I first met Fritz Wilhelmsen (1923-1996) in the summer of 1970, falling at once under the spell of his magic. Such a long time ago it all was, too. Yet I remember it all as if it were but yesterday. There I was, this naïve and provincial American undergraduate, strangely catapulted by circumstance (and God) to Catholic Spain, where, in the shadow of that immense poem in stone, El Escorial, I sat day after day in a state of positive bewitchment beneath the gaze of the finest teacher I would ever know. Years later, in a little book I’d dedicated to his memory called Garlands of Grace—a compilation of four centuries of devotional verse in which I’d selected samples I knew were among his favorites, e.g., Chesterton, Belloc, Roy Campbell—I said that it was he who had first introduced me to the poetry of the transcendent, a lovely phrase, one which he himself had coined.
The memory of that wonderful and seminal time, despite the lapse of forty plus years, still awakens a sense of joy and wonder and gratitude for the discoveries made under his tutelage, chief of which being the world of St. Thomas Aquinas. The entire course of my life was set by that blest encounter with the metaphysics of being. Not the “sawdust Thomism” to which so many Catholics of an earlier time were made to suffer, from which not a few in their headlong flight would leave even the Faith itself behind. No, not that corrupt, desiccated Scholasticism of the Schools, but an exposition of the Common Doctor himself, determined both to identify the pure distillate of his thought, then to render it all in the most expressive, indeed electrifying, way. As an educational experience, those heady weeks spent in Spain at the feet of Fritz, gave lasting and unforgettable shape to my life.
How did he do it? It was a fusion, almost uncanny in its combination, of what I can only describe as rhapsody and rigor. In other words, he brought miraculously together an oratorical style so dazzling as to disarm everyone within range of his voice, alongside the surest and most comprehensive grasp of the entire science of existence. How he could encompass, and with such seeming effortless erudition, the whole sweep of Western philosophy from Parmenides to Heidegger, evincing all with such ardor of energy and eloquence as to leave one stupefied by the sheer baroque artistry of the performance!
It was the whole choreography of the thing, actually, the kinetic play of the lecture itself, which proved especially riveting. To witness Wilhelmsen in action was an arresting experience. First he would set about festooning the blackboard with what only he knew to be the plan of attack; then pacing the floor with an intense sense of theater—the air, meanwhile, suffused with cigarette smoke amid the stentorian sounds of his voice—he’d purposively build to some sublime, show-stopping conclusion that left the audience in a state of high exhilaration. It certainly left me absolutely star-struck, filled with sheer unqualified amazement that here, on the wings of his great master, Aquinas himself, were insights into being that no other philosopher had surpassed in the seven hundred years separating us from the medieval world.
It struck me at the time, repeatedly since, that if the human capacity for wonder is what joins both poet and philosopher, a point Thomas himself reminds us of in his Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, then it is unlikely that I should ever see a more perfect conjunction of the two than in Fritz Wilhelmsen. The whole thrust of his personality, of which I became at once vividly aware in that classroom in Spain, was such an exuberance before existence itself that, to put it in Chestertonian terms, here was a man so astonished by “the things that cannot be and that are,” so elatedly glad to be given that which none of us can give, that he never ceased to exclaim, like Thomas himself in the teeth of the Manicheanist negations, “There is and Is!” Indeed, as Fritz himself would often thunderously exclaim, “Is Is and Is Not, Is NOT!”
One felt a sudden, exhilarating surge of gratitude and delight on hearing pronouncements like that. In fact, one felt much as he himself must have felt when, riding his bike at age ten around a lake in Detroit, he was suddenly hit by metaphysical lightning. As a result of which, he revealed in an unpublished memoir, “there burst upon me the shattering conviction that I was, I existed. I was Being, separated from the abyss of Nothingness. I simply laughed out loud suffused with my good fortune. The privilege of existing at all covered the whole world and everything I looked at seemed to smile back, luxuriating in the beauty and glory of its own reality.”
Like an impossibly rich and lavish dinner of which there is no end of fine food, and all of it blessedly free, we have all been invited to the banquet, the feast of being. And the thing of course that produces the sense of stunned surprise, ambushing the heart into sheer thankfulness, is the fact that, but for the awful grace of God, none of us need be at all. “At the back of our brains,” Chesterton says somewhere, “there is this forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence.” Well Fritz never forgot. Like Chesterton, he simply knew, having intuited the thing early on, that each of us is no more than a word spoken by Another, the Eternal Word, who, were He all at once to cease speaking our name, we would straightaway fall into nothingness. And yet, while there is absolutely no necessity for me to be, nevertheless I am, I exist, and so the temptation to give in to despair, to succumb to what Chesterton called “the blasphemy of pessimism,” simply must be resisted at every turn. As Fritz himself would put it in his Metaphysics of Love, surely the best book he ever wrote: “The shock of non-being can stir within the mind a questioning as to why we are at all when every resource within our very nature cries out its own insufficiency and ontological poverty.” Thus shaken to the very bottom of contingent being, one instinctively feels, he says, “that shudder before non-being which is the heart of all anxiety.” Yet, once again he insists, one mustn’t yield. Rather one must choose the only remaining alternative with which to banish the beast of anxiety, namely gratitude. “This gratitude in truth is a grace, the kind of grace the Church calls ‘actual,’ which can be any person or thing that lights up the night in which we live. But when gratitude is so profound that it reaches within to my very being and beyond to the whole of being to which I am related, then gratitude answers Love.”
For me, in thinking back to that magical time so long ago, I see a kind of birth, the first stirrings of which in the womb of wonder I owe entirely to Fritz Wilhelmsen. And even now, in thinking of him in the years following his death, at age 73, I am filled with gratitude for having known him, to God especially for putting such richness and rarity into my life, and at a moment when it might do me real and permanent good.
And recalling the words of that lovely prayer of Ernest Hello addressed to Saint Raphael, “Angel of happy meeting,” I ask God once again that my old friend and mentor, he who possessed such dignity and nobility of soul, be delivered at last to Him, “whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.”
Editor’s note: The photo above of Frederick Wilhelmsen was taken at a summer school sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in the 1960s.