Tuesday, June 12, 2007

In perpetuam memoriam

I cannot say I knew Father Michael well in the sense that I spent any great amount of time with him or knew many of the details of his life; yet the combination of his gentlemanly grace—they say truly good manners puts everyone at ease—the intentionality with which he entered every conversation, and the solemn joy in Christ which infused his behavior, made his impact upon my life disproportionately great. I offer these thoughts as a remembrance of what impact the sort of life he lived can have even for those upon the fringes of intimacy.

I was to be chrismated into the Orthodox Church by Father Michael just after returning from a year abroad at Oxford. I remember driving to his home for a final catechumen interview and wondering whether I had learned what this brilliant man expected about the history and doctrines of the Church. I was greeted by a grinning Fr. Michael at the door, ushered into his plush living room, and offered a taste of Old Sack cream sherry along with a knowing wink from my Oxford educated priest: “It’s the standard drink at Oxford, as I’m sure you know by now.” I sunk into an overstuffed armchair and spent over an hour with Fr. Michael during which the ‘interview with the priest’ was transformed into a lively and engaging discussion of Christ and the Church with someone who truly enjoyed my presence.

It was Fr. Michael’s true belief in the fact that all men are created in the image of God that allowed him to genuinely express this intentionality in all his relationships and conversations; perhaps this belief is what made him such a remarkable man, as despite his attainment of the height of Academic honor, he would never accept that anything but a Christian understanding of the world and of Life could properly explain anything. Fr. Michael once told me of an exchange he had with a sociologist from Biola University who was working on an article about why so many evangelical college students were pursuing deeply traditional expressions of Christianity in Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.
“Do you mind if I talk to some of your church members about why they have decided to become Orthodox?”
“What will you do when they tell you that they became Orthodox because they were led by the Holy Spirit?”
“Well, that’s fine, but I can’t very well analyze that information scientifically.”
“Then I don’t want you to interview my parishoners, because that is what they will tell you, because it is the truth.”
This insistence that what we were doing at church was real-world life-changing stuff made watching Fr. Michael enact the rites of Orthodox worship all the more meaningful—you knew that he was invested in these actions and prayers body, heart, and mind.

My first Holy Week was at Fr. Michael’s western-rite parish, and I had my eyes open that much wider because everything was new; my whole body and all my senses were being continuously activated in reverent worship for the first time in my life. On Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper and Christ’s betrayal, the service called for four church members to come up to the sanctuary, remove their shoes, and have their feet washed and dried by the clergy to recall Christ’s act of love for his disciples. I, an attendee for four months, was asked by the ushers to go forward and allow Fr. Michael to bathe me. The revulsion one experiences at such an inversion of social convention was arresting; but then Fr. Michael emerged from the sacristy. Despite the processional speed with which everyone was moving, his posture communicated a state of joyful excitement; he knelt down and with a glance that somehow communicated “Thank you,” he imitated Christ. The next day when Fr. Michael led the church in making prostrations before the image of Christ on the Cross I could not hold back the tears as I knew something of what it meant to be a disciple. It was at that moment that I became Orthodox.

Though I had to move my family away from St. Michael Church and Fr. Michael during the last years of his life, grace allowed me to spend some hours with him just before he passed away. I sat with him while he slept and repeated Psalm 4, “…But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself … commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still … offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in God … I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for only thou, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.” Fr. Michael entered into and out of the disoriented consciousness that marked his last days—Deacon, has everything been changed?—and with a moan lifted up a shaky hand. I sat and held his hand for what seemed like a timeless eternity and hoped that Fr. Michael understood that I was saying Thank You.

Father, have mercy upon the soul of thy servant Michael, for he loved You, and he showed us your Son.

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