Recently, almost unnoticed, a brief obituary note appeared in a number of religious and secular newspapers around the world: Theologian dies – Belgian theologian, Jan Hendrik Walgrave, dead at 75. I want to write a short tribute to this man, not because I once had a brief and privileged opportunity to meet him and to study under him, but because the Catholic community should know that someone important to them has died and they should know, at least minimally, why he was important. When an important person, someone who has made a significant contribution dies, that death should be noted so that this person’s life can speak for the benefit of more persons.
Jan Walgrave was a significant person. But who was he? If he was so important and famous, then why have so many not heard of him? He was one of the better-kept secrets in theology, though not for those who work more deeply behind its inner walls. In popular circles, he was not a household name, a Barth, a Schillebeeckx, a Kung, but among theologians he was noticed and respected in a way very few others are. That respect was earned. He was a solid, conscientious thinker who scrupulously researched everything he produced. And he was a prolific writer, authoring dozens of books and hundreds of articles (in five languages). However, he never wrote in a popular genre, and so even though he produced a small library of writings, few of these are known to people outside professional circles. He wrote technical theology for professional theologians.
It is hard to begin to describe how he impacted the church. He was, of course, one of the theologians who helped lay the ground for Vatican II – and Vatican II influenced the rest of us. Mostly, though, he influenced hundreds of other theologians who, in turn, influenced others. He was the experts’ expert. People came from around the world to listen to him. Professional theologians know of and recognize the incredible range of his thought. He was an expert in medieval history, medieval spirituality, medieval and modern philosophy, systematic theology, world religions, theological methodology and Christian apologetics. Beyond this, he was recognized as perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the thought of John Henry Newman. People came from around the world to study Newman under him. As well – and this testifies to his extraordinariness – since English and Spanish were his fourth and fifth languages, students would come from England to study Coleridge and Chesterton with him and from Spain to discuss Ortega y Gasset. And there was more to him than expertise in theology. Someone once wisely commented that there was three keys to human health: proportion, humor and childlikeness. These he had, in extraordinary combination: a powerful intellect, great learning, in a childlike personality. And there was always humor and proportion: “Cigars, Chesterton and Mozart,” he used to say with a wink, “the keys to a peaceful soul!” If he had a weakness it was that he was too gentle. He once told me that in more than 40 years of teaching, he only failed one student, and that was because the student did not show up for the exam.
However, this tribute is meant to do more than eulogize. A great person has passed on. What message has he left us? As you read the rest of this, picture a man with a hat, looking physically not alike Alfred Hitchcock. He is holding a cigar and smiling in an almost-wink. These are his final words: “Mystery, poetry, restless cogitation, faith. “Let the mystery baffle you, humble you, that’s the existential imperative. Give your life to thought and theology, but don’t fight about these nor take them too seriously. All problems more or less dissolve, at a certain point, into a misty horizon. Keep staring into that misty horizon: Behind it lies God.”
“Keep your balance by reading poetry, children’s stories and mystery novels. We are moved more by symbols, poetry and fairy tales than by rational arguments.”
“Poetry, more than conceptual systems, can save us. Imagination is the only instrument that can save reason, and fantasy is what helps us keep our feet on the ground.”
“Without reason, of course, poetry runs wild; but reason, without poetry, naturally and necessarily leads to an empty conceptualism in which we end up precisely with our head in the clouds.”
“Restless cogitation, eros that leaves you in a constant disquiet, these are God’s lure. These will lead you to the desert. There God can form you in faith. Faith is an assent that implies restless cogitation.”
Then there is a final wink, and…
“Remember: cigars, Chesterton and Mozart, there’s peace of soul in these, too!”
Jan Hendrik Walgrave, teacher, scholar, monk, priest, theologian, linguist, writer, poet, friend of many, enjoyer of life, the gentleman always, 1911-1986, RIP. The Christian community salutes you.