"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Remembering Fr. Bob Anderson

It is hard to believe it has been a year since the Archpriest Robert Anderson, known to everyone as Fr. Bob, so suddenly died. Little did I know when I wrote what I did last year how often Ratzinger's words would haunt me this year:
We mourn him because he is no longer among us. Never again shall we be able to hold a conversation with him, never again obtain his advice. We shall need him so often, but shall seek for him in vain.

I first met him in the summer of 2001 in Ukraine (he is on the far right in this picture, next to me; Fr. Roman Galadza is on the left: we were at the great Pochaev Lavra in this photo).

He loved to return to Ukraine each summer to teach, and these next two photos below are from the English Summer School run by the Ukrainian Catholic University, where I first met him while teaching. The photo on the left is with seminarian Joseph Matlak in 2006, and the photo on the right is from Fr. Bob's last summer there, 2010:

As you can see, it was never difficult to find Fr. Bob in a picture thanks to what he jokingly called his "big rug," the beard with which my sons were so fascinated, including Aidan, baptized by Fr. Bob in Ottawa on Theophany in 2007 as pictured here below on the left.

According to the terms of his will, I was charged with assisting in the disposition of his library, which, as I wrote last year, was very considerable indeed: he was a bibliophile on a grand scale! I knew he had read very widely, but especially since leaving Ottawa in 2007, I had not known just how widely those interests continued to range. Only after spending more than a week in May in his house organizing the books did I see how widely. Who else has not one or two but four or five books on East-Armenian verbs? Which other personal library contains just about every book ever written on Galician nationalism? How many books on Turkish dialects do you keep by your bedside? (He had at least three.) Where else--apart from perhaps two or three institutional collections in the entire world--would you find dozens of books on Syriac liturgy? (He was also a polyglot who taught himself numerous languages--and in some of them came to incredible fluency, enough to fool native speakers into thinking he was one of them--but I did not know Syriac was one of them.) I regret that my own book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, only appeared in print two months after his death: in the preface, his counsel to me over the years of writing that book was very gratefully noted.

In the year since he died, when, as Ratzinger so eloquently wrote, we have needed him so often, and in vain sought to converse with him, I have kept this picture on my desktop:

Now the armchair psychoanalysts, those fatuous creatures leaping from the depths of what Christopher Lasch memorably called the "banality of pseudo-self-awareness," may rush in here to proclaim this macabre or the result of a failure to find "closure" (a wholly fraudulent notion, belief in which is at one with belief in bog magic and the wise woman's cabin in the woods), but there is, of course, venerable precedent in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, not a few of whom meditated daily on death and at least one of whom, St. Jerome, was reported to have kept a skull on his desk.

This picture is simply a high-tech, 21st-century version of Jerome's skull. It functions as a memento mori, a remembrance of death--both his (leading one to pray for him) and one's own (leading one to recollect that today could be one's last: as Scripture says, we "know neither the day nor the hour" when that "thief in the night" will come upon us). The same practice motivates many Eastern Christians to keep pictures of their dead friends and family in their icon corner at home.

It is, then, a good and salutary practice to remember and pray for those whom we have “loved long since and lost awhile” in Cardinal Newman’s felicitous phrase, asking God to make their memory eternal and to make our hearts strong enough to run the race that remains before us until at last we are, we hope, united again around the banquet table of the Lord.
But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn; but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! (from John Tavener's "Funeral Ikos")

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