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Sad news from last week:

Wheaton College mourns the death of Professor Brett Foster, who has been a good, true friend to his students and colleagues on campus,” said Wheaton College President Dr. Philip G. Ryken. “Dr. Foster’s exceptional poems will be a lasting treasure for all who read them, both inside and outside the church.”

“While we rejoice that Professor Foster’s earthly struggles are over and find comfort in the promise of his eternal life with Christ, we grieve the loss suffered by his wife Anise, his children Gus and Avery, and his many friends among the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of Wheaton College.

He was only 42 years old.

He loved and taught and wrote about Shakespeare, but his main vocation was poetry. Here is a sample of his verse:

It’s almost time to set aside the waning
distractions of first youth, the life contained
for years at home. What’s home? The place you grow
out of, everything receding slowly, fading like a chalked sidewalk in the rain.

Every year or so, over the last decade, I would happen upon Brett at one literary event or another. “Oh, James, I didn’t know you would be here,” he would invariably say, his eyes bright with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. Before I could take such words as a sign of disappointment, Brett would already have begun asking about life, my family, and my work. One moment, I had not been in his consciousness, the next, I seemed to have absorbed it. At first, I would wonder, “Who is this fellow that he seems always so interested in me?”

Only gradually did it become clear. In the biographies of the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of testimonies regarding the particular beauty of his character. When a stranger introduced himself to Maritain, the philosopher’s eyes grew gentle, steady, and focused, and it would seem to this or that person as he talked away that, for Maritain, he was the only person in the world. Maritain believed that the foundation of all politics was first to be holy in the world, to give oneself wholly to one’s neighbor.

Brett was possessed of that same conviction of holiness. To be in his company was to be wholly accompanied by him. His eyes would be all attention. His thoughts and words almost visibly dedicated to your own. This was even the case when I saw him last winter, when it was already clear that he was dying, and yet he kept giving himself away with such joy.

Brett remains the only person I have met who so fully exemplified the accounts I had read of Maritain. There was, indeed, a kind of holiness to him—a friendliness, a generosity, above all a love—that I had rarely seen at first hand before, and which struck me—strikes me even now, after he is gone—as a mystery.

James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.

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