When I was a philosophy major at Iona College in the early 1970s, my mentor was the distinguished Thomistic philosopher, Dr. Larry Azar. The professor earned his doctorate at the University of Toronto’s Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and was a classmate and lifelong friend of Ralph McInerny – a co-founder of The Catholic Thing. Azar had been a student of Etienne Gilson, Anton Pegis, and Armand Maurer and had served as an assistant to Jacques Maritain at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.
I took every course Azar taught, and we remained close friends until his death in 2007. I spoke at his requiem and his widow, Pat, asked me to go through his papers and to dispose of his library. A number of young priests and seminarians are now making good use of Latin editions of Aquinas’s major works and scores of works by or on the Angelic Doctor.
Last year, Mrs. Azar died and I became administrator of her estate. Emptying out the Azar home in New Rochelle, I came across long forgotten photographs of Pat and me when we visited Malcolm Muggeridge at his home in England in November 1988. I made extensive notes after the meting and found them stuffed in a Muggeridge book that the great man had autographed.
In 1988, Mrs. Azar, a retired English professor, and I went over to the U.K. to examine the papers in the attic of “Top Meadow,” the home of Dorothy Collins, the late executrix of G.K. Chesterton’s literary estate. Our labors were related to the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton that Ignatius Press has been publishing since 1986.
During our trip, we drove to Oxford to visit C.S. Lewis’ literary executor, Walter Hooper, who had just “crossed the Tiber.” Walter, who proudly called himself a “Mackerel Snapper,” gave us the phone number of a fellow convert, the world-famous journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, and encouraged me to call him.
Muggeridge’s son answered the phone. I introduced myself, and inquired if it would be okay to pay a visit. His son said they would be delighted to have some company, and I made an appointment for the next day to go to Parks Cottage in Robertsbridge – the Muggeridge home since 1958.
When Mrs. Azar and I arrived, the 86-year-old came out to greet us with a firm handshake. The bright blue eyes were familiar, as was the halo of snow-white hair – the familiar “St. Mugg” known to his readers.
We sat by the fire directly across from him because one of the ravages of time was his increasing deafness. As Muggeridge once quoted Charles DeGaulle, “old age is a shipwreck.” His wife, Kitty, summed things up less picturesquely: “Older people should quietly fall asleep and die.” She did not intend to have her cataracts treated.
Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge
“I am old,” Muggeridge began the conversation. “And when you reach 80, 90, or 100, you begin to forget things. So, if I forget something, bear with me, and when I remember, we will go back to it.”
The conversation turned briefly to matters temporal. “I believe that Ronald Reagan will be viewed as an honorable and effective president,” he said. He asked what I thought the future held for Reagan in retirement, and when I said I thought he would continue to promote his principles on the lecture circuit, he seemed pleased that this “old man” would remain active.
He continued, discussing some of his favorite people: “Mother Teresa is very old, and should slow down, but this will not happen,” he said. “I am convinced she will drop dead caring for a dying person.”
On William F. Buckley Jr.: “He must be in his sixties. Do you think he will retire or slow down?” Muggeridge fondly remembered the Firing Line shows they taped together at Park Cottage, and later added, “When you get back to New York, call Buckley and thank him for the many letters and parcels he sends me. Tell him I do not write to anyone anymore and that he should not be offended.”
On Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whom Muggeridge met one month before Sheen died in 1979: “It was a meeting of two old men and I never forgot what Sheen said to me – ‘Christendom is over, but not Christ,’” a phrase he would repeat again and again during our conversation.
We moved on to social issues: “Abortion and the homosexual rights movement are the two bad things in our time,” he said. I described New York City’s moral bankruptcy, and he replied: “The Devil is a very big and clever person, particularly in New York. And he fools many New Yorkers by convincing them they are very smart.”
At 1:00 PM, Kitty announced that Pat Azar and I were staying for lunch – a plain, vegetarian affair at the Muggeridge’s plank-board table: cheese, bread, tomatoes, fruit, and lemonade. Before lunch finished, Kitty prepared Malcolm an unappetizing drink comprised of cream, yogurt, and herbs. When she left the room, he gave Pat Azar a wink and said with a big grin, “Oh, help me with this.” She obliged.
We parted as though we were old friends. As we drove away, I read the inscription he had written in his book, Jesus: The Man Who Lives. “God bless Jesus – may He thrive.”
Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote in Confessions of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim that he “longed to be gone,” died two years after we met him – almost to the day – on November 14, 1990. The good Lord gave him what he wanted, the chance “to disengage my tired mind from interminable conundrums and my tired ego from its wearisome insistences.”