The Cinch Review

A few more thoughts on Richard John Neuhaus

I would like to write once more in connection with the passing of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. After this, when I refer to him, it will be no longer be in the context of his death; rather, it will be in the sense of the continuing life of his words and work, as the occasion presents itself.

I was blessed to be able to attend RJN’s funeral in New York on Tuesday, at his parish church on 14th Street. It was a highly fitting and a stirring send-off, it seemed to me. The music, the sermon, the spirit of the assemblage, the full-throated praise of the Lord — it all seemed as good as it ought to have been and I got the impression that those who knew Richard well felt he would have heartily approved. I was not any intimate of RJN’s, but I know some who knew him well. I knew him best, like so many, through his writing and his public face, although I estimate that there was not such a great gulf between that public RJN and the private one. I don’t doubt that the jokes in private were a little more, er, robust. In any case, the homily by Fr. Raymond De Souza was a poignant, humorous and, to this listener, pitch-perfect tribute, of a kind that I think cannot be written and given without some significant help from Another Source. There have been so many wonderful tributes to RJN since his departure, such touching testimonials and beautiful eulogies. But this was the one that was needed on that day, the one that seemed to touch the chords that yearned to be touched for the many aching hearts in the congregation, or so I felt. I do hope it is made publicly available in some form, ideally just as spoken by Fr. De Souza.

Raymond De Souza was a friend of Richard’s, and yet I think his words also evoked the Richard John Neuhaus that people knew through his sharp and informative writing in First Things’ “The Public Square,” and the Richard John Neuhaus of more pastoral works like Death on a Friday Afternoon.

There were those things that touched chords with this listener, for instance. As when Fr. De Souza pointed out that the scripture readings were (and I will quote him unreliably from memory) “from the RSV [Revised Standard Version of the Bible], because it is not generally wise to start the deceased spinning before he has even gone to his grave. And that is what may well have occurred had we used the NAB.” De Souza was referring there to the New American Bible translation, mandated for use in Roman Catholic churches in America, much to the oft-expressed displeasure of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, as in this sterling piece: More Bible Babel. Recently I’ve become a small-time collector of the Bible in different translations and editions. I now realize that the magnification of my interest in this came out of reading some of RJN’s commentary, like the piece to which I linked above. In contending so well against the “tone-deaf linguistic wreckers” responsible for the “trashing of the tradition of the Bible in English” that is the NAB, RJN simultaneously highlights the strengths and beauties of that very tradition of the Bible in English. So out of contention can illumination also spring. Agreeing with RJN’s advice, I now find the RSV to be the sturdiest all-round text for my everyday use. Yet, if one has the time and inclination, there is much to be said for reading other good translations, from the New American Standard Bible to of-course the KJV and even (a recent acquisition via Christmas gift) Tyndale’s New Testament. It is comparable to hearing a favorite song sung by multiple great singers. Yet, there may be some singers you don’t ever want to hear singing your favorite song. And that’s where the NAB comes in. The concelebrating bishops on the altar sat stony-faced when reminded of RJN’s ire on this matter, and alerted to the (very) civil disobedience which had just occurred — or perhaps it only seemed so to me.

At another moment in his homily that struck this listener, Fr. De Souza referred to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then reminded us of how much RJN loved praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This might seem a given to some. After all, it is the Bible that gives us this way of naming our God, as God gave this way of naming Himself to Moses, so that the Israelites would know who it was who had spoken to him from the burning bush. Exodus 3:15: And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt they say unto the children of Israel, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever and this is my memorial unto all generations. To RJN, for whom Christian-Jewish dialogue was so important, and to which he made such an enormous contribution, it was fitting to identify our God this way, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom Jesus called “Father.” That formulation is near-perfect for public occasions and gatherings, because one can accept that Jesus called Him “Father” even if one’s own theology would state that Jesus was mistaken. But it also goes beyond ecumenical courtesy. It is about specificity, about knowing and stating what it is that we believe and who it is in whom we believe. From Death on a Friday Afternoon:

Of-course there are many different ideas of God, to which we can apply names that make us, as it is said, “comfortable.” But we do not worship an idea of God; we do not pray to an idea of God.

There are so many ideas of God these days. I guess there always have been, but they have such high-powered image-making firms behind them now. Yet, we Christians pray to this God, this very specific and particular God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, whom Jesus called “Father.” And none other. It is a good thing for a Christian to bear in mind, surely, and it is one of those things that this reader more fully and properly apprehended through RJN’s writing, and learned to rightfully embrace.

The third and final thing I’ll mention here that struck me in Raymond De Souza’s wonderful homily was his personal remembrance of some of Richard’s last thoughts on his own life’s work. Now, it should be known that Richard John Neuhaus was some kind of writing machine. Aside from the standard 12,000 words he delivered in the back of First Things every month, he wrote additional major articles for his own publication and others as called for (and they were always called for), gave uncountable lectures, sermons and addresses, answered virtually every letter and e-mail he received, and wrote or edited over 30 books. Yet, despite this and innumerable other activities that defy listing, Fr. De Souza told us that during a recent visit he had with Richard (after his illness had asserted itself) RJN told him that he really wished he had written or could write much more. Not more of the kinds of observations and contentions of the Public Square, however, but more of the kind of writing in his books that he knew had moved many souls, as in Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning. He wished, if I understood Fr. De Souza correctly, that he could have written more of the kind of work that engaged with and proposed the answer of Christ to the questions that burn in the hearts of so many ordinary, confused and thoroughly modern human beings, created in God’s image and struggling their way through this crazy world. Well, I’m sure he could have written so much more like that. I have no doubt he could have written twenty more books just as profound and as poignant and as persuasive as Death On A Friday Afternoon, given the time. But I would’ve told him, if I could, that perhaps it was not really a question, in the end, of quantity. Perhaps what he did write was just enough, after all. At least it may have been just enough, I hope and pray, for this poor sinner.

Death on a Friday Afternoon takes the seven final utterances of Jesus from the cross as the opportunity for explorations, at once profound and accessible, of the mystery of what happened on that day at Golgotha. As alluded to by RJN in his preface, a curious thing about the crucifixion of Christ is how, despite its assumed (and real) centrality to the Christian message, that part of Jesus’ story frankly flummoxes and even embarrasses many who would readily call themselves lifelong Christians — to say nothing of how it strikes those who do not wear that label. I would certainly count myself as someone who was more stumped than anything else by the whole tale of suffering and death, despite being brought up amidst constant reminders and lessons and devotions pertaining to it. In reading some of the luminous passages from this book, however, such as the ones that I quote below, this reader found so much of that which his mind had stubbornly refused to apprehend falling softly into place, accompanied by many moments of surprised and even tearful recognition. That’s quite a blessing to receive from a book, I think. A blessing the value of which genuinely cannot be overstated, as a believer would have to understand. And it’s just one of the blessings that God bestowed on so many souls through the life of his servant Richard John Neuhaus.

The paragraphs below are part of RJN’s meditations surrounding Jesus’ words, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

“It is finished.” An artist — perhaps a sculptor, painter or composer — may say that. The artist starts out with an idea, maybe calling it an inspiration; there are testings and false starts, but the artist sticks with it, sees it through and at some point stands back and says, “It is finished. That’s it. That’s what I had in mind, or at least it is what came to be of what I had in mind.” So it is with any creative activity, whether it be a painting, the making of a fine piece of furniture or the opening of a business. So it is also when something has gone wrong and we set out to remedy it. The wrong is set to right and there is a deep satisfaction in having seen it through, in having brought a task to completion. Perhaps there is something of that in this Sixth Word from the cross, “It is finished.” But the analogy with our achievements, or with any achievement we can imagine, is pathetically weak. The dissimilarities are immeasurably greater than the similarities.

For one thing, it appears that he is finished. By any ordinary measure this is not completion, but poignant failure. It is death. It is the demolition of all those grand hopes he had aroused. He started out announcing the coming of the kingdom of God, and he ends up here. Some kingdom. Some king. The jeering crowds around the cross are having the last laugh. He talked so splendidly: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” What kingdom? What comfort? What inheritance? The time has come to face the fact: It is finished, it is over.

Standing there with Mary, his mother, is John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and he saw it all. Seeing it all, he would years later write, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” As he wrote, there echoed in his mind the first words of the Hebrew Scriptures, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And God spoke his Word and said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The Word, says John, is the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And so say people beyond numbering to this very day. It is not over. It is finished.

[…]

Everything now and forever is to the glory of God. In his glory is our good. Humanity, said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the cantor and caretaker of the universe. In directing the universe to the praise of God, however, we do not simply put the cross behind us. Quite the opposite is the case. In a cruciform world, the cross is the epicenter of everything. “It is finished” does not mean that suffering and loss and the rivers of tears are things of the past. “It is finished” means that they do not have the last word. It means that love has the last word. Recall Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” who, after a lifetime of slave trafficking in the Congo, dies with the words on his lips, “The horror! The horror!” The cross means that the horror is not the last word; at the heart of the horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ. In the beginning and in the end and all along the way was and is and ever will be the Word. Jesus told them, “In the world you will have trouble, but fear not, I have overcome the world.” He will overcome the world because he has overcome the world. “It is finished.”