John Garvey, 1997

‘Constant in the Struggle’

The Life & Writing of John Garvey

For over four decades, John Garvey (1944–2015) was Commonweal’s “elemental” columnist. Under the title “Of Several Minds,” his entries covered a range of topics relating to culture, politics, and theology, and were invariably both readable and challenging. Those columns, as well as his occasional articles and book reviews, served for many as a veritable ballast for these pages. Whether writing about the hot-button issues of racism, euthanasia, abortion, birth control, or gay marriage; or discussing the novels of Philip Roth, the poetry of Richard Wilbur, or the paintings of Mark Rothko, John invariably ended up dealing with essentials: with first and lasting things, of this life and of life eternal. Year after year John was awarded the “Best Column” prize by the Catholic Press Association. It got to the point that David Toolan, SJ, an editor at both Commonweal and America, remarked the prize should simply be renamed The Garvey Trophy. “As a writer,” a contest judge once noted, “Garvey has wit and style; as a thinker he has depth.” John’s writing was suffused with a deep and hard-earned Christian faith, but never an unquestioning one.

John was born in Decatur, Illinois, in 1944, the oldest of nine children. Soon thereafter, his family moved to Springfield, Illinois, where his father and an uncle founded Templegate Publishers, a small Catholic book firm that continues to this day. The Garvey family lived on the outskirts of town, and as a boy John used to cross the road from the house and climb a tree that towered over adjacent fields. From up in its branches he could scan as far as the Midwestern horizon allowed. One day, a violent windstorm kicked up just as he reached the top of the tree, and he had to cling on for dear life. Many years later, John wrote that this experience had been formative: it opened an expansive philosophical and theological sensibility that never left him.

John’s schooling at St. Agnes Catholic School was interrupted at age seven, when he developed a rare blood disorder and nearly died. He missed school for over a year, but his convalescence allowed him to become an avid reader. He was especially attracted to comics, Norse mythology, and science fiction; once back in class, he read the school library’s sole sci-fi novel thirteen times. (When his mother awoke him one morning with news that the Soviets had launched the first satellite, John’s immediate question was whether it was “conical or spherical.”) After grammar school, John attended an all-boys Catholic high school. Like so many Catholic boys at the time, he seriously considered becoming a priest. (One of his uncles was ordained.) It was during this impressionable time, when John was fifteen, that the Garvey family suffered a catastrophic loss: the sudden death of John’s eighteen-month-old sister, Grace. Her death had a profound and enduring effect on him, shaping his understanding of life’s fragility.

In 1963, John entered the highly selective general-studies program at the University of Notre Dame. Returning to Springfield the summer after his freshman year, he decided to look up Regina Carbonell, whom he had briefly dated during high school, and who had remained in Springfield to study music at the community college. Though John was entertaining the possibility of a monastic vocation, when he returned to Notre Dame in the fall, he began corresponding with Regina. The subsequent exchange of letters changed their lives. As John later recounted, somewhat shamefacedly, he found himself standing in a chapel praying: “If You want me to be a monk, Lord, You have to make it really clear.... I don’t seem to be heading in that direction.”

For John, the general-studies program proved the right fit, its great-books curriculum coupling independent study with extensive expository writing assignments. Studying under such legendary mentors as Frank O’Malley and the priest-theologian John Dunne, he perfected his talents as a voracious reader, note-taker, and budding raconteur. In June 1967, immediately after graduation, Regina and John were married. He was twenty-three and an objector to the Vietnam War. The following year, he taught literature and theology at a Catholic high school in Mishiwaka, Indiana, not far from South Bend. It was during this period that he and Regina became friends with Henri Nouwen, who had just arrived at Notre Dame (John would later edit an anthology of Nouwen’s writings for Templegate). And it was here that the Garveys’ first child, Maria, was born. Two months premature, she endured a life-or-death struggle for survival. John would later write about the revelatory nature of this experience: how it disclosed a love that can make you willing to give up your life for another.

The Garveys then returned to Springfield, where their son Hugh was born, and where John worked as an editor for Templegate, while Regina taught piano. It was in Springfield that the young family was befriended by the feisty Chicago Catholic editor and publisher, Dan Herr. His Thomas More Press would publish John’s first book, Saints for Confused Times, and Herr’s magazine, the Critic, began printing John’s articles. By 1973, John’s writing had come to the attention of the editors of Commonweal, who first asked him to write reviews and articles, and then, in 1976, to join the ranks of the magazine’s columnists, which included the likes of Thomas Powers, now a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Abigail McCarthy, wife of Senator Eugene McCarthy, also a Commonweal contributor.

Writing for Herr and for Commonweal provided John with little more than “oatmeal” money. So he began working in the public-relations office at Sangamon State University, then shifted to part-time work at Springfield’s famed Lincoln Library so that he could devote more time to his writing. In the mid-1980s, he applied for a staff position with the Republican membership of the Illinois State Legislature. He got the job—thanks in part to a senior member of the hiring staff who admired his Commonweal column. The nonpartisan position involved writing papers on the fiscal impact of legislative proposals, a task requiring sharp research and analytical skills. Decades later, asked to write a critical report on the finances of a troubled eparchy of the Orthodox Church, John said it was his number-crunching for the Illinois legislature that gave him the wherewithal to do it. 

John’s writing was suffused with a deep and hard-earned Christian faith, but never an unquestioning one.

But John’s greatest, indeed lifelong, work was his odyssey from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, and his explication of the holy mysteries stemming from that experience. Readers can discover this journey by rereading his early Commonweal columns. In December 1984, when he announced in the magazine that he had taken this step, he did so with characteristic directness. Leaving Catholicism was not so much a rejection of his Catholic faith, he said, as a truer understanding of what the gospels and tradition required of him. His hope, he wrote, was to experience and practice a deeper sense of prayer, mystery, and self-sacrifice.

John was never attracted to what medieval Scholastics called “accidentals.” The sincere disagreements he had with Catholicism—over issues like papal infallibility, Augustine’s understanding of Original Sin, and church teachings on birth control and homosexuality—were not the driving forces in his becoming Orthodox. Nor was he attracted to what he called Orthodoxy’s own brand of spiritual triumphalism, to its clerical intrigues (he said that church politics interested him about as much as cricket), or to its curious marriage with various nationalisms. Rather, he was drawn by Orthodoxy’s liturgy, the importance monasticism plays in its prayer life, and to its forms of communal governance (sobornost or “conciliarity”). In an article for the Critic, John underscored Orthodoxy’s emphasis on “the responsibility of all believers for the fullness of faith.” Even the teaching of an ecumenical council, he wrote, “cannot claim to be finally authoritative…until it is accepted by the people.” He was also drawn to the role asceticism plays in freeing human nature to seek communion with the divine, and to the care this practice inspires toward others. John had a clear sense—expressed often in his writing—that religion can become idolatrous; that its practices and structures can erect barriers to our experience of the Divine Presence. His life work involved finding ways to surmount these barriers.

In 1990, John, a quintessential Midwesterner who had grown up reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, decided to move east—not to seek fortune, but rather to further his understanding of Orthodoxy by attending St. Vladimir’s Seminary, near New York City. In 1993 he received his Master of Divinity degree. But before his studies were completed, he was directed on a totally different path, one he had neither sought nor anticipated. At St. Vladimir’s, John’s intellect and maturity—as well as his Irish wit and human touch—quickly became apparent. The faculty included such theological giants as John Meyendorff and Thomas Hopko. In Orthodoxy, ordination to the priesthood is not merely a self-determined choice or “vocation.” Rather, it is understood as a calling to ordained ministry by the whole community itself. Therefore, it was both a surprise and an obedience, a call to submission, when Meyendorff told John in 1992 that he would soon be ordained a priest—to serve at the nearby military academy at West Point.

John could not help but see the irony. To be sure, over the years his thinking about nonviolence would evolve from a near-absolute pacifist stance to a more nuanced position that recognized a moral obligation to protect the innocent, maybe even at the price of shedding blood oneself. Additionally, he found compelling Orthodoxy’s understanding that killing, even when done in self-defense or in service of one’s country, is always sinful; and that consequently it demands confession, serious penance, and even abstinence from the Eucharist. Still, John had little doubt about the serious challenges presented by Jesus’ teaching on violence, let alone enfleshed in his suffering and death. And so there it was: God the trickster, as John once described God’s role in the story of Job, telling John—the pacifist—to cross the Hudson and enter the Promised Land at West Point.

John’s interests were many, but they never seemed esoteric. He brought his intellect and historical awareness to all of them.

John Garvey’s forty years of Commonweal columns cover a trove of subjects, many of them still highly relevant today. I was fortunate to be one of his editors. When I first started working with him—well into his Commonweal tenure—my questions, queries, and suggestions were met with a bemused but gentlemanly diffidence. With time, and thanks to John’s restraint and charity, he came to (generally) welcome what I had to offer. After that, our frequent phone conversations became occasions for wide-ranging discussion, laughter, and what I can only describe as the pleasurable experience of John’s benevolent well-being. In fact, one of my hardest tasks at Commonweal was having to end a phone conversation with John because we were on deadline. Even then, his laughter would continue ringing in my ears.

John’s interests were many, but they never seemed esoteric. He brought his intellect and historical awareness to all of them. The big issues of the times—the ones often avoided in popular discussions and the media—were his bread and butter. He was primarily a Christian humanist, tilting at the various windmills of our mad, materialist culture. In politics—which he considered something of a game, one in which you had better know the rules if you intended to play—he maintained a Midwestern libertarian bent. This gave him a flexibility that allowed him to shed and shred most ideological straitjackets, which he did with alacrity. He thought TV and the internet were lobotomizing the population; that Ronald Reagan was an affable fellow whose saber-rattling and trickle-down nostrums were leading the country over a precipice; that gay marriage was a matter of secular justice; and that a homosexual like W. H. Auden was “in most senses a healthier (and less ‘objectively disordered’) person than is the heterosexual Donald Trump.” On the other hand, he challenged Democrats for their lockstep position on abortion rights; fundamentalists of whatever stripe for their hypocrisy and intolerance; and Catholics who were so rigid, they wouldn’t even talk about women’s ordination. He cautioned about the hegemony of scientism and its “tone-deafness” concerning all that is incalculable and ineffable; and he bemoaned the culture’s addiction to entertainment, advertising, and distraction.

John knew his own demons, and he would share them on occasion; his advice, quoting Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” was: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He wrote of his depressions (what he called his “lifelong melancholia”), and of his anger; for years, he said, he lived “as if I were a clenched fist.” Such feelings overshadowed him so fully at times, he said, that he did not even know they existed until after they had lifted. He told readers of his early smoking problem. He had started at age thirteen, emulating Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, and only after “five years of false starts” did he finally shake the habit—at thirty. Writing in his mid-forties, he wittily advised readers to do as he had done over the course of his life: when young, he urged, they should “get as little exercise as possible, smoke, and drink too much”; later, when their clean-living counterparts were beginning to “experience the pull of gravity,” they could give up smoking, be temperate in drink, watch their diet, and exercise. “You will feel better than you ever did,” he quipped, “while they will feel much worse.”

John liked to quote the humorist Mort Sahl and felt that humor is spiritually important: “it gives a better sense of real human scale than anything else I can think of.” There were also the arts, both to write about and to luxuriate in. Literature and books were nearly sacramentals to him. “The best novelists, poets, and critics,” he observed, “are more sensitive to our real climate than most theologians and philosophers.” When John first read Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Joyce’s “The Dead,” he recalled later, he knew that “in some way I was changed, and that if I didn’t betray that moment, things would not be the same from now on.” From his reading he culled quotations and ideas worth exploring, which he kept in copious notebooks. Sometimes these would coalesce into a column topic or serve as the lynchpin for an essay or a talk. His wife Regina recalls that John had a gift for extemporaneous speech, and that in conversation he always seemed to have just the right anecdote or quote at his fingertips. This was evident occasionally at a feast-day liturgy if none of the other clergy had prepared a homily. They would spontaneously look to John, who would quickly zero in on the day’s readings and point to their practical significance.

This improvisational, off-the-cuff quality never made an appearance in John’s columns or in his Sunday homilies. His columns invariably have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They typically open with an engaging sentence, outline two contrary views on a given topic, and finish with John’s own nuanced, third alternative. He had the ability to incorporate an opponent’s best arguments in his response, an approach he felt was essential to the practice of democracy, and which he applied to ecumenism and to interreligious dialogue. His book Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking and Other Religions (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), presents not only the strengths of other theologies and belief systems, but their potential for helping one understand the riches of one’s own tradition, and for addressing the broader spiritual and cultural needs of the time. John wrote pointedly about the need for a Roman Catholic pope who could really listen, “who could truly understand (even as he disagreed with) the many currents of thought in the whole of the Christian tradition.” Of course, he added, such a pope would have to do more than just listen; but “deep listening…is an essential beginning.”

John’s Chrismation into Orthodoxy, as noted, was the fulfillment of a long and steady advance; his decision was twenty-one years in the making, a period nearly equaling his subsequent twenty-two years as an Orthodox priest. One crucial moment in that process was a meeting he and Regina had in London with Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. As John recalled in a 1983 Commonweal essay, meeting Bloom had “conveyed a sense of what it means to be a Christian.” A few years later he wrote again about Bloom, describing him as “a man whose God-filled quality was startling.” He went on to observe that Bloom’s “most keen awareness is of spiritual struggle, and his own failure to be what he is called to be. He is a great help to many people; but this is not because he has attained a form of mastery they lack, but because he has been more constant in the struggle.” Bloom’s presence threw John’s entire life into relief, clarifying for him what “a sloppy and unfocused thing” it had been to that point. “This experience was not only not discouraging; it gave hope,” he wrote. “For the first time I had a sense of what it could mean to be a Christian.” After the Garveys returned from London, John came to realize that in good conscience he could no longer remain a Roman Catholic. In 1990, Regina followed him into Orthodoxy.

From the beginning, John’s Commonweal columns evidenced an interest in theological matters and in a wide variety of spiritual conundrums. When he became Orthodox, those reflections became richer and even more evocative. Following his ordination in 1992 and subsequent assignment as pastor of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in Queens, they took on an increasingly pastoral tone. John put in long hours with the sick and the dying, the grieved and the stranded. He became for them a steadfast companion—he said he experienced the Trinity at the parish coffee hour—and there grew in him a discernible tenderness. When it came to the issue of death, for example, he never sugar-coated its absolute finality; nor did he downplay the reality that suffering is inextricable from the human condition. Rather, he used these insights to instill hope, reflecting on the immense generosity of God’s coming among us as a human being: a love so complete, he wrote, “it is joined to the cross.” Some years after being made a pastor, he wrote a book on death, Death and the Rest of Our Life (Eerdmans, 2005). While short, it brings together years of reflection. One finishes the book wishing it had been longer. But, as John was wont to say, too many religious writers “try to explain too much.”

Looking back now, it seems clear that John finished well before “explaining too much”—and certainly before his family, friends, and colleagues were ready. John and Regina had moved to Washington State in 2011, to be nearer to their children and four grandchildren. In 2012, he underwent intestinal surgery. All seemed well, but in 2014 John experienced what he called a lingering malaise. When he visited his doctor in early 2015, he was sent home without having raised immediate alarms. But the following night he vomited blood and collapsed. He was taken to the hospital, slipped into a semi-comatose state, and died six days later.

Unlike most of us, John was quite prepared for death. Discussing Christian hope in the face of death, he could be as straightforward as an actuary: “We must face the fact that death is as bad as it looks, that it is not simply a rite of passage. It is the loss of everything we have known.” He quoted Wittgenstein that “death is not lived through,” and Philip Larkin’s poem, “Aubade,” which observes that death extinguishes our being, leaving us

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

John’s own conviction was that our Christian faith and hope in Jesus’ resurrection have less to do with fear of death and its finality than with a desire for life lived more abundantly. “Christians believe in a resurrected life so unlike this one as to be unimaginable,” he wrote in 2011, pointing out that Jesus’ Resurrection is significant not because it is unique, but because Jesus “is the first to rise of many brothers and sisters.” So, in spite of death’s finality, we await our completion, one substantiated by the resurrected Jesus. “We do not now, and never can, possess or control what we are finally meant to become,” John wrote. “Someone who loves us more than we could possibly love ourselves is in charge of that.”

And that is why, in every generation, we are given those who explicate, exemplify, and deepen our hope and understanding. John Garvey was an uncommon and delightful bearer of that reality.

 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal. He is the author of Dorothy Day: Love in Action (Liturgical Press, 2015), and the editor of Hold Nothing Back: Writings by Dorothy Day (Liturgical Press, 2016) and Only Wonder Comprehends: John Garvey in Commonweal (Liturgical Press, 2018). Funding for this article was provided by the John Garvey Fund, established to carry on the work of the longtime Commonweal columnist.

Published in the April 13, 2018 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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