The Catholic Thing
Michael and Karen: A Love Story Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Michael Novak, after considerable strain, decided to leave the seminary in Rome; he would head back home to America and to graduate work at Harvard. In time he would draw a worldwide audience for his writings in theology, philosophy, economics, politics, even sports. But he would arrive at Harvard to begin his graduate studies, in his late twenties, with an accomplishment rare for graduate students: a novel already published. The Tiber Was Silver was the story of a young seminarian, written with all of the color and the authenticity of one writing from within the experience actually lived.

In the novel, the young seminarian, Richard McKay struggles with the question of whether he is truly fitted for the priestly life. He responds to the doubts registered by his superior, Padre Bracciano, and he admits that: “He was worldly. He did love art, love the cities, love people: everything captivated him! Governments, reforms, proposals, everything about the earthly city.”

The young seminarian meets an attractive young woman, an artist, and he is evidently drawn. The challenge facing the writer was to convey just how much Richard, the seminarian, was attracted and yet how plausible was his decision not “to go over the wall” and turn away from the priesthood to the world of marriage.

But Michael did himself go over that wall. And just a few years later he met that young artist in Cambridge. They met for lunch, as she was seeking advice from a young Catholic as earnest as she was, and she was indeed, as the novel anticipated, arrestingly attractive. This was Karen Laub, sprung from Iowa. She had been schooled at Carleton College, and she was returning from Europe, where she had studied painting with Oscar Kokoschka in Vienna. The lunch extended into dinner, and into a conversation that would go on until the hours of the morning.

Michael was evidently smitten. Over the seminary he could strain in pondering, but on the question of a lifelong marriage with Karen he suffered no indecision. He was taken aback when he proposed and she said, “not yet.” There were so many things she wanted to do in exploring her craft and the world before she settled down. But she too was smitten, and they settled down. . .to explore the world. She would be with Michael as he was drawn again to Rome and Venice, and other places even more exotic in Europe and Asia.

I used to wonder that she could suspend her own notable projects as she joined Michael in these outings, when the children were grown and her own career had been launched. But of course nothing was ever suspended. She would absorb everything in her own appetite to know more about the world and to explore the mysteries and the truths that formed the central thread in both of their works.

Fr. Kurt Pritzl, the dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University, caught something so right about her work: She would put the accent on “’strong things,’ not always easy things or pleasant things, but real things of life that we all face.” Her figures would at times jar us because she would strip away the skin to uncover the tendons, the nerves, and one could feel the tension in the body. As Fr. Pritzl observed, she would start with the “word given” – the word that was at the Beginning. She would draw on T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, Rilke’s Elegies, or the Book of Revelation. But then, as Pritzl said, she “gave [the word] body, shape, texture, color, concreteness, physicality.”

For Michael and Karen, this was a marriage sustained by Two Wings, by faith and reason, nature and art – by the relentless wit and energy of Michael and the genius, and deepening sainthood, of Karen. Fr. Pritzl’s words were spoken as a homily at Karen’s funeral Mass two weeks ago. She had an earlier bout of breast cancer, but later on the cancer spread. For over a year the prospect of losing her hovered overhead as she undertook therapy with a remarkable spirit. She was determined to make every day account, to remain upbeat, joyous, to appreciate everything, and she lifted us in turn: we wanted to share as many moments as we could with her in the same way.

With that sense of things, she and Michael decided to take a National Review cruise this summer, along with children and grandchildren. They would stop in Rome but also in Ephesus (now in Turkey) where they could visit the house thought to have been the home of Mary. The trip was risky, and Karen noted in her jaunty way that if she died on the trip, they could simply bury her at sea. But it was a trip that provided an apt culminating moment in life. Back from abroad, she took a turn for the worse, and suddenly – to the rest of us – she was in her last moments. We had long expected it, but for the friends it was still numbing.

And yet. . . .The day after she died, I had the feeling – the most vivid I’ve experienced after the death of a friend – that Karen was still there, that that lovely soul is still with us, and will be with us.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and is one of the architects of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
Wait for Understanding
written by Elder Reader, September 02, 2009
This post, in my opinion, describes all that can be known about this type of experience - in other words, only that it happened. It is and must remain a mystery. Still we can keep these things "in our heart and ponder them".
written by John McCarthy, September 02, 2009
Lovely. Thank You.
written by Willie, September 02, 2009
Professor Arkes a beautiful article! In these days of casual sex and hookups one wonders if there are love affairs anymore as opposed to relationships. Amongst the recent eulogies of the day one can especially feel the loss of this woman. Is it because your article has portrayed a person with virtue and self-giving so lost but craved by the hookup generation? One, once smitten, in his own life must reflect that the day will come when he will be separated from his love, in the secular city.
Thanks to Willie
written by Hadley Arkes, September 02, 2009
Before leaving for the airport: Willlie has been a steady,buoying reader for us, and I must thank him especially this morning for a comment that may be better than the piece that inspired it. On the eve of our own 48th anniversary, his letter, touching precisely the right points, has made me teary.
written by Lucy Smartt Novak, September 02, 2009
Prof. Arkes, you captured their spirit beautifully. When I was very young, I noticed The Tiber Was Silver on my parents' bookcase. I thought it must be a great story with such a compelling title and always remembered this book
among the Churchill bios and other literature my father enjoyed. Little did I know that Michael and Karen would be my in-laws one day.
Preview to TOTB?
written by debby, September 03, 2009
what a delight & joy to read of a couple who lived the Theology of the Body JP2 bestowed to the world....
it would seem to me that their union to Christ & each other must have been a stained glass window teaching the Love of God to those who had the honor of knowing them.
i pray that my own children find such a love in their own lives & be that love to their spouse (or Spouse if Jesus is calling them).
thank you for the glimpse, Prof.
May the Holy Spirit comfort you in your personal loss.
Something Wonderful!
written by carole Carpenter, September 03, 2009
Karen was and will continue to be an inspiration to all of us at Ave Maria University. Her art and her witness have meant at great deal to the students and will continue to be an influence in the years to come. thank you for writing this wonderful love story. A beautiful marriage and a witness for our times.
written by Charles R Crofton, December 11, 2012
Michael, I always liked Karen immensely. She was perfect for you as your lives together testified. I am not writer, as my efforts at New Generation demonstrate and fail miserably when trying to say how inspired and good her work is. The colors,the structure and the shapes are magnificent. She has made a contribution to the human story which not even time will diminish. I am so sorry she died when she did and it saddens me to know you have been left behind. For give me ,this may sound a bit corny but I love a song sung by Johnnie Cash and June Carter, called The River Jordan. It expresses in a beautiful way what you and she have suffered Michael, take care I always knew you were a great guy. I tried to write you several months ago what's been going on; as fate would have it was lost in the computer. I will make another one soon. In the mean time keep on living and fighting the fight as best you can.

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