Brother Robert Smith, FSC, a long-time tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis, died at Napa, California, on September 12, 2006, aged 92. I was asked to deliver one of the eulogies at his funeral, which took place on Saturday, September 16, 2006 at the chapel of St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. The text of that eulogy follows.
I will try to keep my remarks short and simple. My name is Peter Gilbert. For a considerable part of my life, about 25 years, I have been blessed to know Brother Robert as a friend. I have been asked to deliver a eulogy on him, and to speak especially on behalf of those of us who have known him in the context of his life as a tutor at St. John’s College. I feel this as a solemn responsibility and a debt of friendship; there is much that can be said, and I am without doubt unable to say all that needs to be said about his life and work at Annapolis, where he taught continuously for the past 34 years and began cultivating friendships and ideas as early as the mid-1940’s. Brother Robert has meant a great many things to a great many people; although I will try to say something about what he has meant to the college as a whole, I must necessarily speak, more particularly, for myself and about what Brother Robert has meant to me. But I think my own impressions of him, gained from 25 years of friendship and conversation, will not be unrepresentative of those of others.
Let me begin by speaking briefly and in a factual way about the history of Brother Robert’s engagement with St. John’s College. For my knowledge of this history, I am largely indebted to other people, particularly to Bill Ney, who provided me with information over the phone during the past few days. After that, I will try to state some of my impressions of Brother Robert as a tutor, as a thinker, as a Christian, and as a friend.
Brother Robert, as mentioned, had a working relationship with St. John’s College stretching back to the 1940’s. He first visited the college in the summer of 1943, two years after he began teaching philosophy here at St. Mary’s; by all accounts, he was very impressed with what he saw there, and, if he had not been so already, he became firmly convinced of the excellence of that form of education that operates by way of seminar discussions and an encounter with great authors, what for lack of a better name may be called a “Great Books education.” This was only a few years after the launching of what at St. John’s College is still called “the New Program.” It was, by all accounts, a time of intense intellectual ferment at the college, but also of great uncertainty as to the college’s chances of survival. Brother Robert met the founders of the New Program, Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr, men who have since taken on a kind of iconic and legendary status; he also met a tutor there named Jacob Klein, perhaps even more important to the college’s history, who would later become dean at the college and for whom Brother Robert had a profound reverence; in his later years, Brother Robert asserted that Klein was one of the two or three most remarkable people he had known in his life (and Brother Robert, it must be said, knew some very remarkable people). These contacts with St. John’s College in the mid-1940’s would prove to be the beginnings of a lifelong engagement.
About Brother Robert’s work here at St. Mary’s College and his establishing of the Integral Program, now in its fiftieth year, there is no need for me to speak. I will only note that, at the beginnings of this program, Brother Robert brought many people from St. John’s to lecture or teach here — people like Michael Ossorgin, Douglas Allanbrook, Elliott Zuckerman, Robert Sacks, and others, who would remain close friends and colleagues of his for the rest of his life. My guess is that it may have also been about this time, that is, in the late 1950’s, that Brother Robert — perhaps as a result of his friendship with Ossorgin, who, besides being a tutor, was a Russian Orthodox priest — began also that spiritual engagement with Eastern Christianity — a love of the Orthodox Church, especially in its Russian form — that seemed to grow more profound as the years went on, and that was, in a way, the occasion of my getting to know him.
It was evidently after Brother Robert gave a lecture on Rabelais at St. John’s College around the year 1965 that the dean of the college, Jacob Klein, told Brother Robert that he would be invited to teach there, and he in fact took up that invitation during the subsequent academic year. After that, he returned to his duties guiding the Integral Program here at St. Mary’s, until, in 1972, after some disagreement with the administration as to whether the Integral Program should be allowed to continue, Brother Robert took up an invitation from Klein to come and teach at St. John’s College on a permanent basis.
By the time I matriculated at St. John’s College in 1977, Brother Robert was a well-known and distinctly visible member of the faculty. He lived in Annapolis in a house near the end of Market Street, around the corner from some other tutors, including his friend Douglas Allanbrook; the two of them would habitually accompany one another for the half mile or so walk to the college, engaging in discussion along the way. Brother Robert occupied the top floor of a two-story house, which he rented from an old widow downstairs; one approached Brother Robert’s apartment by a somewhat rickety external staircase that wound around the left hand side of the house. It was a bright and airy house, with a free-standing fireplace in the midst of his living room, and with walls hanging with fine tapestries and his beloved icons. He always left the house unlocked; students who came to visit him were told simply to come inside and wait for him if he were not there.
For students, it was an enviable privilege to be invited to Brother Robert’s house for dinner, in part because one was assured of an uncommonly fine meal, prepared after the French or Italian manner and served with a choice wine, but more especially because one was likely to encounter a yet more satisfying feast of conversation.
My acquaintance with Brother Robert began in my senior year at college; he was on the committee that examined me on a senior essay I had written on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The essay argued that the long-standing division between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church is theologically unfounded, that the Latin doctrine of the Trinity and the Greek doctrine of the Trinity are really compatible. (I should point out that I was baptized as a child in the Greek Orthodox Church, and that I remain a communicant of that Church, in fear and trembling.) As it turns out, I had touched in this essay upon an issue very close to Brother Robert’s heart. And perhaps the bond of my friendship with Brother Robert, simply put, is that he was a Roman Catholic who lamented the separation of Catholicism from Orthodoxy, and I am an Orthodox Christian who laments the separation of Orthodoxy from Catholicism. We were, as it were, two people looking at the same problem from different vantage points, a great wound at the heart of Christianity, one of the deepest wounds Christ has had to bear because of human sin. I always depended on Brother Robert’s wisdom for guidance in dealing with this issue. I’m frankly not sure how I will deal with it without him.
As a true teacher, Brother Robert met people where they are, with their own questions, dilemmas, foibles, ideas, and dreams; because his conversation with each of his students and friends depended so much upon where that other person was in his or her life and thinking, it is difficult to make general pronouncements about his own conversation. It depended so much upon who it was he was conversing with. For instance, in my own case, there was this concern with theology, always present at least in the background, and Brother Robert was fully happy to address himself to it. But it would be wrong to think that, because Brother Robert was a deeply devout Catholic and a member of the Christian Brothers Order, he had a one-track mode of conversation; that those whose questions tended to politics, or metaphysics, or mathematics, or French or Russian literature, or the history of scientific ideas, or all of the above, found him less engaging and engaged with their own concerns. What this sometimes meant was that, in a crowd, Brother Robert would tend to focus upon a single person, and carry on a discussion with that person as though the rest of the world didn’t exist. He seems to have believed that to change one person in a deep and lasting way was worth more than getting ten thousand unreflective persons to repeat the right slogan. He was a humble man, but he did not suffer fools gladly; and when he was right, and you were being a fool, he had ways of letting you know it.
There is a saying about Brother Robert that has been passed down over the years. Jacob Klein, who brought Brother Robert to St. John’s College, who embodied the principles of the St. John’s education more than anybody else, and who put the college onto a solid footing when there was great danger of it collapsing as an idea and a reality, said of Brother Robert that he was the freest man he had ever known. Klein was not a man given to rhetorical exaggeration. Klein’s statement may be interpreted in various ways; I must interpret it in the way I know best, which is theologically. Klein’s impression of Brother Robert as the freest man he had known was based, I must think, on the specific way Brother Robert lived out his Catholic faith in the very intense intellectual environment of St. John’s College. It seems to me that the freedom Brother Robert exemplified to others was a freedom, in the first place, from the despair that is endemic in the world and in the intellectual world in particular. Like St. Augustine, Brother Robert knew that the human heart can find no solid resting place outside of God, that the various substitutes we make for ourselves all prove ultimately unsatisfactory. Perhaps like St. Augustine as well, or perhaps not, Brother Robert also thought that, once God is our resting place, the rest of the intellectual life does become very satisfactory; once we know that the world is not our final goal, we can accept the world for what it is, and be grateful for all the beauty and truth and goodness we perceive in it, as things that lead us back to God. In this way, faith really was, for Brother Robert, the foundation for being a good liberal artist. Being a Christian, for Brother Robert, did not mean putting one’s mind in a straightjacket; quite the contrary. Brother Robert was, I think, fully in agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas, who held that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it; faith does not destroy reason, but lets it do its proper job. Faith saves reason from the useless and self-destructive effort to become its own foundation. Brother Robert knew this, and lived it; and, in doing so, he became a model to other people of what a fully Christian and fully rational life could be.
While Brother Robert was a highly influential and respected presence on the faculty at St. John’s College, it would not be true to say that he invariably had an easy time there; evidently, within the small and arcane world of faculty meetings and internal politics, Brother Robert got into many scrapes. This is an aspect of his life of which I always remained dimly aware, without ever really understanding any of it. But Brother Robert seemed, in his own way, to relish such things; he was a monk, but he was an intensely political and practical man. Perhaps this also had something to do with the freedom Jacob Klein saw in him.
In any case, it was Brother Robert’s peculiar embodiment of faith and reason, of realism and hope, and his remarkable insight into human souls that led so many of us to see in him an anchor for our sanity, that kept us coming back to him for advice and solace in the midst of the strange twists and turnings that life can pull. And, obviously, we came to him because of who he was, and for the particular love that he showed us.
Towards the end of his life, Brother Robert was working on a book. He wanted to call it “Light from the East.” At one level, this book is meant to give an account of why Pope John Paul II said, in his encyclical Orientale Lumen, that “the prime need of Catholics is to become familiar with aspects of Eastern Church tradition and be nourished by them.” Brother Robert saw this as a remarkable statement, that was not being sufficiently appreciated. At another level, the book is a commentary on certain Eastern Christian texts, especially the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and the monastic sayings of Evagrius of Pontus. At a third level, the book is a collection of Brother Robert’s own mature reflections about the deepest issues of life, about how we grow in the knowledge and love of God, of others, and of ourselves through the various particular incidents of our lives, in our faltering response to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In reading the work, one soon perceives that it is the fruit of a lifetime of prayer. Brother Robert loved the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, a liturgical poem read in the Eastern Church during the first week of Lent, in part because it was the poem of an old man, facing approaching death, who was trying to see himself with the eyes with which Christ saw him — an old man acknowledging all his sins, but asking that they might be thrown upon the abyss of Christ’s mercy.
Brother Robert finished this book, but he left it unedited and unpolished. But it contains unpolished jewels, and I would like to close this eulogy by reading some of them, knowing that, in this audience, I will not be casting pearls before swine.
In a draft of Chapter Four of his book, Brother Robert speaks about what Jesus calls the first and great commandment of the Law, that is, the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the accompanying commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Let me read to you some of the things he says:
We might choose to think of these two precepts (he says) statically, that is, as laws we already understand more or less adequately, and, consequently, that our remaining problem is simply making up our mind to observe them.
This point of view neglects one fact: the deeper meaning of these mysteries crosses the threshold of our love of other persons; it has its mountains and valleys, that is, selfish and blinding concerns that beset us here below. The conquering love of God comes over us only gradually. It usually happens through slow and painful experiences under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
When we think about keeping the commandments in this context we realize learning to do so is a mysterious process that goes on over our whole life. Events have a part in shaping our lives and all of them are occasions where God can further teach us how to serve him. Our success or failure in progressively realizing this is what makes us the unique individual each one of us is. We in our own person can come to love God as our sense of him and his claims grow but this growth stays intertwined with our feelings for our fellow men and women.
In that sense we are not born able to love God uninterruptedly with our whole heart and mind. We will be able to do this completely only when we see him face to face. In this life, we must struggle step after step. This sense of gradualness is tied to our dependence on the Holy Spirit. This fact is something the Eastern tradition knows intimately. There is an alternate way saying the same thing:
Our growth in loving God is inseparable from our learning in practice to love ourselves and our neighbors not only as the imperfect beings every one of is when looked at in any given moment. Our finiteness, even pettiness, is inseparable from the fact that we are progressing toward something infinitely better. Knowledge and love of God apart from daily circumstances in our lives can be no more than verbal.
In these remarks, one sees something essential of Brother Robert, in his work as a tutor, and in his relations with men and women generally. In the growth of others, he saw the opportunity for his own growth towards God. In the opening of the minds of young people, he found his own mind continually renewed. Earlier this year, I visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York with Brother Robert; he came there to see an exhibit of Russian art. Here was this 91-year-old man, still exhibiting the joy and exuberance of a child. It amazed me.
Brother Robert now no longer has to look at icons; he is seeing the real thing. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone, about a week ago. The first thing he said to me, as he woke up from sleep, was, “I just had the most amazing vision!” I asked him what it was; he wouldn’t tell me.
We who are here are unable to love God uninterruptedly with our whole heart and mind. We will be able to do this only when we see him face to face. May Brother Robert, whose vision of God is much clearer now than it ever was before, whose childlike joy is unceasing, who is journeying to meet the object of his love — may he pardon us all our failures towards him, immersed in our own selfish and blinding concerns, and may he entreat the King of Glory on our behalf, that, like Elisha of old, who saw his teacher Elijah go up in a fiery chariot, we may be granted a double portion of his spirit.