Monday, June 29, 2009
In Memoriam: Parallels in the Life and Death of Thomas M. King SJ
In Memoriam: Parallels in the Life and Death of Thomas M. King SJ.
“Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.” These were the words spoken by Father King every year on Ash Wednesday as he traced his characteristically tiny “crosses” on people’s foreheads -- crosses that looked more like dots. What was really important was not the ash marks, though, but the words and the reality these represent: death. Every year on that Wednesday, Fr. King spoke to us of death and its inevitability. For this reason, amongst many others, I know that he was not surprised or afraid when death eventually came for him.
I first saw the name of Thomas King on an electronic pre-registration box before coming to Georgetown. I was signing up for Problem of God, and had no predisposition to one professor or any other. “Thomas King SJ” seemed like an interesting name, and I chose it. How could I have known the importance of the mouse click? How could I have known that the man with the interesting name would become my pastor and my professor, a symbol of Georgetown itself. Over 100 masses and 180 class lectures later, his name no longer brings interest, but awe.
He was a theologian, a man who spent his entire life plumbing the "same great depths" that the philosophers long had plumbed, a man who dealt constantly with those who doubted God's existence and yet maintained his strong faith. Now, this true lover of wisdom—this true philosopher—is united with wisdom itself, and his faith is confirmed. Knowing how Father King loved Teilhard's thought, I am sure that he viewed death as the ultimate communion, a privileged moment of man surmounting himself. Who could forget those memorable passages in Divine Milieu, passages King had ingrained in his own heart and mind. I wonder if he thought of them during those last moments.
I remember walking by him in the commencement procession and waving. He did not take part in all the pomp: he was just standing alone, watching from the main gates, a sincere smile on his face (one that we all remember well). Uncommon humility for Georgetown's "Man of the Millenium." The next day was the Baccalaureate mass, and Father King was just concelebrating on this occasion. Watching him walk down from the stage, the words of Ubi Caritas resounded in the background: "Where true love abides, God Himself is there."
A few days later, I had lunch with Father King at the Jesuit Residence. During most of the lunch, we discussed Plato and his own interpretations—Plato was, next to Teilhard, King’s favorite. As I turned to say goodbye at the door, he handed me a prayer card he had made up for his 40th anniversary at Georgetown. I said to him, “I hope to see you again,” and that was the last time I saw him alive (about one month ago). Father King always recognized the significance of the present moment, and I have no doubt that he viewed those words as much more than a mundane expression one might vomit out unthinkingly as he says goodbye. Hope. Resurrection. All these subconsciously permeated such words. I hope to see you again.
After Father King passed, I began to recognize the significance in almost all of the events that surrounded his funeral ceremonies. Showing up to the wake, I found the same image of Fr. King on the prayer cards at the entrance, identical to the ones he had given to me while standing in that same spot one month before, save one change: his death date was added. Leaving the wake, a severe thunderstorm passed over Georgetown, and a lightning bolt struck one of the ancient Southern Magnolias that had long stood on the front lawn, cleaving it in two and charring the ground below. Nature herself was providing an allegory. I grabbed one of the waxy leaves to save.
The most touching moment of the funeral was the opening procession. The entire chapel was busy with their heads down in the hymnal book, singing “Lord of All Hopefulness.” I looked up, and noticed that only one head was not turned down and busy: that of Rev. William King, Fr. King’s brother. As the coffin slowly wheeled in with the body of his lifelong companion and closest friend, William King did not sing. His eyes were riveted on the coffin as it came forward, fixed upon the sight of his brother inching toward the altar he had loved so much. As the coffin slowly came to a stop and William King gazed silently at the sight, everyone else finished the hymn: “Be there at our sleeping and give us we pray, your peace in our hearts Lord, at the end of the day.”
Turning to my left, I discovered my faculty advisor and longtime professor of government, George Carey, along with his wife, former dean of Georgetown College. Far in the back was Dean Gillis of the college, and two rows up sat President DeGioia, alone with King’s sisters, none of his usual handlers haranguing him. I watched the President throughout the ceremony, and I must say I have much more respect for him after the experience (he flew back from London for the funeral). For most of it, he had his eyes closed in deep thought and prayer. For one hour, the façade had been lifted, and the real man was present. Sitting behind the altar was Father Spitzer, President of Gonzaga. Many important people were there for the funeral, but there was no ostentation and no posturing in Dahlgren on that morning. That was the tone of the ceremony: real, genuine, sincere. All of us were together as humans and as Georgetown. Everyone, even if just for that moment, was imbued with King’s humility. I have never before felt as strong a sense of community at this university as I did on that morning.
Whenever Fr. King would finish a mass, he would walk slowly back to the front entrance of Dahlgren, smiling at each row as he made his way out. I remember watching him do this countless times while alive. Now, at the end of the funeral, his body was wheeled down that same aisle towards the doors and out of the church, all our eyes upon it as Father King left Dahlgren for the last time. Immediately thereafter, he was buried in the Jesuit cemetery in a plot that looks into the ICC’s ground entrance—the same door that he entered before beginning the thousands of classes and lectures over his long career. He will continue to watch over students as they proceed into that building, admonishing them to view their academic labors not as sophistic pursuits of honor or wealth, but as immediately relevant to their moral and spiritual growth.
Father King lived a full and holy life, and this was mirrored by his dignified death and sincere funeral. As we set forth from this university and ask what it is that we really want for ourselves, we ought to remember the witness of Thomas King. It is sure to stop us in our tracks.