Last week did not feel like a funeral week, it was one of the happiest weeks I can remember. It was wonderful to celebrate Ronald Reagan as he deserves to be celebrated. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of love and esteem and gratitude from the people of this country, whom he loved so much.
My wife and I were tremendously touched to be included in the happy, capacious category of “friends and family” for the funeral in the National Cathedral on Friday. We entered through the West Portal, over whose central door Frederick Hart’s surpassing “Ex Nihilo” shows figures who struggle to be free from the chaos of darkness and nothingness, reaching upward for liberty, striving for life. Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky came through those doors and into the cathedral for this funeral.
Providence had its touches all over this death of Ronald Reagan, on June 5, just as the 60th anniversary of D-Day was getting underway in Europe. And thus were the two liberations–of 1944 and 1989–linked together forever in the public mind.
Liberation, liberation, liberation–the theme was everywhere. The new president of Iraq was inside, in his seat in this Christian cathedral earlier than anyone else in his section. (We arrived very early ourselves, before most of the dignitaries, thinking that our seats would be far out of the ordinary pews).
Lady Thatcher in her bravely wrought eulogy (pre-recorded earlier, but even so, against the advice of her doctors whose duty is to guard her against further strokes), gave witness to how grim things had looked in the late 1970s, and how happy she had been at reinforcements from her great friend, the new president of the United States, in 1981. She chronicled how much then happened, which would not have happened without him, at least not for a far longer time.
The beauty of the occasion was overwhelming. But the main thing for my wife, Karen, and me was gratitude, for being able to be there to say in person, as one can do in silence, our “thanks.” To bow heads and be silent in Ronald Reagan’s presence, in the Presence of God.
And what a festival of faith it was, and what a powerful sense of the Presence of Providence hovering over each one (a theme apparently picked up by the headstone above Ronald Reagan’s gravesite). This was no civil religion. This was the traditional American faith in the God of Providence, our Creator, our Judge, our Lawmaker–and in this case, in Ronald Reagan’s case, faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of all who accept Him into their lives.
Like virtually all our Founders, Ronald Reagan was reticent, painfully reticent, about the Christian dimension of his faith. That was left to his children to describe at the service at the California interment. It was put quite appropriately by former senator, newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, the Reverend John Danforth: This is a civil burial service for a great national leader, and it is also a service of the faith of Jesus Christ, and they come together here. In deference to all those others present (a Christian reticence), most of the language and signs were not specifically Christian. But there are some that are required by the rite of Christian burial itself, and these were not scanted, but pronounced with dignity and humility.
As a Roman Catholic, I am always deeply touched by the soaring columns and distant ceiling of the National Cathedral, its lightsomeness, its stately and prayerful gothic feeling. All this draws me into a long-ago Catholic inspiration, as does the festival of figures of saints on the far front wall (the apse) behind the altar and the choir. I like being surrounded in a church by images of the communion of saints–all those clouds of witnesses who have gone before us, in whose company our own troubles and exaggerated sense of significance fall into a more comforting perspective.
The National Cathedral makes Catholics feel more palpably at home in the nation’s religious traditions than any other non-Catholic shrine in America.
A partly evangelical, partly Catholic, partly Hebrew feeling to the funeral made it appear quite the right match for the biography of Ronald Reagan, and indeed for the circles of his friends.
The stateliness, religious decorum, and attentive precision of the military ceremonial team were a feast for the soul as well as for the nation’s dramatic sense. We have felt in our bones and our memories the funerals of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, in tragic circumstances. They, too, were stately and majestic and marked by popular outpouring. They inspired awe for the power of fate.
In this case, we had lived through ten years of the internal exile of Ronald Reagan as he waited patiently for the summons of his Creator. So an awesome sense of the God of Destiny, the heavy weight of the governing machinery over human affairs, descended upon us (and I presume upon all who were watching on television). President Reagan’s death came at this time, in this way, just as his coming upon the world’s stage had also been contrived by the Divine Dramatist, so that he might cross destinies with Lady Thatcher and their affectionate friend Pope John Paul II, and, yes, Mikhail Gorbachev. Oh! What a drama they enacted! How beautifully they improvised their appointed lines. How enormously significant for billions of people still unborn were the consequences.
We in our generation were so lucky to be witnesses. We owe so much gratitude to God.
And it still remains true, what Reagan’s mother Nelle taught him: Providence writes meaning in every single human life. Each human life is important.
The significance of Reagan’s message was not only political. And that, too, is what people responded to.
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.