Editor’s Note: The following homily was preached on the occasion of the Memorial Mass for Repose of the Soul of William F. Buckley Jr. on April 4, 2008, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“Now Bethany was near Jerusalem. . . . ” John 11:18
In the village of Bethany was the house of Mary and her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. There Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and then he called into the tomb and Lazarus came forth alive.
Here is a paradox of holy religion: such utter domesticity is so close to the unutterable mystery of Temple. Bethany was near Jerusalem. About 15 furlongs. Furlongs. William F. Buckley Jr. could have translated that. It is just a little more than the distance between the corner of Park and 73rd Street and this cathedral. In the life of the one we remember today, his home was never far from Jerusalem. Park Avenue and 73rd Street was near Jerusalem and so were Sharon and Camden and Stamford. The key to all that William was and did is that wherever he was and whatever he did, reading a book or writing one, opening a bottle of wine or sailing some sea, he was near Jerusalem. He left this world from his desk in the garage of the house of the one he most loved who had died less than a year before. Their Bethany was near Jerusalem.
After our friend had published a book about sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, an interviewer on television showed a certain condescension about yachting as a socially useless activity. He found tedious the long descriptions of navigation and asked the author if there is any real difference between sailing from east to west and from west to east. There came from Buckley a response as from an oracle: “Yes. They are opposite directions.” Bethany lies east of Jerusalem and to reach the holy city you must travel west. William F. Buckley Jr. has now traveled west. But he started in Bethany, where our earthly home is.
He did his work using such domestic tools as words, and though some thought them only amusing and clever, those words were strong enough to help crack the walls of an evil empire. A fatal flaw in the materialist dialectic of Marxism was its underestimation of the power of evil, embracing it like a useful energy. When cynics mocked the very idea of evil, he mocked the mockers, and angered them most by their inability to stay angry in his congenial presence. It was as if an ancient voice could be heard speaking through him: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
His indignation at the wrong ways of men was not savage like that of Jonathan Swift, for it was well-tempered and confident of victory. He fit Newman’s definition of a gentleman as one who is “merciful towards the absurd.” Nearly 50 years ago he wrote, “We deem it the central revelation of Western experience that man cannot irradicably stain himself, for the wells of regeneration are infinitely deep. . . . Even out of the depths of despair, we take heart in the knowledge that it cannot matter how deep we fall, for there is always hope.” Once on a retreat, he led the others in praying the Stations of the Cross. The Third Station: Jesus falls a first time. The Seventh Station, Jesus falls a second time. Then with a solemn and astonished voice: the Ninth Station, Jesus falls a third time. He knelt and all of us knelt, and then he got up, and we got up with him.
When he wrote his first book about God and man at the age of 25, and launched his magazine at 29, the inspiration could have seemed the naïveté of callowness, but now we know it was the courage of innocence. At long last, when he sold his boat and silenced his harpsichord, he suddenly seemed much older. It is inadequate to say that he lasted 82 years. It is more resonant with his sonorous life to say that he began four score and two years ago. By one of those quirks which are either inexplicable fate or explicable providence, as a young boy he passed by an airfield in Britain at the very moment the prime minister was waving a piece of paper and proclaiming peace in our time. The rest of his life testified that there can be no concord with evil, for evil always seeks to devour the good, and peace at any price is very expensive.