Faith and Tony Snow's grace

Few things in life cause more shame than encounters with con artists, those old-fashioned predators who know how to massage egos while selling snake oil by the barrel.

But painful experiences can lead to big questions and critical insights into the state of one's soul, said White House spokesman Tony Snow, giving the commencement address at the Catholic University of America in 2007. The key is to take a long look in the mirror, to stop making excuses and then to move forward with wide-open eyes.

"Once you've gotten past the mirror phase, then things begin to get really interesting," said Snow, in a speech that focused on faith more than news and politics. "You begin to confront the truly overwhelming question: Why am I here? And that begins to open up the whole universe, because it impels you to think like the child staring out at the starry night: Who put the lights in the sky? Who put me here? Why?"

And one more thing. It's hard to ask ultimate, eternal, life-and-death questions without thinking about God, he said. That scares some people, but they need to lose that hang up.

"Don't shrink from pondering God's role in the universe or Christ's," said Snow. "You see, it's trendy to reject religious reflection as a grave offense against decency. That's not only cowardly. That's false. Faith and reason are knitted together in the human soul. So don't leave home without either one."

It was easy for Snow's audience to read between the lines on that graduation day.

The witty commentator's 17-month tenure as President Bush's spokesman had been shaped by a series of battles in his war against colon cancer that, eventually, spread to his liver. Snow was urging his listeners to ask, "Why am I here?" But in his own life, he had long ago decided not to be crushed by the unanswerable question, "Why do I have to leave?"

The former newspaper columnist and Fox News superstar kept growing thinner and his hair greyer, even though his one-liners remained sharp as he handled the kinds of tough media questions haunt a president with declining approval ratings. Then he walked away from the White House pressroom last fall, saying that he needed a higher salary -- working for CNN -- to provide for his wife and three children.

Snow's quiet death at age 53 sent new shock waves through the clannish community of politicos and pundits at the heart of life in Washington, D.C., especially since it came so soon after the shocking heart attack that claimed NBC's Tim Russert. Both were dedicated family men and devout Catholics. Both were known for their ability to be friendly and fair, while mixing with activists in both political parties.

The key was that Snow shunned the kind of gloomy pessimism that haunts many conservatives, argued Jewish conservative William Kristol in the New York Times. Instead, his "deep Christian faith combined with his natural exuberance to give him an upbeat world view. ... I came to wonder: Could it be that a stance of faith-grounded optimism is in fact superior to one of worldly pessimism or sophisticated fatalism?"

In his Catholic University speech, Snow urged the graduates to take risks and to always strive to serve others -- confident that they would learn from their mistakes and keep growing. Religious faith, he insisted, was "not an opiate" that helped people avoid hard questions and big challenges. Instead, the ups and downs that accompany the life of faith should be seen as part of "the ultimate extreme sport."

In his case, Snow argued that his calling to live life to the fullest included the challenge to fight cancer. He learned his optimism the hard way.

"I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care," wrote Snow, in a Christianity Today essay entitled "Cancer's Unexpected Blessings."

"Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out. But despite this -- because of it -- God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face."