Sunday, March 1, 2009

Remembering Father Canavan—Part 2

A Jesuit who wore clerics:
Father Canavan at the 2005 Human Life Foundation dinner

When I first met Father Francis Canavan S.J. at the Human Life Foundation's annual award dinner in October 2006, it was as a fan. I told him how much I appreciated his writing and asked me to tell me about his life. He obliged the request with great generosity, even though extended conversation in a noisy hall must have been hard for him, given his physical fragility and impaired hearing.

Our friendship really began a couple of months later, after I sent him a copy of my newly published book The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. As an author, you learn there are two kinds of people in this world: people who read the copy of your book that you send them, and people who don't. Father Canavan responded to my gift with a beautiful typed letter that showed he had not only read the book, but really understood it (and you know how writers long to be understood). Best of all, he liked it—enough so, in fact, that he included his phone number in the letter and asked me to call.

Looking back, I realize that was when he began mentoring me, although it was so natural that I didn't think of it as mentoring at the time. He truly had the gift of encouragement, coupled with another gift so precious in intellectual giants: humility. Such genuine interest did he take in my achievements, showing such respect for my abilities, that only in retrospect do I realize I was being guided.

I now see that, throughout our friendship, he was trying to direct me towards continuing and intensifying my efforts to counter the lies of the sexual revolution. His vision of the culture of life was broad and deep, and he saw my efforts to promote chastity the way I did—not as a mere means to preventing abortions and sexually transmitted disease, but rather as an end, bringing with it a restoration of respect for the dignity of every human person.

In addition, I believe there is also another reason why Father Canavan responded to my book. He told me that, for a time, he had suffered from alcoholism and, with it, if I recall correctly, depression. I think he recognized that The Thrill of the Chaste was a recovery memoir, and so appreciated its emphasis on God's healing grace. During the 1980s, he had given inspirational talks to members of a Catholic support organization for recovering alcoholics, the Calix Society, which were compiled into a pair of books, The Light of Faith and By the Grace of God. I have not yet read them, but they are both available via the Calix Web site.

* * *

National Review books editor Mike Potemra says that when he used to converse with Father Canavan during the priest's periodic lunches with the Human Life Review staff, he felt "an unmistakable sense of the numinous from him."

"It was uncanny," Potemra writes, "it was a moment of stopped time, of a deep unity, of 'these things shall pass away but God's words will not pass away.'"

I had the same feeling, especially when visiting Father Canavan at the Murray-Weigel infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he spent his final years after retiring from his Fordham professorship.

The first time I saw him there was last spring, when I was visiting Fordham to witness a Jesuit friend's ordination to the priesthood. Despite being happy for my friend, I was going through a terribly anxious time. Two weeks earlier, I had been in the hospital for thyroid-cancer surgery which, though successful, had taken a toll on me emotionally and made the other stresses of my life appear more threatening.

All my worries lost their overarching importance when, with a scarf around my neck to protect my surgical scar from the bright June sun, I met Father Canavan on a park bench outside Murray-Weigel. It felt like slipping into untimed time—the kind of sharing of light and just being present for each other that I imagine the saints in heaven enjoy.

* * *

How Father Canavan imagined heaven may be seen in his commentary in the August 2008 issue of Catholic Eye,** which I have been granted permission to excerpt here:
If there is no God who created and rules the world, two consequences follow. One is that there will be no divine judgment on how we have lived our lives. And, anyhow, after death we shall not exist to be judged. The end of life in this world is an absolute end. The other consequence is that, whatever we hope to get from our lives, we have to get it here, because there will be no hereafter in which to get it. ...

In the post-Christian world, many simply accept that as all there is, yet my atheist acquaintances live decent lives with some regard for other people. Many seem to accept "live and let live" as the norm of a good life, and I respect that. But is that really all there is? Or do they avoid thinking about it?

I once was asked to officiate at the marriage of a friend's daughter. Before the marriage took place, I told the young couple that they had a choice between "until death do us part" and "I will love you and honor you all the days of my life." The young man seemed to be uneasy about "until death do us part," so I asked him what upset him. He replied that it "speaks of death."

That may be the explanation of the rejection of the idea of eternal life. People may regard no life but this one as the only one worth living. And, while we all know that we have to die, it is better in this worldview not to think about it.

That is understandable in a young child. A two-year-old's world consists of Mommy and Daddy who love you and care for you, and of visits by uncles and aunts who make a fuss over you. At age 2, you do not think of any life more than that. But, alas, we all grow up.

In my way of looking at this matter, going to see God, as the gospels promise us, can be symbolized in this present life by being taken by a friend to see a view from a mountain. You go up high and around a bend in the road, and before you lies a view of startling beauty, so beautiful that you could stand there forever just looking at it.

God is infinitely more enchanting than that, for He is absolute Being, absolute Good, and absolute Beauty.

In one of his letters, St. Paul describes the pagans of his time as being "without faith, without hope, without God in this world." I would not bother arguing with today's pagans if they demand scientific proof of Him. But if the choice is between eternal life with God and eternal nothingness, I choose God, for nothing else gives life a lasting purpose and a meaning.

More recollections tomorrow.
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**Catholic Eye is an excellent monthly newsletter that does not have a Web site. It is published by the National Committee of Catholic Laymen, Inc., which shares its headquarters with Human Life Review: 353 Lexington Ave., Suite 802, New York, NY 10016. Subscriptions are $34.95 per year prepaid, first-class postage included.