I remember the large oak table near the entryway which featured a number of classic novels for purchase.
I had been a lifelong devotee of the great theologian and writer John Henry Newman, and I had never read his novel Loss and Gain.
I had wanted to do so for years and so made my purchase, and sat down three weeks later upon our return to the states to read it.
It is one of only a handful of books that I have read at one sitting, but it made an indelible impression upon me, his golden narrative catalyzed by a young man’s search for truth, which can be both exhilarating and painful.
The theme of loss and gain can sometimes define a year too.
I thought of that novel a couple of evenings ago when Jenny and I were discussing the final edits of our annual one page Christmas letter which we share with a few family and friends.
In this calendar year, our family has lost no less than seven dear friends who were not only special to us but also particularly close to us at foundational hinge-moments in the various and changing chapters of our lives.
We did not want to be macabre in our annual letter yet wanted to share the sorrow we continue to feel at their passing.
When a beloved friend dies I sometimes think we are given the gift of a distinct vantage-view of how that particular soul touched us to the core of our being and impacted us as no other ever could.
For instance, the friend who was closest to me when I first moved to Washington DC more than 30 years ago was utterly instrumental in helping me learn not only how to navigate a very complicated city comprised of a tangle of complex personalities and motives but all the while modeling a fortitude and grace rooted in the gift of humor and witticism.
He once told me that when life in Washington becomes particularly frustrating, it is helpful to stand back with a sense of ‘bemused detachment.’
I have never forgot his sage wisdom or his perfect phrasing, and in the course of the last month and a half, I have often found myself reliving endless conversations with him rooted in his particular gift of generosity of heart and a gimlet-eyed wit.
Another dear friend was a famous scholar and public intellectual but whose personal humility was a remarkable thing to observe.
He wore his learning lightly, and when I was going through one of the most difficult chapters of my life, he took time to personally pen me a three page letter rooted in his unique gift of sympathy, empathy, and the hopeful way forward.
I remember telling him several years later that I had read his letter so often it was now dog-eared, and he turned to me with a broad smile and said, “Oh, that letter? I’m so pleased that you found something in it.”
Blithe and understated, and a beautiful stroke of friendship!
Another friend had become a member of the United States House of Representatives but I had known him as a friend and colleague for several years before he became a member of Congress.
I was honored to be with him the night he was first elected, and what struck me as remarkable then and now was a conversation in which he told me that culture and history would play a central role in his life as a newly elected public servant.
He didn’t talk about taxes or healthcare or foreign and security policy, but rather the cultural principles that had animated his life and would navigate him in the way forward.
He never wavered from those early commitments, and what I loved most about him was that all of his public policy decisions arose from fixed and immutable principles and were never reliant upon here-today-and-gone- tomorrow fads in the world of policymaking.
He was the same in public as he was in private. How refreshing.
What a rare person he was, who believed that all of us have a moral duty to be intelligent, and he brought that theological passion to everything he did. He received and gave grace in equal proportion.
CS Lewis elegantly observed that genuine friendship begins thus: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”
In our annual Christmas letter, we will simply share that it has been a year of loss and gain, and one thing is certain as we take the turn into the new year ahead: that we shall never forget and always give thanks to God for the soulcraft of these beloved and remarkable friends – and the indelible way in which they influenced and impacted our lives for the better.