In memoriam: Stratford Caldecott (1953-2014)
A conversation with Stratford Caldecott was always an adventure. Asked about his professional life, he had a long list of fascinating, if not necessarily realistic, plans and proposals. He was inevitably writing several books and even more articles, while somehow finding time to be a loyal and loving husband and father, not to mention helping out a few friends with projects that he found intriguing. He was interested in so many subjects that long conversations always left me intellectually exhausted. In a few hours we might go through science fiction, Sufi mysticism, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christian numerology, distributivist economics, icon painting and the philosophy of education.
In the almost two decades I knew Strat he never lost interest in anything. He only added to his list, deepened his knowledge and found more ties among his wide array of subjects. The connections – in my opinion a big part of his genius – reflected a single theme: Christian universality. He found the image of Christ in every kind of beauty, goodness and truth, in every family, in many institutions.
Indeed, his firmest belief, which he shared with von Balthasar (a real superhero for Strat), was that all of creation leads attentive observers to the Christian mystery. Each fragment reflects the wonderful whole, if only we find the right way to look. Strat was never taken in by the narrow rationality of the modern world. His own reality was never dull, methodical or materialistic. Rather, his world was filled with symbols, spirits and cosmic drama.
I remember when he told me of his interest in the meanings of numbers – for example the three of the Trinity and the seven of Pythagoras, the days of creation and the Catholic sacraments. His enthusiasm was extravagant. I sensed a natural sympathy with all sorts of numerical mysticism and at first I thought he might have lost his mind. After I had heard him out, I was persuaded he was on to something important. The writers of Scripture, like many philosophers, believed that reality was somehow unified around these key numbers.
As a polymath, Stratford was not an expert on every subject that he loved. Scholars may fault his work, but I think his status as a gifted amateur left him with a certain advantage – he was able to search out the thinkers and ideas which appealed to him without having to worry too much about the details. And no one could deny his ambition and creative imagination.
I think his boldness shone out when he discussed a topic which was especially close to his heart: the shared truth of all religions, especially of their mystical and esoteric teachings. His interest was deeply personal. Like many converts to Christianity, he did not want to renounce what he had learned earlier, in his case as an enthusiast for New Age, Baha'i and Buddhist spirituality. However, as a Christian he never wavered in his belief that Christ and his Church contained the fullness of truth.
His guiding insight was that Christ was hidden in all wisdom, but that all wisdom in which Christ was not fully present was incomplete. He made the case for his critical mystical synthesis particularly well in an article in the Catholic theological journal Communio (he was a member of the editorial board):
"The Christian's awareness of the world can be purified by contact with the Asian spirit that sees the fragility, delicacy, and relativity – the gratuitous "suchness" – of things... On the other hand, this purification only intensifies the distinctively Christian experience of a world beginning to exist in Christ, which includes in its fullness the experience of gratuitous suchness...
The world is dying and passing away, which proves its "insubstantiality". But in Christ the world is rising from death and ascending to the Father, since God loves it. What looks like "insubstantiality" is really the fact that God's act of creation is only half completed (from our point of view, in time). In faith we see that it has an eternal destiny in God...whose otherwise unknowable interior has been revealed to us in the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. "
- "'Face to face': The difference between Hindu and Christian non-dualism", Communio: International Catholic Review (34, Winter 2007), pp. 616-639. Quotation from p. 638 (italics in original)..
I am sure that Strat has found his eternal destiny, so he is now where he can share the completed view of creation, in God. His written words remain behind, but I will miss the gentle twinkle in his eyes when he would explain this, and so much more – always so much more. Requiescat in pace.