If you ask, it may be given. That is why you might hesitate to pray for courage. Or so went the reasoning of a friend who noticed that when she prayed for courage she not only received it, but was immediately projected into circumstances in which it would be tried. Well, she lived to joke about it. My own more frugal strategy has been to pray for such qualities only as last resort.
The death of an old friend—who ought to have been famous throughout Catholic Christendom, but instead became an un-person on its Canadian fringe—has put me in mind of courage. His name was Larry Henderson, and he swam into the world inconveniently loaded with talent, daring, humor, and the instinct for leadership. He cut a figure no matter what he did—from stage acting in early life, to soldiering in World War II, to broadcast and then print journalism—through miscellaneous swashbuckling adventures. In his 30s, during the 1950s, he was a Canadian household face—the first solo anchor of the CBC National News. But by the time he died in his sleep at age 89 last November, he was unknown for much greater achievements.
His conversion to Catholicism was among his wrong moves, had the purpose of his life been self-promotion. His relations with colleagues in the Canadian mainstream media were part of a long history of wrong moves, as he consistently stood on principle for craft, fact, and the keeping of distinctions between right and wrong. He had a temper, to be sure—quite closely allied with his comic sense—and carried a reputation for “unprofessionalism” forward from the day he walked off a live news set when a film clip failed to roll. He was invincibly human.
“A prophet and a knight,” as I insisted on describing him in a brief obituary note I wrote just after his death. This was not grief speaking: I had known Larry for some years and was well-acquainted with these realities.
The gift of prophecy is another thing for which we might hesitate to pray. It consists in seeing and saying what is really going on; it has little to do with predicting the future. For the future is always unfolding now. As editor of Canada’s Catholic Register in the 1970s, Larry made the entire paper a prophetic voice—against the abortion culture that was encroaching all around us, against the cults of moral and aesthetic ugliness. But there, too, he made the wrong career moves and ended up launching his own Catholic paper, The Challenge, as a Roman candle in the dark night of the soul.
No prophet goes entirely unnoticed in his own country, and the priest who spoke the homily over Larry’s coffin was among the few alert. Without eulogizing, he painted the man as he was, expecting his ascent through purgatory with the qualities he had exhibited on earth. But the priest then added: “In a deeper way, he also takes with him all the suffering of his life, all the misunderstanding, all the contempt; the careless dismissal of his outstanding cultural and intellectual attainments; and the disdain for a rich, sensitive, and so often very funny humanity.”
This key point is overlooked in our post-Christian accounts of the heroic. We cannot expect rewards in this world for witnessing to the truth. Nor could we often expect them in past centuries. This world is, as the knowledgeable Hunter S. Thompson described the pop music business, “a shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway, where pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs.”
And to paraphrase further, this is the good news. For the good man carries the spittle as a badge of honor—to a place where the just are in everlasting remembrance, and fear no evil reports.