Sunday, August 31, 2008

Remembering W. Norris Clarke, S.J.

A member of Fordham's philosophy faculty for over fifty years, Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J. died in June at the age of 93. I was out of the country when I heard about Father Clarke's death, and I regret that I was unable to attend his funeral. Nonetheless, I'm glad that I was able to take part in the final class that Father Clarke offered at Fordham, a seminar on personalist philosophy that covered works by Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel and Emmanuel Mounier as well as Clarke's own book Person and Being. Still sharp at 92, as a teacher and writer Clarke remained fully engaged in the discipline he had taught for much of his life. Father Clarke also remained engaged with the wider world: until a few months before his death, he regularly traveled to conferences and gave public lectures, and he also continued to get around New York on the subway and to give rides to other senior Jesuits - most younger than he - who couldn't drive. After Father Clarke himself was advised that he should no longer get behind the wheel of a car, he ruefully remarked that he had been "going full-speed until age ninety-two," and he was right.

The latest issue of America includes a fond remembrance of Father Clarke by the magazine's associate editor emeritus, John W. Donohue, S.J. The full text of the article is regrettably only available to America subscribers, but the following excerpt (about half of the total article) should give you a good idea of the content:
On a summer day in 1933, William Norris Clarke, an 18-year-old from Manhattan, was hurrying along a pier in Cherbourg toward a trans-Atlantic liner about to leave for New York.

Norris, as he was known to his family and friends, had a few months earlier finished sophomore year at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and was planning to enter the novitiate of the Maryland-New York province of the Society of Jesus on Aug. 14.

In Paris, Norris had bought a dozen new books and stuffed them into a knapsack. As he ran, one of the satchel’s straps broke and the books skittered across the wharf. Years later Norris’s eyes twinkled with secret glee when he recalled the choice that had confronted him: abandon the books or miss the boat. While he was rounding up the books, the ship sailed without him.

That was the way he told the story, for he would never have blunted a good anecdote by adding anticlimactic details. But, of course, he did secure another passage, and he did enter the novitiate at St. Andrew-on-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as scheduled. When he died on June 10 of this year, he was 93 years old and had been a Jesuit for nearly three-quarters of a century. He was ordained a priest on June 17, 1945, and joined Fordham University’s philosophy department 10 years later. After he was named professor emeritus in 1985, he continued to teach part-time at Fordham and as a visiting professor elsewhere.

Never in all that time did his mind idle in neutral. He wrote eight books, including, most recently, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (2000), and some 70 learned articles. He was also a founding editor of the International Philosophical Quarterly. As recently as the spring 2008 semester [sic: it was actually fall 2007], he conducted a seminar on “Twentieth-Century Personalism” for some young Jesuits studying philosophy at Fordham.

That was an appropriate topic for a farewell tour, because Norris believed, as he once said, that Thomistic metaphysics needs to be enriched by the descriptions of the actual lives of real persons that phenomenologists provide.
In short, W. Norris Clarke was a great philosopher, a great teacher, and a great Jesuit. Though he'll be missed by his many friends and former students, he leaves behind a worthy legacy in the form of his published writings and - perhaps more importantly - in the lives of those who were influenced by his teaching and example. May he rest in peace. AMDG.


At 1/09/2012 12:26 AM, Blogger Paul Boire said...

Thanks for the story of Fr. Clarke S.J. I just this year had his "The One and the Many" recommended to me and it has been a wonderful experience to read. May God rest or vivify his soul.

At 1/09/2012 9:57 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the comment - Fr. Clarke was a great Jesuit and a fine teacher. I'm glad that I had the chance to take a course with him, and I'm glad that you found the book!

At 10/14/2013 10:26 PM, Blogger Mike M. said...

I took an undergraduate philosophy course with Fr. Clarke at Fordham in 1972. He was a great teacher and best teacher I had in any course in any school I attended. I went to see Fr. Clarke to talk about the efficacy of petitionary prayer for his course's writing requirement. I thought I had talked to him for only 30 minutes but when I looked at my watch I found out we had talked for 90 minutes. The time just flew by. To me, Fr. Clarke's greatest quality was his depth of faith; it was clear that the peace and joy of Christ was so embedded in him that nothing could ever shake it.

At 10/14/2013 11:00 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the comment, Mike. I agree - Fr. Clarke was a man of deep and joyful faith, and he was one of the greatest teachers that I've had as well.

At 12/03/2020 3:52 AM, Blogger Ronald John Lofaro, PhD said...

I was an undergrad at Fordham..took many courses with Father Clarke and did not know, until now, he had only come to Fordham slightly before I took many classes/math major..Philosophy minor..with him. Father Clarke was a mine bender...I came to him for spiritual advice in 1960 which I 2004, I re-connected with him and he never missed a beat, as if it were 1960 again.My wife and I visited him in 2006...she was stunned...He answered an email where I told him of a difficulty in faith I had..he gently chastised me and then wrote such a moving , personalized explanation, I copied the email and read it now and again...I know now how fortunate I was to have him as teacher, advisor and friend

Ronald John Lofaro PhD


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