Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fr. Edward P. Mahoney, R.I.P.

When I was just seven years old, I waited with my mother on a cold November evening for my father to come home from work. He was an executive at Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, and we were living in Stow, which meant that we couldn't really expect him home before 6:00, but on this particular night 6:00 came and went, and it got darker and weirder. Being only seven, I was getting bored waiting for dinner and started to get antsy, as bored seven year olds do. My mother began to give me the threat: "When your father comes home...". On this particular evening, the good news turned out to be pretty bad. I didn't have to worry about when my father came home. He wasn't coming home.

Around 7:00 there was a knock at the door. It was my father's boss and his wife. They didn't live in Stow. There were some serious-sounding adult voices, and they went with my mother into the kitchen. Being ignored is the universal signal for all children to start acting crazy, so I ran around pretending to be Mighty Mouse, yelling "Here I come to save the day" and rolling around on the floor. My mother suddenly appeared in the entrance to the kitchen, looking down at me as I lay on the floor battling some unsuspecting, invisible enemy cat. Her face was very stern-looking--I thought I was in for it for sure. "Your father's dead," she said simply.

The realization hit me like a ton of bricks. It's forty three years later and I can still remember that moment like it was yesterday. I jumped up and ran to throw myself into a nearby chair, where I screamed "No no no" and wiggled around a lot. I don't remember much else.

Growing up without a father was, in many respects, not very complicated. I never found myself pining for the life my friends had with their fathers, mostly because I didn't realize what I was missing out on. Ignorance, it turns out, really is bliss in some situations. Things began to get more complicated for me on 11 January 1994, when my own son was born. If you're good at math, you will have noticed that he just turned 15 on Sunday. I've had fifteen years to experience the father-son relationship from the other side--the side I didn't get to observe much of. In winging it, so to speak, with my own son, I have come to see very clearly what I lost out on, and so instead of ignorant bliss my life is filled with what J. R. R. Tolkien once called "eucatastrophe": the loss of my own father was a catastrophe, but it was precisely that loss that enables me to see the nearly infinite preciousness of the relationship I have with my son. There is literally nothing else like it: every such relationship is unique.

I find myself thinking all of these thoughts today because I have just learned of the death of an old friend and mentor, a man who, in some ways, drove me completely crazy but who, in other ways, enriched my life enormously. Fr. Edward Mahoney was a professor of philosophy at Duke University, but I actually first met him before I studied philosophy there. In fact, it was 1985, and I was still a graduate student at UNC in classics. He had just been ordained to the Deaconate, and was serving his deaconate year at my home parish, St. Thomas More, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We were introduced after a Mass one Sunday morning, and when he heard I was working on Aristotle he was very excited, and we wound up chatting about things. I saw him ordained to the priesthood in October of the next year, and in 1987 he became my spiritual adviser. Always an independent, stubborn asshole, I was not the ideal subject of spiritual direction. I'm probably lucky that he never tried to kill me. We wound up arguing more often than not, and eventually he fired me--but we remained friends and he presided at my marriage in July of 1989. The next year I quit classics and applied to study philosophy at Duke, and he helped me to get in. While at Duke I took medieval philosophy from him, and continued to argue with him about anything and everything. At times it seemed as though I couldn't even remark to him that the sky is blue without him challenging me about it. I remember a conversation I had with him in his office in which I began a sentence with "I feel like Plato would have..." and he immediately stopped me and said "Don't say 'I feel like'. You're not telling me what you feel like. Say 'I feel as though.'" Even though he was himself as conservative as anyone on matters theological and liturgical, he always took great delight in saying, whenever I made any remark at all about the Church, "Oh, you're such a conservative!" as though he were pointing out that I had neglected to close my mouth while chewing my food. At the beginning of every term he would stop me in the hall and ask me "How does it feel to be doing real philosophy, now that you're not in that historical discipline any more?" When it suited him, of course, he would put that slightly differently. When I took up an interest in the philosophy of science, he said to me "Oh come now, that's not rigorous! You're a scholar for goodness' sake! Why not do something challenging!" Probably he meant that I should take up medieval philosophy and become his student, but he never said so.

Nil nisi bonum de mortuis, you're probably thinking (well, if you think in Latin, anyway--and who doesn't, after all). But a 23 year relationship is, almost of necessity, going to be marked by highs and lows, sorrows and joys. In short, many of the dynamics of our relationship were probably not all that different from those of the relationship I might have had with my father, had he lived. It was not a perfect relationship, but it was a close relationship; a relationship in which one person is older and wiser, and the other thinks that he is; a relationship like the one I have with my own son. Having said that, the relationship was also quite shallow in most respects, and so was not in any sense a substitute for what I lost. In a sense, I think that I mourn that, too. I will never find another father, but the little boy in me keeps looking for one.

So I grieve rather deeply when people die--perhaps more deeply than I have a right to, given my philosophical attitude towards death. The Christian in me believes that death is just a transition; the philosopher in me believes that, well, if Christianity isn't true then death is just the end of being--no biggie, as Socrates was quick to point out. But every death, for me, symbolizes either a kind of lost potential or the end of something good for me, and this phenomenological aspect of dying tends to outweigh, in the moment, my more rational thoughts about it. I focus not so much on the end of the person who has died, but on the effects the death has on those who are left behind, as I was once left behind and affected more deeply than I suspected. The news has been filled with such departures of late, departures of folks who were, in one way or another, fairly significant in my life. Pope John Paul II, William Buckley, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, and now Edward P. Mahoney, all people whom I liked or admired for one reason or another, have departed this world and left me behind to fend for myself. The little boy in me doesn't like that.

There is a grown man here, too, or so people keep telling me (you'd never know it if you were to observe, for example, my son and me watching Kung Pow together, or enjoying a marathon screening of very ancient Popeye cartoons together). What is it that he is looking for? Maybe nothing in particular--perhaps he just prefers life to death: being is better than non-being, presence than absence.

Fidelium animae per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fr. Richard Neuhaus, RIP

Nearly a year ago I lamented the passing of William F. Buckley, whom I characterized at the time as one of my cultural "heroes". Looking back on it now I realize that he was, in a sense, merely a political hero for me--I admired his Catholicism but I did not always see eye to eye with him on Catholic questions. If I have a modern cultural hero of the religious sort, it is Fr. Richard Neuhaus. I first encountered his writings in the pages of Buckley's fortnightly, The National Review, at some point in the late 1980s. At the time Fr. Neuhaus was still a Lutheran; when he converted to Catholicism I was excited enough to write him a letter of congratulations. I'm sure he received many such letters--perhaps many hundreds of them--but he responded to mine anyway, and in considerable detail.

Since that time I have followed his publications rather avidly. I am happy to count myself among the "charter" subscribers to his own journal, First Things, which has consistently offered sane and sensible analyses of our cultural and political situation from a religious perspective. My custom--as I suspect it was the custom for many readers of First Things--was to read each new issue from the back to the front, so as to enjoy Fr. Neuhaus's proprietary column, "The Public Square", "first thing", so to speak. His pithy little comments on all matters political, cultural, and intellectual were often stimulating and always a joy to read. One wonders what one can ever hope to find to replace them, and him.

Sadness is an appropriate emotion even for the Christian who believes in and hopes for eternal life, since death and suffering are the outward signs of the fallenness of our existence--to mourn them is, in the end, to express sorrow over the fact that things must be thus and not otherwise, to grieve over the pain and suffering that is brought about by human sinfulness. But all suffering for the Christian is tempered by the sure and certain knowledge that our redeemer lives and intercedes for us at the right hand of God. At a more mundane level our sadness is only that we will miss our friend, not that our friend is gone forever. We miss him as we miss the loved one whom we see off at the airport--we are sad that they will be away, but deep inside we know that we will see them again, and every tear shall be wiped away.