Monday, November 28, 2005

R.I.P. -- John Muggeridge, T.N.M. (Truly Nice Man) 1933-2005

John Muggeridge knew the burden of having a famous father. I never talked to him specifically about that, but it's such a universal experience among children of famous parents, with a zillion different faces to it, that I think it's a fair assumption about the late Honourable Mr. M.

"Burden" is probably too mild a word-- "curse," perhaps, for those of weaker character and less conviction than this nice man. Having a famous father means, among other things, that no matter how long you live, it is unlikely that the name you share with him will ever be treated as if it is your own. In John's case, it was a really, really famous name of a father who (unlike many in this category) genuinely merited being famous because he had accomplished things of great worth.

For some portion of the time he was famous, this father (Malcolm) was also infamous, for a host of quite dubious achievements, which undoubtedly made being his son just that little bit harder-- though my one conversation with John about his childhood revealed that, as for most young children, parental infamy is much less a problem than parental instability ("stability" applied most pointedly in the monastic sense, as in "attached to one place," which the Muggeridge family was decidedly NOT.) Perhaps, insofar as John put down roots in one place and made it his real life's work to become patriarch-in-residence to an extensive clan, he could be classed a "rebel."

It is no small irony that Malcolm, who spent a considerable number of years having a hellish effect on his family, came to be the one affectionately dubbed "St. Mugg" by those who knew him (and therefore knew this was a stretch)-- putting yet another wrinkle in the famous-father-fardel for a son who, I suspect, would have both deserved the title more and enjoyed it less. In recent times John has been more quietly dubbed "Lord Muggs," with the accompanying "Honourables" etc. that the title implies. (When we reach the point that a word like "honourable" has been too beggared of meaning to communicate anything to a world of the lip-pierced and ear-drum challenged, a photo of our gentleman will suffice to define it-- "click on the icon...")

If you want to know about the famous Malcolm Muggeridge, Google him and go crazy. I know who he was, I've seen him on television, I've read him (not extensively); I never met him, though I think we were in Ontario at the same time-- the closest I came to brushing his greatness was that the obstetrician who delivered my three kids is a formidable Jewish spinster who became his very good friend out of a shared love for small people temporarily confined to wombs.

In that, John and his father were of one mind. John was a tireless champion of life, not least by living it with such grace, but also by wielding a hefty pen in the crusade against its cheapening.

In one respect (at the very least) John outpaced his famous father in perceptiveness, and that was that he preceded him into the waiting arms of the Catholic Church. I know none of the details, but I suspect in John's case this had something to do with presenting himself into the waiting arms of his wife, Anne (Cassandra?) Roche, a formidable writer, prophetess, mom, and Newfie in her own right. After the publication of her book The Desolate City: The Catholic Church in Ruins (1986) there was a nomenclature shift, which I suspect tickled all concerned: John became "Anne Roche Muggeridge's husband", and Anne became "Malcolm Muggeridge's daughter-in-law."

I have never met Anne, and even if I were to be introduced now I could not really meet her, since she has been imprisoned by something in the Alzheimer family for several years. John's good friend Danielle Crittenden sees in the loss of the husband the final goodbye to the wife, whom he kept alive through memory and anecdote. It would be one of God's great mercies if Anne were to be less than fully aware that her most faithful daily visitor comes no more.

It was through the community, or perhaps more accurately, the "web" of our Catholic parish that I met John Muggeridge. We both have had the privilege of holding several regular spots within the purview of the two parishes run by the Toronto house of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. I had previously met one of John's sons, Chas, through pro-life activities, and met another, Matt, when he took a job with a good friend of ours, who lives and works out of the rented rectory next to our church, St. Vincent de Paul (the priests all living next to their other one, Holy Family). Matt's then-new wife joined our choir, a fecund little schola where all sopranos younger than me soon become pregnant. As John was gradually leaving this world, Matt and Eve were welcoming their third daughter into it. (It's a tight and comprehensive little web, the wonder of entomologists and the envy of spiders everywhere...)

John and I were among the "usual suspects" who attended the same lectures, courses, and liturgical celebrations for which the Oratorians are justly famous. But more recently our link was the weekly celebration of the Tridentine Mass. When the Oratorians were granted permission for one Old Mass per Sunday (my hands do a little spasm in typing those absurd words-- permission! It came to this!) John was among the small crowd who sought out there a relief from those qualities of post-1970's ritual which have never, in all these decades, ceased to grate in some way, even at their best as carried out by people with good liturgical sense (like the Oratorians). Early on I gave it a couple of tries, to see if it was the Mass of my long-ago memory. But it wasn't. For one thing, there was no music, and it was "lower" than the lowest Low Mass of my childhood. (As in: almost totally silent.) I couldn't really see the point, except it did remind me of what it was like to be left in peace to pray.

But about a year ago, when the Oratorians decided it was time to up the ante on the attractions of the Tridentine and make it a sung Mass, I leapt at the chance not just to enjoy from the pew this return to past glories, but to do something I had never done back in the Good Old Days: to sing the whole thing myself. So I joined the little schola, and learned how to chant.

[Just for the record!-- do not let me give the impression that we weren't singing along with an awful lot of it when I was a kid. People say about the pre-Conciliar Church that everyone was a spectator in a clericalist world. That's a HUGE LIE, not to put too fine a point on it.]

John Muggeridge was among those happy few whose thirst for the dignity and peace of the Tridentine Mass was satisfied a thousand-fold by the introduction of the sacred music. (And the happy few took little time to double in number once the sung Mass was instituted.)

I can't say I knew John well, or shared too many lengthy conversations with him. But it was always a pleasure to see his perpetually smiling face at these events which formed the cultural core of most everyone in attendance. To the degree that I have assisted in buffing and refitting and showing off for glory the treasured relic of the chanted Mass, so that it gave spiritual pleasure and comfort, and deepened that smile, seen radiating over the coffee and cookies in St. Vincent's hall, then I guess I was a friend-- and his regular spot in the pews (on the left, sort of front-ish but never the first row-- he was a good Catholic after all!) will seem unaccountably empty. Requiescat in pace.