On Remembering What We Know: An Illuminating Life

The life and work of Fr. John Navone, SJ, has been devoted to truth, tradition, beauty, and the knowledge of God.

Editor’s Note: The following address was given on April 24th by Father James Schall at Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), at the invitation of the school’s Faith and Reason Institute, in honor of Father John Navone, SJ.

“Remembering one’s tradition is at the heart of both the Jewish and Christian identity. Israel’s remembering is essential for her continued existence as God’s covenant people, forgetting God’s saving acts would bring her destruction. ‘You shall remember the Lord your God…that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. And if you forget the Lord our God…I solemnly warn you that you shall surely perish’ (Deut. 8: 18-10). Through her remembering, Israel’s redemptive history continues in a living tradition where the divine commands perdures as historical events challenging successive generations to decision and that obedience which enables Israel to share in the redemption of here forefathers.” 

— Father John Navone, SJ“No Tradition, No Civilization”Homiletic & Pastoral Review, October, 2002.


The most memorable passage that I recall from many years of knowing Father John Navone, of corresponding with him, and of reading him is the following: “You are what you remember.” Whether this insightful sentence is unique to John Navone, I do not know, but he often used it. I have cited it many times myself, or, in a similar spirit: “Tell me what you remember, and I will tell you what you are.” From this angle of remembrance, I will approach my appreciation of John Navone’s work. “To remember” implies the existence of time and its passing-ness. From there it gets us to tradition and history.

Fr. John Navone, SJ (David P. P. Persyn/Wikimedia Commons)

These considerations lead us, not to deadly “timelessness,” but rather to eternity, to the nuc stans, to the “now” that stands in hushed stillness, as Aquinas put it. The reason that the silence, the stillness, is hushed is because this is our first reaction to seeing something of immeasurable, or even measurable, beauty. Beauty is a prominent theme of John Navone. He talks about “remembering” because he thinks that something to remember is constantly before us. The classic definition of beauty was: Quod visum, placet—“What is seen or heard pleases us.” This capacity to be pleased by anything is one of the most curious things about us. We not only encounter lovely things, but they please us, delight us, as if we are made both to receive and to acknowledge the glory of what we have received, of what is not ourselves

In an article by Julie King in Spokane’s Spokesman-Review (June 21, 2008), Father Navone, recalling the Spokane part of his early education, remarked: “It was at Mt. St. Michael’s here in Spokane, with its superb instructors, that I began to study philosophy and learned about what I call ‘The Life of the Mind’.” In 2006, ISI Books published a book of Schall’s entitled, precisely: The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking. I had no idea at the time that I was echoing John Navone, due, no doubt, to a loss of memory! But Navone was right. The instructors at Mt. St. Michael’s in our time were superb. I was in the class ahead of John. I think of professors like Alexander Tourginy, Theodore Wolf, John Sullivan, Edward Morton, and especially Clifford Kossel, one of the best minds ever. We also had a good man we called “Machine Gun Ferretti”, who taught logic. He spoke so rapidly few besides the likes of John Navone could keep up with him.

One other passage from this Spokesman-Review column I would like to cite as indicative of Father Navone’s insights: “The joy of life, at every level, is a response to the beauty of life. If we do not experience the beauty of excellence wherever we experience it, we shall never enjoy excellence wherever we find it.” A passage like that is worth the price of admissions. It is a theme we find in Pope Francis, in the Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. I mention Pope Francis deliberately here because, in the early days of his pontificate, in several interviews, he mentioned that, besides something of Karl Rahner, a book that most influenced him was John Navone’s Theologia di Fallimento, the Theology of Failure. The notion of Pope Francis, who constantly reminds us of the joy of our faith, being struck by a discussion of “failure” reminds us that, in a sense, in this world, Christ Himself was a “failure.” Belloc has a poem about it. But His failure led to what we have come to call the felix culpa, the fault that resulted in joy. This failure reminds us that, in Christianity, the redemptive suffering of the innocent Christ is the revelational addendum to the great Socratic principles that found our civilization, namely, that “it is never right to do wrong, that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.”

While John Navone taught in Rome for some forty years, I was a teacher in the same University for twelve of those years. So, in addition our time together at Mt. St. Michael’s, we lived in the same house in Rome, in Palazzo Frascara, during the years I was there from 1965-77. John knew Rome and many of the celebrities. He introduced me to Muriel Spark, Gore Vidal, Maurice West; somehow I missed Fellini, Pasolini, Tennessee Williams, William Burrowss, and I do not know who all. He did introduce me to Father Andrew Greeley and to Francis Cardinal George.

John understood both the beauty and history of Rome. He was also Italian enough—his family was from Lucca via Queen Anne Hill in Seattle—to know how Italian politics, social life, and business operate. This is something not so clear to us duller Midwestern types who think “cutting a deal” always verges on the shady and sinful, when it is really just a spirited, conversational way to arrive at a just price. I recall that John every so often would spot a good deal on some item at, as I recall, Antonelli’s antique shop. He would purchase what he saw for his dear sister Helen in Seattle, who funded the operation, knowing her brother’s good taste. Everyone recognized that John Navone could have made a fortune in the fine arts business had not the Lord sent him in another direction.

John Navone has many talents. I can recall often in Palazzo Frascara where we lived hearing him play the piano in one of the downstairs parlors. John Navone is in the enviable position of being a fine, if sometimes sharply critical, theologian of the culture. There is reason for this. To describe Father Navone as merely a “theologian” of whatever species—dogmatic, systematic, moral, historical, ascetical—is to miss the hundreds of other things that he is—a raconteur, a philosopher, a writer, an art and music critic, something of a poet, a commentator on almost everything worth commenting about. When I recall the beginnings of John’s writing career back at Mt St. Michael’s, I remember he once wrote an esoteric essay on something, I forget now what it was, but it was a good essay. Somehow he submitted it to a journal with the most exotic title imaginable—as I recall, The Phenomenological and Psychological Review. Much to my astonishment, but not totally as I already had begun to suspect John’s many talents, they published it.

One caveat on John’s talents might be mentioned. When the Gonzaga basketball team made it into the NCAA tournament this year, the Wall Street Journal sports section did a brief story on each university in the tournament. It listed four or five of the most famous alumni of the school. Under Gonzaga were, not unexpectedly, John Stockton and Tom Foley, but also listed was “Father John Navone, theologian.” Needless to say, one area that seldom saw much of Navone was the sporting green. When I say that Father Navone can be sharply critical, let me cite the beginning lines of his memorable essay, “No Tradition, No Civilization”:

Having lived in Europe for the last forty years, I have enjoyed the experience of historical and cultural roots. My residence for the last thirty-five years, for example, was constructed in the year that the Church of Scotland was founded, that Madrid became the capital of Spain, and the tobacco plant was imported to Western Europe by Jean Nicot. The buildings in my immediate Roman neighborhood are much older. The Colonna Palace, half a block away from my front door, was described by the Italian humanist, Petrarch (1304-74). The final ‘discovery scene’ of “Roman Holiday” was filmed there. Living in Europe is living in a place where the stones speak; however, if you have not done your homework, you will not understand what they are saying.

If you have no idea what a thing is, you will have a difficult time recognizing its reality when you encounter it. This principle, I suspect, is more valid of truth than beauty. For sometimes, often perhaps, we do not want to know the truth. It would require us to live differently. We protect ourselves from it by choosing not to know it. With beauty, however, we just do not see it, though sometimes we do. The beauty of what is, as Plato implied, can break into our souls almost at any time. We can only with difficulty ignore it.


I came across a review by Paul Burkhard of John Navone’s book Toward a Theology of Beauty. Let me read what Burkhard wrote: “This is an incredible book. I’m still in awe of it. It seizes your soul and takes you to the highest realms of the mind and heart of the Beautiful Triune God. I have almost an entire journal filled with notes I have taken from this book. I will look over these notes often in years to come, to let myself get swept away by the ideas present here.” Burkhard goes on to mention that Navone’s book does not seem to have what he calls a “progressive outline, so it is difficult to lay out everything he talks about.” Anyone who reads Navone will have this similar experience of finding an amazing variety of seemingly disparate insights in everything he writes. Keeping a “Navone journal” as one reads him is not a bad idea.

I still wish I knew where he said: “We are what we remember.” Memory is necessary not just to tradition but to intelligence itself. Intelligence, of course, is not memorization, however much that talent can help. But without memory, we cannot recall how things cohere. In this regard, now that both John and I have retired (I will not say “sent out to pasture”), I came across a recent scientific study. It claimed that the common feature of the members of Cicero’s “On Old Age” club is that they think they are losing their memories. But this research maintains that this view is not the case. The reason the elderly, like Navone and Schall, have a tougher time remembering things is not due to a decline of memory. It is because their minds are filled with so many things that it just takes the brain, like a computer, time to find the item under consideration. Needless to say, I like this theory.

In 1998, the Roman publishing house Edizioni Dehoniane published John Navone’s book Italia, natura e genio: Alle radici della cultura religioisa Italiana. This book has an English translation. (Five of Navone’s books are translated into Italian—to only one of Schall’s, I might add.) I came across a review in Italian of this book of John Navone by Liliana Piccinini, entitled “In risposta ai denigatori anglossoni.” Navone pointed out that, among Anglo-Saxon writers at one time, there was almost a concentrated effort to downplay Italian cultural achievements. Much of this had to do with the heritage of the Reformation. But Navone directed attention to many examples of this prejudice. Writers were unwilling and unable to see the beauty and accomplishment in Italy to our civilization. Here is a rough Schall translation of Liliana Piccinini’s comment about John Navone’s book on Italy:

This is an original book, rich in points that lead us to reflect and certainly to an efficacious response to those who denigrate Italy. And to conclude, we should not permit ourselves to forget the book’s guiding point: Rome has created “l’italianitẚ”—Italian-ness. There is among the Italians a common understanding almost unique in history. In Italy, the rocks also speak. At Rome, on the Campidoglio, Michaelangelo constructed his buildings with a medieval architecture that had its vaults laid on the foundations of the Romans.

As we saw earlier, John said that he lived in a place where even the stones speak. Liliana Piccinini has the Italian of this very phrase: “In Italia, parlano anche le pietre.”

We are what we remember. “There is among the Italians a common understanding unique in history.” The foundations of Michaelangelo’s medieval buildings were built by the Romans. While in Italy, John Navone lived in a building built the same year as the Church of Scotland was founded. It was some three or four blocks from Michael’s Campidoglio. Who else but John Navone would be aware of these things? “Living in Europe is living in a place where even the stones speak; however if you have not done your homework, you will not understand what they are saying.” John Navone, I think, has done his homework. He listened to the stones speaking to him.


Another of Father Navone’s interests is statistics or “just plain facts.” Every so often, I will receive from him a list of facts that causes one to think. Back in the 1970s, for example, when “population explosion” was the fad of intellectuals, I wrote a book entitled Human Dignity & Human Numbers. My argument at the time was that the world in fact had plenty of resources to feed and provide for a much larger population than the three or four billion at the time. Since that time, the issue is not population explosion, but population decline. Several writers are predicting the practical disappearance of Italians, Germans, Spanish, and other low-birth-rate people in the next decades. The only reason the United States is not on the list is because of immigration.

In any case, just recently, from out of nowhere, John Navone sent me a list of the ten most populous countries in the world in 1950, 1975, 2000, 2025, and 2050. He matter of factly noted that in 1950, three European countries, plus Russia, were in the top ten. The United States remained in the Number Three position in all the listings. But by the year 2050, India, not China, will be in the Number One position. No European nation, including Russia, appears. The list goes: Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and the Congo. This brings up the great mystery of why the West no longer wants to continue itself among the nations of the world. This mystery, as Navone hints elsewhere, happens when an individualist “rights” culture replaces one of relational responsibility to others. I mention these statistics because they are just one more sign of John Navone’s curiosity about almost everything. Just how he came across them initially, I have no idea.

John Navone is often critical of Israeli military policy and of the way Hollywood pictures Christianity in a film industry that Jewish directors and owners often control or in which they have great influence. On January 11, The Economist of London, one of the world’s most widely read journals, had an essay entitled “Who Is a Jew?” A couple of weeks later (January 26, 2014), The Economist published the following letter to the editor from, who else?, John Navone. It is a very interesting letter. Probably, numerically at least, more people will read this brief letter of John Navone than any of his other many publications.

The broad range of response to the question: “Who is a Jew?” opens the door to including Christians as Jews. After all, the first Christians were all Jews. They considered themselves so Jewish that the notion of baptizing gentiles was a problem for the original Jewish Christians, who believed that the Jewish Messiah had come. Amos Oz, an Israeli writer, recounts the story of his aunt’s conundrum: “When the Messiah comes, we shall have to ask him whether he has been here before.” The Jewish Bible is the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Religious Jews and Christians who believe in the same God have much more in common than religious Jews and Jewish atheists. The competing answers to the question of who is a Jew suggest that the template of a fertile Jewish garden producing Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, Christian, agnostic, and atheist Jews.

That letter is remarkably incisive; no wonder The Economist published it.

Another major theme of John Navone is that of the theology of story. This is something we associate perhaps with Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the writers of novels. One day I was going through something on the Internet. I came across a site entitled “Favorite Quotations Related to Story-telling.” As I scroll down, whose name do I find but that of John Navone. This is what is cited:

All stories are meant to be “theological.” Humankind needs theological stories because human beings are fundamentally interpersonal and because, if the Christian God’s promise is true, then humankind is fundamentally related to God. God is a person. Since story is the only means by which the interpersonal reality of humankind can be expressed in its cognitive and affective fullness and since our relationship to God is fundamentally personal, it follows that story-telling and story-listening provide the most appropriate means of enabling us to live in the relationship.

Our relation to God as to one another is primarily “inter-personal.” That means that it takes place at the level that is most personal, in story, in speech, in the accounts of where we have been, where we are, where we think we are going.

In a remarkably fine essay entitled “Existence as Persons In and Through Others” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review; July 6, 2013), John Navone brought together some of these themes that underlie story-telling. In it, he shows an understanding of the difference between a modern individualist “rights”-based culture, in which what is “owed” to us is central, as opposed to a gift-based culture in which the good of another is also our own concern. “We are aware of ourselves as participants in an on-going drama of existence that we did not originate, and that will continue after we are gone,” Navone wrote.

We experience ourselves in sharing in a reality that is common to all, while at the same time that we are not identical. Our participation is not a matter of choice; it is simply given. So long as we are willing to regard the universe as given, in the mathematical sense of “given” which presupposes no giver, we can take existence for granted as little more than a floor for anything that is. On the other hand, we may realize that a universe of given-ness presupposes a Giver, who is generously giving them, the one originating source of all that is, the principle of unity for the universe…. The creator’s free creation entails our life as a gift, not a gift which were somehow around to receive; it is we ourselves who are gift.

What follows from the notion that we ourselves are already “gifts” is that our primary mode of existence is “gratitude.”

Navone sees this “gratitude” basis of our civilization as coming out of the very inner life of God which is essentially a love and otherness of persons. Created reality reflects precisely this relationship. Father Navone puts the opposite view this way:

The individualist ideal of the self-made, self-sufficient, person does not square with the reality of our relational existence. Reality is not subordinate to the human choice or wish-thought of the would-be autonomous individual. We recognize individuals and societies seriously out of touch with their relational life as delusional. We are not the product of our choices; rather our relationships are primary. Before we know who we are, we are born into a web of prior-relationships. We are related to God, Jesus Christ, our parents, relatives, and a universe before we know who we are.

The individualist, “rights”-based autonomous person makes almost any notion of sacrifice and generosity impossible.

Likewise, I would briefly like to cite yet another essay of Father Navone, one called “Aquinas’ Vision of Divine and Human Happiness” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review; August 9, 2013). Human happiness, of course, is the classical Greek, eudaimonia, the “good” spirit that takes us to the highest things. Navone explains the relation of the Greek idea of happiness to the Christian transformation of it into our participation in the life of the Godhead. This discussion takes us back to the insightful classes that we had with Father Kossel on Aquinas. At the heart of Aristotle’s Ethics is his treatise on friendship. It is this tractate that most naturally passes to the Christian awareness of reality when Christ, with his inner relation to the Father and the Spirit, said, at the Last Supper, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” If we realize who Christ is who says this, to whom He is related, in the same divine nature, we can see how revelation directs itself to reason as correcting and completing it.

“God is Happiness Itself, working out our sanctification as a participation in the boundless happiness of God’s knowing, loving, and enjoying Himself,” Father Navone writes in a beautiful passage.

We have been created by Happiness for the purpose of Happiness Itself, because God enjoys making others happy…. Our desire for happiness, the dynamic structure of human intentionality, is not of our own making; rather it evidences for Christian faith that we have been structured or preprogrammed by Happiness Itself for Happiness Itself. We are the effects of the Uncreated Cause, this Happiness Itself, which is effecting us—its will for us always being its loving self for us.

The notion that we have been personally structured for Happiness Itself is but Augustine’s “restless heart.”

One of the Jesuit Generals spoke of the “intellectual apostolate.” This means writing, thinking, lecturing, and teaching, something to which John Navone has devoted his life. It is in a way a paradoxical life, since so much that is true is rejected as insanity, as Chesterton implied. But this life has its own rewards and pleasures, as I like to put it. In an old Peanuts, to conclude, Lucy and Charlie are out on a hillside at night, stars all about. Charlie says to her: “Do you know what I think?” As they look at the stars, Charlie continues: “I think there must be a tiny star that is out there that is MY star.” Lucy looks skeptically at him as he goes on: “And as I am alone here on Earth midst millions of people, that star is out there alone midst millions and millions of stars.” In the next scene, both gaze on the dark starry sky in silence. Finally, Charlie turns to Lucy to ask her: “Does that make any sense to you?” To which Lucy perkily replies: “Certainly.” As she walks away to a totally deflated Charlie, she explains: “It means you’re cracking up, Charlie Brown.”

John Navone, for all his interests and study of things, still has time not to take himself or the world too seriously. The notion of joy and Christian humor is intrinsic to the faith. It prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. Yet, we take ourselves seriously enough to see what Plato already saw; namely, that the only really serious thing is God whom, as John Navone explained, is, in its triune life, “Happiness Itself.” That is the life that we are given as “gifts.” Our only sane response to such a gift is “gratitude.”

We are what we remember.

Tell me what you remember and I will tell you what you are.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).

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