Lux aeterna luceat eo
It has taken me a few days to get around to sending this post, not because I was preoccupied by other things, but because I found it emotionally difficult to write even these few inadequate words.
For those of you disposed to pray for the repose of souls, I would ask you to add the name of Tom McLeish (1962-2023)—who passed away just a few days ago—to your petitions. He was a distinguished theoretical physicist, known especially for his work in polymer and soft matter physics, a fellow of the Royal Society, as well as of the Royal Society of Chemistry and of the Fellowship of the Institute of Physics, and a recipient of numerous awards in his disciplines. When I first met him he was a professor of physics at Durham, but in his last years he was the first occupant of the Chair in Natural Philosophy in York. He was also a devout Christian, a man of enormous culture with a special devotion to music, and simply one of the most delightful human beings I have ever known. I say this in perfect and unadorned sincerity; I am not indulging in encomiastic exaggeration. He was a witty and buoyant personality, polite, patient, and unfailingly kind; to the degree he was opinionated—in his fields of study or on matters theological—it was always with generous good grace and humility. I first got to know him when we were both fellows at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study and immediately took a deep liking to him (that is hardly extraordinary, as he had that effect on everyone). When the institute had special gatherings over meals, I liked to arrange it so that he and I were at the same table, knowing that the conversation would flow and never become boring. Certain memories from those occasions are still sources of delight for me: the time he and I sang the entirety of “On Ilkley Moor Bar t’At” in our best northern accents—quietly but resolutely—for the edification of our (American) fellow diners; my failed attempts one evening to whistle a phrase from his beloved Schumann that he could not identify; the time he elicited from me—and then charitably complimented me on—my Brian Blessed impersonation; the time... (well, it’s a long list).
After he left NDIAS, our association continued, not only by email but through our joint collaboration on various projects. One was a large consultation on Science and Theology that convened at Cambridge (in fact, I believe our final meeting there was the last time I saw Tom in the flesh). Another was a large collection of essays on eclipses, inspired by the total eclipse many of us at NDIAS had watched from various vantages in 2017 and in preparation for the one that will be visible in North America in 2024. Even in his final months, despite his illness, he was working on the final edits of the volume’s essays with his fellow editor Henrike Lange. It was an inoperable cancerous tumor that took his life—pancreatic, I believe, but I don’t want to confirm the details just now—and it carried him off very quickly. His diagnosis came in August. Not long before then—a matter of weeks, in fact—he and I had been corresponding vigorously, debating whether long-range topological order in quantum (entangled) systems, as well as analogous phenomena in polymer and other classical systems, constituted instances of “strong emergence” (he said yea, I said nay); and this had followed from debates regarding the relative merits of different kinds of “panpsychist” theory, which themselves had arisen from our discussions of eclipses. It would be hard to reconstruct how one topic led to another. It is not hard to say, however, how enjoyable it all was, principally because of Tom’s indefatigable magnanimity of character. Somehow he could make even the driest debate seem like a celebration. It all made me quite anxious to see him again; it was his plan to view the forthcoming eclipse here in the States, at about the same time as the unveiling of the volume of essays, and I was planning to be there as well. And then, all at once, he was ill, and then was fading, and within half a year was gone. During that time, he remained enthusiastically engaged in all the things that fascinated and delighted him, to the degree that his death—however expected—came as a sudden shock.
It is impossible properly to convey a sense of who someone was to those who never met him. And, just now, in just this case, it is painful to try. All I will say, perhaps tritely but earnestly even so, is that the world is a poorer, bleaker, less joyous place without Tom in it; and everyone who knew him knows this to be so.
Below I include the general announcement that Tom’s wife sent out, informing his friends of his passing.
Yesterday lunchtime a grand-daughter was born to us – Phoebe Joy – a daughter for Katie and Mark and sibling for Joel. At almost exactly the same time Tom died peacefully at home. Having been companions together in this journey called ‘life’ for nearly four decades, we walked the last few hours holding on to each other while I read out Tom’s favourite passages from the Bible – the powerful poetry of the Job Poet in ‘The Lord’s answer to Job’ (full of strong birthing imagery in response to Job’s longing for death) and the sensual love poetry of the Song of Songs; we listened again to Bach’s B minor Mass and Tom died as we listened to the Bach cantata Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt – which happened to be on the recording I chose for another Bach piece but turns out to be incredibly appropriate (words below).
As a family, the tight conjunction of birth and death gives us – as I’m sure that you will appreciate - an extreme mix of emotion to process. However, even our grief is transformed by hope – hope in our Lord Jesus who, in our life together, has lightened our darkness, sustained us, given us a way to know God as Father and cared for us over the years and who, when faced with the death of his own dear friend Lazarus, claimed, as he wept, that he, Jesus, is ‘the resurrection and the life’ – a claim supported by his own resurrection at the first Easter with a new body fit for a new, better life. *
As you may well be aware, when Tom received his diagnosis last August, he was immersed (often in a leadership capacity) in an extraordinary plethora of projects - some at their birth and some in a later stage of their life. Passing on his previous responsibilities and opportunities to others and ensuring that younger colleagues were looked after was a great concern to Tom and it was, last week, just as he finished the last 'job' on his list that his health took a significant dive. It was clear to all of us involved in caring for Tom that being able to pass on his responsibilities and complete his part of work in progress gave him both joy and great peace of mind and we are so grateful that he was given the time he needed and that he retained the mental capacity to do this. To the last he also showed love, care and gratitude towards all around or in contact with him. Tom loved widely and was widely and deeply loved.
There will be a service of thanksgiving and celebration for Tom’s life for which details will follow in due course using this same channel of communication.
Please feel free to share this news with any that you think would ‘want’ to know.
And, finally, I believe that the following words (abridged) - thanks and prayers – taken from the letter of Paul to the church in Colossae could equally well have been describing Tom:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all (God’s) people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven ...... the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.
God has filled you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you have lived a life worthy of the Lord and pleased him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you have had great endurance and patience, giving joyful thanks to the Father, who qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.
Praying for us all at this time as we each process and respond in our individual way to this news.
28th February 2023
Translations from the German:
Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt BWV 151
Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt
Sweet comfort, my Jesus is coming;
Jesus is now being born!
Heart and soul rejoice,
for my God most dear has
now selected me for heaven.
Erfreue dich, mein Herz
Be jubilant, my heart,
for now the pain departs
which has so long burdened you.
God has sent his Son most dear,
whom he so esteems and cherishes,
down to this world.
He leaves the throne of heaven
and will the entire world
from its chains of slavery
and its bondage deliver.
O marvellous deed!
God becomes a human, and wishes to become on earth
still lowlier than we and still far more wretched.
In Jesu Demut kann ich Trost,
In Jesus’ humility I can find comfort,
in his poverty, riches.
For me this man’s sorry state makes known
nothing but pure happiness and well-being;
yes, his marvellous hand
will only twine wreathes of blessing for me.
Du teurer Gottessohn,
O precious Son of God,
now you have opened heaven to me
and through your humiliation
the light of salvation have restored.
Since you now, all on your own,
the Father’s castle and throne
have left out of love toward us,
so we desire also,
in return, to frame you in our heart.
Heut schleußt er wieder auf die Tür bwv 151
The door to paradise so fair
He op’ns again today,
No more a cherub guarding there—
To God all praises pay.
· I am the light of the world
· I am the bread of life
· I am the way, the truth and the life
· I am the door of the sheep
· I am the good shepherd
· I am the true vine
'God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake in their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.' Psalm 46 1-7
I didn't know him. I didn't know of him. But I read every word slowly, with an enlivened awareness of the journey we all share, and what some special ones among us make of it.
Sounds like an exceptional person. I’m sorry for your loss and will keep him in my prayers. Memory Eternal.