Thomas Howard is one of the most erudite and literate Catholic authors in recent history. He was raised in a prominent Evangelical home (his sister is well-known author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot), became Episcopalian in his mid-20s, then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age of 50. Dr. Howard was a highly regarded professor of English and literature for more than 30 years and is the author of numerous books, including Dove Descending: T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Evangelical Is Not Enough, Chance or the Dance?, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed. He recently was interviewed, by email, by Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the new edition of his book Hallowed Be This House: Finding Signs of Heaven in Your Home (Ignatius Press, 2012), as well as the state of American culture, secularism, Anglicanism, and great literature.
CWR: How did the idea for Hallowed Be This House originally come about? Do you think there is an even greater need today for a sense of the hallowed and the sacred than there was when you first wrote the book in the 1970s?
Thomas Howard: I think the original idea for the book came to me gradually. It must have been the fruit of a lifetime of reading and teaching Western literature, where one finds, up until at least the Enlightenment, the assumption of an ordered, hierarchical, and blissful Universe. Even the pagans assume this. But in my young adulthood, I found myself moving from the very faithful and good Protestant Evangelicalism of my family into the Anglican Church, where at least the notions of hierarchy, sacrament, and liturgy are remembered. Also, of course, I became soaked in the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their friend Charles Williams. In all of these writers, one finds the ordinary stuff of quotidian life treated as though that stuff bespeaks—what shall we say? Glory? Ultimacy? The Truth of things? Splendor? Yes—all of that. The ordinary is not ordinary. It trumpets joy, freedom, and virtue to us mortals if we will pay attention.
Is there a greater need today to see things this way than when I wrote the book in the 1970s? Yes. In the decade of the 1960s, when my wife and I were living in New York, which became the eye of the storm, Western Civilization as it has been known for millennia collapsed. The moral order was overthrown with great zest, and this overthrow is always, inevitably, the prelude to the collapse of any civilization. I myself would see signs of hope, however, in the papacies of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI, with, in the latter case, the promulgation of the Year of Faith. This is a clear call to the Church to reassert, very strongly, the real substance of the Catholic Faith, which is more, far more, than a matter of “it’s nice to be nice,” which perhaps has been the impression conveyed to the laity in common parish homiletics in the wake of what obviously concerns the Holy Father at the moment—namely the training of seminarians, for perhaps a century, in “the historical critical method” of reading Scripture.
CWR: Can you give an example or two of how our houses are, or can become, hallowed? How can we better develop a sense of sacramentality and an incarnational perspective?
Howard: How do we “hallow” the household? In one sense, we might repeat what fierce nuns used to lay upon young parochial school children to do when they skinned a knee or did badly on a quiz: “Offer it up!” That, like all such clichés, hints at something true. The business of “offering” touches on the very center of things. God “offered” his Son for our salvation. Jesus Christ always “offers” his whole being to his Father in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and offered himself for us poor mortals on the Cross for our salvation. Anything that is thus “offered” can become holy, that is, “set apart” for God.
We see this in the Eucharist, and we are invited to see it in the ordinary routines (often, to be sure, dull or nettlesome) of common household life. The love of a man and woman in the nuptial mystery; the nurture and training of children; peeling carrots; carrying out the trash: all of these supply us with the chance to see ordinariness as the very sacrament of Love, that is, the chance to say to each other, “My life for yours,” which is what Love says, e.g., “Here—let me hold this door for you.” “Here—let me wash the dishes for a change.” “Here—let me get up at 3 am to give the infant a bottle, and let you rest for a few minutes.” And of course, all of this is “sacramental” in that the sacraments themselves entail, in every case, a physical point at which holiness and eternal truth touch our mortal life. (Yes—even Confession: there must be a priestly set of ears and a penitent’s voice box. We can’t text or email our confessions.) So, by the same token, the small, unnoticeable routines and tasks of household life, being characteristically physical events (laundry, sweeping)—these touch on, and even “mediate” to us, the chance to take a small step into the Hallowed: things become holy by being offered to God. I can do this with my daily household tasks.
CWR: Several of your books, including this one, analyze and critique and address the secularism that seems to infect and infest almost every aspect of modern life. When did you, as a young man, first begin to take the measure of secularism and skepticism? How has secularism changed in, say, the past 50 years? What can be done by the ordinary Catholic in the pew to cope with secularist influences and challenges?
Howard: I think my beginning to “take the measure of secularism and skepticism” came about gradually. The household in which I grew up was profoundly Christian (Evangelical), so the notion of holiness was, so to speak, in the air. One gradually becomes aware that what is at work in Christian love, which one slowly learns at home, is not noticeably at work out in “the world.” People don’t take God into account. This state of affairs, which has characterized the world of us men since the day after the expulsion from Eden, took an exponential leap forward, I would propose, in the 1960s, when the hubris, venality, lechery, vanity, and predatoriness native to our fallen humanity exploded out across society, and became, eventually, sovereign in the public realm. Erstwhile canons of politesse, self-control, reticence, modesty, and integrity were overthrown. “Let it all hang out!” became the ensign under which we were told to march.
For the “Catholic in the pew,” surely the tactic for coping with this firestorm that rules the contemporary world is the old tactic: stay close to the Center; walk with the Lord, in prayer, quietness (when possible!); the reading of Sacred Scripture daily (if only briefly); and, of course, “assisting at” Mass (that is the old phrase for it), at least weekly, and, if possible, more often. And of course it’s not a bad idea to minimize the occasions (TV, cinema, and rock music plugged into one’s ears) when that firestorm can assault us with particular energy.
CWR: Your book, Chance or the Dance? (Ignatius Press) was originally published in 1969 as An Antique Drum: The World as Image. It is remarkable in its insights regarding a whole host of problems, and it is already shot through with a deeply sacramental understanding of the world. How did you, as a young Evangelical, come to that understanding? What role did it play in your decision to eventually enter the Catholic Church?
Howard: I don’t think I ever heard the words “sacrament” or “sacramental” in my family’s household. The Protestant Reformers had pretty thoroughly evacuated the Faith of any such notion. They were certainly faithful to the Scriptures and the Creeds as they understood them, and were stout defenders of the Faith. But Protestant religion is primarily a religion of “the Word.” It can often seem as though God has revealed himself in cerebral, verbalist, discursive, propositional terms. Of course they believe in, and defend energetically, the doctrine of the Incarnation; but their worship and piety is virtually 100 percent focused on the text of Scripture, and on preaching. “Communion” is something of an embarrassment, and it was consigned to the margin of things at the Reformation, some denominations marking the Lord’s Supper only four times a year.
So I think that, in my own case, the notion of the sacramental began to take shape in my young imagination by means of a desperate yearning. I was not at all sure what it was that I yearned for, but it seemed to lie vaguely in the direction of the liturgy of the Anglican Church. And it was during the 25 years of my life as an Anglican that I learned about the idea of sacrament. As far as my being received into the ancient Roman Catholic Church goes, I had, through reading (Newman, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, Romano Guardini) moved steadily in the direction of the Church until, in 1985, at the age of 50, I was received. The question “What is the Church?” was the single, implacable, remorseless question that became the catalyst here. As an Anglican, I had the best music, the best vestments, the most beautiful church buildings, and the thickest incense that there was. But “What is the Church?” would not leave me alone.
CWR: As a student of history and a teacher of literature, how would you describe the current state of American culture in general? What bothers you the most about popular culture? Any signs of hope?
Howard: As far as “the current state of American culture” goes, I, having deep pessimism in my bones and marrow, would take the most melancholy view possible in this regard. Surely all the signs of a disastrously decadent civilization are there? I have nothing new to say here: the loud and brash “sexual revolution” would be the vanguard, I should think, with its concomitant collapse of the family, its assault on the most fundamental quality of our status as men and women—namely, gender—and the sovereignty of philosophical atheism, and now, the explicit attack on the Catholic Church globally—these would, to my mind, be the signs.
I don’t look to politics or education now as a remedy for our malaise. The Enemy is too strong for any human tactics. As a Protestant Fundamentalist (i.e., Evangelical), I was taught to look for “the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We believed, on tiptoe as it were, in the Parousia. As a Catholic of course, I would not venture to attach any date to this event. But it’s hard to fix much hope on human efforts to quench the firestorm, although of course I believe what the Church teaches, namely, that our task is always, always—no matter what century or civilization we live in—to alleviate human suffering and need, and to testify to the only Anodyne for our troubles, Jesus Christ.
CWR: You were an Anglican for many years before becoming Catholic. Recently, the Church of England voted—to the surprise of many—to not allow female bishops. Do you think the inevitable has merely been postponed? What is the future, do you think, of theologically liberal, or “progressive,” Christian groups and movements?
Howard: The Church of England (Anglican) has just now voted to deny the office of bishop to women. Is this a sign of that Church’s orthodoxy and fidelity to the ancient apostolic Church’s tradition? I myself would not attach much confidence to the move, since the power structure of the Anglican Church, namely the bishops and clergy, voted in favor of opening the episcopal office to women, and it was the laity who blocked the move. In that church, the view is that “the faithful are not yet ready” for various moves “forward,” e.g., same-sex marriage, women bishops, gender-neutral language, and so forth. But the inevitable forward movement of time will bring all that to pass (it already has, in some of those sorts of questions).
Very much the same notion is at work in the American Episcopal Church. And when it comes to the future of liberalism and progressivism in Protestantism, again, I would not foresee any check in the surge towards hegemony of these -isms. What Pio Nono (or was it Pius XII?) saw coming and named “modernism” has burgeoned and flourished and gained almost total control in seminaries all over the world. This is what Benedict XVI is explicitly addressing. But even as the Supreme Pontiff, he has a staggering task facing him. Even Catholic faculties (I know this from teaching in a Catholic seminary) sometimes chuckle and wag their heads knowingly over the Holy Father’s efforts. The academic dean at one seminary, when I pressed Veritatis Splendor on him 25 years ago, read it at my shrill behest, came into my office, and threw the booklet down with the remark, “The pope’s exegesis is so bad that I couldn’t read further.” Period.
CWR: As a longtime professor of English literature, what are the essential works of literature you recommend every Catholic read?
Howard: What books might make good reading for Catholics now? I’d have to say that the reading of the Fathers (there’s an Oxford paperback edited by Henry Bettenson entitled The Early Christian Fathers which contains easy-to read excerpts from these men)—that the reading of such volumes as this would provide a great rush of encouragement and fervor to any Catholic. In my own case, I was greatly helped by John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Penguin paperback), and by Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism. I would also recommend all of the works of Romano Guardini. His main book, The Lord, is (I tell people) “the best book written since the Bible.” One can read only one chapter at a time, not because it is too difficult, but because it opens out on such gigantic vistas of the Faith and the spiritual life, that one can take only so much at a given time. And of course, we now have the works of Benedict XVI. They’re not bedtime reading: but I can, I think, guarantee that any reasonably intelligent Catholic adult will find himself thrilled. Also anything by Josef Pieper. And then, naturally, any and all of the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.