I was still an undergraduate when, in the summer of 1970, I first laid eyes on Spain, spending seven or so heady weeks in the bright shadow of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, an immense, intimidating pile built by Philip II in the shape of a huge gridiron on which its patron, St. Lawrence, had been slowly barbecued back in the second century. He had designed it that way to honor the martyred deacon whose feast (August 10) fell on the same day his army had defeated the French at St. Quentin, an important victory in Philip’s never-ending campaign against the Protestant world. That was in the year 1563, the same year that, as Providence would have it, the Council of Trent issued its final decrees, thus launching all those wonderful Tridentine warheads aimed at restoring the unity of a divided Christendom.
Those weeks in Catholic Spain were among the happiest of my life, spent in the company of some of the most colorful and contentious people I would ever know. An assortment so captivatingly odd, in fact, that only a God with a sense of humor could account for them. A young Bill Marshner, for instance, who struck everyone as positively, fearfully brilliant (in several languages). When he spoke, in high Yalie hauteur, even the bells of San Lorenzo fell silent. Or Mike Schwartz, a Son of Thunder from the University of Dallas, who was, without doubt, the most fiercely self-confident Catholic I’d ever met. Averse to almost everything American (including most English antecedents, because of Britain’s barbarous treatment of our Irish cousins), he and I would cross swords not a few times that tumultuous summer. Or Lorenzo Albacete, who was, even then, just about the funniest human being on earth.
There were altogether about fifty of us who managed to make it to Spain that summer, armed with as many opinions as the disparate cities and states we came from. But we were all eager to experience firsthand a culture that offered, in the words of the brochure that first caught my eye, “an organically Catholic life style.” And which had succeeded, however residually during the waning years of the Franco regime, in surviving the secularist furies then sweeping across the West. Quite simply, what the program aimed to achieve was “insight into the public life proper to a Christian.” Pursuant, as always, to an even larger ambition—“to instaurate the sovereignty of Christ the King in the social order.” In other words, the raising up of a confessional state, intended to follow upon the happy conversion of the country to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Quixotic? To be sure. But no less probable than, say, the conversion of the ancient world, which took place during the first centuries of the Church’s life.
Far and away the most striking specimens that summer, however, were the two men who made it possible for any of us to be there at all: Brent Bozell, the founder of Triumph magazine, in whose pages great provocations circulated concerning the implications of what Belloc was wont to call “the Catholic Thing”; and Frederick Wilhelmsen, who had written a good many of those pages, along with a number of wonderful books, including a superb study of Hilaire Belloc, his first (No Alienated Man: A Study in Christian Integration, Sheed and Ward, 1953). It was Fritz, of course, who set off most of the fireworks that summer, igniting them each day in class with such dazzling display that, for some of us, the memory of his coruscations would last as long as we were alive.
And while it was Wilhelmsen who made the biggest splash—indeed, I would learn everything I now know about the metaphysics of existence from him, who took it all straight from St. Thomas, adding his own baroque inflections along the way—it was really Bozell whom I would come to admire most of all. And for whom, even now, I remain the most grateful. (Grateful, too, for a recent and quite wonderful account of that life, called Living on Fire, written by Daniel Kelly.)
So what was it about Brent that proved so beguiling that even an undergraduate as callow as I was took notice? It certainly wasn’t his ideas about America since, as a Movement Conservative, I’d already rejected them. Owing to prior and passionate allegiance to brother-in-law Bill Buckley and his National Review, I could hardly be expected to endorse the Triumph critique of the Republic, whose essential worthwhileness I took for granted. For me, marinated practically from birth in the mythology of all those wise and virtuous men who founded our country, it was simply a given that the mess we were in would at once find remedy when all right-thinking patriots rallied round the flag. Yes, change would need to come, but only of the most cosmetic sort. But Brent was not a flag waver. Not since the days of the Goldwater candidacy when, having ghost-written The Conscience of a Conservative, a powerful little programmatic piece that galvanized the whole rightwing world, generating sales in excess of 3 million copies by 1964, would Brent be waving that particular flag. Indeed, his love of country stopped short of a willingness to defend a system he’d come more and more to recognize as constitutionally corrupt, however ardent his erstwhile devotion had been to the conservative principles at home, joined to fierce anti-communism abroad. It made for, let me tell you, a most argumentative summer; a perfect storm, you might say.
So, if it wasn’t the polemics that impressed me (except insofar as they served to sharpen my instincts to defend the country), what exactly had? A number of things, actually. Beginning with his unfailing courtesy and civility in hearing the arguments that I, and a number of others, were making on behalf of our beleaguered country; however at variance his own views were, he never used cheap rhetorical tricks to try and ridicule and reject ours. He understood the anguish we felt in seeing the country we loved being torn apart by the terrible simplifiers who seemed to be making all the noise. And, of course, he managed all the while to remain so intensely, passionately Catholic; so beautifully and elegantly articulate about this “Catholic Thing” that had so completely taken hold of his mind and his heart.
It was that quality, I think, the sheer sweep and radicality of Brent’s faith, adorned with language so clear and concise, and so lovely, which finally moved me in a direction away from the conservative orthodoxies of my youth. It would take some years before something like true metanoia took hold, but without Brent there would have been no ultimate reorientation.
And, then, of course, there was the whole matter of divine mercy, the discovery of which Brent would come to much later, quickened by the awful sufferings he was made to endure in the years following the collapse of every project he’d mounted in order, as he’d once put it, “to magnify the Christian West,” and thus make easier the Church’s task of leading men to God. This was the other Brent, the one I never really knew in Spain, but whom I was privileged to meet near the end when, broken in mind and body, he came to us in Steubenville, staying at the house, witnessing in an entirely humble and unobtrusive way to a poverty of spirit that had gone through the crucible of pain, emerging, quietly triumphant, on the other side. He had not returned, as Andre Malraux once famously said of Whittaker Chambers, “with empty hands.”
Mercy, he declared, was nothing other than “an attempt to alleviate the suffering of another, motivated by love.” It had been the great theme of Pope St. John Paul, whose description in Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) became the cornerstone of his papacy. And the outline of it became the pattern of Brent’s own life, ravaged now by an accumulating array of debilities mostly brought on by years of manic depression, alcoholism, and assorted physical ailments. In dispensing mercy to another, in bearing the burden of the stranger who thereby became his brother, Brent not only helped assuage the pain of another, but also in some deeply mysterious way the torment freely borne by Christ. And that, as he took up the cross of one corporal work of mercy after another—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, welcoming the stranger, visiting those in prison—was as if Christ himself were letting us know how much he depended on us to do the work given him by God, the Father of mercies.
Nowhere was the truth of the mercy of God etched more eloquently into Brent’s soul than when he thought about forgiveness, about the sheer willingness of God to wipe clean away every sin. It never failed to awaken astonishment. When, not too long before the end, one of his children observed him transfixed before a picture of the Sacred Heart, his face wreathed in happiness, he asked why he was smiling. His answer was that he was simply marveling “at Christ’s mercy.”
“We are not God,” he once wrote in a lovely little piece on Spain and the people who live there, “we are humans who are made very weak, and therefore sin very much.” But there is hope, always there is hope, because God is mercy through and through. “They live life,” he said, “but hold an ideal that they cannot live. No one can. So, tranquilo….”
I do not doubt for one moment but that Brent, after so long a life spent magnifying the Lord, is now blissfully at rest in his arms, awaiting the consummation of the world.
(Photo credit: Courtesy of ISI Books)