A Friend and Mentor: Remembering Tom Howard

Peter Kreeft and Thomas Howard, on the cover of “The Philosopher’s Bench,” a series produced by EWTN. (EWTN Global Catholic Network)

Friends are not usually mentors.  Relationships with friends are horizontal relationships between equals; relationships with mentors are vertical relationships with role models.  I have had many friends and many mentors but only three people in my life have been both friends and mentors to me: Sheldon Vanauken, author of A Severe Mercy, the only book I know that elicits tears from all who have ever read it, Michael O’Brien, the greatest living Catholic novelist, and Tom Howard.

All three, in different ways (but especially Tom), remind me of the medieval statues of St. Augustine, which put an open book in one hand and a burning heart in the other.  Head and heart, reason and passion, mind and will, light and love, wisdom and wonder, truth and beauty, are the two divine attributes that raise us above the beasts; and while excellence in each is rare, the blend of both is even rarer.  Tom, like Augustine, had that blend.  No one I ever met has so tempted me to believe Keats’ equation, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”  (That equation is beautiful but not quite true.  But when truth and goodness marry, beauty is their child.)

Tom was in love with beauty everywhere, both material and spiritual: in the cosmos, in life, in liturgy, in saints, in words, in his lovely wife Lovelace, and above all in Christ. Beauty evoked in Tom, as in Augustine, both contemplation and passion, both wondering awe and inconsolable longing..  Tom was a passionate contemplative. His soul and his writing had the elegance of an Episcopalian and the fire of a Baptist.

Beauty was the subject of Augustine’s first book (which is lost) because it was the object of his first love.  If you think my comparing Tom to Augustine is overdone, compare these two paragraphs, from their respective spiritual autobiographies:

Thou didst call and cry to me and break open my deafness; and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness; Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for Thee; I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee; Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace. (Confessions, 10/27)

I announce to you redemption.  Behold I make all things new.  Behold I do what cannot be done.  I restore the years that the locusts and worms have eaten.  I restore the years which you have drooped away upon your crutches and in your wheel-chair.  I restore the symphonies and operas which your deaf ears have never heard, and the snowy massif your blind eyes have never seen, and the freedom lost to you through plunder, and the identity lost to you because of calumny and the failure of justice; and I restore the good which your own foolish mistakes have cheated you of.  And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which  you have wept and clawed your pillow.  (Christ the Tiger, p. 159)

Tom chose that title (from Blake’s “Tyger, tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night”) because Christ was truly a tiger to him: a shocking beauty, a beautiful shock.

Tom wrote only a dozen or so books, but he wrote nothing but masterpieces, including what to my mind remains the single best book ever written on the difference between the medieval Christian world-view and the modern post-Christian and demythologized world-view: Chance or the Dance? If it does not heal you of your “chronological snobbery,” nothing will.  One of Tom’s most memorable essays was entitled, “Myth, the Flight To Reality.”  Like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams, Tom was a great remythologizer.

Tom and I together founded the “Saint Socrates Society,” which met monthly at his elegant house in Beverly Farms and which lived at least as long as most dogs or cats.  We were “a little Inklings,” smaller in quality but larger in quantity.  It was attended mainly by faculty and graduate students from Boston College. Gordon College, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and only a little more formal than his “Beer and Bull” sessions with his students.  We defended and attacked each other’s short papers, and realized that our agreement in Christian orthodoxy spawned far more creative and friendly but passionate disagreements among us than any secular group we ever knew.

When Tom was fired from his teaching job at Gordon, he had been not only chairman of the English Department but by far the most popular teacher on campus.  But he became a Catholic, and even though Gordon allowed a Jew and an Eastern Orthodox Christian to teach there, they had to draw the line somewhere, and they decided it was the river Tiber.  I was teaching part-time at Gordon too, and they fired me too, but I had a full time job at BC, while Tom lost his whole job, his livelihood, and many friends.  When the authorities explained to us, in a polite way, why they had to let us go, they said we could not in good conscience sign their statement of faith, because it affirmed two things that Catholics denied: that the Bible contained “all knowledge that was sufficient for salvation” and that we are “justified by faith and not by the works of the law.”  They were very surprised when we informed them that we believed that too, since our Church wrote and canonized the very Bible which taught those things.

Some of Tom’s friends tried to persuade him to go to court to sue Gordon for religious discrimination, assuring him that he would probably win the suit and get his job back.  He refused, on principle, to let the government tell a religious school where it had to draw religious lines.  Tom was not only a gentleman (an endangered species today) but also a clear and consistent thinker.

One of the most memorable evenings in my life was a long conversation with Tom, Sheldon Vanauken, and Dom Julian Stead: two Protestants and two Catholics, in Fr. Julian’s digs at Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island.   Fr. Julian asked Tom and Van when they were going to swim the Tiber and come home, and wondered who would come first.  I said, “Let’s find out. Let’s ask them each the same question: What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?”  Van said, immediately, “I’d phone Dom Julian so I could die a Catholic.”  Tom said: “I don’t know.  I’ll have to pray about that.”  I replied, “Van’s coming first and Tom’s coming next.”  Both parts of my prophecy were verified fairly soon afterward, and I had the amazing privilege of being godfather to both of them.  But it was another God Father who had made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

We must not mourn Tom’s death but celebrate it.  The egg hatched.  The masterpiece was finished and went home to the printer.

C.S. Lewis opined, in The Problem of Pain, that each of us will in Heaven perceive some aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can—which is why God created so many of us—and that one of our tasks in Heaven will be to communicate that facet of God to the rest of us by means whereof all earthly philosophy and poetry and art are but clumsy imitations.  In light of that point from Lewis, and of  the paragraph above from Christ the Tiger, I anticipate being mentored again by Tom Howard in Heaven, and that is one of the heartiest and happiest reasons I want to go there.


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