particularly harsh way during the time of Terror during the French Revolution, in which approximately 100,000 Vendéen inhabitants were killed. According to de Villiers, Lejeune, who realised that his research into Down’s syndrome was actually leading to the opposite of what he had intended, viz pre-natal testing for Down’s and the subsequent abortion of affected babies, pointed out to him the link between the wholesale slaughter of the population of the Vendée and the “new genocide” of the imperfect through abortion.
Describing his theme park, its founder said: “The Puy-du-Fou was based on the idea of transmitting a heritage … We remember past glory, the glory of all the generations that defended France and Christendom. It is not an amusement park … It is a flame of French hope. When I created the Puy-du-Fou I considered it to be a moral debt. I wanted to write a hymn to repay the debt I owe to my father and my mother, to the Vendée.” Speaking of the different scenes of France’s history through the centuries which are re-enacted at Puy-du-Fou and which attract many thousands of visitors every year, he explained his vision, showing how the moral and educational purpose of his creation distinguishes it from others: “Let us speak of our heritage of 1,000 years, of the poor who came before us … The builders of our cathedrals were so poor that no one even remembers their names … being French is to be a link in a chain, a cathedral sculptor who leaves his lifework without leaving his name…”
What impressed me about this statement is how counter-cultural it sounds: that to live well is not to seek endless entertainment and distraction; it is to honour one’s parents; to reflect on one’s (Christian) national history; to celebrate and memorialise; not the anarchy let loose by the Revolution or “la gloire” of Napoleonic military imperialism, but the anonymous builders of the great French Gothic cathedrals, such as Chartres or Amiens. Most of all it suggests humility – indeed the humility of the famous geneticist who deliberately spoke out against abortion at a prestigious international conference, knowing that it would cost him the Nobel Prize.
It made me think of a book that has been doing the rounds of the New York literary salons in recent months: The Road to Character by David Brooks. Brooks, a highly paid and successful columnist for The New Yorker, has a serious side; he knows that his public persona, of status and instant punditry, is at odds with the inner self, which yearns for meaning and a deeper purpose in life. His book is an analysis of the lives of a rather eclectic group of people, such as Eisenhower, General George Marshall, Dr Johnson, St Augustine and the novelist George Eliot who, in his view, overcame large early disadvantages and practised much self-discipline and self-sacrifice to become the impressive personalities of public record.
This theme is an ancient one and should be familiar in Christian circles, especially if you are acquainted with the writings of St Paul: that we are divided selves, with a constant inner battle between the old Adam and the person God is calling us to be. I do not impugn Brooks’ sincerity and conviction in his exploration of “character” (though he has probably become slightly more famous and rich since writing about it); he genuinely wants his readers to “emerge [after reading it] slightly different and slightly better”.
Yet the exemplars he chooses are historic, or at least people who grew up before the last war, whereas Jérôme Lejeune, a man of great love and generosity who gave his whole life to the cause of the most vulnerable members of society, those who could not defend themselves, only died in 1994. There are still people of character all around us to be studied and emulated, not necessarily well-known but, like those anonymous medieval stonemasons celebrated at Puy-du-Fou, leading self-effacing yet noble lives.