On July 17, Stratford Caldecott, the British Catholic theologian, author and editor, died at age 60, after a lengthy and painful struggle with cancer. With his wife, Léonie, he was the founder of Second Spring, a journal of faith and culture, and also co-editor of Magnificat UK.
A member of the editorial board of the International Theological Journal Communio, he was the author of a number of books, including: Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education and The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
According to his biography at Second Spring, he converted to Catholicism in 1980, which is documented in his book The Path to Rome (Gracewing, 2010) and The Beauty of God’s House: Essays in Honor of Stratford Caldecott, ed. Francesca Murphy (Wipf & Stock, 2014).
He was also known to many in the areas of Catholic apologetics and all things G.K. Chesterton.
But as I read the glowing obituaries that poured in, Kathy Schiffer’s essay on her blog Seasons of Grace beautifully expressed my own thoughts regarding this great Catholic thinker who was content to be generous and humble in his contemplation of God:
“Caldecott’s intellectual accomplishments, however significant they may be, are overshadowed by the great faith which guided him as he lived his life and awaited his death.”
I last saw “Strat,” as he was known to his family and friends, in November 2013, at his home in Oxford. He was in great pain, yet his gentle face was at peace. I had the feeling that the veil separating this world from the heavenly city had been parted for him, and he was sustained by the glory that lay ahead.
A friend and I had lunch with Strat, Léonie and two of their three daughters, Tessa and Sophie. They, too, drank from the deep well of faith, as they eased his suffering and faced the fact that their time with him was growing ever shorter. Léonie and Strat always pulled with the same oar: at home with their children and friends, kneeling together in church [she became Catholic in 1983] and in their many collaborative efforts.
That day, it was hard not to let the tears flow, not only because I knew he would be gone soon, but also because the family circle radiated a striking serenity that was beautiful to behold.
In a recent essay, “Search for the Secret of Life and Death,” Strat wrote that the beauty of creation and of human existence could not be disentangled from the cross, and a believing Christian must embrace, rather than flee from, this truth.
“God entered deeply into the world — so deeply that we can call it a merging, a uniting of his own nature with the world itself. It is no illusion, but a real uniting. We can participate by joining in the rhythm of life and death. God hides himself deeply within the world, not as an extension of life, such as an experience or two, but as the totality of being. At first it all seems inaccessible and impossible. The cross seems impossible, incredible. It seems foolish, crazy. But we must join fully, deeply, truly. And we must start as soon as possible,” he wrote.
Strat did not pretend that his strength came only from within. He said little about it, but one could feel his utter dependence on God and the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Strat was an authority on the Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings, and, over the years, I often imagined him sustained by the same elven lembas bread that was given to Frodo and Sam to fortify them on their journey to Mordor. During that last meal with Strat, I felt, once again, his reliance on the Eucharist, his spiritual food.
His funeral Mass was celebrated at the Oxford Oratory on July 31. Friends, as well as readers of Strat’s books and articles dealing with The Lord of the Rings, will be heartened to know that he was buried near J.R.R. Tolkien’s grave at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.
Toward the close of The Lord of the Rings, Pippin, one of the hobbits in the fellowship, asks Gandalf to describe what the next world will be like.
Pippin: “I didn’t think it would end this way.”
Gandalf: “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
Pippin: “What? Gandalf? See what?”
Gandalf: “White shores and, beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Pippin: “Well, that isn’t so bad.”
Gandalf: “No. No, it isn’t.”
Strat knew that heaven would be far greater than the scene described by Gandalf. Still, the wise wizard’s words, I suspect, suited Strat well. He reverenced creation as the gift of the Father, the loving Creator.
And from the window of the Father’s house, we pray he will be at leisure to enjoy that sublime “far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.