Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tom Howard’s “Two Deaths”

Thomas Howard is an icon in our neck of the Catholic woods: courageous convert, noted scholar of CS Lewis and TS Eliot, and fellow parishioner. When I was the secretary of our men’s group, booking “Tom” was the smartest move I ever made—and one of the smartest looking too (left). He doubled our usual turnout, and no one left uninspired by the story of how Dr. Howard had found his way to Rome, though converting meant resigning his tenured position at a New England evangelical college.

In this month’s issue of First Things, Howard has a short piece with great force, “Two Deaths.” Beginning with the execution of a death-row inmate with whom Howard had corresponded for ten years, it ends with the grander, more widely noted death last year of another Christian, Archduke Otto, heir to the Habsburg thrones and, if the title still existed, Holy Roman Emperor.

After brooding over the final hours of his pen pal, Robert (“Was he wakeful in his death-watch cell? Did he have company?”), Howard reports on the requiem mass for the archduke, celebrated by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. (“The pageantry was titanic. Cardinals in heavy gold-filigreed black copes…”).

Both dead men were Catholic, and at the end of his piece, Howard gathers them together beneath a single wing: “Robert and Otto. The murderer and the archduke. Nobody and Somebody.”

The author sometimes shows a fondness for the forced phrase, as in his concluding sentence about Robert’s final hours: “The most critical moment in one’s life, next to one’s birth, lurches along caparisoned with inanities.” I wondered, Really? Caparisoned? 

But reaching the door to the Hapsburg tomb with an Agnus Dei and a sense of irony that blends into mystery, then adoration, the end of the article is exceptionally moving. Two deaths bring two men, so different, to a common frontier, and Tom Howard follows them there, a third man who, like me, will arrive soon enough at the door of his own tomb.

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