In Memory of
William J. Richardson, S.J.
(2 November 1920-10 December 2016)
In my last extended conversation with Bill, I asked him whether he was in any pain and he told me that he was not. “Few people at 96 are cared for as well as I am, Leo,” he added. What was he thinking about? I asked. And he said that he was “spending his time trying to make sense of these last days.”
And that was, in many ways, what he had been doing all his life. Making sense of things through a life at the center of which was his giving his word and keeping it.
His faith was fierce, wrested from the absurdity of life and won, through grace, again and again—for us first, his family and students. For aren’t all of here really his students, following him into the time of making sense not just of this world and our lives in it but, well, yes, Being, the real from which all realities arise. Seeking sense and finding the word to express it, was that not his life? And was there anyone for whom the word of meaning he sought was more clearly not an answer but a mystery, not a problem to be solved but a fullness of meaning beyond all human expression?
Shall we call that mystery God? It’s a staggering claim. Who can make it? St. Paul, certainly. Who can separate us, he wrote to the Romans, from the love of Christ? What earthly sorrow or calamity, what staggering loss of meaning?
“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” wrote Paul. All things! “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8.31-39).
Bill’s search for meaning was a faith because it took its ground and dynamic not from a philosophical conviction of the reality of God, a conventional theism, if you will, but from an embodied, an incarnate word, a word made flesh, with all the frailty, the absurdity and the risk that entails. The word of his life, the word he made and gave was called forth and rooted in the Word given us in Jesus, the revelation through Jesus that we are born not by some natural accident but for an enveloping love.
Don’t make it too easy here, Leo, he might well say now. Don’t be sentimental. He once told me of an unhelpful retreat he had made where he felt he could have dandled the retreat master like a child in his lap. And surely at this moment, for this man, I shudder to think I might speak without being serious (in the French sense).
No, the word, of his life and of his and our savior, is not easy, obvious, something readily at hand. It is not heard in a whirlwind, or felt in an earthquake, nor in a blazing fire. It is heard, if one listens intently, in “a still small voice or whisper” that conveys the promise of the Holy Mystery before whom, as with Elijah, we cover our faces and stand waiting (I Kings 19.11-16). It is truth that unveils itself, whether we will it or not, and unveils us at the same time, or better said, unveils and reveals us to ourselves through the future, an absolute future, which calls forth our time.
We do not master or easily make sense of this word of truth. Rather, it masters us and makes sense of us. It calls us not to certainty but to trust, trust in small increments, like a scientist’s experiments to realize the scientist’s hypothesis, or an artist’s campaign to fulfill the artist’s vision. To believe in the midst of such searching required for Bill a surrender of the securities of easy confidence. It manifested itself in the genuineness, the authenticity, the integrity that made his classes and lectures events of revelation. To prepare something worthy of his students or visitors to a lecture was an agonizing ordeal for him, carried often into the early morning of the presentation—and always accompanied by a literary or historical event that would connect the presentation with what William James called the cash value of the matter or, as Bill would put it: “So what?”
He was clearly brilliant. Light shone from him as from a diamond. But he needed the mirror of his friends and students to see his own light. How often did Bill ask one or another of us for advice on a simple practical matter—about a car to drive, a jacket to wear, a meal to serve? And yet there always recurred, because it could not be planned or controlled, the deep-throated laughter, the joy of sharing something beautiful, the catharsis of great drama. (What was your favorite play or movie seen with Bill? I have no count of them, but know that they ranged from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” to “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”)
Giving your word while trying to make sense of things is costly. You might have given it in a way you think you now cannot bear. You may have let it take you in a direction you now regret. But it must be given, if you are to make any sense of life rather than accept a final darkness as our fate. Credo ut intelligam, wrote Anselm. I believe in order to understand. Or, to quote a more contemporary voice: Dag Hammarskjold wrote on Whitsunday 1961:
I don’t know Who—or What—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
From that moment I have known what it means “not to look back,” and “to take no thought for the morrow.”
Hammarskjold’s reflection led further.
Led by the Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of Life, I came to a time and place where I realized that the Way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe, and to a catastrophe which is a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation. After that, the word “courage” lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken from me.
As I continued along the Way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying in the Gospels stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross.
Some years ago I learned from Bill the story of how Martin Heidegger, anticipating his death and memorial service, asked his former student Fr. Bernhard Welte, S.J., to speak for him. But how should I do that, Professor Heidegger, Welte replied, since you have not understood yourself as a believer. Take the text from Luke, said Heidegger: “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it will be opened to you” (Lk 11.9-10). “Speak about that.”
Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it will be opened to you. Struggle to pose the question; stress its search, force it forward. Set off on the journey. When tempted to turn back, set off again. Ask, seek, knock.
Bill asked at the College of the Holy Cross, in tights playing “Richard II” or in debates partnered with Edward Bennett Williams. He sought in all but heroic doctoral studies and the pursuit of the Maitre Agrέgέ at Louvain. He knocked at the introduction to thought for students at St. Peter’s College and a Jesuit Scholasticate in New York, and then for 17 years at Fordham University and on for more than three decades at Boston College.
He asked for the sense of his experience and ours at whatever cost, often to his own surrender of comfort or ease—or sleep. He sought even when the search was into darkness that he could describe with frightening acuity. He knocked even at the door of the meaningless. Yet ever and again he spoke the word of his life, his Yes to the God of his existence and ours, his commitment as assured as the dawn, as multi-hued as the sunset.
And now, as we hope and pray, our hearts taken away with him, he is receiving, and finding, and it is being opened to him.
This is, is it not? our hope. His final giving of himself into the light that makes sense of all, the light that he questioned and sought and probed, as much as Jacob with the angel, until now he can give us his last and most precious gift: a vision of that light into which he has entered, oh, through what can only be called grace, in utter peace.
Peacefully. Peacefully. Peacefully.
1 Kings 19:9-13
Luke 11:1-4, 9-10
Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.