Michael Novak: A Life in Full
Michael Novak’s first book, the Tiber Was Silver, was a novel about a young seminarian in Rome who encounters a young woman who enchants him. And the plot, so familiar, so seasoned with the ages, was in place: Would she become the “one thing needful” that pulls him away from the vocation that had drawn him?
The distinctive turn provided by young writer of the novel was that she would not turn him. He would “not go over the wall.” But the temptation, set forth precisely by Michael, offered the most precise description of the young writer himself. It would explain, more than anything else, just why he finally decided to leave Rome and his preparation for the priesthood.
He wrote of his character, Richard McKay:
He was worldly. He did love art, love the cities, love people; everything captivated him! Governments, reforms, proposals, everything about the earthly city. To build up everything that was truthful and was good, to conserve it. . .these were what he wanted on earth.
Michael would leave Rome and his studies in 1958, when he was twenty-five. This first novel would be published three years later, and just a couple of years after that he would meet in Cambridge, the young woman who enchanted him as his character, Richard McKay, had been enchanted. But he was now free to marry Karen Laub, a gifted artist from Iowa.
He had entered the life of the seminary when he was fourteen, and though he left that life, he never regretted the eleven years he had spent in that way: “I basically loved the study, the prayer, the atmosphere of charity and learning.” And that sense of things would remain remarkably apt in offering an account of the young man who would immerse himself in the world and become one of our savviest writers on politics and economics, as well as on theology and the Church.
He brought to all of these subjects the imagination that would see, in some of the most ordinary, prosaic acts, acts touched with grace. He could see churches as sacred spaces, meant to be spared the vulgar intrusions of governments. And he could see the special meaning that attached to battlefields and baseball fields, carrying memories of injuries suffered and glories won.
He never ceased being a theologian and the most serious student of Catholicism, and so he never wavered for a moment in his sense of what the highest questions would have to be – questions of God, of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and the need to live our lives in this world in a way that would make us more fit for the life to come.
And yet, he was not a theologian soaring in the clouds. His fascination was drawn to the grittiness of life, and he would see the deeper meanings, of creativity and devotion, in those small acts of starting a new business and supporting a family.
He could write tellingly about the mysteries of the Trinity, but it was critical for him also to be clear on the truths that required the pitcher’s mound to be the precise, right distance from home plate. And indeed, in baseball, he found those subtle “checks and balances” that mirrored the principles that were rightful in ordering politics and economics and much else in the universe: “if you permit the [pitcher’s] mound to be raised several inches, or license bats of new materials, of heavier weight, [or moved first base a foot closer to home plate]. . .the necessary balances are subtly changed.”
He said once that he had wanted to be a writer since he was in second grade. And one of the chief defining facts about him was that he lived to write. He could write about the history and grainy details of baseball, or the metaphysics of sports, as he could write about the Battle of Lepanto. He would write on everything, because he was intently drawn to everything in this Creation, and in the moral ideas that moved those creatures who marked the peak of Creation.
He would write about forty-five books, including a novel on the Johnstown Flood, ready to be sent off at the time he died. And the plan was always there, always in motion, to get on to the next book.
He wrote once “it has never been difficult for me to identify with the poor. I was born among them. Johnstown, Pennsylvania, its steels mill strung out for a dozen miles. . .flanked by steep green hills, was a good place to grow up, among plain, solid people.” When he was there this fall to attend a funeral, he was struck to see the yards and hills filled with signs for “Trump.” Those people had once been loyal to the Democrats and the unions, but their drift politically mirrored Michael’s own drift from the Left. The party of abortion and same-sex marriage had taken a cultural turn, quite detached from the interests of those “plain, solid people.” And it was now utterly contemptuous of the moral and religious convictions that still summoned the loyalties of those people.
On January 1, I went to Mass with Michael at the Dominican House of Studies, next to his apartment building near Catholic University in Washington. He was strikingly upbeat about the chemotherapy he would face in dealing with his cancer, but it was also clear that he was not afraid to die. For then, he said, “I would see Karen sooner.”
Karen died seven years ago. With that remark, he noticed something in my own look. He smiled and said, “You still haven’t fully absorbed this Catholic way of seeing things.” He knew that I was wondering in turn: Will I be able to see my beloved Judy again?
He had been one of those dear, personal forces guiding me finally to enter the Church seven years ago. He so wanted me to take Communion with him. But he also supplied those snippets of distilled wisdom that eased the path and encouraged the move. “This is a Church,” he would say, “of the sinners, by the sinners, and for the sinners.” And the real clincher: “When you are Catholic, you are at least Jewish.”
And indeed, since I’ve been in the Church, I’ve not felt any less Jewish. Michael would add the elegant capstone with his lectures on the American Founding, and his remarkable insight on “The Hebrew Metaphysic” of the Declaration of Independence.
We will be able to hear Michael’s voice in the writings he has left us, and in recordings. And yet the hard truth is still settling in upon us, that he will no longer be there, for his love and counsel, for his political savvy, always steady, never in distress, never without hope.
Henry James once described a scene in Rome at dusk in St. Peter’s Square, with the vast spread of hawkers, vibrant with conversation and play, and he remarked that the spectacle was as broad and unbounded as this great Church itself, “which had no small pruderies to enforce.” Michael Novak was as boundless in his reach as that Church in which he was raised and nourished – and which he was able, in his later years, to counsel and instruct in turn. He has filled the world with his teachings, as he filled the lives of his friends with his learning and love.
Farewell, but not forever!
“See you on the other side!” This perhaps (on my part) overly optimistic, one-line message was what I thought to convey to my dear friend and colleague, Michael Novak, when my wife, Catherine, went to visit him in the hospital a few days before his passing.
I later reflected on why. Yes, in part it was because we were both philosophers in the footsteps of Socrates, and accustomed, then, to think of death as simply “movement to another place.” In part, too, I wished to signal that I shared his vibrant Christian faith, that in death life is “changed not ended.”
But the deepest reason, I realized, is that we had both passed through death together three times before. The movement from this side to the next was a familiar part of our friendship.
I mean in our meditations upon Blessed John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, in a course on “The 20th Century Catholic Intellectual Renaissance,” which I was fortunate to have taught with Michael Novak three times at Ave Maria University.
We would spend two full weeks on Gerontius. In the first, he and I would take turns in a complete dramatic reading of the poem, followed by discussion. In the second, we would watch with the class a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s magnificent oratorio, which takes the poem as its libretto. (Novak loved Daniel Barenboim’s rendition with the Berlin Philharmonic.) It was eight hours of very intense, draining, reflection on Gerontius on his deathbed, and his passage ultimately to the throne of God, led there tenderly by his guardian angel.
A wise professor once said that the true task of teaching is to point at beautiful and true things and say, ”Look!” Michael believed that simply pointing out these works to students, unknown to most undergraduates, was a tremendous service. Perhaps for this reason it was his habit at the end of a discussion to recommend a book. As one student has remarked: “This was his way of continuing a conversation and continuing to teach us, even when he could no longer be present with us.”
But suppose those beautiful and true things are reflected too in the visage of the professor who does the pointing. This, I think, is what students experienced in Novak. “I have no doubt that the theme of Gerontius was something that Novak reflected upon deeply,” a student wrote, “I felt like a child, trying to understand something beyond me, something I would come to understand later.”
He was a wounded teacher. He carried with him wounds of love, for his dear departed wife, Karen. “Not a day went by when he didn’t proclaim to everyone who would listen the beauty, joyfulness, and virtue of his late wife, Karen Laub-Novak,” a student wrote. This love infused itself into all his relations with colleagues and students. In the classroom, he would above all want to teach about charity. This was the theme that made him most animated, most impassioned.
But he also liked to speak about the dark night of the soul, and the problematic of human suffering, turning again, in his old age, to existentialist authors who had affected him deeply as a young man, especially Marcel but even Camus. It was important, he thought, not to sugarcoat life or Christianity.
The result was that, when I asked a student to summarize his teaching, she wrote, “He taught me the importance of sacrificing yourself for the people you love.”
Only about 1/100th of Novak’s teaching, by my rough reckoning, took place in class. That he was a Founding Trustee of Ave Maria might explain why he relocated to Florida. The move had something to do also with seeking consolations in a new setting after Karen’s passing (as would be very human). He found them in abundance, in friendships with admiring colleagues, who would gladly gather at his house for a dinner party at a moment’s notice, and in students who adored him.
He loved his students. He praised them, encouraged them, wrote letters on their behalf, found internships for them, hired them as assistants, promoted their careers, and invited groups of them to spend weeks with him at his summer home in Delaware. Above all he delighted in them. One of them explained: “If he thought you were beautiful, he would tell you – and because of him, every woman in Ave Maria knew that she was beautiful. The way he looked at people, especially women, as each being beautifully created and infinitely valuable, was genuine, sincere, and something we should all strive for.”
He was that teacher and friend who was disponible in Marcel’s sense. “He was always inviting students over for dinner. We read poetry together, watched movies, drank manhattans, and often just chatted. Once he came on his golf cart to the local coffee shop and asked me what I would like, and we sat and talked about everything and nothing. He knew how to spend time well and cultivate friendships,” I heard from a student.
From another: “I knew Novak had done great things in the world, but never realized how many people he had reached. He was humble about his experiences; he would tell stories like a grandfather, gently and sweetly. I felt like a granddaughter who knows that her grandfather has done great things and fought some great battles abroad. Of course he had. He was the best.”
For me, when I taught Gerontius with Michael, I noticed how he would linger over the poem’s final lines and insist that we go back and dwell upon them again, slowly. They are spoken by Gerontius’ guardian angel:
Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
Farewell, but not forever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.
In Memoriam: Michael Novak
Before he died the morning of Feb. 17, Michael Novak was heard to say, repeatedly, to everyone who came to say goodbye, “God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters.”
I saw him for about an hour the previous evening: He was at peace and ready to meet God (and deceased loved ones, especially his wife Karen). He had accepted going into hospice care, at home, where he was really taken care of, quite lovingly, by his sister Mary Ann, and children Jana and Rich. (Continue reading at The National Catholic Register . . .)