Grief for a Friend

This is for my friend and teacher John Hughes, who recently passed away.

* * *

You get closure through a process of erosion. For a while you wake up in the morning stunned, then you grieve throughout the day, and by evening you’re numb to it. Eventually the stun wears down to faint surprise, the grief to generalized sorrow, the numbness to resignation. Finally they all collapse into one thing. That’s closure.

* * *

There’s a portion in the eulogy where you describe what they were like. It seems a little far fetched, like trying to describe a stained glass window: you can get across the shape of it, but that’s mostly it; there are too many colors to really communicate, because they change throughout the day as the sun shines from this angle or that, and with morning’s descent into evening a saint’s eye can look hopeful or mournful. Whether you intend it or not you always end up describing instead how it makes you feel: it’s beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s stunning, it’s a little sad…

John was a uniquely intelligent person with a singular talent for making other people feel as though they might have something to add. It’s a rare gift in someone with any amount of genius to be able to inspire contribution from others, and it isn’t really a fault of extraordinary talent that it intimidates. But his didn’t; it had rather the opposite effect. You could sit in the slant sunlight of his office and know you knew less than he and still feel dreamily compelled to think aloud: I know this because I did it.

“You’re a very expansive thinker,” John said, laughing a little. He had an airy, nervous laugh. I knew he meant I hadn’t made much sense, because I’d picked up too many threads in what I’d just said.

And still I didn’t feel as though I shouldn’t go on. This quality in him was either patience or love; whatever it was, it was a rare virtue.

* * *
“What emerges from the theological account that Aquinas gives is the recognition of the teacher as a role model for the pupil. The pupil learns by spending time with the teacher, not only listening to the words of the teacher, but by paying attention to his or her way of living out what he or she teaches. It is thus important that the teacher be a person of good character, as the teacher inevitably serves as an exemplar for students. There is, therefore, an inescapable moral dimension to all teaching, and this is not restricted to the teaching of morals, but applies to other kinds of human knowledge…

…Aquinas emphasises the importance of friendship between teacher and pupil which develops a love of learn- ing in the pupil. The learner must, if he or she is to grow in wisdom, listen willingly, seek diligently, respond prudently and meditate attentively. In order for this to occur, the pupil needs to have the right conditions for learning, and a key component of these is the nurturing and encouragement that he or she receives from teachers.This is in contrast to a ‘shopkeeper view’ of teaching and learning where there is no need for any relationship between teacher and learner, save for a commercial one in which a product is exchanged for financial gain. In such a view, learning is a trans- action facilitated by the teaching of the teacher, a contractual obligation to be fulfilled. The educative process as Aquinas sees it is one which enables the relationship between teacher and learner to facilitate learning.”

Jnis Tlivaldis Ozolis, “Aquinas and his Understanding of Teaching and Learning.” 

* * *

On one hand, you would probably grow fond of a teacher in this system over time if you weren’t doing theology. In the American system as I’ve known it, it can be exceedingly difficult to get time with a professor during which they aren’t harried and seemingly shell shocked by the enormity of their work; this is a fault of structures, not persons. In the Cambridge system there are prescribed meetings with degree supervisors, but one could convincingly argue those aren’t the principle locations of learning. There are also dinners, afternoon coffee meet-ups, shot-from-the-hip tipsy conversations in bars after talks, moments when you just happened to see him on campus and then began to walk with him wherever he was going. In these liminal spaces the learning goes on.

Much of it is done through demonstration, and much of it pertains as much to the strange practice of being a scholar as it does to the scholarship itself. He wears his gown, so you wear yours. He quietly prioritizes his writing over attending talks, so you do the same. When he considers deeply he slumps backward ad peers up as though surveying the saints, and slowly you adopt the same postures, and you find that they really do facilitate your thought.

Because now when you do as he did you’re surveying him; this is teaching. He has made his mind available to you. When you were a new student you had no idea what he thought about anything, and then he taught you. Now you can read a book and say to yourself: here’s exactly what he would think of this, and in doing so you develop your own analysis of what you’ve read. He lends himself to you to lead you to the truth.

You become, in other words, a disciple.

* * *

“And to Milan I came, to Ambrose the bishop, famed through the whole world as one of the best of men, thy devoted servant. His eloquent discourse in those times abundantly provided thy people with the flour of thy wheat, the gladness of thy oil, and the sober intoxication of thy wine.  To him I was led by thee without my knowledge, that by him I might be led to thee in full knowledge. That man of God received me as a father would, and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should.

And I began to love him, of course, not at the first as a teacher of the truth, for I had entirely despaired of finding that in thy Church — but as a friendly man. And I studiously listened to him — though not with the right motive — as he preached to the people. I was trying to discover whether his eloquence came up to his reputation, and whether it flowed fuller or thinner than others said it did. And thus I hung on his words intently, but, as to his subject matter, I was only a careless and contemptuous listener. I was delighted with the charm of his speech, which was more erudite, though less cheerful and soothing, than Faustus’ style. As for subject matter, however, there could be no comparison, for the latter was wandering around in Manichean deceptions, while the former was teaching salvation most soundly. But “salvation is far from the wicked,” such as I was then when I stood before him.

Yet I was drawing nearer, gradually and unconsciously.”

Augustine, Confessions V.XIII

* * *

Certain hazards come with the discipleship model of learning, which is opposed to more transactional forms of learning that reduce an education to parcels of information which can be transmitted and received. In the transactional model, the teacher distributes a piece of information and the student files it away in memory. When the teacher goes on, the information remains: they were always only a conduit.

Neither master nor disciple is ever a vessel, ever merely a receptacle for information. The master is advanced in learning, but moreover the master is living a good life. The master is not so much concerned with transmitting data as with demonstrating for the disciple how this life is lived well, because it’s only in the context of a virtuous life that learning takes on a truly virtuous character.

It is possible that I am no longer making much sense. This is one of the hazards of the discipleship model. The master becomes a cipher, a process through which the disparate streams of thought and multitudes of text are parsed into a philosophy that coheres with the living of a good life. In the master, the wild infinity of what you must learn comes together to make sense, not because each individual thread is painstakingly explained to you, but because it is made clear in the master’s happiness that there is wheat among all this chaff, that what you are learning can amount to some satisfaction.

When the master is lost things that made sense don’t anymore.

* * *

I’ll tip my hand: what’s the point of theology? You love your teachers because you love their love of truth, because the love of truth is the love of God, and you love God in them: this is what Augustine says about friendship.

Your teacher dies young and suddenly and it’s senseless. Where was this all going, again? The immediacy of death subverts all long-term expectations, at least while you’re in the thick of it. Things begin to unravel.

You stand with his book open in your hands. You had meant to ask him something about it, you can’t remember what.

You had thought you had plenty of time; you had a sense of a timeline, because you knew where this was going, this project of theology.

* * *

“It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

* * *

Grief is a disorderly experience because death is a disorderly thing. Even if it were expected rather than sudden, it was never a natural part of the human story. Death came into the human narrative through disorder, and thus it remains.

And yet there is triumph over it: this is the promise of Christian hope.

Still the confusion of it presents a great deal of drag moving forward. One recovers purpose little by little. Once the dust of it settles, you realize you still have what you have.

To be a theologian, I learned from John, is to be a servant of the Church. He realized this in his priesthood. I will realize it, God willing, by sharing what I can with you — not only when it comes to matters of upset in the Christian life, like grief and marriage and culture shock, but all the bits and pieces relating to ethical and political practice. If I can shed a little light — even the smallest glimmer of light — on how to imagine theologically the way we conduct ourselves politically, then I will have performed a service to the Church in her journey here on earth. This is the meaning of theology, I think; this, I learned from John.

I hope I can do something good, and that it will be a legacy for him. Once a teacher has given all he can, this is what a student can give in return. To build toward that — well, it’s a goal, something to work toward, something to keep moving on. These are the circuitous little paths that form the way out of grief.

* * *

“For the life of faith, lived liturgically, everything is superfluity, grace, and yet, when we have done everything, offered all our work, we must still say that ‘we are unprofitable servants’, precisely because all true work, inasmuch as it participates in God’s work, is not ours but is given to us. Likewise, while we can have no control over the issue of our labour in this life, cannot secure it against being thwarted; nevertheless, we trust, in the hope of the Resurrection, that no good work will ultimately be lost.”

John Hughes, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism