Monday, January 12, 2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus

Last week, I gave a gasp and a shudder, then immediately burst into tears. Someone that I had met once died. That was all.

But that wasn't all. I had heard of his serious illness; heard the call to prayer, on his behalf. I had once heard him speak.

More importantly, he had heard me.

The man spoke with President Bush, and President Reagan. With Pope John Paul II. The President of Poland has issued a statement of grief upon the man's demise. But one day, this man spoke with me.

I was vaguely aware of his political import; I was more aware of his status as a theological giant who lived in Manhattan. There hung about him both wit, and a scent of pipe or cigar tobacco, when I met him. He was animated with energy, gracious in his attention, and radiated the spiritual comfort of a man who, it felt, has spent more hours praying than I had been alive. It seemed appropriate, and familiar, to call him father - a picture of a papa to millions of people, peasants and popes alike.

Father Richard John Neuhaus - for the last week, hearing and reading the name make tears sting my eyes. Not because of his time on "Meet the Press," but because of a few winter hours several years ago.

The cold evening I met "Father John," as George W. often called him, he was wrapped in a thick overcoat and eager to arrive at a meeting at which he was keynote speaker. I found myself handed with a rare privilege, and one which I have only appreciated more as time has passed. I knew I was meeting an important man, and a great man, though I hardly knew how important, and how great. I had not seen the photos of him with world leaders at that time. I knew him as a name on "First Things," a remarkably profound publication. But he was simple, unaffected, welcoming. He and I sat and spoke of liturgy. He listened to my opinions - which I have never been shy in sharing. (There remains in me the rather Scottish certainty that my opinions and thought, carefully measured, are just as good as anybody else's - no matter who they have on speed dial, or what country they run. It is, I think, a Highlander characteristic.)

I remember little of the address he gave that night. It was profound, I recall, and stimulating. We had, I know, a spirited exchange in the car on the way to drop him at his hotel. And though I still don't know if he or I stepped forward first, he gave me a quick, impromptu hug in departure. It felt rather like he had laid his hands on my head in blessing, though it was nothing so grand.

Upon his death I found myself shaken. More than that, I felt myself wanting to chime in - to add my experiences to the community pool of memories that has been collecting in the wake of his passing. I wanted to include that I, too, had personal experience of the man who has helped shape presidential policy on issues as grave as abortion. But it wasn't out of a desire for climbing any ladders, or garnering any accolades. The mark of a holy man is that he brings out what good there is in the people around him. And I think that our communal hopes of having our voices heard by others as we each share personal reminiscences are due to a desire to be like him.

"I want to be that well read," some think. "I want to hone just a portion of that rigorous intellect," others determine. "I want to make people feel that welcome in my presence," "I want to be more disciplined in my writing, like he was..." "I want to wrap all aspects of my life around my faith, like he did..." "I want to know when to take things seriously, and when to laugh them off, like he did..."

We want to be like you, Father Neuhaus. In whatever small way we resemble you, we want to be like you, because you wanted to be like the Father.

We are left, now, without your example, and we fear we cannot model it as well as you did. But, as you would remind us, we are left with the Divine example, we all inherit the same Spirit of the Lord, who empowers us to be more like Jesus.

But we will miss you.


Bob said...

I saw the obituary in the paper and recalled that photo of you and Father John, sitting, leaning forward chatting in Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) If you can find it, it'd be cool if you could copy it and post it here. I was going to mention it to you, but obviously you'd seen it first.

Elizabeth Glass-Turner said...

Actually, I met Father John in Lexington, Kentucky. I do have a photo, though, of Antony Flew and myself in Oxford. And I must say, I'm wearing a very cute scarf in it.