The Man Who Ate with Capon

Robert Farrar Capon is dead. That means, by necessity, he is now a finite resource […]

Josh Retterer / 4.24.18

Robert Farrar Capon is dead.

That means, by necessity, he is now a finite resource post September 5th, 2013. I had read a little of him previous to that date, heard him referenced and quoted by people I respected. His death prompted, as things like that often do, a serious search for his books, many now sadly out of print. I looked for old interviews, articles about him, finding some funeral tributes by those who knew or loved him. That search led to Mockingbird, of course, but also to a man named Jamie Howison. He had one of the few audio recordings of Capon I could find, a conversation between the two of them. That, and an article he posted after Capon’s passing indicated an interesting friendship. I needed to know more about this guy.

Jamie Howison is the founding pastor of Saint Benedict’s Table, part of the Anglican Church in Canada, in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land (isn’t that a wonderful name—rather Narnia-like, don’t you think?), in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Influenced by the likes of Robert Webber, his congregation is made up of Mennonites, Baptists, and Pentecostals, as well as Anglicans. “They’re anything and everything else,” as he describes them, a people who have “fallen in love with the great liturgical, sacramental, spiritual, theological tradition.” Starting each sermon with this prayer, “May only truth be spoken, and only truth received,” I can’t help but think that many preachers  — and their congregations — would be well served with an invocation like that. Blessed with a deep and soothing voice, Howison’s calm demeanor belies a fierce intelligence of someone not only well-read but who has deeply lived. This is apparent in his infectious passion for jazz, Coltrane in particular, leading Howison to write a book about the man, God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane

My curiosity about this jazz aficionado, pastor to a diverse congregation in the frozen north, and, more to our point, a man who talked and supped with Capon, got the better of me, so I reached out and had a fascinating conversation with him. He was extremely generous with not only his time, but also with his memories. Here is some of what we talked about, starting with how these two men became acquainted:

Howison: This would have been 1997, and I was a chaplain at the Anglican college at the University of Manitoba, and my Lutheran colleague—the guy who was the campus chaplain for the Lutheran church—came to me one day and he said, “The local Lutheran synod is bringing in Robert Farrar Capon to do the clergy conference, and we’ve got a day at the end. Would you guys be interested in buying the day?” I had discovered him years ago. It was during my undergrad that I had read Capon’s Hunting the Divine Fox.

Retterer: That’s one of my favorites.

Howison: I love Hunting the Divine Fox. But then when I was preaching as a young priest, and the books on the parables were coming out…it was like “oh!” I was an unapologetic fan, so, “yes, we’ll do it.” And so the college came up with the money to buy this, and we did a lecture for students in the afternoon and then a lecture aimed at the wider diocesan community in the evening. The students came and ate it up.

Most of them didn’t know what they were coming for except that it had sort of a provocative title, and there’s a singer-songwriter who, in Canada, is huge in the world of faith-based music and he’s a friend of mine. So it was “Robert Farrar Capon with a warm-up by Steve Bell.” And all these people came—because Steve was the hook and then they stayed because Robert was irresistible.

And then the evening—again, people didn’t know the name and so it was a smaller gathering—but everybody who came was sort of like “whoa.” And then when that was over, I drove Robert and Valerie back to their hotel. We were chatting, and they were lovely. And he said, “Are you in a rush? Would you like to come in for a drink?” I was like, “Oh yeah.” So we’re in this Holiday Inn lounge, and it was the late 90s, so he was still able to smoke his pipe inside. Mostly it was Valerie and I who talked, and he listened, and then he would sort of insert these great footnotes.

Retterer: Did he go on many speaking engagements during that time or did he promote his books when they came out?

Howison: Yeah, it was pretty frequent. It was kind of an important livelihood for them, but he was also publishing pretty regularly. Stuff was coming out every eighteen months. When he was in Winnipeg he was promoting The Astonished Heart, and then it wasn’t long after that that The Fingerprints of God was released, and then he was working on Genesis, The Movie.

Retterer: And that was the subject of your conversation—the interview. Skipping around a little bit, when you visited them on Shelter Island, that’s when he was writing Genesis, The Movie. That was the same time your interview was done?

Howison: Yeah, so basically what happened was in 1997, at the end of our drink in the Holiday Inn lounge, he said, “Well, this has been such a delight to visit with you. You know, if you ever have reason to be in New York, give us a call and come out Shelter Island for a visit. And so, in 2000 I went to New York, simply so I could say, I’m going to be in New York, quite literally. It was great to be in Manhattan, but more than anything it was really just so I could say, you know, “I’m going to be there, I’d love to come out.” So I went out and it was really fun, it was really good. He was in great form. We did that recording that ended up on the website. He had me sit at the kitchen counter as he cooked supper.

Retterer: What did you eat?

Howison: It was a sort of a shrimp and rice kind of a thing that he made up as he went along. But he’s good in the kitchen.

Then I stayed in touch with Valerie. She was the one who did email and so on. And she contacted me in 2003 and just said, “He’s having a bad year. His health is giving him trouble for the first time in his life. He was in the hospital for a surgery, which had never happened before. It’s just a hard year for him. He’s really feeling his age.” I’d always wanted to go back, so I said to her, “I’ll come and spend some time with him, if that would be a good thing.” She said that would be a great thing, because part of what’s happening is he’s feeling his age, he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his relevance. And so to have this priest—I was then in my forties—who wants to come and just soak up what he knows… So I did that. I went and I spent three nights, I guess, on Shelter Island, and two full days. He had to nap as he was feeling old. But I spent more time with him then, and that’s when Genesis, The Movie had been published, and he had one more in mind called Everybody Loves John. But he wasn’t really able to write anymore. I got tons of stuff from that [trip], what I recorded, and I actually turned it into a short book, just sort of on this—I called it New York Fox Hunt.

Retterer: There’s always these moments you associate with someone, an image or a picture that just keeps coming back to you. What comes back to mind when you think of him and that time?

Howison: There are probably a couple of things. One would be me sitting in the kitchen and watching him cook—him talking about good knives and butcher blocks and cast iron pans—that was pretty cool. But the other one—the second time when I was there in ’04, and he—I can’t even remember what led up to it; I’d have to look back at the notes—but he said, “Do you know Auden’s “Caliban to the Audience? And I said, “No I don’t.” And he said, “Oh! It’s this great long piece that Auden wrote in a prose poem. And it’s Caliban, who’s the monster in The Tempest, at the end of the play addressing the audience.” He read several pages to me, but paused and put the real emphasis on the the final two paragraphs, the opening being “Now it is over.” He’d told me that he often read it at the end of clergy conferences, and when he set the book down he said to me, “Isn’t that something?  It really applies to a bunch of clergy… “here we stand, no effect ever came off,” “Not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness,” “the muffling banks of artificial flowers.” Full of mischief he was!

Now it is over. No. We have not dreamt it. Here we really stand, down stage with red faces and no applause; no effect, however simple, no piece of business, however unimportant, came off; there was not a single aspect of our whole production, not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness, for which a kind word could, however patronisingly, be said.

Yet, at this very moment when we do at last see ourselves as we are, neither cosy nor playful, but swaying out on the ultimate wind-whipped cornice that overhangs the unabiding void-we have never stood anywhere else, — when our reasons are silenced by the heavy huge derision, — There is nothing to say. There never has been, — and our wills chuck in their hands — There is no way out. There never was, — it is at this moment that for the first time in our lives we hear, not the sounds which, as born actors, we have hitherto condescended to use as an excellent vehicle for displaying our personalities and looks, but the real Word which is our only raison d’être. Not that we have improved; everything, the massacres, the whippings, the lies, the twaddle, and all their carbon copies are still present, more obviously than ever; nothing has been reconstructed; our shame, our fear, our incorrigible staginess, all wish and no resolve, are still, and more intensely than ever, all we have: only now it is not in spite of them but with them that we are blessed by that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf of which our contrived fissures of mirror and proscenium arch — we understand them at last — are feebly figurative signs, so that all our meanings are reversed and it is precisely in its negative image of Judgement that we can positively envisage Mercy; it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours. Its great coherences stand out through our secular blur in all their overwhelmingly righteous obligation; its voice speaks through our muffling banks of artificial flowers and unflinchingly delivers its authentic molar pardon; its spaces greet us with all their grand old prospect of wonder and width; the working charm is the full bloom of the unbothered state; the sounded note is the restored relation.

Retterer: His voice was so distinctive. You are not able to un-hear his voice when you read him, because his cadence is right there on the page. In some ways, because of his slightly unusual rhythm, it seems to resolve a little bit of tension, making him slightly easier to read.

Howison: Do you know the long introduction to Romance of the Word? That book anthologizes Hunting the Divine Fox, The Third Peacock, and Offering of Uncles. It takes the first three theological books he wrote—he does a little bit of editing and cleaning up of language just in terms of inclusivity—man becomes humanity and so on—but it’s fairly modest. But there’s about a 35-page introduction, which is his looking-back—at that point, late 90s—on his life and work as a priest and theologian. It is disarmingly honest. I mean, he talks about being a philanderer and ruining his first marriage. He talks about having to come to grips with that and stand under grace. He talks about the fact that being so honest has probably cost him. It’s an extraordinary piece, and when you match it with that voice, what you hear is the frank, raw, honesty of a man who is brilliant, but knows how deeply wounded he is.

Retterer: That’s beautiful.

Howison: It’s crazy good.

Our conversation drifted on to other things; that Cornel West turned somersaults over the Coltrane book, and that he bent over backwards when he was in Winnipeg a few years back to meet about the Psalms and blues project Howison was working on. We talked about Frederick Buechner, the tendency for Anglican primates to have magnificent eyebrows, (Howison is no slouch in that department either), and the endorsements by Will Willimon and Lewis Smedes in the original edition of Parables of Judgement. We talked about his congregation, who he clearly loves and adores.

After our FaceTime conversation had ended, I felt as if I had just won a cosmic version of the Kevin Bacon game. I’ve talked to a man who ate with Capon. It was almost as if I could hear Capon’s gruff Queens-inflected voice coming from the kitchen, asking if Jamie wanted more to eat…

Ed. note: Mockingbird has been given the distinct privilege of re-publishing a selection of Robert Farrar Capon’s out-of-prints works. The first two are available now (More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, and The Man Who Met God in a Bar), with Robert’s first-ever best-seller, Bed & Board, coming soon. Keep your eye on the site for more info!

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6 responses to “The Man Who Ate with Capon”

  1. David Zahl says:

    What a great convo and piece of writing, J. Thank you for bringing it to us!

    And that Auden quote — HOLY SMOKES

  2. Ken says:

    Thanks for this, especially for the Auden and the Coltrane tip. I’m reading the Kindle sample of the Coltrane book, and it’s a beauty. To any poetry lovers heading to NYC to hear Alan Jacobs, you might check out “What Became of Wystan” if you don’t know it.

  3. Glen Soderholm says:

    Jamie is the bomb. A few of us Canadians know about his wonderful work, but not enough!

  4. Lovely. Thanks Jamie.

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