Friday, January 09, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, 1936–2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus has died of complications from cancer at the age of seventy-two.

A native Canadian who emigrated to the United States, Neuhaus was a preacher’s kid who followed his father into the Lutheran clergy. He served as pastor of St. John the Evangelist, a predominantly black and Hispanic church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and during the Vietnam War joined with Abraham Joshua Heschel to form Clergy and Laity Concerned, an anti-war group. In 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, representing Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

Roe v. Wade changed everything for him. By 1984 he had left New York to start up the Center for Religion and Society at the Rockford Institute, a northern Illinois think tank founded in 1976 to “preserve the institutions of the Christian West.” Five years later, in a dispute over “the racist and anti-Semitic tones” of its magazine, Neuhaus was “forcibly evicted” from the Institute (the phrases are his). He returned to New York to create First Things, a bimonthly journal of religion and ideas.

In 1990 he converted to Catholicism, and the next year was ordained a priest by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. As the foremost public intellectual advocating the return of religion to The Naked Public Square (the title of his best-known book, published in 1984), Neuhaus influenced an entire generation of young writers, as can be seen from the beautiful tributes to him by Jody Bottum, the current editor of First Things, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary (the Jewish first cousin of First Things), and Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Neuhaus was my editor just once—I reviewed a biography of Jerzy Kosinski for him—although he sent me a complimentary letter after I had reviewed The Best American Poetry, asking me to recommend some poets who might read well in his journal’s pages. I also met him once, briefly, when I was in New York for a job interview, crashing with Jody Bottum in Neuhaus’s upstairs apartment. Even in our short encounter, I was touched by his genuine interest.

Neuhaus wrote seventeen books by himself and coauthored, edited, and contributed to many more. The book that has meant the most to me is As I Lay Dying, a brief meditation that Neuhaus wrote after surviving (barely) a bungled medical treatment that resulted in the rupture of an undiagnosed intestinal tumor. An expansion and development of “Born toward Dying,” an essay that had originally been published in First Things in 2000, the book ranges across the literature of death (the Book of Job, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, the Dies Irae) to conclude:

There is nothing that remarkable in my story, except that we are all unique in our living and dying. Early on in my illness a friend gave me John Donne’s wondrous Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The Devotions were written a year after Donne had almost died and then lingered for months at death’s door. He writes, “Though I may have seniors, others may be elder than I, yet I have proceeded apace in a good university, and gone a great way in a little time, by the furtherance of a vehement fever.” So I too have been to a good university, and what I have learned, what I have learned most importantly, is that, in living and dying, everything is ready now.I first read Neuhaus’s As I Lay Dying about a year ago, when I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer and given only a short time to live. My great friend Bedford Clark put the book into my hands, and Father Neuhaus stayed by my bed as I received chemotherapy and struggled not to slip beneath the waves of despair. A year later, not fully recovered but responding to treatment and with a much better prognosis, I too know that I have been to a good university. But I also had a good professor in Father Neuhaus, who taught me to make everything ready.

May he rest in peace.

2 comments:

courtneyvz said...

Dr. Myers,

How strange that I should stumble across your blog today. I was at once sorry to read that you've been ill and pleased to read that you are doing better.

I have also been to a good university and have benefited from the wisdom of good teachers. I am grateful to this day for the professor who introduced me to Fitzgerald and Nabokov and encouraged me to write clearly and make a bold argument. I hope for health and peace for you and your family this year.

Courtney

D. G. Myers said...

Courtney,

How good to hear from you. And how wonderful to learn that you are still reading the likes of Fitzgerald and Nabokov, although you would have improved my reputation if you had mentioned Wright instead. Or didn’t we read Native Son in our class? Well, you should read it now if you didn’t then.

Right back at you with hopes for health and peace. And may your life get better and better. Stay in touch.