Friday, February 27, 2009

St. Bénezet and St. Ferdinand III (and two others)

As you may know, I am a computer scientist, but also a computer engineer - though that term usually has a rather special sense in the industry. Actually I am a bit hard to classify, since when I work in "industry" they think all I do is write technical papers full of theorems, and when I work in "academics" they think all I do is write programs. I sit squarely on the fence - which can be uncomfortable, but I have the best (and the worst) of both worlds. And some days I dabble in philosophy and lit'ry things, and make even more of a mess of things. But then you get to enjoy the results. Hee hee!

Engineering is often described as "applied science" and real scientists know that they must often work as an engineer if they want to get things done, just as real engineers know they must often work as a scientist if they want to have any real understanding of what they are doing. Ahem.

Since yesterday we considered the patron saint of science, today we shall consider the patron saint of engineers. However, when I looked up who that is, I found it stated (in the Catholic Almanac) as "St. Ferdinand III of Castile", who (according to Butler's Lives of the Saints) died in 1252, his feast day is May 30, he founded the University of Salamanca, among other things - but nothing was said about his being patron of engineering. Nevertheless he is a very suitable patron, since any founder of a University has performed one of the greatest possible engineering feats.

You have heard me quote Chesterton from time to time, and I've struggled over what is my favourite. But one of the bits I quote most often when talking about science in the large is one I first recall having read in Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science, but I will give a little more so you will have some context:
Science itself is only the exaggeration and specialization of
this thirst for useless fact, which is the mark of the youth of man. But science has become strangely separated from the mere news and scandal of flowers and birds; men have ceased to see that a pterodactyl was as fresh and natural as a flower, that a flower is as monstrous as a pterodactyl. The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind. We have all to show that before we go on to any visions or creations we can be contented with a planet of miracles.
[GKC The Defendant 74-75]
And this is why I say that St. Ferdinand was a great engineer. For in founding his university - which, since it was in the Ages of Light, and not in this dark time, was designed according to common sense, and was no doubt very much like what Cardinal Newman describes in his Idea of a University - yes, in founding his university, he built a bridge.

And so I wish to draw your attention to anbother saint, St. Bénezet, who is also called "Little Benedict the Bridge Builder":
He was a pious lad, thoughtful beyond his years, and seems to have reflected much on the perils encountered by people who sought to cross the Rhône. One day, during an eclipse of the sun, he heard a voice which adderssed him three times out of the darkness, bidding him go to Avignon and build a bridge over the river, which was extremely rapid there. The construction and the repair of bridges was regarded in the middle ages as a work of mercy, for which rich men were often urged to make provision in their wills; but Bénezet was only an ignorant, undersized youth, without experience, influence, or money. Nevertheless he did not hesitate to obey the call. As may be imagined, the bishop of Avignon, to whom he addressed himself upon his arrival in the city, was not disposed at first to take him seriously, but the lad was able by miracles to prove his mission to the good bishop's satisfaction; and with his approvan the work of building a stone bridge over the Rhône was begun in 1177. For seven years little Bénezet directed the operations, and when he died in 1184 the main difficulties of the enterprise had been overcome. His body was buried upon the bridge iteself, which was not completed until four years after his death.
[Butler's; emphasis added]
Very interesting. I forgot to mention that his feast day is April 14. I also ought to point out that this idea of bridge building being an act of mercy is underscored by St. Thomas Aquinas:
A man may be led to beg by a twofold motive. First, by the desire to have wealth or meat without working for it, and such like mendicancy is unlawful; secondly, by a motive of necessity or usefulness. The motive is one of necessity if a man has no other means of livelihood save begging; and it is a motive of usefulness if he wishes to accomplish something useful, and is unable to do so without the alms of the faithful. Thus alms are besought for the building of a bridge, or church, or for any other work whatever that is conducive to the common good..."
[STA Summa Theologica II-II Q187 A5]
(Which I think has some very interesting relevance to things like founding a university as well. But we'll explore that another time.)

We also ought to include St. Joseph, who was "a worker" (though the term is often made more precise by stating "carpenter") - and the Man known as his son worked with him in Nazareth for most of his life. So if we are feeling bold we could actually postulate Jesus Christ, under His title of "Son of the Workman of Nazareth" as the patron of engineers, especially since we attest to His divine authority and design in the Nicene Creed, when we state "per quem omnia facta sunt" = "Through Him all things were made".

But, as usual, Chesterton has more to say, and it is a delight to quote it, since, like Ferdinand, it establishes the supreme authority of Jesus over both the liberal arts as well as the sciences, whether pure or applied:
the sanity of the world was restored and the, soul of man offered salvation by something which did indeed satisfy the two warring tendencies of the past; which had never been satisfied in full and most certainly never satisfied together. It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story. That is why the ideal figure had to be a historical character, as nobody had ever felt Adonis or Pan to be a historical character. But that is also why the historical character had to be the ideal figure; and even fulfil many of the functions given to these other ideal figures; why he was at once the sacrifice and the feast, why he could be shown under the emblems of the growing vine or the rising sun. The more deeply we think of the matter the more we shall conclude that, if there be indeed a God, his creation could hardly have reached any other culmination than this granting of a real romance to the world. Otherwise the two sides of the human mind could never have touched at all; and the brain of man would have remained cloven and double; one lobe of it dreaming impossible dreams and the other repeating invariable calculations. The picture-makers would have remained forever painting the portrait of nobody. The sages would have remained forever adding up numerals that came to nothing. It was that abyss that nothing but an incarnation could cover; a divine embodiment of our dreams; and he stands above that chasm whose name is more than priest and older even than Christendom; Pontifex Maximus, the mightiest maker of a bridge.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:380]

Jesus, God-Man, designer of creation, worker in Nazareth, have mercy on all who design and work!

St. Ferdinand, pray for us, that we may be truly ingenious in founding a universal work.

St. Bénezet, pray that we may dare to build bridges, and that our bridges may be strong and safe to cross.


At 06 April, 2012 13:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful article. Thank you for the post and the research. I am an electrical engineer.


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