An old and valued friend, who retired after a half-century cheerfully and productively spent in the classroom, used to tell me that it was silly to think anyone would remember him once he was gone. “Like a stone falling into a river,” he’d say, using one of several similes to which he was drawn, “I’ll be a ripple or two for awhile. After that … nothing.” Knowing the legendary status his skills as a teacher had earned him among generations of grateful students, I remonstrated with him, insisting that it was simply not possible that anyone as redoubtable as he had been would ever, ever be forgotten. “Why, you’re positively Homeric around here!” I exclaimed. “Nobody’s going to put out your light.”
Turns out he was right. In all the years since leaving the University, I cannot recall more than a handful of colleagues asking about him. And students? Forget it. They’d never even heard of him. So much for a full half-century’s immersion in the work of their intellectual formation. He might as well have been the delivery boy from the local Pizzeria for all the impact he’s had.
I bring this up because in class the other day, I asked if anyone had heard of the writer John Cheever, whose New Yorker stories of loss and regret were once the rage among literate readers everywhere. No, they had never heard of him. Nor had they heard of John Updike, who had made an even bigger, and certainly more recent, splash. What about Saul Bellow? Zip. Nada. Well perhaps at least they had heard of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway? Truth to tell, I was afraid to ask.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In fairness, of course, these were among the great roaring lions of secular literature, whose luminosity might not have penetrated into the more pious reaches of orthodox Catholic life. But when asked about equally incandescent authors of Catholic persuasion—the English Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, for instance, or their American counterparts Walker Percy and J.F. Powers—I was greeted with similarly vacant stares.
And then, cutting closer to the bone, I remembered the fate of my old friend Fritz Wilhelmsen, who, without question, had been the finest teacher I ever knew. For over forty years his coruscating presence had graced the University of Dallas with a luster unequaled by any other member of a faculty already adorned with distinction. In addition, of course, he possessed a reputation for scholarship and letters that extended far beyond the borders of Irving, Texas. Surely he would be remembered and most keenly missed long after his passing. Alas, it was not to be. In the brief obituary notice that appeared shortly after he died (1996) in the National Review, flagship of the Neo-Conservative American Right, it was assumed that poor Fritz had pretty much dropped right off the radar screen even while living. You might say that his stone, having long since fallen into that rushing river, hadn’t produced a single ripple.
So where am I going with this? To some elegiac turn of the road, beyond which lies the anonymity of the grave? Shall I soon be citing lines from Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, reminding everyone that “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”? Nothing new in that. Death will manage to snap us all up in due course, thank you very much. Nevertheless, and along the way, some of us do try and remember, for a short while anyway, those whose passing leave us feeling somehow bereft. Yes, even when they have left us, as we so often hear at Mass, “marked with the sign of faith.” They too will fall away, leaving a residual ripple or two, followed by silence. “We are all falling,” the poet Rilke reminds us. “This hand falls.
And look at others; it is in them all.
Yes, even Rilke is subject to the forgetfulness of the grave. I mean, does anyone actually remember him? Dead eighty or more years, a legacy of a few lapidary lines left behind, of which, lamentably, fewer and fewer take notice. What does it matter?
Actually, it matters a lot. To me, that is. And it certainly mattered to the young Irish priest, who, more than thirty years ago, fresh from his native Ireland for ministry in a strange land, recalled those lines from Rilke, lines so haunting that they have stayed with me ever since. I was living in Atlanta at the time, a graduate student at Emory, where I had begun a Ph.D. program in Literature and Theology. It was the morning of Thanksgiving Day, my parents and youngest brother had come down to visit, and there I was at early Mass listening spellbound to a poem I’d never heard before from Rainer Maria Rilke. It was called Autumn, a translation from the German, and in his lilting Irish voice he recited all of it, nine lines of perfect loveliness.
“The leaves are falling,” it began, “falling as from way off,”
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.
And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.
We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.
And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.
How very often, over the long years since Atlanta, I have taken up that poem, reading it aloud to students, or softly to myself, determined once more to sound the tocsin of a hope that survives triumphant the first seven lines of an otherwise bitter and unrelieved bleakness. To crown in a trumpet blast, in other words, the Christ note of victory at the very end. Because, for all that we are often lost amid the loneliness, hostage to the gravity and grief that cause us to fall, there is always that sudden and unexpected upsurge of grace and glory to lift us high above the dark and sullen weight of so many dead and dying leaves. If each of us is the middle point, as Pascal observed, between nothing and everything, an invisible line of horizon betwixt time and eternity, then notwithstanding the doom of death towards which so much frailty and sin draw us, our souls yet may, at a single unguarded moment, find themselves wafted into purest seraphic space. All because we belong to the One whom, as Rilke so consolingly put it, “holds this falling / endlessly gently in his hands.”
I have sometimes wondered what ever became of that young priest of almost forty years ago. Is he still there in that Atlanta church so very far from home? Or did he maybe return to his own Irish people across the sea? Or, who knows, perhaps to that other, eternal home, to which, I like to think, the whole thrust of his impassioned recitation of the Rilke poem drew him. In the meantime, of the four of us who gathered that Thanksgiving long ago, three are gone—to heaven, I hope—leaving me to await the same summons. And when it comes as, ineluctably, it must, I pray God that it may likewise find me, “falling
endlessly gently in his hands.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the tombstone of English Catholic novelist Graham Greene.