The Secret Journal
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall,” tells the story of a young girl, Margaret, and her grief over trees dropping their leaves in the Fall. Of course, he takes it to a much deeper level, in the end, to describe her discovering for the first time that, like all of us, she is mortal.
Like leaves falling, there are other predictable and regular changes – and losses – in our lives. What makes them easier is knowing what is lost will return. Every year when we take down the Christmas lights I have a twinge of that. Putting away the boat and the first frost are reminders of something passing for now but not forever.
Yet, there are losses for which we genuinely grieve for their passing takes something of us with them. There is a giant oak at Pawley’s Island, South Carolina where for decades families have posed for their annual pictures. The huge lower limb rising up from the base of the tree and then curving down to run parallel to the ground is where we have gathered for over forty years at sunset for a family picture. That limb has defied gravity, lightning, hurricanes, and the weight of families until two years ago when we came back to find it stretched out broken on the ground. Someone tried to prop it up but it has never been the same.
So it is for me in losing the founder of the Faith Angle Forum, Michael Cromartie last month. Dozens of admirers have written about the contributions of his life and career. One of my favorites is by his colleague and good friend, Pete Wehner.
“He had a radiant personality, deep and winsome faith, endless energy, and tremendous generosity of spirit. He touched and brightened countless lives during his earthly pilgrimage, mine very much among them.
Mike was a wise counselor, a great raconteur, and a friend of just about everyone he met. He was also one of the most important figures in modern American Christianity. As director of the Faith Angle Forum, which he started in 1999, he worked to strengthen reporting and commentary on how religious believers, religious convictions, and religiously grounded moral arguments affect American politics and public life.
Through his work there, including as moderator and host of his two-and-a-half day retreats with scholars, theologians, and writers, Mike introduced a generation of journalists to the positive role faith can play in the life of our country. He enriched the public dialogue and helped shape American culture.
In addition to that, and in many respects more important than that, Mike enriched the lives of those who became part of his community with his kindness, his genuine interest in others, his light touch, and his joie de vivre. This was obvious based on the outpouring of affection as his health worsened. This was a man who left a deep imprint on people’s hearts and souls.
But that sense of anticipation was mitigated by something else he said, with equal conviction, which is that he loved his life and his job, his friends, and, above all, his family—his remarkable wife, Jenny, who when I saw Mike for the last time, two nights before he passed away, we talked about politics, the NBA, books, family, and faith. The mood was remarkably upbeat, given the circumstances; but then again, it’s hard to imagine life ever being less than upbeat with Mike. For him, life was always lived in the broad, sunlit uplands. It was until the end.
Now this good and gracious man, this bundle of joy and energy and kindness, this culture-shaping ambassador of Christ, has passed from this life to the next. He has gone home to be with the Lord he loved and served so well. We rejoice in that, even as we grieve this huge loss.”
It is the unseen rings that tell the final story of the life of a tree and ours. This is the invisible journal written in secret but revealed in the end. They are deep and hidden until years later when someone studying our life, points to a ring and says, “Something happened here that left its indelible mark.” When the rings of The Gathering are studied there will be whorls and spirals that show up time and again over the years. Those are the moments when Mike said, “You need to read this and meet these people.” They will be records of how Mike introduced us to David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Francis Collins, Mike Gerson, Arthur Brooks and scores of others. They will help recall his brilliant moderating skills and insights that made it almost impossible to do a conference without him. The history of The Gathering and my own has been permanently marked and enriched by Michael Cromartie’s life.