The dreadful day is upon us.
A while back, I wrote:
It will be a dreadful day when this singular voice can no longer reach us via any media but memory.
And now, Vanity Fair announced that Christopher Hitchens is dead.
I like the picture Pat Archbold used In his piece, and so I am stealing it, and I agree with much that Pat has written:
Christopher Hitchens now knows the truth of it. . . . Hitchens may have been most famous for his outspoken atheism. A year and a half ago when Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I wrote that even if he thought it was stupid, I was praying for him. I still am.
I have no reason to think that Hitchens had a sudden religious awakening at the end, but I can hope. I can hope that at the end there was a small crack in the veneer large enough to let in the light. But I can never know, not in this life.
But there are things I do know. God loved Christopher Hitchens. Always has. He created him out of love. He died for him out of love. And I will pray for him out of love.
The only thing I disagree with, there — because I hope it is not true — is that he “may have been most famous for his outspoken atheism.”
He may have been. Perhaps. But there was more to the man than his atheism. He was fearless; he understood political arcana, especially as it applied to those mysterious Middle Eastern and Eastern European theaters, better than almost anyone. And he could write about it so even a dummy like me could understand.
By God, truly, the man could write! Even in this last year of difficult, as the Vanity Fair piece demonstrates, the man was still managing to write timely and topical pieces with a voice so fresh, so focused and detached that it was possible to forget that one might be reading his last or nearly last piece of work, and simple get caught up in his intelligent narrative and singular prose-style.
And even hairless, hale and hearty, he wrote with address:
In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it . . . But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.
Sentimentality and self-pity were never evident in his writing, not even in his very last piece for Vanity Fair:
I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
My admiration for Hitchens is not meant to suggest that he was never wrong. He missed the mark spectacularly with Mother Teresa, and was disappointingly spiteful in his assessment of her decades-long dark night, his response suggesting to me a willful misunderstanding of what her experience meant. It was the rare issue, I think, on which he hedged a little. His fearlessness — impressive as it was — did not extend so far as to try to comprehend that deep mystery with the full-force of his compassion. It was a true stumble.
Fr. James Martin is thinking along the same lines:
I hope he’s pleasantly surprised . . . I certainly didn’t agree with him on many things (on almost anything, frankly; and I was particularly annoyed at his treatment of Mother Teresa), but I always hoped that somehow he would experience an invitation from God in his earthly life; and I hope that he may now come to know God. (I could never quite shake the feeling that Mr. Hitchens’ lifelong struggle with God betokened a deep hunger for the divine, or at least for answers.)
A priest once said to him “you will either die a madman or a Roman Catholic”. At the time, I puckishly quipped, “what’s the difference?” The priest was wrong. Hitchens, up to the end, was writing with clarity — he was quite in his wits — and he did not become a Catholic.
Some have speculated that Hitchens’ atheism was rooted in his mother’s suicide — the great trauma of his life. When my brother John — who like Hitchens was trained in faith but could never quite find it in his own traumatized live — died, I believed the best:
Tonight, I am believing that my brother John is finally in the presence of the all-encompassing and unconditional love in which he can finally trust, finally surrender to…or that he has glimpsed enough of it to want more, however long it takes to become fit for it.
who is not Catholic cannot bring herself to believe that Hitchens has been consigned to Hell; she wonders if perhaps she might have to think about Purgatory, after all.
The man was so interesting, he’s the only person, outside of politicians, to have his own category here.
Don’t miss Peter Hitchens’ lovely and sad column
Real Clear Religion also has A Hitchens Category
Everyone is writing about Hitch: I especially liked Michael Gerson’s moving pre-emptive eulogy from last year:
At the Pew Forum, Hitchens was asked a mischievous question: What positive lesson have you learned from Christianity? He replied, with great earnestness: the transience and ephemeral nature of power and all things human. But some things may last longer than he imagines, including examples of courage, loyalty and moral conviction.
At dotcommonweal some Hitchens video.
James G. Wiles At American Thinker: Hitchens is dead; dammit!
Bad Catholic: The World is Poorer for his Loss
More current reactions:
Insty links to PJM writers
Deacon Greg Kandra
The Memeorandum thread.
Fr. Robert Barron, a few years ago on Hitchens
Related at The Anchoress:
Hitchens’ Whack-A-Christian Book Tour
Hitchens and the Subversive Liberty of Prayer