Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, June 21, 2018

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Msgr. David Q. Liptak

The enigmatic disappearance of the French aviator, novelist, and mystic, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, during World War II, on a night flight over the Mediterranean Sea, seems at last closer to solution.

On 11 April of this year, the International section of the New York Times ran the story that the identity of the German pilot who had long feared that he had shot down a P-38 with French colors near Marseilles – an event he had recorded in his diary – was made public. The German, only 22 at the time but 86 now, became heartsick when he first suspected what he had done; he had been a devotee of Saint-Exupéry’s artistry from 1929, when he read Southern Mail, based on the famed writer’s assignment flying the Casablanca-Dakar route. During World War II Saint-Exupéry was in his mid-40s, not in the best of health, and constantly in pain from fractures sustained in many years of flying.


The first solid clue, according to the Times, appeared in 1998; fishermen found a silver bracelet in their nets; it was marked with the name of the author, plus the name of his New York publisher. This led to concentration of the search – on and off for years – for the P-38, whose badly damaged frame divers finally discovered. This find led to further exploration of the sea area, resulting in sections of marine wreckage including a Daimler-Benz V-12 aircraft engine, which once powered a Messerschmitt fighter stationed in southern France. Consultation with Luftwaffe veterans eventually (after hundreds of telephone inquiries) pointed directly to a German pilot now residing in Wiesbaden, who immediately admitted his responsibility for the tragedy.


For one thing, the news brings to mind again a truly great writer, whose most popular books are, of course, The Little Prince and Night Flight. The Little Prince (made into a film in 1974), about an interstellar voyager, is unquestionably a deep statement of faith. “What’s essential,” the Prince says, “is invisible to the eye.” (I often cite this sentence in my Lenten homily on Jesus’ curing the man born blind.)


Night Flight is in many ways “a novel of rare beauty and power,” as one critic has put it. Flying through the darkness, the pilot remains almost in communion with the countless men, women, and children so far below, whose presence is detected and who perhaps don’t even surmise that “the measure of their hopes” or of their desires, “carries so far, out into the vastness of the night that hems them in. They think … [the people below, in villages, on farms] that their lamp shines only for … [their] little table; but, from fifty miles away, someone has felt the summons of their light, as though it were a desperate signal from some lonely island, flashed by shipwrecked men toward the sea.” A commercial pilot, to whom I once gave a copy of the book, readily agreed.


Saint-Exupéry’s books, read with understanding, can lead us closer to ultimate Truth and Beauty, who is God. One can scan the heavens in a purely mechanical manner, as a complexity of physical laws and cosmic forces. Or, more profoundly, we can view the stars and the skies, and all within them, as a revelation of God’s Beauty, all set in motion for love of the summit of all creation; namely, the human person.


Rereading certain passages of Night Flight, my thoughts turned readily to Dante’s reflections in the supreme poem of Christianity, The Divine Comedy. In Canto I of the Paradiso, Dante is enlightened by the Lady Beatrice, who explains that all things seek their true place, and man’s true place is God. Even the heavens, for all their mechanisms, eventually tell of God’s beauty:


“The All-Mover’s [God’s] glory penetrates through the universe, and regloweth in one region more, and less in another…..


“All things whatsoever observe a mutual order; and this is the form that maketh the universe like unto God….”


The mysteries of the cosmos – including all cosmic forces and phenomena (space warps, quasars, “dark matter,” black holes, bosons, supernovas – whatever) converge in the Creator, God, who is not only sheer Intellect, but Love, Love that creates Unimaginable Beauty out of sheer chaos.


Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.