Thursday, August 20, 2020

In Memoriam: James Larson (1941-2020)

I apologize it took me so long to get around to this, but I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of a brother and friend in the Lord who passed away in July. I am speaking of Mr. James Larson, a friend and collaborator, who died on July 6th. He died of heart failure while doing what he loved: writing an article about the Church. He was found dead seated at his desk, his Bible open to the book of the prophet Jeremiah. The final, unfinished article he was working on when he passed has been published on his website, Rosary to the Interior. You may view his obituary here.

Mr. Larson was a prolific and insightful writer who was making valuable contributions to the conversation about the Church in crisis back when I first took up blogging well over a decade ago. I stumbled upon Larson's original website, War Against Being, when I was first delving into traditional Catholicism (War Against Being is still up, although it looks like Larson ceased work on it in 2017 to devote energy to his other website). The premise of War Against Being was that the crisis in the Church was not essentially about liturgy but rather metaphysics, specifically, a deliberate abandonment of the metaphysical principles enshrined in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The darkness within the Church was metaphysical. I felt like his writings really got to the philosophical heart of contemporary problems in a way few others did.

This itself was not a novel concept; many others had said the same, and there are other very scholarly writers doing admirable work in the same vein (for example, Dr. Francisco J. Romero Carrasquillo, Ph.D of the blog Ite Ad Thomam). But what struck me about Larson's work was not necessarily his level of erudition or the iron-clad logic of his argumentation, but the almost prophetic quality I found in his writing. Anyone who has dug through Larson's expansive corpus knows what I mean. He was a man of deep spiritual insight who always looked at things from the perspective of the supernatural, regardless of the subject matter. When reading Larson's works, I always felt like I was getting a look "behind the curtain", so to speak—a privileged view into what was "really going on" behind it all. His writings not only informed, they nourished. They took a broad view, looking at the Church today from the perspective of heaven.

I remember when I discovered War Against Being I was still working for the Church as a DRE. I poured through every article and was deeply stimulated by them. Many concepts for some of my most perennially popular articles were first put into my head by Larson. For example, the observation that the theology of Joseph Ratzinger is fundamentally Teilhardian was an insight I picked up from Larson and would develop in my subsequent essays. Or my articles identifying the real problem with evolution being a denial of the metaphysical concept of substance. The whole genesis of my ebook Laudato Si: The 40 Concerns of an Exhausted Layman came from Larson's observations about naturalism in the thought of Pope Francis. And much more. Even his more trifling ideas were insightful, like his observation that the papal "Year of" phenomenon always ends up jinxing whatever it is trying to draw attention to, which I subsequently explored in my own essay (see: "Children's Crusade and the Age of Mercy", March 2015). His contribution on my own thought are truly difficult to measure.

Sometime after I read everything on War Against Being and began work on my own humble blog, Larson and I got into contact. I do not remember how or who contacted whom, but we struck up a rich and rewarding email exchange that spanned many years. My communication with Larson was always solely about spiritual matters and our mutual hobby, writing. Literally. We never talked about anything else. He never asked about my family, my work, or anything else, nor I him. Our friendship was solely focused on our writing. I came to admire him very much as a writer and thinker. I admired his insight and lucid style; as an older gentleman, Larson admired my ability to navigate the new media publishing world successfully. Speaking of age, I have to say, until James Larson died, I never knew how old he was. I knew he was older; being in my 30s when we started talking, I assumed he was in his 50s. I did not know I was engaging with a septuagenarian (Larson was 79 when he died last month).We never bothered to ask our ages in all our years of communication. Not that it would have mattered, but I realize now in retrospect that he has a sort of timeless feel about his character and the way he spoke and wrote that made it hard to pinpoint his age from his writing alone.

After some time I asked Larson if he had ever considered self-publishing his writings in book form. Larson was initially skeptical, as for him, "self-publishing" evoked images of junky spiral bound notebooks from Staples. I tried to convince him of the contemporary advances in self-publishing and offered to help walk him through the process and publish anything he wished. To my astonishment, he produced a largely unpublished draft of a work he called War Against the Papacy. Over the next several months I worked with James to self publish War Against the Papacy, which I published through my own publishing imprint Cruachan Hill Press in April, 2015 (click here to buy the book). I remember how giddy James was when he saw how professional the book layout looked compared to how he imagined a self-published work would look.

War Against the Papacy is very characteristic of Larson's thought and why I was attracted to him to begin with. War Against the Papacy is a traditionalist defense of the papacy which nevertheless avoids all the standard traditionalist arguments and even critiques some traddy canards, like the trad obsession with Cum ex apostolatus officio, the 1559 bull of Pope Paul IV that doesn't have even one fourth of the import that many traditionalists seem to think it does.

Larson had an interesting relationship with traditionalism that very much parallels my own. Though Larson fully accepted and understood the chaos of the post-conciliar Church, he had very little in common with what I would consider the vanguards of traditionalism in the English speaking world. He was very much in the camp of "I agree with your conclusions, but not the arguments by which you came to your conclusions." He loved the traditional Mass but had little interest in liturgical arguments; he thought the contemporary hierarchy had been taken over by the forces of darkness but had no sympathy for the SSPX or Lefebvre. He thought Pope Francis acts in a spirit completely antithetical to that which is proper for the successor of St. Peter but never questioned the validity of his pontificate and considered any variant of Sedevacantism to be unthinkable for a Catholic. Like the Prophet Jeremiah, whom he died reading, James was ultimately a contrarian, beating his fists against the wind amidst a generation that had little interest in his conclusions and less patience to understand the rationale behind his arguments. But that never stopped him from continuing to patiently,  persistently beat nonetheless.

Not to say Mr. Larson was flawless in his writing or his opinion. And we certainly disagreed on a few issues, though it was never so substantial that I felt any hesitancy promoting his work. As I've often said, there is no "Trad Magisterium", and I welcome many divergent points of view on issues Catholics of good faith can disagree about. James was always an outsider whom other trads respected but did not quite know what to do with. Perhaps that's something that resonated with me as someone who has alternately been praised or ostracized by larger trad outlets depending my adherence to Trad Groupthink in a given year.

In December of 2017, Mr. Larson launched his new website, Rosary to the Interior. Rosary to the Interior was started from Mr. Larson's conviction that "
We are at a point in the history of the Church in which none of the normal apostolates which sustain the life of the Churchcatechesis, proper intellectual formation, all sorts of organizations in defense of faith and morals, apologetics, etc. seem to possess the power to resist and defeat the enemy" (source). It was a prayer crusade (organized by lay people and certain participating clerics), to pray the Rosary on specific Marian feast days for the intention of the purification of the Church. I helped promote the endeavor when it was first announced. James was ardent in his devotion to the new endeavor to the end of his life. As mentioned above, he died while writing an article for the site.

Unfortunately, I fell out of contact with Mr. Larson in his latter years. My life was changing and I no longer had the time to keep up with James' output, which became more frequent in the last two years. Nor did I devote much time to our correspondence. He still faithfully emailed me every time he wrote something, though. I miss those emails now. Usually just a simple "I just wanted to let you know I published a new article", and then a link. It was nice to know he was still out there writing, even if I couldn't give him more attention. He wasn't asking for any promotion, just wanting to let an old friend know that he'd created something new. Alas, I seldom had the time to read his newer material. I will definitely make the time now.    

If I had to choose a favorite work from James, it would be a piece from War Against Being entitled "St. Francis of Assisi: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You." This was one of his works I have come back to multiple times over the years. I think it is a good exemplification of everything I admired about Mr. Larson's writing. I hope you'll give it a look.

Requiescat in pace, Brother James. I'm sorry I fell out of contact with you in the end. I pray for the repose of your soul and ask the same of all who stumble across this post. And
—if you are now gazing on the everlasting hills from the halls of light—please remember my poor soul, which will someday, God willing, join you before too long.


+AMDG+

6 comments:

JMM said...

I

I am struck by this line: "Or my articles identifying the real problem with evolution being a denial of the metaphysical concept of substance."

Can you please link to some of these? I have been tossing this idea around in my head for some time and would love to hear what someone else has to say about it.

I have found that the typical breakdown of intelligent design vs blind chance is not quite the issue, at least not for me. Part of my thinking here is that there is probably a version of evolution that makes sense philosophically, but it is not the one popularly promulgated. The big issue I have with it is the idea of "purposeless purposefulness," the idea that 1) evolution is blind and has no direction and simultaneously 2) evolution has a very specific purpose and acts in very specific ways.

This makes it seems like evolution is both goal-directed and not goal-directed, that it is both teleological and non-teleological. I have written about this some on my own (tiny) blog here: https://joedrinkscoffeeandthinksaboutjesus.wordpress.com/2019/10/14/a-lengthy-response-more-on-evolution/ and in a few other posts.

It is very hard to find critiques of evolution that actually deal with the metaphysics of it rather than the "if you find a watch on the beach" kind of arguments, so I'd really love to hear your thoughts on evolution and substance.

Boniface said...

@JMM

This is the essential one:

http://www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/theology/81-theology/451-catholic-solemn-enthronement-of-evolution.html

Mr. Baxter said...

I didn’t know. We also spoke sometimes, but opposite you, it was mostly ordinary things. Life, suffering, fighting. I identify with falling out of contact, he wrote so much and deeply, it required effort to read. His book stands in my shelf here in Malmö. Happy to read the backstory. He prayed for me, I pray he still does. Outsiders united, forever.

Ana Milan said...

Very sorry to hear of the passing of James Larson as I avidly used to read his website War Against Being until he shut it down. I had figured he was in his late forties so am amazed that he was, in fact, the same age as myself. It's strange how one's imagination can play tricks! He portrayed an incisive & analytical mind in his writings providing a very different standpoint from the usual output of other sources of information on Catholic affairs. I shall miss him. R.I.P.

Watcher said...

R.I.P. James Larson. I discovered The War Against Being via USC and am grateful!

Theodore Van Oosbree said...

I also discovered the War Against Being at another site (The Remnant) and read Mr. Larson's essays with great interest and corresponded a few times. I was in general sympathy with his opposition to sedevacantism and his support for the Papacy no matter the Pope. Eternal rest grant him . O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him.