Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Michael Novak by the Sea

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Michael Novak by the Sea

Article excerpt

May 2017

Once upon a time there was a lion ... and the lion had a voice like a lamb. The day Michael Novak died, that unbidden couplet mysteriously wrote itself into my head. Now it's stuck there like a song that won't go away. Maybe it lingers because I always thought of Michael as a lion, a metaphor fitting in so many ways.

There is, first, the sheer scope of his kingdom as an intellectual. Theology, philosophy, politics; diplomacy, government, economics; poetry, fiction, journalism: Michael roamed with authority through all these territories and more, leaving lasting tracks in each.

Then there were the institutional dens that he built, or helped to build, all over the world: from seminars such as Tertio Millennio in Poland, still changing lives and honing minds after twentyfive years, to the magazines whose need for existence Michael anticipated before anyone else- including First Things. He could not stop building shelters that would house the thoughts of others.

Even during his last years at the American Enterprise Institute, he presided over one of the few truly charming venues in town-a regular small-c catholic wine and cheese hour, at which speakers were invited to leave the world of Washington wonkery and think about art, literature, and history instead. One high point was an evening during which Michael held a packed house rapt as he delivered a tour-d'horizon about the meaning of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

On another evening, in 2010, Michael gave the floor to a discussion of my first work of fiction, The Loser Letters, an unlikely tale about a young woman in rehab. Upon hearing our daughter Catherine, an actress, read lines aloud, Michael announced: "This story should be a stage-play." Six years later, his prediction became reality: The play premiered at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre in fall 2016 for two weeks. How Michael relished his role as impresario in this shared adventure-and how he shone at one of his last gala nights out in 2016, our celebration with family and friends of the play's appearance.

He was also leonine in mind. In person, Michael often fell quiet, seemingly in repose-only to spring faster into intellectual action than anyone else, pouncing upon phrases or ideas. Such was true even of the smallest points. I remember one summer lunch where we batted around possible titles for his last work of nonfiction, about Catholic social teaching. I suggested calling it "What Social Justice Is-and Isn't." The lion nodded and replied, "That's good. But better would be 'What Social Justice Isn't-and Is.'" Of course he was right.

For reasons unknown, the book ended up with a different title (Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is). But the memory is archetypal in my mind, one of so many in which Michael pawed a notion, turned it just so, and improved it.

Third-by the way, Michael would have enjoyed the Trinitarian fillip here-he was regal among thinking beasts in another sense: He deserves all the lionization he's received. And more! As he would have been the first to jest.

It's hard to think of any other writer lately whose passing has become the occasion for as many eulogies, memories, recollections, and reflections. It's harder to think of any who would have enjoyed the communal accolades more. George Weigel, Catherine Pakaluk, Sam Gregg, and I were among those present at Michael's eightieth birthday celebration at Ave Maria University some years back-an all-day-into-night affair of speech after speech, commemorating just a few facets of his oeuvre. By evening, just about everyone was exhausted . . . except for Michael. When I saw him at breakfast the next morning, he asked why I'd left so early (circa 11 p.m.)- when he'd gone on to meet some more friends at the next pub.

I'd like to add a few words about his lion-sized heart. We were friends for a quarter century. My husband, Nick, and I often saw Michael and Karen and others in the Novak family at home in Washington, D. …

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