Sunday, January 11, 2009

Remembering Father Richard John Neuhaus

Robot Boy, of all people, sent me the link to this brief but excellent profile of Fr. Neuhaus. When I had the time to read First Things regularly, I always turned to the back pages, Fr. Neuhaus's "While We're At It," first. He was a keen observer of the ironies of American cultural life, and I always learned something -- occastionally something truly heart-changing -- from his column. I cancelled my subscription in the end, in part because I was too busy teaching, parenting, and dissertating to read it every month, and also, it must be admitted, in part because I found First Things' editorial position, which sought to use pro-life rhetoric to justify support for the Iraq War, frustrating. I still don't have time to read it, but it is a real loss that we won't have Fr. Neuhaus's witty and compassionate voice to illuminate the coming years of the Obama presidency. If anyone could challenge the morality of abortion law on the basis of civil rights (a compelling and cogent challenge), Fr. Neuhaus could.

I heard Fr. Neuhaus say Mass once at Fallen Sparrow's parish, and was moved by the fatherly love with which he preached on the subject of chastity. I was saddened to learn later from the parish priest that a few of the communicants at that Mass, most of them young women students at Barnard, had complained about the content of his homily, arguing that infringed upon their freedom.

Fr. Neuhuas, requiescat in pace.

(P.S.: First Things is where I first read the excellent Mrs. T., and it was in Fr. Neuhaus's column that I first saw the poem "O Eve!")


Sheila said...

I had just seen the ad for an intern at First Things and shared it with a friend who was looking for an adventure, and was telling him how neat it would be to work with Fr. Neuhaus, about three days before I heard of his death.

It's interesting that your reason for cancelling is related to my reason for originally subscribing. I found the journal at a bookstore, read an article on "just war" (this was before things got so complex about Iraq, and I was reading it from the perspective of having lived in Croatia during the war there), and wrote an appreciative letter to the editor. They asked to publish my letter. Then I felt I should subscribe and have read it since then.

Reading the journal is also what led me to the excellent Mrs. T., who led me to you.

Thank you, Fr. Neuhaus.

(My word verification is "erwise," which somehow seems right for writing about a man who was so wise.

Pentimento said...

This is how grace works! There is certainly a mystical component there, and Fr. Neuhaus is in the thick of it.

About FT's stance on Iraq: I found the simplicity of its moral clarity on the issue very reassuring when I used to read it. Then I put the magazine down, and find that I couldn't agree.

Although it can't touch FT in terms of intellectual content and style, I preferred the more radical pro-life approach of the New Oxford Review, to which an amazing friend of mine (a red-diaper baby turned devout Lutheran turned Anglican turned Reform/Reconstructionist Jew) once gave me a gift subscription (as with FT, I didn't have time to read it and so eventually let my subscription lapse). The NOR editorial position is that pro-life equates with anti-war. Now, I'll admit that this can be a naive approach. And, in the context of the mideast crisis/crises, I fear that opposing all wars in the region is often based intellectually on antinomianism/replacement theology, to which I also don't really subscribe. But I always wish that things might be as clear-cut as FT makes them seem . . .

Dave said...

I think it was in that section 15 yrs ago when I had the subscription that I once read something like, "... a recent study published by a group of doctors in Walla Walla, Washington - and the editors here note how much like they would like to live there just for the sheer pleasure of telling people where we are from - ...."

I searched the site and cannot find the exact wording which I'm sure was wittier even than my poor memory reports.

Humor rates very high in my value system. I've laughed at that line many times since. "Where am I from?.... WALLA WALLA!"

my word is sidicomi

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Dave, for noting Fr. Neuhaus's wit, which he had in abundance.

Mrs. T said...

It's so good to see the excellent Sheila out and about. And thank you, excellent Pentimento, for the link as well as for the lovely tribute.

I wish I had more of substance to say about Fr. Neuhaus, whom I met only once, very briefly, some years ago. His was one of the voices, however, which I first resisted -- I HATED First Things when my husband first began subscribing, over a decade ago -- and then was persuaded by, out of any number of comfortable assumptions which I assumed were intelligent because there was nothing conservative about them. When at last I became Catholic, and was feeling qualmy about it at the last minute, as I feel about practically everything at the last minute (have a baby, look at it, say to myself, "What the hell have I done to my life," and then go on to be besotted -- that's pretty much a recurring pattern), it reassured me to consider the company I was joining. Still does.

My word: desti.

Pentimento said...

Oh, desti . . . such a lovely word and one with which singers of Italian nineteenth-century music are very familiar . . . "si destare" means "to wake up."

I'd like to subscribe to FT again; when I canceled, I told myself I'd read it online, which I never do. There's something about having it in print - it is rather substantial - that makes one more inclined to read it than having it condensed and pixillated onto a flickering screen. But I still don't have much time to read, and I no longer have that rolling reading room, the subway, to provide me with the time.

Mrs. T, I'm going off on a bit of a tangentnow, but I appreciate your honesty about the normal quavering we feel when making the momentous choices in life (to the extent that they actually are our choices, that is, for perhaps God is really the one choosing). I'm very leery of posting anything that hints at the normal, ambivalent feelings of mothers since my denunciation a while back by a former friend, also a Catholic journalist, who asserted that I blame my "unsuccess" as a singer (not sure by what measure he so judged it) on my child. I suppose one is on safer grounds writing about such things if one hasn't made the dreadful mistakes I've made.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link.

Mrs. T said...

Hm, well, it can be a bit of a tightrope, can't it? Qualms and ambivalence are normal, and for some people they're just an instinctive initial reaction to any kind of change. Stanley Turecki, whose book The Difficult Child I've checked out of the library any number of times to help me deal with the intense personalities in my house, lists this trait as one of his indicators of "difficulty" -- I think he calls it "initial negative reaction." I've got it in spades myself. Get engaged, wake up the next morning and think, No! No! No! (but fortunately get over it in time actually to get married to the kind patient person who did the proposing). Have an utterly intended and longed-for first child, and think, "But this ISN'T what I wanted to do!" I can remember being in labor for the first time and saying to myself that what I really, really, really wanted to do just then was not to have a baby, but to go out to dinner.

Of course, you're talking about a longer-term kind of ambivalence, and I feel that, too. I've written about it before, though I always have a hard time putting into words what I really mean, and not sounding ungrateful for my many blessings, which I emphatically am not. I don't know that there's ever a "safe" ground for writing about this kind of thing, precisely because it is so easy to sound -- or to be heard as -- ungrateful or as if you're pining after whatever's on the side of the fence you didn't stay on. Or as if you're taking an easy out for not having "made it" in some other way.

I'd like to say more about all this, but I think I need to think about it a bit more, and the dog and the children are poking at me to let me know that I need to feed them. The dog, actually, is trying to climb into my lap, all 50-odd pounds of him. Talk about a decision I sometimes feel ambivalent about . . .

And now my word is aphisti.

Pentimento said...

Not to sound too high-falutin, but longing, I think, is the post-romantic ethos. It's natural for us to be wistful at times for the lives we might have lived. Of course, we don't know what difficult lives they would have been had we lived them. I also think that every blessing contains the seeds of its own little cross. That's life.

I think when you're involved in more than one pursuit at the same time, you might feel this somehow a little more keenly, especially if you have certain deadlines and commitments, as I know you do, Mrs. T. It's really about time and the allocation of it. I have a certain head-space for ideas and a certain head-space for the mundane, and in my case they don't ever really coexist. The world of ideas, in terms of my research and writing, has a whole different smell, feel, ethos to the everyday world of parenting and housework. When I'm in one, I often long for the other, and vice versa. And I've come late to the other responsibilities, so transitioning from one to the other sometimes feels rocky to me. And as far as singing goes -- though my work is more research and writing than performing now -- well, you really need to practice for at least an hour each day. I haven't found a way to do that yet with little children at home.

Mrs. T said...

The frustrations that accompany life with SMALL children really are probably the sharpest you'll encounter, and that shouldn't be discounted. Caring for a small child is all-consuming, especially when it's just the two of you, and that saps energy for other things in ways that caring for the same child at a later, more independent stage, won't. It seems unfair, and perhaps uncomprehending, for someone to criticize an expression of ambivalence about this stage of life, because frankly, it's really, really hard even when you don't have anything else a part of you wants to be doing.

People complain ALL THE TIME, in all kinds of contexts, about life with small children . . . some of us make comedy out of it, but that's only because it really does exact a price from us, and maybe we're selfishly getting our own back . . . Hm. There's an admission.

Anyway, yeah, longing. I'd say that that's just part of the human condition, post-Romantic or not.

I have a hard time, too, transitioning between the "idea" part of my mind's life and the rest of it. That's largely why I don't do more "professional" writing, only the odd article here and there. I just can't manage, in the course of an ordinary day, even to entertain thought on both those levels. It is very hard. And I don't write nearly so much poetry as I did five years ago -- that fact bothers me a lot, and I think it has to do with having sufficient "white space" around me, which I don't at present. That's a price not only of having children, but of having chosen to educate them myself, so that we're together all the time. I think it's going to have been worth it in the end, and at the end of the day I know what I'd regret not having done, but in the middle of things, it's hard.

The other day, when we still had company staying with us and the kids were all involved with him, I sat down at my kitchen table and read some poems and wrote a sonnet, and the memory of having done this every day, as a matter of course, stabbed me. But I would not wish the children away, and I am not sorry that I have them with me as much as I do. Crosses, blessings. Blessings, crosses. That is the way of it, isn't it.

Pentimento said...

Mrs. T: "I think it's going to have been worth it in the end, and at the end of the day I know what I'd regret not having done, but in the middle of things, it's hard."


And yes, the person doing the denouncing has no children, and seems to have had other bones to pick with me, though I'm not entirely sure what they all were (one of them may have had to do with his spurned suit a few years back). What troubled me was that he seemed to have reached his conclusion about my inadequacies as a mother and artist solely from what he'd read here; the things we're discussing now are not, er, exactly the sort of thing you'd share with a single male friend.

I am grateful, as always, for your compassionate honesty, Mrs. T. This is a difficult time in my life, and I hope that it is the cauldron that will refine me, at least for the moment.

Mrs. T said...

Pentimento: "the things we're discussing now are not, er, exactly the sort of thing you'd share with a single male friend."

Absolutely. Note-comparing among mothers about frustrations, existential and everyday, can't really be taken as some kind of blanket declaration about The Way Things Are, nor can ambivalent *feelings* be taken as actual regrets or indications that certain decisions were objectively wrong.

Though I have to say that the single male friend who spent last week with us, and who is a good bit younger than we are, remarked to me at one point that if and when he marries and has a family, he's going to REMEMBER that his wife's day with the children has been far, far harder than anything he might have done all day at work, and that his job when he comes home is to relieve her. He said he'd learned that from me. I wanted to throw my arms around him, and then I wanted to bottle whatever it is about him and sell it. Or maybe just give it away to the first deserving young woman.

Pentimento said...

Monica the Man is a prince among men! How old is he? I know some eligible single ladies in New York, but I suppose that's too far . . . ;)

Mrs. T said...

Yes, he is, truly. He's 26 -- he was a student of my husband's and came for dinner once, and we just kept him.

I think that marriage and family will not happen in his life unless/until he's absolutely certain that the monastic life is not for him, and he's a long, long way from that certainty.

Pentimento said...

Well, his vocation ought to be nurtured, whatever it is. It's a sad fact, though, that there are lots of serious Catholic women (at least in New York City, and I happen to know more than a few who are brilliant, beautiful, and accomplished) who are unable to find good Catholic men.

Mrs. T said...

Yes, it's true -- all of that. I pray daily for his discernment, either way. He became Catholic at roughly the same time we did, and I think at this stage a great deal of his closeness to us is predicated on our being his Catholic family, as a kind of antidote to his much-loved evangelical Protestant family who are unhappy about his Catholicism and for whose antipathy to his becoming a monk there really just are no adequate words.

He would be horrified to know how many friends of mine, having met him, have sidled up to me and intimated that they'd like to set him up with someone they know. They ask me what I think, and all I can do is be totally noncommittal. It's true, he's a rare good one, and the world needs more good husbands and fathers. At the same time, those qualities would make a good monk. So, we pray.

Pentimento said...

I'll pray for M the M too. Those cloistered religious who spend their days in prayer are praying for us too, after all . . .