Friday, July 17

On Stratford Caldecott (1953-2014) and All Things Made New (2011)

I give this “review” the unusual title because, although it indeed began as something of a review of the book, All Things Made New: The Mysteries of the World in Christ, on this the first anniversary of his untimely death it ended up becoming far more a belated tribute to an author I regret not discovering long ago, Stratford Caldecott, M.A. (Oxon.), FRSA (Friend of the Royal Society of Arts). Known as “Strat” to his many friends, he was by all accounts greatly beloved by all who knew him, or knew of him – ultimately even by superheroes! Truly, the more I have learned about him in the past few months, the more I have discovered in Stratford Caldecott a kindred spirit whom I would have loved to have had a chance to meet over a brew or few. The conversation would doubtless have been epic!

If I ever encountered Caldecott’s writing before 2013, however, it did not impress itself upon me. Whatever his importance was – and it was great – in this generation’s Catholic literary and cultural revival (more on which in a bit), my first memory of him was finding his insightful commentary on the Christological dimensions of Superman in Man of Steel [“The Man of Steel: Reinventing Jesus?,” The Imaginative Conservative (21 June 2013) LINK, a reposting from his own blog, Beauty in Education (20 June 2013) LINK] while I was wrestling with my own review of that movie [LINK]. Although I knew nothing of the author at the time, I found it interesting that a conservative blog would have such an article – and personally gratifying that a conservative commentator would have such a great love for and understanding of the archetypal comic-book superhero. I have gone back to that article time and again in the past couple of years as the movie which I loved with only a few reservations (no rendition of Superman – or any other comic – done on-screen is going to be perfect) came under a great deal of what I consider undeserved criticism, culminating in the metatextual mess that was, again in my own humble opinion, Avengers: Age of Ultron, which seemed overtly gratuitous in its response to the admittedly disturbing but utterly realistic mass destruction inflicted in the latter half of Man of Steel.

But a year before Age of Ultron, my rather spotty (because of the incredible frequency of his posts) reading of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s blog happened to catch his short notice, “Stratford Caldecott is dying. Something just too cool ensues” [Fr. Z’s Blog (18 May 2014) LINK]. I followed various links and was fascinated at the incredible story of the “#CapforStrat” Twitter campaign organized by Caldecott’s daughter Sophie. It was, of course, also the first I knew of his losing battle with prostate cancer, which had begun three years before and by now had left him too ill to see the newest offering from Marvel Studios, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in the theatre when it was released about a month earlier. The movie was not scheduled for release on DVD until August, and Sophie feared (rightly, as it turned out), that her father would not make it that long. The story of the “#CapforStrat” campaign can be seen from start to finish on her own blog, Something for a Rainy Day, starting with the post “Avengers Assemble!” (12 May 2014) [LINK], but also in summary in a news item at The Independent [Adam Withnall, “How I assembled the Avengers: Daughter of cancer patient Stratford Caldecott explains how Hollywood’s biggest stars came together to grant a dying grandfather’s wish” (19 May 2014) LINK], but the gist is this: The cause exploded, especially when actor Mark Ruffalo (the Hulk), whose own father had prostate cancer, took it up, followed by other stars of that movie and others in the Marvel Movie Universe as well as countless more – comic-book, movie, and other fans – getting the attention of the producers and ultimately securing a private showing of the movie in the Caldecotts’ own home. It was then that I learned how much more extensive and perceptive his love for comics was than even I’d suspected; from the Independent article: “ ‘His whole life he has loved comic books and collected them as a child, and through his illness he has found great relief in the escapism of watching the Marvel films and TV series,’ Ms Caldecott said. ‘But it's kind of more than just escapism for him – he loves the comics so much because they are all about themes of hope, good fighting evil, and a greater good. That's why they have inspired him his whole life, and that's why it's so fitting that this world has become associated with the struggle that people have with cancer.’ ” I remember getting misty-eyed as I related this amazing story to my wife.

With his name now firmly imprinted in my consciousness, I soon started seeing it here, there, and yonder, including what must have been only a small part of the massive flurry of online tributes that followed his death on 17 July. By the end of the year that had culminated during an online search for something on a Catholic view of the Book of Revelation inspired by my reading of the novel Father Elijah: An Apocalypse (which I still need to blog … actually, I need to reread it and then blog it!), which found the book that is nominally the subject of this post, All Things Made New. It immediately went into my Amazon shopping cart for holding, but then languished there month after month because I am perennially behind in my reading, as well as jumping all over the place with it.

Nonetheless, an ongoing fascination with Revelation (and increasing perception that there is far more going on in that book than I ever learned in my youth as a Baptist, which focused pretty much exclusively on the sensationalistic aspects of THE END OF THE WORLD seen through a fundamental(ist)ly superficial and ahistorical misinterpretation dating from the late 19th century and mainly embodied in the Scofield Reference Bible that, at least during my time at Swartz First Baptist Church, was considered – pardon the pun – gospel) ultimately led to me pulling the trigger, so to speak, just a few months ago. And in the reading, I was blown away.

Although I discovered that All Things Made New is really the middle book of a thematic trilogy, beginning with his Seven Sacraments and extending into The Radiance of Being, I have as yet read only it. (I have The Seven Sacraments.) On its own terms, however, it is quite simply a brilliant book. It is far more than just a commentary on the Apocalypse, which he calls the “key to understanding both Bible and Tradition. It is about the ‘end’ of the world, in the sense of the ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ of the world. For at the end of his life Saint John arrives at an End who is also a Beginning, the Alpha as well as the Omega. His vision of Jesus, the Son of Man, takes place on the Lord’s own Day, the Day of the Sabbath when God is at ‘rest’. It takes us back to Genesis and re-interprets everything. It is an unveiling of the mystery of the world in Christ himself” (p. 1). That is only roughly the first half. After a transitional chapter on the Apostles’ Creed, the second half of the book is concerned with the life of prayer, organized around the Rosary and the Way of the Cross as meditations on the whole span of Our Lord’s life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, with the Blessed Mother as the archetype of our own participation in these mysteries. Throughout, Caldecott makes connections and offers insights that seemed at once both obvious and breathtaking, literally turning my understanding of the overall story of salvation upside-down, inside-out, and all around deeper. I highlighted, bookmarked, and annotated the Kindle edition I was reading like mad – far more than I could possibly summarize here; seldom would a virtual page be swiped without another mark going down.  Just to pull one at random, from page 131, “The new [since St. John Paul II proposed it in 2002] fourfold structure of the Mysteries [of the Rosary] … recalls the four-fold structure of the Gospels, and each of the four sets of Mysteries seems to correspond to one of the Gospels in a special way,” to which I noted the clarification, “Joyful [Mysteries] = Matthew = God as Man, Luminous = Mark = Teaching, Sorrowful = Luke = Sacrifice, Glorious = John = Exalted.” Although of course the Mysteries as “events” are not so cleanly lined up with the Gospels, the spirit of each of the Gospels does seem to reflect the spirit of each set of Mysteries “in a special way.”

In my heady enthusiasm I private messaged a friend in Facebook that “I’m starting to think of [Caldecott] as the current generation’s heir to G[.] K[.] C[hesterton] ….” That’s probably going a bit far, but only because he published (as far as I know) only a small fraction of the truly herculean output of Chesterton; I think in spirit – and in deeply intellectual spirituality – that there may be an enormous amount of truth in that statement.  But, as I continued in the p.m., “… which is only appropriate since he held the GKC Chair at Oxford and curated the GKC Library.

As I said near the beginning of this post, the more I discover about Stratford Caldecott, the more I find a kindred spirit:
  • a Catholic intellectual (well, I try in my own feeble way!);
  • a fan of heroic fiction and specifically comic books;
  • a devotee of G. K. Chesterton;
  • and, although ours was a very different path, an adult convert to Holy Mother Church.
Yes, we would have had a lot to talk about!

One thing that does amaze me, even today as I write this, is the total absence of a page devoted to Stratford Caldecott on Wikipedia, which despite its well-known shortcomings is generally my (and most other people’s, I’m sure, whether they would admit it) first destination when wanting to find quick information on some subject. I would not presume to create such a page – as yet I do not have the breadth of knowledge of his life and work as a whole to create even a passable one – but I will here put into narrative form some of the notes I have accrued regarding this great man, as my own tribute to him. The heart of what follows is based on Caldecott’s own account of his spiritual journey that was published in the book on converts edited by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, The Path to Rome: Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church (1999), entitled “Gnosis and Grace: Contemporary Paganism and the Search for Truth,” which was posted in toto on Fr. Longenecker’s blog the day after Caldecott’s death [“Stratford Caldecott – a Tribute,” Standing on My Head (18 July 2014) LINK]. I have also made free use of a variety of the many other obituaries and tributes that appeared in the days following his death, the most important being listed at the end of this post.

Stratford Caldecott was born on 26 November 1953, in London, to recent immigrants from South Africa where his parents had for years worked against apartheid. His parents were, furthermore, intellectuals, his father being in the publishing business, which means he grew up surrounded by books and early on developed a great love of reading. By his own testimony, early favorites were science fiction and fantasy – including comic books – which led him to popular science and eventually to mysticism. He was early on convicted of the existence of God – despite the agnosticism of his parents – but sought Him in various Eastern and New Age philosophies before he eventually came in a very roundabout path to the truth of Catholicism. Key in his journey was a dream of the Holy Grail, which brought him to the realization of the importance of story – the legends of King Arthur as well as the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis which he had loved from childhood, stories that he found had instilled in him a subconscious Christian foundation that could be built upon. Along the way, during his studies at Oxford University, he met and married (in 1977) Léonie Richards in her own Anglican Church during a time when she was searching for and coming to doubt the necessary sacramental presence of Christ in that church. Her questions and his own study of Catholicism brought him to St. Thomas Aquinas whose mix of mysticism and logic suddenly made all things understandable. In 1980, he converted to Catholicism, followed a couple of years later by his wife – and, already experienced in the publishing business following his father’s lead, he set off into a literary, scholastic, and theological career that would span a broad range of subjects. Among his research interests were the relationship between faith and the imagination, the importance of symbolism and mystagogy, education as the key to evangelization, interfaith dialogue, and human and environmental ecology [LINK].

I really don’t know what the overall sequence would be over much of the next three decades, but among his many professional accomplishments were service on a variety of editorial boards for companies such as Routledge, HarperCollins, T&T Clark, and Sophia Institute Press, as well as the Catholic Truth Society and journals such as Communio, Humanum Review, and the UK edition of the devotional magazine Magnificat. He was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative website. In collaboration with Léonie he founded, published, and edited his own literary journal of faith and culture entitled Second Spring, “dedicated to the search for truth, goodness, and beauty” and part of a Caldecott family business in service to the Catholic community, offering a Summer School in Oxford for overseas students as well as publishing various catechetical resources. Second Spring is in the Oxford Center for Faith & Culture maintained by the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. In 2005, he was appointed G. K. Chesterton Research Fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and given charge of the G. K. Chesterton Library until 2013 when it was moved to its current housing at the Oxford Oratory. He wrote many, many essays and articles for such as the National Catholic Register, Touchstone, This Rock, Parabola, Oasis, Communio, and The Chesterton Review

Perhaps his most accessible and defining work came late in his life, more or less in his last decade. After editing or co-editing a couple of volumes in the late 1990s (Eternity in Time: Christopher Dawson and the Catholic Idea of History, 1997, and Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement, 1999), his own first book would appear in 2005. Mysteriously and impenetrably entitled by his publishers as Secret Fire, its subtitle was a bit clearer: The Spiritual Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien; luckily, when expanded and republished it gained the far more appropriate title, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (2012). But once the gates were opened, books appeared in relatively quick succession: Secret Fire was followed by The Seven Sacraments: Entering the Mysteries of God (2006); another edited collection would be Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration (2008); followed by Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (2009); All Things Made New: The Mysteries of the World in Christ (2011); Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (2012); The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity (2013); and finally Not As the World Gives: The Way of Creative Justice (2014).  In addition to all this he ran three related blogs of his own: Beauty in Education (from 2009) [LINK], for parents, teachers, and students; The Economy Project (from 2009) [LINK], about Catholic social teaching, ecology, and so forth; and All Things Made New (from 2011) [LINK], for mystics, theologians, and seekers of goodness, truth, and beauty. Doubtless in recognition of this impressive body of work, Caldecott received in September 2013 an honorary doctorate of theology from the Pontifical John Paull II Institute in Washington, DC.

Personally, the marriage of Stratford and Léonie Caldecott bore fruit as well, with three daughters Teresa, Sophie, and Rose-Marie (and he ultimately did live long enough to see a grandchild, born to Sophie only a few months before his passing); his wide-ranging professional career fostered deep and lasting friendships on both sides of the Atlantic, as attested by the huge number of notices that appeared as news of his death spread.

That death, though mourned, was, of course, not unexpected. Caldecott had been diagnosed – belatedly, after a year of illness and extensive testing – with an advanced stage of prostate cancer in 2011, and suffered through three years of treatments in an effort to stave off the inexorable ravaging of his body. A certain bitterness on the part of Sophie Caldecott for the delay in determining what was wrong with her father comes through in the Independent article quoted above, and she hopes that the phenomenon which brightened his last days might also raise awareness about prostate cancer and the inadequacy of relying solely on blood testing for its detection. Nevertheless, despite the pain he was enduring it seems that Caldecott was determined also to make whatever time remained to him count, and lining up the dates his books appeared reveals that half of them came in those last three years. Without doing a full-scale bibliographic overview of Caldecott’s writing it’s impossible to tell for sure, but my impression is that there was little if any let-up in his output of articles and essays either; certainly only in the last half-year, basically 2014, does it seem that his blog postings waned (with the last pair coming less than a month before the end); indeed, my own impression, rightly or wrongly, is that the looming vision of his own mortality focused his mind and inspired a furious desperation to say all he could in the dwindling time he had remaining. But it was a “furious desperation” that also seems graced with an amazing inner peace and reconciliation with the end that he saw coming. By all accounts he remained solicitous of his many friends, and grateful for the time he had. I hope and pray to possess a fraction of the serenity his final writings, at least, evidence as I come to the end of my own life, whenever that might be.

Perhaps no better way to end this tribute exists than to include what are not, strictly speaking, Caldecott’s own last published words (at the very least, a few posts on his blogs would follow), but what could very well serve as a fitting final testimony, published as a note to an article ruminating on his own impending end less than two months before it came – “Search for the Secret of Life and Death” [The Imaginative Conservative (21 May 2014) LINK], an intensely touching and spiritual meditation that is itself profound in its consideration of the ultimate question plaguing our mortal existence: “Why can’t we all live forever? It seems a terrible flaw in the fabric of the world—that death haunts us from the moment we are born, injecting a note of tragedy into everything. And yet how could it be otherwise, if reproduction is equally a part of the fabric of space-time? … Why life and death?” The answer is found in the Incarnation: “God entered deeply into the world—so deeply that we can call it a merging, a uniting of his own nature with the world itself. It is no illusion, but a real uniting. We can participate by joining in the rhythm of life and death. God hides himself deeply within the world, not as an extension of life, such as an experience or two, but as the totality of being. At first it all seems inaccessible and impossible. The Cross seems impossible, incredible. It seems foolish, crazy. But we must join fully, deeply, truly. And we must start as soon as possible.

Fittingly enough, however, being from Caldecott, the short essay is headed by an image of the “New God” Metron, from comics legend Jack Kirby’s early-1970s Fourth World oeuvre for DC Comics, seated in his “Möbius Chair” negotiating interdimensional chaos (as only Kirby could envision it) in “a search that never finds what it is seeking.” And it ends,

This article will seem far too Christian to many readers, as will many on this site. I wrote it at a very strange time. As I approached the end of my life from prostate cancer, my family organized a remarkable event—a private viewing of the second Captain America movie by Marvel. Members of the cast that I admire are getting in touch and wishing me well. So many of my ‘last wishes’ are being fulfilled at this time. One of them is to have just completed my new book, Not As the World Gives (Angelico Press). ... If you read the article …, know that it expresses my beliefs. Know also that it expresses a particular hope—the hope that the goodwill aroused by the actions of my family will touch and open the hearts of many who read it. – SC.”

On 17 July 2014, Stratford Caldecott succumbed to prostate cancer. Two weeks later, a funeral Mass at the Oxford Oratory was followed – again, most fittingly – by his burial only a few feet from the grave of J. R. R. Tolkien in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Someday, I hope to pay my respects to these two great English Catholic writers, one who has been dear to my heart for most of my life, one whom I have only just discovered but have already developed a great love for.

Requiescat in Pace, Strat.

(The formal obituary can be found at Second Spring [LINK])

+ + +

A few of the more helpful sites about Stratford Caldecott:

“Stratford Caldecott Home Page,” Christendom Awake    http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/faithcul/stratford-caldecott.htm

Author Profile at The Imaginative Conservative http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/author/stratford-caldecott

“Leading Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott is mourned,” Catholic Herald (18 July 2014) http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/07/18/leading-catholic-writer-stratford-caldecott-is-mourned/

Desmond, Joan, “Stratford Caldecott, R.I.P.,” National Catholic Register (19 July 2014) http://www.ncregister.com/blog/joan-desmond/stratford-caldecott-r.i.-p

Jones, Kevin J., “Catholic cultural renewal advocate Stratford Caldecott mourned,” Catholic News Agency (18 July 2014) http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/catholic-cultural-renewal-advocate-stratford-caldecott-mourned-92619/

Lichens, Michael J., “Stratford Caldecott: Go With God,” Catholic Exchange (21 July 2014) http://catholicexchange.com/stratford-caldecott-go-god

Longenecker, Dwight, “Friend Strat: Further Up and Further In!,” Standing on My Head (17 July 2014) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/07/friend-strat-further-up-and-further-in.html

Schiffer, Kathy, “R.I.P. Stratford Caldecott, ‘Marvel’ of Catholicism,” Seasons of Grace (17 July 2014) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2014/07/r-i-p-stratford-caldecott-marvel-of-catholicism/

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