I only met the late, great scientist-philosopher Father Jaki once. It was at a Chesterton Conference at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, at which both of us were speaking. I had breakfast with him and recall feeling a little apprehensive. He had a reputation for being somewhat abrasive and for not suffering fools gladly. I hoped that he did not think that I was a fool! I needn’t have worried. He was the most delightful company, though I found contact with his razor-sharp and brilliantly alert eyes somewhat unnerving. The presence of such youthful agility in the eyes of an elderly man is almost uncanny—the penetrative nature of the gaze seeming to strip one bare, disarming one in the alarming sense of leaving one utterly defenceless. The only other time that I have felt this was in the presence of the great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom I met at his home near Moscow in 1998, when he was approaching his eightieth birthday. This is how I recounted that moment of eye contact in my biography of Solzhenitsyn:
As those piercing eyes met mine across the table an image from Tolkien entered my head: the image of Treebeard, the wizened voice of wisdom in The Lord of the Rings, with his ‘deep eyes… slow and solemn, but very penetrating,’ filled my mind. For an instant, Solzhenitsyn’s eyes and those of Treebeard were one: ‘one felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake.’ Like Pippin I felt that those eyes were considering me with the same slow care that they had given to their own inside affairs for endless years.
I now understand that the presence of both youthful alertness and venerable wisdom in the eyes of men, such as Fr. Jaki and Solzhenitsyn, is the mark of true greatness.
It was, therefore, with a sense of my own vulnerability and perhaps unworthiness that I engaged Fr. Jaki in conversation. I was aware of his formidable reputation as both a scientist and a philosopher, and admired the manner in which he delineated the difference between physics and metaphysics, illustrating the limitations of the former in addressing issues that were the proper domain of the latter. Since, however, I am not a philosopher and still less a scientist, my ability to converse on these subjects was limited. In consequence, our conversation centered on Shakespeare and the evidence for his Catholicism, an area of study in which we had both worked. I told Father Jaki that I was grateful for his re-publishing of an obscure but crucially important doctoral thesis, The Shakespeares and the Old Faith by John Henry de Groot, which had been originally published in 1946 but was in danger of being lost to posterity. Its resurrection, through its being republished by Fr. Jaki’s Real-View Books in 1995, was of considerable importance to scholars studying Shakespeare’s Catholicism. Indeed, my own personal indebtedness to De Groot’s research and, therefore, to Fr. Jaki for making it available to me, was considerable.
During our all-too-brief conversation, I was humbled and gratified to discover that Fr. Jaki was appreciative of my own work, especially, if my memory serves me correctly, my biography of Chesterton and my book, Literary Converts. The thought that a scholar of Fr. Jaki’s stature would have read and appreciated my own work was immensely gratifying.
Little could either of us have known that this one brief encounter would be our only meeting in the flesh—a precious moment of engagement, never to be repeated. Thus, like the proverbial ships in the night, we met, enjoyed the kiss of convivial conversation, and moved on. He has now moved on to pastures greener than I can imagine where he enjoys, no doubt, “the heaven-haven of the reward.” Perhaps, God willing, and if I can emulate the great Fr. Jaki, we might enjoy further meetings in that better place where science finds its final resting place in omniscience.
This essay originally appeared at the St. Austin Review and is republished here with gracious permission.