Homily: Funeral Mass of Michael Novak

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” —words from St John’s Gospel

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Reverend Fathers; dear relatives, friends, and colleagues of Michael Novak:

The prolific Thomas Aquinas mysteriously fell silent during his final days. “Reginalde, mihi videtur ut palea,” he said, not entirely perspicuously, to his secretary, and all further dictation ceased. “Brother Reginald, it seems to me like straw.” St Thomas’s masterful writing: dried grass! Michael Novak, a wordsmith if ever there was one, also felt the weakness of words most sharply. Day by day he sat down at his desk to negotiate the silent chasm between insight and articulation, at irregular intervals his pen poised and hesitating before resuming its sure way across the page. Once when we were both working late at AEI, unbeknownst to each other, I happened to pass his office on the way to the coffee machine. Michael was staring at the shelves that housed his own publications protesting, “Michael, it is not good enough.” Far from causing him to lapse into silence, though, his salutary fear of falling short stimulated the flow of more books and articles.

“Creativity,” he once wrote. “It is a mystery. So much inside me dies, is twisted, turns barren, groans. Yet there is need to face that emptiness. Always worried, too, that what results is poor. It is, to be sure, like Genesis. The troubled waters roll. Without form, and void. And one must find it in oneself to enter the dark, not knowing what will come of it. The scent of death is never far away. Ì And death [he continues] How hard it is to speak of death. Not even the dying may. The doctors won’t. The families can’t. Death! So clear, simple, inevitable, natural, so beautiful, so full. Ripeness ready to rush forth. For what has one lived but death? Preparing for it every day, each of which may be the last. Death is to life what sugaring is to fruit: the quintessential self, everything subsumed and gathered up, in last, climactic taste. Eat! Drink! Dance the dance! Let the music play. Hear, the steps do come, begun at birth and nearer now: bridegroom, bride, sister-brother of my soul. As if for every infant beginning the hourglass journey, another child begins an opposite trek: child of life, meet child of death. When one has finished, the other has arrived. They kiss.”

Perhaps Michael’s daily struggle with that little death preceding the birth of speech, twigged the surmise that even on this occasion, when pen would be stopped and tongue silenced, Resources still remained. God, theologians say, is the principal author of the Scriptures. That, we hope, is so. However, the particular texts of this Mass were carefully selected by another author, Michael Novak—lending his own accent to the divine message, not by violently wresting it from its source, but by way of abbreviation and therefore emphasis. Mr Novak’s selection of these Mass texts underlines three essential themes that never ceased to solicit his attention: the experience of nothingness, the poetics of creation, and the vision of caritas. Moreover, as he confessed, more intimately, “These are also the deepest ties between [my wife] Karen and myself, as we discovered even on our first blind date in March of 1962.”

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In the first reading, from the ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah, Christians daringly hail a prophecy of the Passion of Christ. As such, it delineates the essential conditions of any divine manifestation. “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Isaiah asks. The answer is paradoxical, and brutally realistic. One who has become like a dry withered root without water, undesirable, unattractive, and therefore despised and rejected, one who knows suffering and pain: here is the privileged receiver of God’s word! This is what God confronts when he reveals himself, because lodged deep within the heart of man is the anguish of nothingness. In the dark, with weakened eyes, no path is blazed before him.

As a Holy Cross seminarian, the young Michael Novak studied the mystics of the faith for whom all lights go out, in a dark night of the soul. And Br. Michael the seminarian suffered his own interior struggles, eventually acknowledging signs of a secular vocation that countermanded ordination. But no textbook chart could cushion the blow of his beloved priest-brother’s murder in the Muslim-Hindu riots of East Pakistan in 1964, brutally cut down by river pirates while on an errand of mercy. Fr Richard Novak’s death was an unvarnished affliction; for a long time afterwards, the Novaks lived the deprival of all stereotyped consolation.

Michael’s theological lore thus earned a dark shading of verisimilitude. His book, The Experience of Nothingness, was a Jugendschrift. Nevertheless, in his latter years he still made recourse to this early work in discussion with students. His late book, No One Sees God, revisited many of the same themes, now with the sensibility of a tribal elder. Mr Novak proposed that through encounters with irrationality, terror, oppression, lack of faith, and emptiness of heart, man can ultimately verify that his moral sense is not founded on illusions, but is able to absorb every experience of darkness that he is likely to face. As Mr Novak insisted, “This effort is the main moral and intellectual task of our time: to absorb the lessons of the experience of nothingness and, on those grounds, build a new civilization. … We are not fated to nihilism. If we choose it, we do so in self-mutilation.”

 

Michael traversed the modern documents of nihilism, assisted at first especially by Camus, but in the background, half-hidden, was the saint of nothingness, the little Thérèse: “Therese saw nature intact and whole, and she rejoiced in every aspect of it, even its broken and incomplete and distorted parts, because she saw it suffused with the solicitations of God’s love. … Still to say ‘saw’ of Therese risks falsifying Therese’s witness. Often, for years on end, she saw nothing. She looked for her Beloved, and no one appeared.” “It is an oddity,” Mr Novak wrote, “that those who seek God become quite familiar with the experience of nothingness. It isn’t new to them. They have, in a way, more to say about it than the innocent atheist, who seems surprised by the night and sometimes rages, rages against it, and sometimes marches around it with empty boasts of defiance. Nothingness is familiar terrain to the believer in a transcendent God. It is terrain traversed in great inner pain.”

So the life of St Therese interprets the difficult Suffering Servant passage of the First Reading. We, Isaiah says, hide our faces and consider him the punished and afflicted one. We take refuge in our own ways. But he, the Blessed One, the only one who remains open to God, meanwhile sustains the human burden of pain and suffering in naked love, turning aside neither in avoidance nor in accusation. The Servant’s embrace of the full extent of the human condition, if only we knew it, is healing for man’s wounds.

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The Responsorial Psalm initially strikes a different note, celebrating the poetry of creation. God covers himself with light as with a garment. He stretches out the heavens like a curtain. He makes the clouds his chariot. He walks on the wings of the wind. Nature’s shining shows forth the gestures of the Lord. Michael Novak called his slim book of collected verse All Nature is a Sacramental Fire. Introducing his poetry, he says, “The Lord God Creator has given us five openings to the physical world around us, that sacramental world in which we swim: hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell. ‘All Nature is a Heraclitean Fire’, a real poet wrote. I am an amateur. But one who believes that everybody should write poetry, or reach for it. It is the language of our soul.” A Book of Elements, an early book of prose-poems, also invokes the latent sacramental sense of the philosopher Heraclitus: “Fire. Which all nature is, a Heraclitean fire: mud that stiffens, cakes, is swept by wind, erodes, and shifts; leaves that yellow, redden, spangle, twist, release, blow and rot, to push up jonquils near the wall … Passion and war, love and leaping hatred, violence and dedication. Build and burn. Shifting as the shadows of a giant cloud upon the waving wheat.”

But our Responsorial Psalm is more than a paean to intimations of divine immanence in the shimmer of nature. Given nature’s proximity to the divine, the psalmist proceeds to draw out some consequences for human life. First of all, darkness visits us anew. We still approach God himself in obscurity, and even as we decipher his action in nature’s shining we recognize, as well, the portion of darkness. “You make the darkness, and it is night, in which all the beasts of the forest creep about.” The splendour of nature sheathes certain dangerous fangs within: “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God.” However, the terror of the night falls under the law of an inscrutable mercy. “When the sun rises, they gather together and lie down in their dens.” While the desert sleeps, man comes into his own as what St John Paul II did not hesitate to call a “co-creator”: “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.”

Here we recognize the site of the most familiar portion of Michael Novak’s oeuvre—writings on the economy, labor, creativity, and enterprise. Here belong as well the studies of ethnicity, mediating institutions, labor history, and The Joy of Sports. The books of Michael Novak’s maturity are not without context; they stand on the footing of his struggle with darkness and exemplify his lyrical poetics of creation. A recent book on economics by John McNerney, appreciatively notes that Novak “moves beyond any notion of the human person as understood solely as a ‘self-maximizing’ agent in economic life. Novak explains how openness to the truth of human action propels us toward understanding the human person also as a ‘self-transcender’,” which is crucial to an honest postmodern analysis of human action.

But, for all this, the Responsorial Psalm sounds again the same note as the First Reading: darkness as trouble, death, and dissolution. ”You hide your face, they are troubled; you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” Having briefly evoked this tenebrous eventuality, the psalm concludes on a note of promise: “You send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.”

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The Second Reading and the Gospel, both by the Apostle John, the “one whom Jesus loved,” develop this redemptive theme in terms of the vision of caritas, not the modern charity but the ancient caritas, with its unique meaning, the love proper only to God, shared with us by participation. “It is not charity to believe that men are good,” Novak wrote. “It is a form of blindness. Charity is compassionate. It suffers-with. It loves men as they are: of ambivalent heart and free. … Beware of those who love men because men are good. If on so fundamental a point they see so foggily, the future toward which they speed us bears promise not of compassion but of elimination. When they have cut out all that is wrong with the human race, in accordance with the pattern laid up in their heads, only the mutilated will survive. It is no sign of compassion to trust in human goodness. Self-betrayal and betrayal of those one loves are ever-present possibilities.”

In today’s Gospel, only one question is raised during the Lord’s discourse on caritas. Judas (that is, Thaddeus, not the Iscariot, as the evangelist explicitly warns, lest we confuse the two) asks, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” It is fitting that the theme of manifesting and hiding worries the apostle who shares a name with the Betrayer. The common name ‘Judas’ does not readily convey which of the two Judases is meant. The false Judas, using the arts of dissimulation, hid his intentions from public view, nourishing evil purpose in his heart. The true Judas wants to know how it is that while Christ manifests himself to his friends, he remains hidden to the world? Together the two Judases point to the reign of darkness and the apparent feebleness of the light. The true Judas, according to tradition, bore two gifts from Jesus to Abgar the Toparch, a personal letter and an image of his Holy Face; both display this Judas’s involvement with communication and manifestation. On the other hand, the false Judas, we learn from the gospels, appropriated the common purse to serve his personal greed and delivered the Lord to the temple police at the price of thirty pieces of silver, ironically betraying him with a kiss. The ordinary signs of exchange (money) and of affection (a kiss) are easily perverted, just because they are signs, not the things themselves.

To Judas’ question, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” the answer is that the Lord’s manifestation is in the order of charity, God’s infinite love poured out upon creation. The “world” defines its boundaries by entrenching itself increasingly in a mass of finite goods and by the desire for fleshly self-sufficiency. Caritas would restore human wealth to the order of God’s bounty. Caritas would elevate human signs of affection and recognition to their original meaning as God’s gifts. Disregarding the generous order of caritas, one squints and overlooks the Lord’s manifestation. Only by participation in caritas does one truly see. Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love.

We hear in Judas’ question the same frustration that stalks John throughout the prologue of his gospel: “and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. … He was the true light, which illumines every man coming into this world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not.” Ultimately, caritas is the only thing that comprehends both the darkness and the shining, the miseries of human frailty and the poetry of creation.

More and more, as he grew older, Michael gravitated to the theme of caritas. In the Free Society Seminar at Bratislava, he developed a contemporary version of St Augustine’s City of God called Caritapolis. Later, he included a chapter on Caritapolis in The Universal Hunger for Liberty. He introduced the song “Ubi Caritas et Amor” to the daily Masses of the Free Society Seminar. It was his only musical request for today’s Mass, but he asked that it be sung twice. “Little children, love one another,” was said to be the aged Apostle John’s single and constant homily: a simple and profound wisdom that Michael made his own. To those who came to bid farewell before he died, he said repeatedly, “God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters.”

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He is closer now, than we are, to his Caritapolis. And maybe he always desired it more than we poor sinners have done. We can imagine him approaching the Divine Presence. “It isn’t good enough,” he confesses, candidly summing up his life.

Suffícit, etiam bene” (God often speaks Latin). “It suffices, even admirably. Caritas mea suffícit tibi. My own love is sufficient unto you.”

Two figures from Michael’s earthly life flash upon the aether. The first is charming, but, as the Lord acidly remarks, “a little baroque, don’t you think?”

Etiam Domine” (Michael begins to speak Latin, as well).

Behold an image Caravaggio might have painted. A bitter winter day, and Michael has spotted his adopted beggar at Farragut North Metro stop, a countryman of his forebears, a Slovak. Michael’s entourage grinds to a halt, his briefcases and papers are thrust into his assistants’ arms. Michael unwinds a long wool scarf, tosses open his greatcoat and at last extracts the coinage for his client. Some words in a Slavic tongue are exchanged, and there we have it: a full-length portrait of Michael Novak Giving Charity to a Beggar.

“It is what I required of you,” the Lord admits: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me. To imitate my caritas is no small thing. It will shine in the heavens. … But consider, if you will,” the Lord continues, after a pause, “another vignette, where the darkness, the shining, and the caritas you sought flow artlessly, unself-consciously, without measure from your heart.”

Video, Domine. I am looking, Lord.”

March, gritty, still pre-Spring. Michael has decided he and staff will attend Ash Wednesday Mass at St Matthew’s Cathedral. Before it sets out, the little procession is heaped with stacks of Crisis magazines—back issues. They are to be strategically deposited in the church, available gratis to the uncommon crowd of worshippers in pursuit of Lenten ashes. The throng is now spilling out onto the steps of the church, but the procession bearing gifts of Catholic journalism makes its way into the cathedral. They look for places to deposit their burdens, scanning at the same time for empty seats. Then Michael suddenly breaks formation and dashes down the aisle. Calling out the name of someone he has identified from afar, he trips and sends a stack of journals scudding across the floor. In a flash, he realizes his mistake. No one acknowledges his call.

“Do you know what this is, my son?”

“The end of an aging man’s illusion that he can still play football?”

“And?”

“A hope for ready reconciliation come to nothing …”

“You thought your offended friend was in my house that day, and that there would be words of peace spoken between you.”

Etiam, Domine. But I’m afraid I only made a fool of myself. A mess, nothing lovely.”

“All the same, I love it even more than the other. Maybe—just maybe—that first act of charity was not good enough, Michael. But the second was sublime. Didn’t I once tell of a Father who, while his son was a long way off, shedding dignity and measure, ran out to meet him? (It was I, thinly disguised, as usual.) At that crucial moment, splayed across the Cathedral carpet, your writings scattered and jumbled, the secret of your heart was on naked display. Not just like mine but in mine.”

And the Lord will manifest himself to him, but not the world. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

May those who struggled with his positions, those who were enlightened by his writings, those who loved him discover also the secret that he knew in his bones. Et laetitiam exultabunt ossa humiliata. And the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice. +

 

[Photo of Michael Novak by Evan Mucci/AP]

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