It has been almost a week since Fr. Neuhaus’ death, but only now, in the quiet after the storm of activity surrounding his burial, can I reflect on what his work and witness have done for me.
To be sure, his death means I have lost the wise counsel of a man quickly becoming something like a mentor and the brilliant conversation of a man quickly becoming something like a friend. But I only had the privilege to be personally close to Fr. Neuhaus for the five months I have been at First Things . More than anything else, then, his death means that I have lost a hero for whom there is no substitute.
Like many of my generation, I was largely (not, thank God, entirely) formed by the atmosphere of shrill triviality and insistent appetite we persist in calling our culture. And like many of my generation, I felt vaguely oppressed by the banality and ugliness but did not know how to attack the worldview behind it.
Illumination and consolation eventually came to me from the usual sources, especially C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, but for all their enduring power, many of their answers were only adequate to the questions of a rather different time. Such faith and sanity as they made possible for me might not have survived the full-immersion in elite intellectual culture that I received in college had I not discovered First Things .
If Lewis and Chesterton were canonical scriptures, First Things was a living magisterium; and there could be no mistaking who was pope. This Richard John Neuhaus character, I found, thought deeply about practically everything, always with the sense of humor inseparable from sanity. And he could write. Good Lord, could he write. Committed secularists should read Neuhaus for the same reason I read Christopher Hitchens: At the very least you have a good time.
Those who say Fr. Neuhaus’ work will remain relevant for (at least) decades no doubt speak the truth. As the man has, we firmly hope, entered into glory, his work enters the canon alongside the work of Lewis, Chesterton, and all God’s happy skirmishers. All we who labor in our various ways to make the world more fit for human habitation will, again and again, find illumination and consolation in the writings of Richard John Neuhaus.
But what will we do, what will I do without his living example, his courage and confidence in the face of immediate challenges?
All yesterday, the day of his funeral, these lines from Chesterton’s poem dedicating The Man Who Was Thursday to E.C. Bentley played on a loop in my head:
A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together . . . .
Children we wereour forts of sand were even as weak as we,
High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea . . . .
Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;
Some giants laboured in that cloud to lift it from the world.
On the 8th of January we lost a giant, a man on a different scale from most men. No doubt the Lord he followed will, one way or another, supply the lack. But for now we mourn the loss.