Ten years ago Malcolm Muggeridge and I shared the job of commentator for two programs based in the Sistine Chapel. Two weeks before we got to Rome he telephoned. "Do you know," he said, "I have met, I suppose, all the important men and women in my lifetime, and on the whole I think them an awful bore ... but I want to meet the present pope. Could you arrange it?"
I laughed. One always -- inevitably -- laughed in his company, which is one reason why one so looked forward to it.
When Pope John Paul approached Muggeridge, he looked over benevolently and said: "Ah. You are radio!" It is very difficult to answer that question coherently, so Muggeridge simply smiled a response. The pope turned to the next guest in line at the private audience and said to David Niven, "Ah, you were the great friend of my predecessor." David Niven mumbled something about having had great admiration for Pope Paul VI, whom he never knew and probably hadn't given five minutes thought to. The poor, dear pope was confused about the composition of the audience he was giving.
After our blessing, Malcolm could not get over his amusement; but then, years later, visiting with him in his little country house, I saw neatly framed in a corner of his living room a photograph. Him and the pope.
When he died last week the commentators listed his affiliation with Christianity rather as though it had been the next post, after editor of Punch. They did not seem to know that he had become the foremost evangelist of Christianity in the English language.
I was on a television program in 1980 at his invitation; the hour was called, "Why I Am Not a Catholic." It was off to a wonderful start when he recounted his disillusion with a Catholic chaplain at the University of Edinburgh. Muggeridge had just been installed as chancellor (that is the habit in Great Britain: university chancellors are popularity contest winners of a sort), and the administration came out for giving the students free contraceptives; Chancellor Muggeridge objected; the Catholic chaplain denounced him as monstrous.
WFB: Excuse me, but why was it monstrous?
Muggeridge: It was monstrous, according to him, because it accused the students of wanting to be promiscuous. But in a letter I wrote in answer to it, I said I wondered what the reverend father thought they wanted the contraceptives for. Was it to save up for their wedding day?
That was Muggeridge vitale, the mordant clairvoyance that taught him to see through communism in the early '30s and brought him as high a reputation as a journalist as has been achieved by anyone in this century. He was everywhere, doing everything, but his odyssey was not without purpose. He was moving toward Christianity.
"Why did this longing for faith assail me? Insofar as I can point to anything it has to do with this profession which both you and I have followed of observing what's going on in the world and attempting to report and comment thereon, because that particular occupation gives one a very heightened sense of the sheer fantasy of human affairs -- the sheer fantasy of power and of the structures that men construct out of power -- and therefore gives one an intense, overwhelming longing to be in contact with reality. And so you look for reality, and ultimately you arrive at the conclusion that reality is a mystery."
Why did he relish the mystery?
"Because it leads you to God. ... It's exactly like -- Bill, it's exactly like falling in love. You see another human being, and for some extraordinary reason you're in a state of joy and ecstasy over that person, but the driving force which enables you to express that and to bring it into your life is love. Without love, it's nothing; it passes. It's the same with seeking reality, and there the driving force we call faith. It's a very difficult thing to define, actually."
He never did define grace, which is not definable, but in due course he and his wife joined the Catholic Church, and he pursued his writing and his lecturing as an explicit Christian of the best kind -- the kind whose second greatest pleasure in life is laughter. After his stroke three months ago, his brother wrote to say that Malcolm still enjoyed hearing from his friends but could on no account acknowledge his mail.
He yearned to die and hoped only that his beloved Kitty would go first. She survives him, reinforcing his belief in what it is that teaches us most. "As an old man, Bill, looking back on one's life, it's one of the things that strikes you most forcibly -- that the only thing that's taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life's about -- the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies -- is suffering, affliction."
He suffered, even at the end. But throughout his lifetime he diminished the suffering of others, at first simply by his wit and intelligence; finally by his own serenity, which brought serene moments to those graced by his presence.