In January, our family lost someone dear to us—a surrogate mother God placed in our lives as a surprise. Sue Johnson lived next door with her daughter Melissa when we bought our first house in Grand Rapids. I can’t possibly describe what she became to us. Enfolded into our family, and we into hers, our two houses became one extended household. Our daughter Maddie would toddle over to Sue’s house to tell them coffee was ready; and Sue and Melissa would join us in home-repair projects and yard-sale excursions. Sue’s unexpected presence in our life is one of the reasons I believe in Providence.
Deanna perhaps described it to me best: Sue was a neighbour, not just because she lived next door, but because she loved others as herself. What we received from Sue can only be described as unconditional love. It wasn’t owed, it wasn’t expected; it was given. A gift.
Over a decade ago, Sue gave me a copy of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, for Christmas. Little did I know how significant this book would become for me. But as I looked at it again, I was reminded of a moving passage that could have been written about Sue.
As a boy, Merton was once left in the care of a French couple. Merton gratefully remembered “their kindness and goodness to me, and their peacefulness and their utter simplicity. They inspired real reverence, and I think, in a way, they were certainly saints. And they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner.” I count Sue among the saints.
Merton remembers them exactly the way I’ll remember Sue: as one of the treasured graces in our life, an ordinary saint next door, a sign that God loves you. Indeed, at the end, Merton wonders how he could ever repay thanks. “Who knows how much I owe to those . . . wonderful people,” he asks. “Who shall say? But one day I shall know, and it is good to be able to be confident that I will see them again and be able to thank them.”
Like Sue, we believe and hope in the resurrection, if only for the chance to thank her.
Stirred by Forgiveness
A few years back, Sue and Melissa gave us a unique, shabby-chic kind of gift: fragments of antique silver cutlery stamped with words, mostly for entertaining. So there’s a silver fork stamped with the word “Brie,” another with “Blue,” and so on.
But included was a teaspoon with the phrase “I’m sorry” stamped in it. Over the years, this spoon has migrated to our regular cutlery drawer. (Where do teaspoons disappear to, by the way?) So every few days this is the spoon that stirs my morning coffee. As a Calvinist, I think it’s not a bad way to start the day: “I’m sorry.” It’s a micro morning prayer as the aroma of a new day stirs me awake.
I just wish there was a corresponding phrase at the bottom of my cup: “I forgive you.”
The Nun Who Saved Philosophy | Every once in a while I come across a story and then am jarred when I remember I won’t be able to share it with Sue.
For example: In her remarkable, accessible history of existentialism, At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell recounts the saga of Edmund Husserl’s papers, which plays out like a detective drama. Husserl, for context, is the father of a philosophical movement called “phenomenology” (the focus of my own philosophical training), which gave rise to the existentialism of thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. One of the sad, ugly aspects of this history centres on the fate of Husserl and his work under the Hitler regime. Being the child of an assimilated Jewish family did not protect Husserl from the Nazi “purification” of the university—overseen by his own student, Heidegger, who was rector of the University of Freiburg at the time. Hounded from the university and barred from teaching, the elder Husserl lived a vulnerable existence until his death in 1938. During that time, his body of work—a massive collection of unpublished writings—lived a similarly vulnerable existence, in danger of being found and destroyed. So Husserl and his wife expended what remained of their energy in old age trying to guard his archive. The legacy of phenomenology was at stake.
But Husserl had unheralded champions like the Franciscan priest Herman Van Breda, who oversaw an operation to smuggle the forty thousand pages of Husserl’s Nachlass out of the country. The story illustrates the significance of cultural curation for future generations, and the bravery and prescience we depend on for things as banal as libraries and archives. This philosophical treasure trove is now secure at the University of Leuven in Belgium because a host of unknown actors, many Catholic, prized the importance of philosophy in a world gone mad. Some of the most significant acts of patronage are carried out by those who have taken a vow of poverty.
My favourite episode in this drama involves a Benedictine nun. When Van Breda asked some monks at a Franciscan monastery near Freiburg to shuttle Husserl’s papers to the nearby Belgian embassy, they were reluctant. But Sister Adelgundis Jägerschmidt, from a nearby convent, stepped up for the assignment. She had been a student of Husserl’s, and in defiance of Nazi orders against associating with Jews, she had visited Husserl regularly during his final illness. So Sister Adelgundis did what the brothers wouldn’t: loaded heavy suitcases onto a train to smuggle them to the convent for safekeeping. Little did I realize that my own work as a philosopher was made possible by the secret patronage of Sister Adelgundis. May her memory be blessed.
Augustine the Traveller | I hope at some point this summer you’ll find yourself enjoying the placid peace that comes from water lapping up against a shore, perhaps in twilight. Here on Michigan’s “West Coast,” the shoreline is one of our great treasures, and people drop everything in the warmth of summer months to make their way to the water. For the bulk of my summer I’ll be diving deep into Augustine as I work on my next book, but I hope to get to the lake some and float into liquid rest on my stand-up paddleboard.
As you have opportunity for sabbath rest and contemplation in the vicinity of water, you might take this lovely meditation from Augustine with you. In a sermon, Augustine the inveterate traveller (even into his old age the bishop was a “frequent flier,” so to speak) is preaching on the Gospel of John, and trying to help his congregation appreciate anew how Christ is the answer to deep-seated human hungers and hopes. So he avails himself of a travel metaphor. But this isn’t the travel of a tourist, a pleasure cruise to comfort. This is the journey of a migrant, an arduous trek fraught with danger. Where is Christ in that? Consider Augustine’s picture:
It is as if someone could see his home country from a long way away, but is cut off from it by the sea; he sees where to go, but does not have the means to get there. In the same way all of us long to reach that secure place of ours where that which is is, because it alone always is as it is. But in between lies the sea of this world through which we are going, even though we already see where we are going. . . . Thus, so that we might also have the means to go, the one we are longing to go to came here from there. And what did he make? A wooden raft for us to cross the sea on.
Augustine pictures a migrant who despairs of reaching the distant shore—the wine-dark sea is the barrier and threat. This is not a distance you can swim. You won’t get there by your own power. But God’s grace provides a wooden raft: the cross itself.
But today, our overconfidence in our own powers (“Believe in yourself!”) would seem to make us immune to this kind of worry. The confidence and comfort we enjoy mask another kind of danger. Sometimes the very riches that make possible our vacations paper over the existential threats to our souls. What makes the “sea of this world” dangerous isn’t always roiling waves and churning whitecaps. It’s when the sea of this world looks emerald and inviting that we can be suckered by its riptides. When your private jet deposits you on the sandy shores of this sea, you can fall prey to the illusion of safety. What’s a raft when you’ve got a yacht?
Of course the sea of this world is still harrowing for many, sucked under by its trials and tribulations. But elsewhere Augustine reminds us that the sea of this world can be a danger when it seems like we’re sailing right along, because we forget where home is. We anchor our yachts in blue lagoons of pleasure and comfort (sometimes in the name of “the goodness of creation!”) and forget the journey. Our wealth insulates us from many of the trials of the sea of this world. We sail through the world in cruise ships of privileged mastery that barely register the waves. We disdain the raft because we’ve built our own islands. Here the danger isn’t despair at the prospect of crossing the sea. The danger is that we forget to look to the other shore.
The cross is a raft that reminds us where home is. What’s remarkable about this cross-raft is not just that it can ferry you across the sea of this world, but that it fits through the eye of a needle.