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Volume 37, Number 4 (Winter 1997)

‘Love Divine’: Remembering Gerhart Niemeyer

Robert Francis Smith

In his book Between Nothingness and Paradise, Gerhart Niemeyer wrote:

[T]he great confrontation with political irrationality in our time has not the character of a debate or even discussion. The prerequisite for either would be a common universe of reason which is precisely what the ideologies have demolished.... [T]he answer must consist in a greater effort of recollection, of recapturing the language and consciousness of reality. The re-winning of theory in the classical sense ... is in itself the alternative to ideology.

That, in brief, was the work of Professor Niemeyer’s life. And at his death last summer, he left behind a vast body of writing that contributes greatly to the task he envisioned.

As his readers and students know, Niemeyer’s scholarship grew out of his personal experience with National Socialism and his subsequent work on the Communist ideology. The one caused him to forsake his native Germany in the 1930s; the other demanded his attention for forty years. It is less widely known, however, that in the last twenty years of his life he grappled with revolutionary ideology in an unlikely setting, this time in his beloved Episcopal Church.

Niemeyer came to a deep, even mystical, religious faith over a period of years. By 1969, when we first met, he was both a convinced Christian and a dedicated Episcopalian, whose life had been shaped by Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, the writings of C. S. Lewis and Richard Hooker, and Anglican music and liturgy. He identified with what he called “the Episcopalian type”: joyous, charitable, learned in the faith, both Catholic and Protestant, and involving continual recommittal to Christ—in Niemeyer’s words, a matter of “saying ‘yes’ every day, every hour, every minute.” Over the years, I came to realize the extent to which Niemeyer himself was the embodiment of this type.

He lived his faith with the same seriousness and enthusiasm that he brought to every sphere of life. While he was uncompromising in the pursuit of truth, he spoke often of love, repeating with enthusiasm Augustine’s formula that “my love is my weight” and advising students to “follow your heart.” Niemeyer expressed his own love of God and neighbor in the parish life of the Cathedral of Saint James, where he sang in the choir and taught an adult class. In 1973 he was ordained deacon, and in 1980 he was elevated to the priesthood in a ceremony movingly described by William Buckley in his foreword to Aftersight and Foresight, ISI’s collection of Niemeyer’s essays.

By the time he took his vows as an unsalaried priest, Niemeyer was in the last years of his academic career. He still taught and wrote, but the passion in his life was for Jesus Christ, and he immersed himself in parish duties—in the telling words of one parishioner—“as though he were being paid for it.” He preached and presided at sacraments. He developed his own ministry to shut-ins and the terminally ill. He was a founding trustee of the local hospice organization, its first president, and a recipient of its Helping Hands Award.

Throughout, he continued to speak courageously against those forces that he believed were undermining the church’s faith and practice. In the early 1970s, while still a layman, he was active with the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer, which worked to save this unifying element of Anglicanism from wholesale revision. He argued that the agenda might start with modernizing diction or syntax, but it would not end there. It would radically alter the church’s worship and theology.

By 1976, it was clear that Niemeyer was right. The Prayer Book was lost, and the deconstructionists turned their attention to women’s ordination. Again he was insistent: ordination is not a matter of equal rights, as feminists claimed; it is a theological issue involving our understanding of God as Father. But again the traditionalists were routed, and the struggle shifted next to the church’s teaching on sexuality, ordination of practicing homosexuals and lesbians, and blessings for same-sex unions. When asked whether he wasn’t sometimes tempted to give up, Father Niemeyer’s reply was defiant and unequivocal. Ideologues, he said, “drove me from my country. They will not drive me from my church.” But in the end, they did just that.

In 1992, at the age of eighty-six, the Reverend Doctor Gerhart Niemeyer resigned his priesthood and entered the Roman Catholic Church, exchanging his status as canon of a cathedral to take his place as a humble layman at Mass in the parish crypt at Notre Dame. No doubt some have been tempted to read into Niemeyer’s decision a new-found recognition of the Roman Church’s claim to primacy. More likely, it was a going into exile. We can only imagine what this decision cost him. Along with his clerical collar, he gave up the priesthood, his ministry to the dying, the liturgy and music that he loved, a social life that centered on the church, even his late wife’s memorial fund.

What finally drove him to take the step he once disavowed? No doubt he was affected by the 1992 surrender of the Church of England to militant feminism. As a devastated priest said at the time, “The center did not hold.” Even in the “Anglo-Catholic” Diocese of Northern Indiana, resistance was collapsing. Niemeyer could see that trends pointed inexorably to the radical triumphalism, heresy, sexual decadence, financial corruption, and liberal politics to which the Episcopal Church has fallen victim. Ultimately, though, Niemeyer’s action was less a surrender to the gods of change than it was a conscious surrender to the God of all.

If there was sorrow attached to his decision, Niemeyer never lost the hope which is the Church Militant’s great consolation that comes with the love of God. He would point with genuine optimism to heretical periods in antiquity and the church’s eventual return to true faith and practice. Had he been twenty years younger, I expect he would have stayed and fought on. But as time grew short, it was a task he would leave to others. His call was to follow Christ—whatever the cost.

One sees in all this St. Augustine’s description of two cities founded on two very different loves—the heavenly city made up of those who love God even to the contempt of self, and the earthly city characterized by the love of self even to the contempt of God. If there were any question about which of these Dr. Niemeyer belonged to, the readings and music he selected for his funeral were testimony to his experience of God’s love. At the Mass presided over by two Notre Dame Presidents, Niemeyer’s orthodox friend, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Northern Indiana, offered the final prayers of committal. Clouds of incense rose to the ceiling of Sacred Heart Basilica, as the congregation of Roman Catholics and Anglicans sang Vaughan Williams’ glorious hymn, “Come Down, O Love Divine,” its sixteenth-century lyrics a final lesson from a most-devoted scholar, teacher, and friend:

Come down, O love divine,
Seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

Let it freely burn,
Till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes, in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light
Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming. 

Robert Francis Smith is a writer living in Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in political theory from the University of Notre Dame.

Posted: February 23, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life.

Russell Kirk

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