My Communion of Saints

Author: Michael Garvey '74

With the whimsical mordancy that only an Irishman can get exactly right, a mutual friend of Denny Moore’s and mine recently spoke of Denny’s being “dead at the moment.” I’d heard that arresting usage before—in Ireland, of course—and knew exactly what was meant. It was the sort of thing Denny would say.

The phrase came up in a conversation about what had happened a few hours after Denny’s funeral. When Denny, Notre Dame’s associate vice president for public affairs and communications, died last December, he had been the University’s principal spokesperson for a decade and a half. His funeral, not surprisingly, overflowed the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, but it was a somewhat quieter and less formal occasion when several of us surrounded his grave in Cedar Grove cemetery to raise a few glasses of whiskey in gratitude for him, to honor our friendship, to share our love for him, to pray with him and to wish him God speed. The memory of that session is among the many reasons I find it awkward to speak of Denny in the past tense. It reinforces my conviction that he is dead only “at the moment,” as you and I and everyone we love will some day be.

It was, to put it mildly, a variegated gathering, the sort that only a man of Denny’s generosity and gregariousness could attract. Even my brother Hugh, a confessed Republican, was there, affably reminiscing among lefties. When one of us piously began a toast, “We all believe in the Mystical Body of Christ,” another caustically rejoined, “Mo doesn’t. He’s a Muslim!” Mo and everybody laughed, including Denny, no doubt, knowing how unquestionably Mo belonged among us.

Those of us who knew of Denny’s fondness for G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi could see it illustrated in our motley graveside convocation: “He honored all men,” Chesterton wrote of Saint Francis (and could as easily have written of Denny). “That is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him extraordinary personal power was this: that from the pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardone was really interested in him, that he was being valued and taken seriously. . . . He treated the whole mob of men as a mob of kings.”

Denny practiced the regal egalitarianism of Francis so skillfully because he celebrated it so regularly at Mass and savored it so heartily in his family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone he encountered fascinated him. In people others found easy to despise, he always managed to find something to revere. Such is the attitude of saints, and it doesn’t come naturally. It must be taught and learned. The teachers, obviously, are the saints themselves, the people constituting that “great cloud of witnesses” in the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews. By the time he died at age 55, Denny, I’m overjoyed to say, had already begun to teach.

Whether or not it was the letter writer’s intention, “cloud of witnesses” seems to get it about right. Fatuous theology, saccharine piety, overwrought prose, bad art and sentimentality have all combined to produce a fog that obscures the images of these remarkable men and women, gives them a uniform, blurry appearance, and makes them seem, well, forgettable. Dorothy Day, who knew a thing or two about the saints, elided the question of her own canonization by replying, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” She also pointed out that a person could go to hell imitating the imperfections of the saints, which is another way of saying that the saints are, except for their sanctity, pretty much like all the rest of us.

That seems to be the point of the elaborate and soporific genealogy of Christ at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Nodding off at Midnight Mass during the endless account of how so and so was the father of so and so, it’s easy to forget that this skeletal tracing of generations from Abraham to David to the Babylonian exile up to Jesus features a list of some pretty unsavory characters. This is documentation of the fact that Jesus, as the theologian Herbert McCabe, O.P., wrote, “belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars—he belonged to us and he came to help us. No wonder he came to a bad end and gave us some hope.”

It certainly gives me hope that Denny, who was kinder, more honest, more patient and braver than I, also was my friend. It is heartening to know that he was, and still is, in a communion that includes the likes of me. I’m grateful that he is among that great cloud of witnesses surrounding this mob of kings in which he was once and I am still swept along.

Each of us has a personal litany of saints, idiosyncratically arranged and not always in precise alignment with those endorsed by the Vatican. These are, whether canonized or not, whether immediately likeable or not, undoubtedly our friends, people with whom we are heartened to be in communion.

This is why, when we Catholics pray as we are commanded always to do, our interior lives become every bit as loony, crowded and unsettled as those of subway drunks. Alongside our neighbors, we are busy buying groceries, beer and hardware, gassing up cars, renting videos, chasing the damn dollar and resenting the boss, but we are simultaneously engaged in furtive conversations with Jesus, Mary, various apostles and countless long-dead men, women and children. We have close personal friends in both worlds, so we always have company to enjoy, entertain and endure, whether other folks see it or not. Calmer people who can’t or won’t keep company with the dead have trouble keeping company with us.

When you consider the people, the saints and uncanonized witnesses with whom we habitually commune, this wariness seems all the more justified. Denny’s personal litany (and my own) would include, for instance, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest and poet whose “May Magnificat” Denny liked to keep framed and handy on his desk.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins joined my own litany one day during my adolescence when my mother, standing in our kitchen, read aloud these lines from one of his poems:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash_

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and_

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

She then clutched the volume to her breast and cheered, “Hopkins, I love you!” Mom’s susceptibility to the arts notwithstanding, I knew that Hopkins was a guy to watch.

And he was. At first glance, Hopkins epitomized everything I disliked: An effeminate Oxonian geek neurotically searching for absolute answers, he was very much a child of the ‘60s, the 1860s, that is. He rebelled against his Anglican family, “swam the Tiber,” as they said in those days of converting to Catholicism, and was received into the Catholic church a year before his graduation in 1867. His conversion evidently did nothing for his frail health, gastrointestinal miseries and profound depression, and you can’t help but wonder, in our present Myers-Briggs era of religious formation, what today’s Jesuit order would make of an application from a young man as mentally and physically ill as this garden variety Victorian nutcase so obviously was. Nevertheless, he joined the Jesuits in 1868; served in poor parishes in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow; unhappily taught Greek and Latin to uncomprehending university students; and died in Dublin of typhoid fever in 1889. He was 44 years old.

Like other demented geniuses, Hopkins had led a diminished, if not miserable, life, never at peace, never quite fitting in. He couldn’t bear to read the hurt and angry letters his parents wrote him when he became a Catholic, so he read them over and over again. He burned most of his early poems when he entered the Jesuits, renouncing poetry as too world-approving for his chosen vocation. Seven years later, equally unable to withstand the grace of God and the nagging of his muse, he began to write again, but few of his poems were published, fewer still were read, and none was raised. He frequently suffered what he described as “the loathing and hopelessness which I have so often felt before, which made me fear madness. All my undertakings miscarry: I am like a straining eunuch.”

Thank God Father Hopkins was so very wrong about the miscarriage of his undertakings. Thank God that through his poems, he continues to minister to a community of excitable misfits, reminding us Jacks, jokes and poor potsherds that:

The mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall_

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap_

May who ne’er hung there.

Thank God this same strange man, who himself had hung from some terrifying places and shuddered above some terrifying chasms in his own imagination, was able to leave us such authoritative evocations of nauseating doubt and such cracked and glorious hymns of exuberant faith. Thank God his dying words could be, “I am happy, so happy.” Maybe there is hope for us insecure crazies after all. Thank God he is still with us.

Franz Jaegerstatter

While Franz Jaegerstatter was every bit as mismatched with his surroundings as was Gerard Manley Hopkins, and every bit as much a victim of madness, the pathologies afflicting Jaegerstatter emerged not from his imagination but from the depraved society he so bravely withstood.

Had Jaegerstatter been born in the rural American South instead of the rural Austrian North, he would have deserved the label “white trash.” By the time he had emerged from adolescence into adulthood, this hayseed from a wide place in the road named Saint Radegund had gotten a local girl “in trouble” and earned a reputation as unsavory, hard-drinking and occasionally violent.

Eventually, he not only settled down and got married but underwent a religious conversion as well. By 1938, when Hitler’s Third Reich had annexed Jaegerstatter’s all-too-cooperative homeland, the former hellraiser had become a respected farmer, model family man and sacristan in his parish church. Jaegerstatter opposed the annexation and tolerated the Nazi regime with a mixture of contempt and resignation. When he was conscripted into military service he reluctantly complied. Saint Radegund was the sort of tiny town in which everyone knew everyone else, so it was easy to find local officials to pull strings. Jaegerstatter managed to get listed as an “indispensable” agricultural worker and returned to Saint Radegund after six months, alarming anyone who would listen to him with the announcement that he could not and would not fight in the immoral war which Germany had begun.

Here Jaegerstatter’s life begins to illustrate what a shrewd monastic friend of mine is fond of saying: If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans. Jaegerstatter had despaired of the distracted and lethal hedonism of his youth, embraced a renewed faith and found—in prayer, in marriage, in family and in the church—a life of true peace. He felt himself truly alive for the first time and planned to share his new life with others. “I can say from my own experience,” he wrote to a friend, “how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living.”

God began to show him what real living requires. In the two years that elapsed between his return to Saint Radegund and his call to report again for military service in 1943, Jaegerstatter went through hell and was supported and encouraged by . . . no one. Everyone, and none more than Jaegerstatter, knew that the consequence of his refusal would likely be death, and everyone advised him to obey the Nazi authorities, to think about his responsibilities as a citizen, husband, father and breadwinner. Gordon Zahn’s classic book In Solitary Witness excruciatingly describes how “every single one in the long series of spiritual counselors to whom Jaegerstatter had turned, from his pastor, to the chaplain . . . in his death cell regarded his action as an imprudent, foolhardy, and unnecessary sacrifice.” His local bishop admitted that “I explained in vain to him the moral principles on the degree of responsibility that the private citizen has for the actions of the authorities, and reminded him of the much higher responsibility he had for those around him and particularly his family.”

Thank God Franz Jaegerstatter didn’t listen to those counselors. He went to his death assuming, with lamentably good reason, that his witness would be dismissed by most, ignored by many and remembered by few. Shortly before he was beheaded by the Gestapo, he wrote a letter from prison in which he wondered, “Is the Kingdom of God of such slight value that it is not worth some sacrifice, that we place every little thing of this world ahead of the eternal treasures? Happy are they who live and die in God’s love.” Thank God this impetuous Austrian redneck could so confuse and fascinate us with a peculiar understanding of happiness. Thank God for his solitary witness.

Flannery O’Connor

All the people in my customized litany have given courageous witness in various ways. Like Denny Moore, the most recent addition, Flannery O’Connor accepted her failing health and too-early death with numinous aplomb. By the time of that death (in 1964, at age 39, of lupus erythematosus, a blood disease as miserable and incurable as it sounds) the eccentric young woman from Milledgeville, Georgia, had published 31 short stories and two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. The work of this unusual storyteller, who once bemoaned her readers’ impression that she was “a hillbilly nihilist” instead of “a hillbilly Thomist,” intrigued and disconcerted literary critics with its simultaneously hilarious and terrifying evocations of the invasion of God’s grace. It isn’t every writer, after all, who can at the same time tease out a prayer and a belly laugh with a description of a defenseless old woman begging in vain for the mercy of a homicidal cracker psychopath. She could, which is among the reasons that she was with the rest of us oddballs at Denny’s grave.

She was a great writer, certainly, but I also esteem her for her willingness to speak the truth at awkward times, her refusal to allow bashfulness to smother her most urgent convictions. The same searing prophetic light blazes in her art, her speech, her manners and her life.

It memorably flares in a letter she once wrote to a friend recounting a long dinner party at the novelist Mary McCarthy’s apartment in New York City. The caustic McCarthy could be a daunting hostess—she’s the one who memorably denounced Lillian Hellman by saying, “Every word the woman utters is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Flannery described being among the guests of this celebrity:

who departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of, but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

That instinctive response to a late-night moment of social discomfiture is a particular treasure in O’Connor’s already invaluable legacy, but it is also characteristic of her refusal to tolerate any complacency, whether secular or religious. She was no more eager to please glib believers than she was to please Mary McCarthy. “Smugness is the Great Catholic Sin,” she wrote in another letter. “I find it in myself and don’t dislike it any less. . . . With a few exceptions the American clergy, when it takes to the pen, brings this particular sin with it in full force.”

Thank God for this erudite red-dirt spinster, who wrote strange stories, raised peacocks and scandalized the literary scribes and Pharisees. Thank God for her tales, letters, wisecracks and prayers, which resonate with our own when we see glints of meaning in the mystery of pain. Thank God for her inability to maintain a polite silence.

Captain Mbaye Diagne

He was at Denny’s grave with us, too, this most surreptitious of military heroes. One of the Muslims in the litany, Diagne was a native of Senegal, born to a large, poor family in a Dakar slum, the first in his family to go to college. After graduating from the University of Dakar, he joined the army and worked his way up through the officer’s ranks.

When the United Nations sent peacekeeping troops to Rwanda in 1993, to moderate a smoldering war between the Hutu government and the Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Captain Diagne was among them. As trouble spots go, Rwanda seemed unremarkable at first, as did the U.N.‘s standing orders to its forces there: They were to observe the strictest neutrality, not intervening in yet another local ethnic brawl among Africans without oil. Such orders are easily obeyed, even by men like Diagne.

But then, in spring 1994, all hell broke famously loose. Off-duty government soldiers, Hutu street gangs, and finally ordinary men and women began to kill every Tutsi and peaceable Hutu they could find. An unimpeded slaughter continued through spring and summer until conservatively 800,000 Rwandans had been put to death.

Perhaps because their murderers preferred to work with machetes, perhaps because a cowardly U.S. administration and international community wanted to avoid the legally actionable term “genocide,” perhaps simply because of its incomprehensible enormity, the carnage was, and still is, too often described as a tribal frenzy of bloodlust. The massacre in Rwanda was not, however, a spasmodic eruption of insane violence, but something every bit as purposeful, organized and satanic as the Nazis’ “Final Solution” half a century earlier. The customary orderliness of Rwandan society, the cooperation of the media, and a perverse notion of “umuganda,” the work and civic duty of ordinary citizens, were all carefully harnessed by ideologues zealous for Hutu power and enraged by real or imagined challenges to it. Like their Aryan supremacist predecessors in Nazi Germany, the perpetrators of the Rwandan slaughter could count on the inaction of witnesses.

Mbaye Diagne was not inactive. In fact, one BBC reporter, Mark Doyle, remembers him as absurdly hyperactive, the very stereotype of an ineffectual U.N. official in a war zone, rushing around from one military headquarters to another with maps tucked under his arm, busy with mysterious and largely irrelevant errands. “I didn’t know at the time what he was doing,” Doyle said in a recent television interview. “I had an inkling from one or two people that he was saving people’s lives, and I learnt about it several weeks later after he’d been killed.”

In the first moments of the killing, the unarmed Captain Diagne evidently resolved to disobey the U.N.‘s standing orders not to intervene. He plunged into the horror and began risking his own life to save others. "I learned that he’d rescued the family of the [murdered] prime minister, the children," Doyle said, “and he’d hidden them in his house. I understand that he saved quite a lot of other people as well by driving through the front line, hiding people in his car, driving back through the front line and so on.”

Accounts of Diagne’s heroism have only begun to emerge from the atrocity of a decade ago: How he could laugh and swagger and joke while the bloodbath roiled; how he once discovered 25 Tutsis hiding in a Kigali basement and ferried them in five jeep trips, five passengers at a time through 23 militia checkpoints, to the safety of U.N. headquarters.

Lieutenant Colonel Babacar Faye, a close friend and fellow Senegalese army officer in the U.N. contingent, believes that it was Diagne’s in-your-face attitude that allowed him to negotiate the roadblocks of bloodthirsty militiamen.

“He established real contact through his sarcasm,” said Faye. “Most of the time he made you angry before you became his friend. . . . He was the kind of person that could share all that he had; he would give you a pack of cigarettes or for all the group. Sometimes he would just force somebody to smoke with him.”

“That’s just the way he was,” said Gregory Alex, head of the U.N. humanitarian assistance team in Rwanda. “People laughed. Even they [the genocidal militiamen] have, or had, some attachment to a real world where there’s real laughter. Even in all this gore, hatred; as long as you can have that brief glimpse of his smile, or laugh about something that’s good, you’ll grab onto it. And with Mbaye I think that’s what everybody did. At all those checkpoints, they all knew him.”

Diagne’s eccentrically heroic career was cut short on May 31, 1994, when a checkpoint at which he was waiting came under rebel mortar fire. A piece of shrapnel shot through his Jeep’s rear window and killed him instantly. To this day nobody knows how many men, women and children this insubordinate martyr managed to conceal in hiding places throughout Kigali and the surrounding countryside. Nor does anyone know the number of people he was able to smuggle, sweet-talk, bribe and backslap past checkpoints manned by murderers. Dozens, certainly. Hundreds, probably. Thousands, possibly. It is by no means a cliché to add that God knows.

And Denny, too, no doubt.

Vincent Van Gogh

No graveside gathering as motley as ours could be complete without a bankrupt, paranoid-schizophrenic, gonorrhoea-afflicted, suicidal Dutch painter. What is Vincent Van Gogh doing in the litany?

All artists need patrons, so Monsieur Vincent could be included under the patronage of Denny’s fondness for outcasts. Poor Van Gogh fairly invented the stereotype of the Crazed Artistic Genius, the romantic hero who shatters conventions and sacrifices (or escapes) constraining bourgeois relationships in service to his pursuit of the sublime. But Van Gogh, at least if his letters are to believed, was really a rather sad man, if a great painter, and never believed that artists were significantly different from, let alone better than, other people. There is no hint of self-congratulation or approval in his observation to a friend that “a painter as a man is too absorbed in what his eyes see, and is not sufficiently master of the rest of his life.”

Van Gogh was hardly the master of his own. Born March 30, 1853, in Groot Zundert, the Netherlands, the son of a dour Protestant clergyman, he was a seminary dropout and failed missionary who couldn’t hold down a normal job and had to depend for most of his life on his long-suffering and not-at-all wealthy brother, Theo, for financial and psychic support. Despite the fact that his 10-year career as a painter—like Flannery O’Connor’s similarly short career as a writer—is a marvelous explosion of artistic grace, of the some 900 oil paintings and 1,000 drawings and watercolors he managed to produce, he sold only one. He was poor and mentally ill, a disgrace to his family, rejected by the woman he loved, and even clumsy at suicide. On a hot July day in a wheat field near Auvers-sur-Oise, he shot himself in the belly with a pistol, later staggering into a local inn sobbing, “I tried to kill myself. I bungled it.” After an excruciating death, he was buried in a grave strewn with sunflowers.

Still, looking at his searingly luminous canvases, reading his unflinchingly honest letters, and considering the meteoric 37-year trajectory of Van Gogh’s life, it’s difficult to disagree with W.H. Auden’s conclusion that “in spite of everything, the final impression is one of triumph.” Here, after all, is a man who genuinely preferred to keep company with the poor; who once wrote that he wanted “to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring”; who thought it wonderful and terrifying that when confronted with “the image of indescribable and unutterable desolation—of loneliness, poverty and misery, the end and extreme of all things, the thought of God comes into one’s mind.”

Anyone who prays before icons knows that to look on an icon as a painting is to look on an icon in vain. An icon is a painted prayer, which also may be said of dozens of Van Gogh’s works. Surely God could not turn away someone as desperate to find him as was this tormented artist. Surely he prayed with the rest of us at Denny’s grave that day. Loving and loved as we all were, surrounded as we were by the martyrs and all the saints, God couldn’t turn us away either.

So God joined us.

Michael Garvey is an assistant director of news and information at Notre Dame.