David Bentley Hart can certainly arch an eyebrow. I was not surprised by this, but the experience of his single, powerfully arched eyebrow locked on me for a moment across the table is one of several images that has settled into my imagination on this day after getting to meet Hart in person. There are many images vying now in my mind’s eye. Another is his tilted head and delighted smile as he described how one of the wonderful things about children is their capacity to receive the entire world without having any preconceived sense of limitations regarding what is on offer. As I interviewed Hart for some cameras after dinner, I could sense that he was intentionally leaning into several of the things that he said, giving himself to my questions with whatever strength he could demand from his weakened voice and lungs. At one or two points, however, he leaned back, away from the cameras, to relax into his own heart’s delights. One of these moments of gentle revery came as he spoke of children and how we should cherish and protect their natural readiness to take in the gifts of being with an almost divine capaciousness.
To keep my account as honest as possible, I should confess that I rather audaciously wheedled a dinner invitation out of David Bentley Hart. As it turned out, there were six of us waiting around the table in the South Bend burger bar where Hart had noted that there were good salads to be had. After Hart kindly agreed to allow me an in-person interview and as I dropped a hint or two by email about getting together for a meal beforehand, he replied that I was welcome to watch him eat a salad at 3:30 pm if I wished. Some past illnesses have made it unwise for him to eat later in the evening as a rule, and he was apologetic regarding the earliness of the meal. However, as my plans for the recording came together, I kept adding to the number of strangers who Hart would be dining with (something like Gandalf, Bilbo, and Thorin Oakenshield arriving at Beorn’s home in small pairings of two or three at a time). Despite my having continually expanded the scope of our gathering, Hart (with some real resemblance to Beorn in more ways than one) graciously showed up to the table where the six of us strangers awaited his arrival.
Our venue for the recordings after dinner was generously provided by Trinity School at Greenlawn, a warm community of students and teachers (middle and high school age) located in South Bend, Indiana. Part of their campus is an old mansion originally built as a family home by Clement Studebaker Jr. in 1908 and called Elm Court. As I toured the school (delighted by their profound hospitality, the other-worldly choral music that filled Elm Court during practice after school, and the truly beautiful fine art made by their students and lining many classroom and office walls), I noticed a hand-made poster with a photo of a young David Bentley Hart accompanied by a word bubble containing a hand-written quote from the essay “Beauty, Being and Kenosis.” At the bottom of the poster, was the school logo with lettering proclaiming the existence of the Trinity Philosophy Club. I learned that this poster had been made by a senior at the school as an outflow of appreciation when her philosophy club read this essay together. This happened several weeks back when teachers and students had not been aware of a possible interview with the same Dr. Hart taking place on their campus.
As our waitress brought drinks and after finishing the introductions with Hart and the six of us—two school leaders, two video production team members, a high school senior, and me—Hart addressed the student and asked her what she studied at her school. He ended his question with a quick, “What kind of a place is this?” to punctuate his query and directed momentarily at me. He raised his right eyebrow high with an unnerving and comic admixture of pronounced delight and sharp assessment. This was obviously a man in the habit of making decisive judgements and who clearly relished all the nuances of investigation and assessment as well as the prompt and frank pronouncements of his conclusions.
His conversations over his salad with the student and with all the rest of us were filled with anecdotes. I would have loved to have had the cameras rolling while we ate together. He complimented the student on her lovely pronunciation of kenosis and nodded with approval as she described the Latin that all students studied as well as the Greek classes that were available to anyone interested. He had a few remarks about the unfortunate tendencies of “Western civ” classes to miss out on the glorious scope of human learning across world cultures. Then he laughed and jumped in with further questions and stories as the school leaders and the student described the debates that broke out among students and faculty members based on Hart’s claim in his essay that beauty is gratuitous. These debates had spilled into the school’s staff lounge and now moved around our dinner table into considerations of grace and the giftedness of creation within the works of Thomas, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine and more.
Our chatting during a modest meal meandered over a vast field of delights. We touched on Robert Kirk with his book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (left in manuscript form upon the author’s death in 1692). Hart shared his suspicions that the origin of the 108 stitches on the baseball are rooted in the Theosophical commitments of Abner Doubleday (intentionally paralleling the 108 beads on the mala of Vedic traditions and also making their way into Christianity with rosaries and some other traditional prayer ropes). Slowing down to relish the account, Hart told the story of a pitcher with a stellar career cut short by injury who was a “real flower child” and from whom Hart first heard of there being some mystical association to the 108 stitches on a baseball.
I asked about Hart’s work on “For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church.” Hart was asked to help with the project by Fr. John Chryssavgis who bears the rather imposing title of Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne for His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In addition to co-authoring the preface with Fr. John, Hart was asked to edit the entire statement for consistency of tone as well as to draft some portions in the initial round of writing (smiling as he noted that they might be easy to find given that his own voice likely came through in matters relating to economy and wealth). I also learned that Hart almost had to cancel his interview with me several weeks earlier because he had been invited to an audience with Bartholomew in Istanbul. However, this trip was postponed due to a health concern related to one of the other attendees (and Hart’s plans with me were allowed to stay in place). Such interactions with church hierarchs around the world are not uncommon occurrences for Hart. I pushed Hart a little to learn about some more personal aspects of his work (about which he does not share publicly for obvious reasons). While talking, it was clear that Hart is personally encouraged by much related to the leadership of His All-Holiness Bartholomew.
In the realm of matters where I am personally curious (although not really all that capable of following), I was also intrigued to hear Hart summarize some of his agreements and differences with Fr. John Behr’s understanding of John’s Gospel (and the book of Revelation). At any rate, I could go on and on with anecdotes and snippets of conversation, but I should stop.
I will be eager to offer the material on a wide variety of topics that Hart shared during the evening of interviewing in the house originally known as Elm Court. Among the many, many questions that Hart graciously entertained, I asked about his preferred ways of describing hell, about who are the enemies of God (when we say “I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies” in the Divine Liturgy), and about what he meant when he said in another recent interview that he had “been pretty hard on Trump voters at times” and that “many Trump voters are much better people to be among …then a lot of the people who despise them.” His comments here (as in many places) were moving to me. Of course, his comments cut both ways (or more than two ways). I’ll leave it to the video footage for Hart to share in his own words, but I was hardly able to keep from laughing out loud as he noted about his own everyday life: “I mean, this is Indiana. You can’t swing an amoeba around without hitting Trump supporters.” One of many things that was clear, however, was the love and even admiration that Hart felt for these Trump supporters as good and very often generous neighbors. “They are good people, and that is the painful tragedy of it,” he said. While we all said our goodbyes on the sidewalk after the meal, the student thanked Hart and said that it had been an honor. He replied, “Oh, not an honor, but a pleasure I hope.”
As I have said once already, I should close this meandering personal note. Given Roland’s love of dreaming, what better way than by confessing that last night for me was uncharacteristically punctuated by vivid dreams? I was housed most kindly by friends (a godsister and her husband who are both near the end of completing their doctoral work at Notre Dame), and I slept very well. However, something about the excitement of the previous day and about having been just a little more wakeful than normal while away from home, left me remembering a few snatches of dreams almost as lucid as those enjoyed by Roland and David (if not nearly as erudite). While I venture absolutely nothing regarding the quality or meaning of my dreams, I can say with some confidence that they were childish. For a long while, I traipsed vigorously with my brother Kevin (an ardent Trump supporter) through the lush mountain forests of my childhood home (an island in South East Asia well below Key West in latitude). At some point along the way, we were met by David Hart. He was dressed like a Scottish highlander and beaming wildly over the landscape of sharp volcanic cliffs and the garish tropical flowers that surrounded us.
P. S. Hart drove an old minivan with a small Maryland flag in the empty front license plate space.
Note: photo credit (at the top) Nicole Waldron (2019).