- Walter J. Ong S.J. Biography and Remembrances
Father Padburg's Homily at Father Ong's Memorial Mass
August 19, 2003
John W. Padberg, S.J.
From fly fishing to cosmology --
From a sixteenth century savant, Peter Ramus, to a freshman student --
From the origins of human consciousness and culture to the celebrationof the Eucharist --
From the meaning and the use of words to the very word of God.
To all of these Father Walter Ong turned his interest, knowledge, experience and imagination. And when he turned to anyone of them, he did so with the full force of his being. That is why it is appropriate to recall these three passages from Sacred Scripture as we remember Walter Ong.
But before I go further, to Walter's cousins, to his colleagues at Saint Louis University, to those academic colleagues here present from other places of learning, to his friends, his former students and his brethren in the Jesuit infirmary with whom Walter lived most closely in the last few years, may I offer in the name of the entire Jesuit community here at Saint Louis University our prayers and our sympathy at the loss of a man who was for so many reasons dear to you. To all his brethren of the Jesuit Hall community itself, of which he was a member for so many years, may I also as Rector of that community share our and my sense of loss. As we pray for Walter, we count on his prayers before the throne of God.
I have chosen these three readings from Sacred Scripture because of what they say in themselves and because of how Walter's life and work resonated so closely with them.
Job exclaims, "Oh, would that my words were written down . . . that they were cut in a rock for ever . . . . but I know that my Vindicator lives . . . . him I myself shall see; my own eyes, not another's shall behold him and from my flesh I shall see God." If ever there was a man who was a person of the word and of the consciousness thereof, Walter Ong was surely such. His whole intellectual life was devoted in one way or another to those realities and their implications, words and consciousness. Perhaps his most famous book was Orality and Literacy: The Technologies of the Word. It was also the most widespread of his works, translated into a dozen Western and Eastern languages. It ranges from human culture before writing was first developed on through typographic culture and to our contemporary electronic culture. It draws out the implications of those changes for fields as diverse as biblical studies, social theory and male and female relationships. Job would have his words written down and cut in the rock forever. Walter's words were not only written down; the title of an article by a Professor of New Testament says directly what Father Ong accomplished, " Walter Ong's Three Incarnations of the Word: Orality -- Literacy -- Technology." Often long before others had seen it, Walter understood what a change had occurred when knowledge and tradition were transmitted no longer exclusively by the spoken word (as was so long the case for all civilization) but also by the written word and by the rise of literacy, and how the rise of electronic communication is again transforming speaker, speech and hearer. So many of those changes he saw, understood, called attention to and worked out the implications thereof. Other of Walter's works such as the Presence of the Word and Interfaces of the Word explored the same phenomena and how they affected the ways we think, the social institutions we build, the ways we behave.
Walter's academic reputation was first made almost fifty years ago by a book, Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue, a study of Renaissance intellectual history through the life and work of Peter Ramus, a sixteenth century educational reformer and logician. The book grew out of his doctoral dissertation at Harvard which, up to then, enjoyed the reputation of being the single longest doctoral dissertation ever done at that university. It may still be such. It was the fruit of research in more than one hundred libraries. Walter could be more methodical than even Ramus himself was.
However much books and ideas meant to Walter, and indeed they did, things, real things, living and inanimate, meant more. His theories have been very influential even though he often said he was not a shaper of grand theories but that he just pointed out how things actually were. He would have found himself perfectly at home with all the items in Lewis Carroll's lines, "The time has come the walrus said/To speak of many things/Of ships and tacks and ceiling wax/ Of cabbages and kings. "He loved the outdoors. Animals fascinated him. If a walrus would have been available, he would have watched it carefully, read about it and told you about it, perhaps more than you wanted to know. The fly fishing that I mentioned was one of his activities. He loved plants and flowers.
For years he personally took care of watering, feeding, planting, and repotting all the plants in the university library and many of them in Jesuit Hall. I don't think they included cabbages; perhaps there was a cabbage rose. As for "ships and tacks and sealing wax," things, ordinary objects, and how they operated, also fascinated Walter. I know he could discourse on maritime adventures and shipboard navigation. After many, many years of personally typing his manuscripts with little or nor secretarial help, for which the invention of the IBM Selectric typewriter was a godsend, Walter took on the convenience of the computer even if its challenges, when it became obstinate, might have led him to think that it was essentially made of tacks and sealing wax.
However much books and ideas and things meant to Walter, people meant far more. How men and women organized themselves in society was one part of that interest. It was well typified by his Cornell University Messenger Lectures on the Evolution on Civilization which resulted in the book, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness. There he looked at contests in every form, from sports to political rhetoric, from the biological circumstances for human cultural activity to sexual differences and the person's search for freedom. One society about which he thought much was the Catholic Church. He loyalty to it was surpassed only by his awareness of its opportunities, to which he offered encouragement, and its problems, to which he offered suggestions for solving them. Emblematic of that interest were his early books, Frontiers in American Catholicism and American Catholic Crossroads. They were both published before Vatican II and both anticipated some of its insights and decisions. In more recent years, Walter repeatedly wrote on the Church's urgent need for a new cosmology and a new imagination linked to it. He said that we badly needed to take account of our current knowledge of the earth and the universe that is literally "new heavens and a new earth" different from the world with which Christianity for so many years has done its theologizing. He took very seriously the word of God in our reading from the Book of Revelation, "Behold, I make all things new!".
More than books and ideas and things and people in the aggregate, however, much more, it was men and women as individuals who meant so much to Walter. So many here this evening can attest to the warm, enduring friendships they enjoyed with him. He was deeply attached to his friends; he cared about them, wrote to them, remembered their anniversaries, comforted them in their sorrows, elebrated their successes. Of his students he demanded good work. More importantly he expected good work of them because he thought they were capable of it. He was utterly generous with the help he gave to them to live up to those expectations. And he remembered them individually for years to come and took delight into their accomplishments. As an example, I know personally of one first year Arts and Sciences woman undergraduate who had the courage or the rashness to take one of his courses, one hardly meant for a freshman. She had to work hard. She did well in it. A dozen years later he still remembered her, asked about her, was delighted at a visit from her.
The individuals and the brotherhood that they formed that were dearest to him were his brother Jesuits and the Society of Jesus itself. To the Society he gave himself, and to its works he gave all his life, his talent and his energy. For more than forty years Walter was a member of the Jesuit community at Saint Louis University. To the community members he gave a quiet, indeed undemonstrative, but real affection. To his specific friends within it he was everything that they could have wished for. To Saint Louis University, of which he had been Professor of English, Professor of Humanities in Psychiatry and was at the time of his death University Professor Emeritus, and of which he was probably the most distinguished and most internationally recognized and honored member, he gave a lifetime of devoted teaching and research, and to his colleagues he gave deep friendship and constant support.
But most of all, it was the to the Lord that Walter gave his whole life. His friendship with God was as undemonstrative as with his brethren. But it was even deeper. Walter was a pious man and that is good, but he was also a holy man and that is far better. He truly believed in a God "through whom all things came to be and in whom was life, the life that was the light of humankind, the light that shines in the darkness." For years he celebrated the Eucharist early every morning in this College Church and for years in this same church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation he brought God's mercy and love to countless men and women. The prayer of this man who was an intellectual of the highest order was that kind of prayer, but it was also the prayer of a simple man who knew that God was always beyond our complete understanding but not beyond our confident approaching because "the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us." Because of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, "we will be God's people and God will be our God."
In one of his latest books, Hopkins, the Self and God, Walter Ong looked at the way Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English Jesuit poet, celebrated the completely particular, individual nature of each man and woman in the world the "I," who is me, myself and I. Walter gave that self and all his individuality and all his talent to ideas, to books, to things, to groups, to individuals, to the Church, to the Society of Jesus, to Jesus Christ. May Jesus Christ receive him, just as we ask that He may receive us, so that we may see His glory, "such glory as befits God's only Son, full of grace and truth."