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Christopher Pearson: beauty and tradition

2 July, 2013 0 Comments

Christopher Pearson: an appreciator of all the muses.

A valedictory

By Lyle Dunne

Christopher Pearson, noted convert, editor, columnist, raconteur, dinner-giver and friend, died peacefully at home in Adelaide on 7 June, aged  61.

Better pens than mine have traced his trajectory from Maoist gay activist to conservative traditionalist Catholic, based on longer and deeper acquaintance. I can only echo the line from his prayer card, dedicated to beauty: “Late Have I Loved Thee.”

(I should perhaps note at this point that this is not intended as a conventional biographical obituary, nor an objective assessment of the man. Rather, these are a few profoundly subjective reflections on the death of a friend. For those seeking more information, let your search engine do the walking. Some useful starting points are suggested below.)

It perhaps says something about Christopher’s character that two obituaries appeared on the day of his funeral: one by an ALP Minister in his home state, Jack Snelling, in The Australian Spectator, and the other by the leader of the Federal Opposition, Tony Abbott, in The Australian. (You should read both, even if you don’t finish this.)

I was struck by the fact that he was born of the feast of St Augustine, which I only learned at his funeral: en route, I’d been musing that, as CS Lewis said of St Augustine, “No-one could say ‘It’s all very well for him’ ”. It’s a connection of which Christopher was conscious: in his column celebrating the tenth anniversary of his conversion, mentions his empathy with Augustine’s prayer “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”.

His was a long and tortuous road to the faith. Yet it was a reminder that, although man cannot do evil that good may come of it, yet God can bring good out of evil. Christopher’s history meant that he could say things, and reach people (in his capacities of editor and national columnist) that no-one else could.

But it was on a personal level that one was most conscious of Providence working through him.

Species of love

Our language is impoverished because the word “Love” for us suggests irresistibly the kind we’re besotted with: the Zeitgeist collapses all love into eros, and all eros into eroticism. (CS Lewis’s The Four Loves is a useful corrective.) But friendship, like charity, is a species of love; and it was the kind of love to which Christopher (in earthly terms) devoted himself.

As many attested at his wake, he had a genius for friendship: not merely being “good company”, providing hospitality (though his hospitality was legendary), psycholological and material comfort – but touching the lives of others, awakening in their hearts a love of the beautiful, the numinous.

Christopher was an aesthete par excellence, an appreciator of all the muses. This is not without its dangers: he might easily have become a mere sybarite, or turned his beautiful home into a museum of beautiful objects through which he might have strolled like Catherine the Great in the Hermitage.  This could have been enough. But for Christopher, beauty needed others with whom to share it. One of his greatest pleasures was introducing others, particularly the young, to new delights: a great concerto, a classic dish, an overlooked poet, a sublime Riesling. Good taste, so often a hidden temptation, became for him a way of sharing happiness with others: many of his beautiful objects were given to people, often children, to encourage a sense of something beyond the day-to-day. He had the editor’s gift of finding and drawing out creative talent in others, encouraging them to make good use of their gifts. Perhaps because he was not content with a mere selfish pursuit of beauty, of human happiness, as ends: he was drawn through them, toward their source.

For Christopher Pearson, beauty needed others with whom to share it.

Thus it was in part the call of beauty, humanly speaking, which drew him to the church – and, in particular, Mass in the Extraordinary Form, the form in which his funeral Mass and burial service was fittingly and lovingly celebrated.

In the interests of balance, though, I have to point out that in the same anniversary column he points out that mere aesthetics could not have brought him to the Church in its present earthly form:

What I most wanted was not beauty, crucial though it is, but certainty: immutable doctrine and valid sacraments.

Much, as I have noted, has been written about Christopher since his death, and predictably not all of it was positive.

One commbox commentator described him as typifying a strain of Catholicism that was “self-satisfied, smug and backward-looking”.

As to “self-satisfied and smug”, the writer of such words could not have known Christopher – nor attended his funeral.

Salvation hard-won

He was acutely conscious of salvation as something hard-won through constant struggle, and took comfort not in his own character, which he saw as that of a wretched sinner, but in the infinite merit of his Redeemer. Before commencing Mass, Fr McCaffrey FSSP said that Christopher had enjoined him to point out that he required not praise but prayers.

This, I would argue, is of a piece with the traditional funeral liturgy: it is suffused, not with presumption, but with recognition of the twin facts of our unworthiness and Christ’s superabundant generosity; it recognises the legitimacy of grief and the need for prayer; it does not allow anyone to imagine that the purpose of a funeral is to “celebrate the life” of the pre-canonised.

There is of course a sense in which it’s true to say the Mass is necessarily backward-looking: it not only commemorates, but somehow re-enacts, an event two thousand years in the past. But it’s equally true to say that it looks forward, to the ultimate consummation of that event for us. Perhaps the Extraordinary Form focuses more on those aspects, partly (but not only) because there is less emphasis on the earthly aspects of community, fellowship and the like. Such aspects are present – I’ve seldom seen a congregation more united in feeling, more visibly moved than in St Laurence’s North Adelaide that Saturday morning – but they are not pursued as ends in themselves. And it is perhaps for this reason that they feel genuine: the liturgy is not directed toward the emotional state of the congregation.

In a similar vein, Christopher on the tenth anniversary of his conversion touched on the unexpected pleasure in the human fellowship of the Latin Mass community in which he made what might have seemed an unlikely home.

Christopher may not have borne a strong physical resemblance to the usual depictions of his name-saint, and dashboard medals were never his style. For one thing, unlike Mr Toad (to whom he was likened, and indeed likened himself) he never took to motoring. Yet he was a traveler – one might say a pilgrim – and unlike Mr Toad, he knew when he had reached his destination.

So perhaps his name, and its meaning, were not accidents.

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