Remembering Robert Farrar Capon

Remembering Robert Farrar Capon

A note from Jamie Howison: As anyone who has spent any time around saint benedict’s table will know, I have been deeply influenced by the writings of Robert Farrar Capon. What many people won’t know is the degree to which Robert impacted me personally, and as soon as I heard of his death (September 5, 2013, at the age of 87), I knew I had to do some writing. 

I t is hard to overestimate the debt I owe to Robert Farrar Capon. Not only do references to his work on the parables regularly appear in my sermons, his image of the theological enterprise as being a hunt for the Divine Fox—a hunt to be relished for the joy of the ride itself, as this Divine Fox can never actually be cornered, much less caught—keeps me grounded and reminds me of the sheer delight that should accompany our theological musings.

But even more, this theologian who proclaimed such a wildly audacious sort of grace awoke in me the courage to move past the grief and fear stemming from a failed marriage, and to dare to open myself to risk of again loving and being loved.

It was the autumn of 1997, and for the two years since my first marriage had collapsed I’d been serving as Chaplain and Dean of Residence to St John’s College at the University of Manitoba. My Lutheran colleague had booked Capon to speak on campus, and as an unabashed fan of his work I quickly volunteered to help coordinate the events. The two lectures were very well received, and at the end of the evening I offered to drive Robert and his wife Valerie back to their hotel. “Can you join us for a nightcap?” he asked. “Its on the Lutherans!”

With drinks ordered and his beloved pipe lit, Robert settled back into his chair and let Valerie steer the conversation. At some point she asked if there was “anyone” in my life. I explained that my marriage had ended two years earlier, and that I didn’t think I was ready to enter into a new relationship. “Ready?” Robert harrumphed as he puffed furiously on his pipe. “Ready? None of us is ever ready for our marriages! That’s no excuse.” He went on to make reference to a book he’d written on remarriage, adding that although it had been a commercial failure it was still one of his favourites. I’m not even sure where the conversation went next; just that the force of his challenge cracked something open in me.

Two weeks later I was having dinner with the woman who would become my wife. We’d known each other for several years, and had worked together on a number of diocesan youth events and retreats, yet it had never occurred to me—or to her, for that matter—that there might be more. “Ready? None of us are ever ready for our marriages! That’s no excuse.”

Four weeks later we were talking seriously about marriage, and within another week the panic began to set in. For all that I knew I loved Catherine, I began to fear my unreadiness. What if history repeats? What if my heart gets broken? What if she wakes up and realizes who I really am, this scared and wounded man? I madly scrambled to remember the name of the book Robert had written about remarriage, but to no avail. In a kind of desperation, I decided to write to him—he was never much for email—to ask him about the book. A few days later, I returned to my office to find a message on my phone:

Hello Jamie, this is Robert Capon. I just received your letter, and the book you’re looking for is called A Second Day: Reflections on Remarriage. I wrote it when I first had a remarriage to reflect on, and as you might imagine it is gives some rather unconventional advice. Basically, you need to die. Die to your failed marriage. Die to your fears. Only then can you be raised to a new romance. I’ll put it in the mail for you today. Well, nice talking to you. Goodbye.

A week later the book arrived, and I immediately checked to see if he’d signed it. There was a note tucked in the front cover, which explained that this was his only copy and that once I was done he would appreciate very much if I could send it back. On the off chance that a publisher might someday bring it back into print, this was the closest thing anyone had to galley proofs. I’d assumed he’d sent me a gift copy, and here I was holding his only copy of one of his favourite books. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with such care.

A Second Day did its work on me; or at least it began to do its work. I had a local used book dealer track down a copy for me, which I read twice during the eight months leading up to our wedding, and twice more over the first few years of our marriage. I’ve loaned it out any number of times, resisting the temptation to hold on to it too, too tightly. That’s something I learned from Robert. In fact it is currently out on loan to someone—who, I’m afraid, I can’t remember—and I simply have to trust that if it doesn’t come back to me it will somehow find its way to someone who needs it more than me.

We sent Valerie and Robert a notice of our wedding, and in his letter back he promised to drink to our health with Macallan 18 year old, wished me “all the best on the launching of your second boat,” and added that, “If you two are ever down this way, give us a ring.” Two years later I did give them a call, explaining that we would in fact be in New York for a few days, and would love to venture out for a visit on Shelter Island. He checked some dates, recommended a local bed and breakfast, and we arranged to spend two full afternoons and evenings at the Capon household. What I never told him was that the only reason we were going to be in New York was to pay them that visit…

Those two days were quite wonderful, marked by the sharing of great conversation, wonderful food and a bottle or three of good wine. On the train back to Manhattan, Catherine and I began to dream together about planting a new parish church in our home diocese, and by the time the train pulled into Penn Station we had a draft all sketched out. It was the beginnings of what would become saint benedict’s table, planted some three years later and very much flourishing today. And while we’d never even talked with the Capons about such an idea, those two days of conversation had been so invigorating that new ideas and new energy simply overflowed.

Three years later I returned to Shelter Island on my own, this time with the expressed purpose of spending two afternoons in theological conversation—all recorded on my little portable tape recorder— with this man I was increasingly viewing as both a priestly and a theological mentor. Whereas in the fall of 2000, Robert had been at full strength and in remarkable health, in this second visit he was confronting some other realities. He had aged over those three years, mostly because he’d been dogged by health concerns that had resulted in surgery. In his recovery, the medication and antibiotics had slowed him up so much that he had begun to fear a loss in his ability to think clearly. He spoke quite powerfully about learning from that, and of having to work through something of a faith crisis. Several times, he made reference to mortality and to the reality of our all dying; something which has long been a big part of his theological horizon but which had now become personal. “This has been a year for me to realize that I am not ‘getting’ this,” he said.

I am not called upon to ‘get’ this, I am not called upon to improve, I am not called upon to get better. And in the toils of the medical establishment you are always told that you will get better, you must get better, you can get better and so on. And I don’t have to. I know I’m not going to get better permanently; nobody is. I’m going to end up dead permanently. Because life after death is a blind alley, in terms of an existence somewhere else than here. My life is in Christ, and therefore in life and in death I am in him. It’s all him. That’s all we know.

“That’s all we know,” and after a year that he characterized as being marked by a “black depression,” he had to decide “if I believed any of this stuff.” He most surely did. “We are not saved from our sins,” he told me. “We’re saved in our sins. We’re not saved from our deaths, we’re saved in our deaths. My death is my salvation. Physically, it is the moment of my salvation, if you want to pinpoint a moment. That’s why we’re supposed to die daily to sin. Sin is always there, and we’re supposed to die daily to it. That doesn’t mean that you have to improve. That’s the mistake of religion.”

That’s the mistake of religion; to replace the radical proclamation of death/resurrection with a set of practices by which to try to improve, progress, or otherwise convince the Divine Fox that we’re worth the bother. Robert Farrar Capon spent the better part of the last forty years trying proclaiming death/resurrection, and many of us are the better for it.

Besides, without his voice harrumphing that challenge about readiness and excuses, who knows how long I’d have remained nursing old wounds and fears, afraid to just get on with the business of dying to the old and being raised into the possibilities of the new.

Jamie Howison

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To read a very fine piece from The Economist, marking Robert Capon’s death, simply click here.

7 Responses to Remembering Robert Farrar Capon

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great story, thanks for sharing. I have been reading Capon after a few years hiatus and I went back to the Internet to “hang out” with him in a sense — and you enabled that to happen.

    I’ve only read a couple of his works (Divine Fox and something else along the way). I moved and hit the public library for my current Capon binge. I ordered a few books not knowing much about the titles, nor much about him. The books that came in were surprisingly (to me)– cookbooks. I was like, “What the what?!” But I read a few lines and knew it was my same beloved theologian who had migrated from the study into the kitchen. I got my taste buds flowing again by finishing the Astonished Heart.

    Thanks for the story, I wanted to send him a letter, too.

    • Anonymous says:

      The interesting thing is that in some ways the “beloved theologian who had migrated from the study into the kitchen” actually migrated from kitchen to study! One of his very earliest books was “Supper of the Lamb,” which is part cookbook and part theological reflection, and that is the one that really launched him. One of my fondest memories is of sitting at a stool in his kitchen, as he prepped a meal that I was going to be sharing in, all the while talking theology… and telling me the best way to chop parsley!


  2. Daniel J Zemek says:

    I am a recovering evangelical (hopefully never to relapse) who also has been greatly influenced by Capon’s writings…”Between Noon and Three”, “Parables” and “The Mystery of Christ” etc. Knowing that Robert was in poor health earlier this year, I felt the “urge” simply to send him a card expressing my gratitude for his beneficial influence in my life. To my surprise, I received a hand written note back from Valerie thanking me and saying how much she and Robert had enjoyed my card. I am sure that he is really enjoying The Party at this time drinking some of that 200 proof grace that he loved to talk about!

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for this Daniel. And you know, I’m not at all surprised that Valerie responded to your card. She’s a pretty remarkable person, and would not have wanted to take for granted something like a card sent by someone for whom Robert had been significant.


  3. Kurt Armstrong says:

    Required classes in systematic theology convinced me that I hated theology, but reading Capon persuaded me otherwise. I remember well his talk at St. John’s College in 1997 (or ’98?). Romance of the Word and Supper of The Lamb are books that I go back to over and over again. Thanks for the tribute, Jamie.

    • Anonymous says:

      It was most definitely 1997, Kurt… it was on that visit that he challenged me about the whole idea of “readiness” for marriage. And do you recall how in the middle of his lecture he gave us his pork chop recipe as a way of illustrating the fact that we are all of us hopelessly religious?

  4. Aisha Entz says:

    Thanks so much for writing and posting this, Jamie!

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