Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Last Knight of Christendom

My friend Stephen Clark reflects on Richard John Neuhaus's character and contribution to our political discourse. Neuhaus's funeral is today.

Richard John Neuhaus has gone to his reward, and with him the Christian practice of chivalry has come to its uttermost end.

I met Fr. Neuhaus once, a little over a year ago. I requested a meeting with him, not for any particular reason other than my avid reading of "First Things". Two things struck me about his office: first, that it had not been renovated in several years, and second, that it had a spacious sitting area where the smoking of cigars was obviously practiced.

A friend of mine accompanied me on my pilgrimage, and the two of us proceeded to stumble through the interview like a couple of star-struck teenagers. Nothing in Fr. Neuhaus’ demeanor caused this; he was a smallish man, balding and grey, and as unpretentiously gracious as a mortal can be.

At the end of the interview, Fr. Neuhaus offered my friend and me each an autographed copy of The Naked Public Square, which of course we eagerly accepted.

In the title of this well-known volume lies one of Fr. Neuhaus’ great contributions. Orwell noted in “Politics and the English Language” that public speech typically is littered with dead or dying metaphors. In the half-century since Orwell’s indictment, public discourse has deteriorated yet further into a sloganized slush of referentless meaninglessness: the audacity of tripe.

Into this milieu, Fr. Neuhaus introduced a straightforwardly mixed metaphor: “The Naked Public Square.” This proved to be not only a living and powerful figure of speech, but one whose life-force reached to the farthest corners of Christendom. Where has it not become fashionable to speak of “the public square”? Within his metaphor lies implicit the wrongness of many things that are currently being done in our civic life, and also a positive indication for correcting them.

However, for me the manner rather than the matter of Fr. Neuhaus’ work was his greatest contribution. The deeply cultivated civility of his approach—even to controversial topics about which he had strong convictions—can only be described as chivalrous.

There is a profoundly cultured graciousness in the writings of Fr. Neuhaus that I have found nowhere else in the contemporary scene, either in Christian or non-Christian writers. And this mellifluousness is most surprising because it mainly flowed in a journal of current affairs.

If I may rob from Tolkien, the last of the High Elves has sailed for Valinor; and we shall never again see his like in Middle Earth.

May he rest from his labors. And may his works not only follow him, but may their lingering forms illumine our way in his absence.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis ;
cum Sanctis tuis in aeternum,
quia pius es.

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