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Letter from the Editor

Letter from the Editor

This issue of The Christendom Review is in fond memory of Marion Montgomery, who passed away last November. Marion was a friend and Contributing Editor of this journal; he was also one of the finest theological and philosophical writers after the Second World War. He was writing up to the very end of his long and prolific life, and there are many volumes of his work yet to be published, enough material to keep doctoral students of literature, theology, and philosophy busy writing dissertations for a very long time to come. Most of all, Marion was a great personal friend and advisor. I miss him already a great deal.

Marion was quiet, fiercely soft-spoken, witty, and learned in a humble, easy-going way. He often seemed to be on the verge of smiling, as though at himself for having anything to say. There was the shadow of a kind of subdued sorrow about him (folded with his “ever-cheerful” view of this life) of which he never spoke, and whatever personal sadness may have made its acquaintance with him, he never allowed it to breach the citadel of a generous and kindly heart. As one of his familiars observed, Marion “had the gift of a deep, instinctive understanding, informed by his intellect, that whenever Joy is present, it has within its heart a drop of Sorrow.”1 He knew that, as St. Augustine had suggested and Andrew Lytle later agreed, we are, in a sense, wired for God; we carry about us a distant memory of Paradise along with the old lament of having lost it. And we will never be at peace until we rest in Him, the ancient joy and yearning a kind of excruciating experience of beauty. Thus our lot is to yearn and long for God whether we know it or not. Marion knew it, and it was this knowing that left upon him its mark of a private sadness. But make no mistake: Marion Montgomery was a man of great gladness; he experienced sorrow, and even witnessed great evil, but he was not disheartened by them.

It was not until after Marion passed away that I learned that during his service in WWII, he had been among the liberators of some of the Nazi death camps. He did not like to talk about this, not even with his wife and children. Once, one of his daughters told me, she asked him pointedly how the men reacted when they realized they were being freed. They were too weak to “react” in the ordinary ways we talk about, too physically and mentally spent to speak or even smile, her father said. “But they spoke with their eyes,” he said quietly. And she knew when he spoke those words he was remembering the eyes of those men. It was something that he did not forget but did not wish to describe or permit to be turned into “a story.” It seemed to her that the experience was so personal that it was not to be spoken of, something shared only by those who were there, the liberators and the liberated.

Marion taught literature for many years and was named professor emeritus at The University of Georgia. I first became acquainted with Marion Montgomery through his books and essays when, in the early nineties, a group of my former students and college friends began to gather as often as we could with our young families for a meal and a big confab about things literary and theological. I learned more from these fellows than I ever taught them. It was during these discussions that I first heard the names Voegelin, Pieper, Gilson, and then Montgomery. Reading Marion Montgomery, I began to realize not only how much I had yet to read and learn from the writers of the past fifty or so years, but how large and numerous were the gaps in my knowledge of the Christocentric (or at least Christ-haunted) writers of the past two thousand years: Augustine, Aquinas, Athanasius, Catherine of Siena, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Maritain, Day, Buber, Weil, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. Enough to keep me busy for many years to come, God willing, should I have them.

After one among our group (see William Tobias Straney’s personal essay on Marion in this issue) mustered the courage to approach Marion at his home in Crawford, Georgia, not far from ours in and around Atlanta, we were all invited to come for a meal and a confab. Thus we were adopted, so to speak, by Marion and his wife Dot. Over the years I was able to visit numerous times, and we exchanged many letters. Marion (and Dot) became invaluable readers and helpful critics of my fiction, and I will be forever grateful to them both for their insights, advice, and encouragement.  

Marion Montgomery died last November, just before Thanksgiving Day. My Thanksgivings henceforth may be tinged with a little sadness, yet I will also recall that when I received the news of his passing I was told that Marion died as he lived, joyfully. He was constantly writing little notes at the end and leaving them about the house for his loved ones. The message amounted to this: “Do not fear sorrow nor make of grief an enemy. They carve out space in our hearts for joy.”

Richard Barnett


1 All quoted material and the analysis of Marion’s singular “joyful sorrow” expressed in these passages cf correspondence with Heli Montgomery.