As shocking as it might seem to those who knew Russell Kirk as a bad (in terms of practice) Catholic, he deserves sainthood. Here is my case for Saint Russell of Mecosta…
When I first started reading the works of Russell Amos Augustine Kirk in the fall of 1989, that most joyously fateful of seasons, I had no idea I would wind up three decades later having spent much of my adult life reading him, writing about him, and holding a position named in his honor. At the age of fifty, I happily and proudly stand in his shadow.
Of all of the things I have learned about him, though, nothing has impressed me more than the man’s charity, his saint-like dedication to all around him: the poor; the lonely; the disabled; the cranky; the abused; the oppressed; the bizarrely eccentric; the forgotten; as well as the seekers of truth. At first, the stories of his outreach overwhelmed me. Then, I wondered how I would ever convey them in my own writings. If I began my 2015 biography of him with the all-too-true stories of his saint-like qualities, most readers would understandably see nothing but my not atypical Birzerian hyperbole. Yet, to me, it was and remains the most important aspect of a truly great and brilliant man. For strategic writing reasons, I decided to make the argument, but to do so at the end of the book, thus having by that point—I hope—earned the right to write so effusively about him.
Growing up in abject poverty, I think, profoundly informed his own understanding of money and material wealth as ephemeral and untrustworthy, and his innate stoicism allowed him to see those around not as “other,” but as fellow persons struggling against the odds so seemingly stacked against them. He housed and fed refugees from the far reaches of the world; he funded pregnant single mothers to have their babies; he gave his time and thoughts to any student (or journalist) who asked; he networked those who should know one another; he sent money to those who asked; and he promoted the works of scholarship and art that he deemed crucial to the defense of a humane civilization.
His beloved grandfather—his true fatherly figure—Frank Pierce, a man of immense dignity, gave everything of his soul and his intellect to the young Russell. His mother, he believed, gave her entire self to him as well, though Kirk found it painful to reveal his gratitude to her, something he regretted the rest of his life. Later, his spouse, Annette, would be his charitable comrade in arms, the energetic planner and do-gooder to his more quiet charity.
Far from living out the stereotype of the American conservative as a wealthy, conformist, selfish businessman, plotting the oppression of those around him, Kirk believed conservatism existed to conserve and preserve and leaven the good, the true, and the beautiful of this world, however fleeting it might seem. Indeed, though money was fleeting, it was fleeing in a material world. The good works we do now stay with us in eternity, perhaps even defining our role in the next life. One of Kirk’s most interesting (and recurrent) fictional characters, Ralph Bain, might very well spend the next life-saving women in danger of being abused. He would do this not just once, but, perhaps, for times uncounted and uncountable. Some might see this as purgatorial, yet Kirk believed that if a man found happiness in what might seem tedious or laborious, he is most likely merely fulfilling a purpose God had given him. What better way to spend your eternity than perpetually doing the right thing, doing what God created you best to do?
Most obviously, Kirk’s ancestor home, Piety Hill, became a refuge to all who sought it. As Kirk noted, it was a sanctuary from Progress, the “last homely house” of the West.
When one visits Kirk’s grave in St. Michael’s cemetery between Mecosta and Remus, he sees a tangible marker to Kirk’s charity—the grave of the hobo ex-con, Clinton Wallace, who the Kirks adopted as a part of the family while he was on parole from the New York prison system. His grave reads, romantically, “A Knight of the Road.” He had accidentally burned down the Kirk home on Ash Wednesday, 1975, but Kirk still saw only the best in him. Kirk saw Wallace not merely his poor choices but as God had made him, “A Knight of the Road.” Wallace appears not once, but twice, in Kirk’s fictional world, as the Viking bezerker, Francis Xavier “Frank” Sarsfield, protector of the innocent. Sarsfield, so real in Kirk’s short story, “There’s A Long Long Trail A Winding,” impressed even one of the most curmudgeonly of curmudgeon American writers, Harlan Ellison, as a work of genius. High praise, indeed.
In the last several years, movements have begun to see figures such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Romano Guardini advance toward canonization. As shocking as it might seem to those who knew Kirk as a bad (in terms of practice) Catholic, he deserves sainthood. I don’t mean to seem the expert on the canonization process, and I certainly don’t believe myself to have Godlike knowledge of who resides in Heaven and who doesn’t. Yet, all of the evidence points toward Kirk as a man of deep and abiding charity. This charity was never contrived, but, rather, it was fundamentally rooted in the man.
In his own life, Kirk took as his motto, the motto of the Christophers, influenced by Franciscan spirituality: “It is better to light one candle than it is to curse the darkness.” Often, Kirk would write this as “brightening the corner where one finds himself.” Sadly, for a generation raised on activist and political conservatism, this advice seems not merely antiquated but downright subversive. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, this is probably the best advice for any good person in this rather fallen world. Honest as well as humbling.
It is also tradition in the Catholic Church to prove three miracles associated with the possible saint. I actually believe there were three in his own life. First, his awareness of God—however cloudy—in the lonely desert of Utah in the fall of 1942. Second, his obsession with and understanding of the Shroud of Turin as a physical manifestation of Christ’s virtue. And, third, his “visits” with St. Padre Pio regarding the history and sanctity of a Middle-eastern Christian icon in the days before Kirk’s death.
Now, I suppose, we just need to find someone who has been influenced toward the good, the true, and the beautiful since Russell Kirk’s passing from this Vale of Tears in 1994.
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