Then where I bode alone with a small band I prayed unto the cross, with blithesome heart, enduring courage. My soul was yearning for its journey hence. Too many a weary hour have I abode. Now have I hope of life, that I may seek that victor-tree, revere it well more oft than all men, Wherefore I have exceeding joy in heart, and my hope of succour is set upon the rood.
--Dream of the Rood
About 15 years ago I attended a conference where Thomas Howard was slated to be one of the speakers, but instead of giving a talk, he stood before the large audience and read The Dream of the Rood. The atmosphere in the stadium was absolutely electric, and there was no sound except the sound of his voice. I'm not sure why he didn't give a talk, or what caused this effect. The Dream of the Rood does not affect me in any heart-pounding way, but the feeling in that room was tangible. Perhaps it was his love for the poem which he had taught for many years. Then again, perhaps it was something else, for Howard has an uncanny ability to see through the veil that separates our daily life from the glorious reality that surrounds us and waits for us. Thankfully for us, he also possesses the ability to momentarily pull back that veil for us, so that we may glimpse our hope and our glory.
Thomas Howard was raised in the home of what a friend of mine once called "the best sort of evangelicals." They were grounded in the Scripture, centered in a life of personal prayer, dedicated to mission, and serious about education. They were the sort of Evangelicals that I associate with Wheaton College, and indeed, Howard, and I believe all but one of his six siblings did attend Wheaton where his father and grandfather were trustees.
A description of the Howard home reveals a father who rose early in order to have time for long prayers on his knees before the rest of the family awoke, and a mother who prayed every day after she sent her family off for the day. And music. The whole family sang hymns together daily--all the verses. There seems to have been a deep closeness between the family members, and a single-minded devotion to the Lord.
But for some reason, this was not enough for Howard. As he reached his adolescent and young adult years, he began to question many of the rules that were almost foundational in his church, and his questions seem to have sprung in great part from a dissatisfaction with the gnostic atmosphere of his evangelical background. Why, he wondered, could they not play cards, go to movies, or drink alcohol? Why could girls wear powder but not lipstick? He saw religion as a sort of retreat into a fortress of tranquility. "It was simply that," he says, "to my mind, religious faith ordinarily seemed to crowd one into a sort of corral, and I wanted to be free to caper across the downs."
I sometimes wanted to drive madly through the streets in a troika like Dmitri Karamosov, flogging the horses into a bloody lather, or fling, black-browed and gnashing like Heathcliff, across the moor under raggedy clouds, or to sit, specterlike, at a table in Saint-Germain, brooding over coffee and cigarettes. If this was what life held for the person who wanted to find it all out, then this was what I wanted. The imagery appealed to me far more than cardigans and pine needles.
--Christ the Tiger
We recognize this, of course, as being caused at least in part by the usual restlessness and desires of callow youth, but there was another factor quietly at work in Howard's desire to escape from a religiosity that sundered body and soul. We first see this when he describes paying a short visit to a Catholic Church with a friend when he was twelve.
My most vivid recollection from that visit was a tiny prick of light from a lamp hanging near the altar. I did not know what it might be, but it lodged itself forever in the firmament of my memory, like Arcturus or some other infinitely remote star. I was filled with awe, and even something like rapture, at how beautiful, how august everything was.
With what, had he been impressed, he asks.
Beauty, of course, but beyond that, what I had seen was an array of symbols. It seemed that all the things that I had read about in the holy Scriptures concerning the majesty of God, the centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mysteries of Creation and Redemption were suddenly on display here.
--Evangelical is Not Enough
As the years passed, this longing for beauty and the sacramental elements in life and in worship, and an impatience with evangelicalism's dismissal of these things grew within Howard. Eventually this longing led him through the Anglican and into the Catholic Church.
By profession an academic, Howard taught English Literature for 40 years, first at Gordon College, and then, after he was fired at the time of his conversion, at St. John, the Archdiocesan seminary of Boston. He has published many magazine articles having to do with English Literature, and on writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and T. S. Eliot. A good sampling of them can be found in the collection, The Night is Far Spent, collected by Vivian W. Dudro and publish by Ignatius Press.
His books for the most part concern two themes. One is his own ongoing spiritual journey. The other is the way that the unseen world informs all of creation, and how even the most seemingly prosaic elements of our daily lives grow from a tacit acknowledgement that there is more here than meets the eye. In most of the books, the two themes are intertwined.
One can follow the thread of Howard's spiritual progress through Christ the Tiger, Evangelical is Not Enough, The Secret of New York Revealed, and finally, a small book about his conversion to Catholicism, Lead, Kindly Light. The first (I wouldn't recommend this one unless you are really interested in Howard's life) records his young adult questioning and doubts about his faith, and ends with a newly understood relationship with and commitment to Jesus, although how he got from the first to the second is impossible for me to discern. The second chronicles his growing understanding of the importance and beauty of liturgy. The last is a very excellent little book that explains his conversion to the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. At one time, I bought several of these and gave them to friends who were thinking about making the journey themselves. More about The Secret of New York below.
Perhaps my favorite two books by Thomas Howard are the two that don't fit the mold. One is C. S. Lewis, Man of Letters, now being published as Narnia and Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C. S. Lewis. (This change of name irks me but is understandable. The book was originally called The Achievement of C. S. Lewis.) I love the Narnia Chronicles and the Space Trilogy in part because they draw me into a place beyond this one--not just into the places where the stories occur, but even further in than that. Twenty years ago, when I was sitting on a porch overlooking a beautiful forest and reading this book, I was surprised to find that Howard's essays on these stories brought me in in just the same way as the originals. I'm not sure if this would still be true after 16 years of discussing Lewis monthly and changing a great deal myself, but I hope to find out soon. I really wanted to reread the book in preparation for this post, but I just ran out of time.
The second of these books,The Novels of Charles Williams,is similar. When I read these essays, I had made one attempt at reading a novel by Charles Williams,War in Heaven, but was so overwhelmed with apprehension after the first few chapters that I never have finished it. After reading Howard's commentary on Williams's novels, though, I was able to read four of them, two of which I really love. Again, it's been about 20 years since I read the book, but I would highly recommended it to anyone who is having a hard time reading Williams. In a way, it played the same role in my ability to enter into Williams's work as Habit of Being did in opening up Flannery O'Connor's work to me.
When I was preparing to write this post, it was my intention to read through all of Howard's books (I have more than I remembered), and when I looked at his author page on the Ignatius Press website, I found that there was a book,The Secret of New York Revealed, that I had not seen before. This book was written from journals that Howard had written around the time of his marriage and early married life, but which was in the possession of a student with whom he lost touch for many years. Secret was finally published in 2003. This book is perhaps the best example of Howard's ability to see the world beyond this world. It is filled with joy, and while I was reading, I found passage after passage that was worthy of quoting. He writes about the unsuspected mysteries revealed in our wedding rituals, in a night at the opera, in the poems of T. S. Eliot, and in child bearing and raising. I'll close with this long quote about the work of Charles Williams, because it also describes that of Howard himself.
I found that I was being summoned into a world as I sat there reading Williams. It was as though you were being beckoned through a gate and then led along ways that wound deeper and deeper into a landscape. But the odd thing was that the further you got into the new world, the more familiar everything looked....
But the air seemed extraordinarily clear here. Everything seemed starker. Things stood out with a glory you hadn't noticed. Ordinary things that you had walked past for years were suffused with a light that seemed not so much to shed itself on them as to elicit from them some illumination already lying inside them. The clumps of trees, the houses, the hedges, the fences--you knew this neighborhood, but it was as though you had been until now a man almost blind or a man rushing by with preoccupations. You had missed most of it somehow.
--Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.