A Tribute to an Eastern Christian Bibliophile
I have always taken off my skoufia to the Archpriest Robert Anderson, an Eastern Christian bibliophile on a scale unrivaled by anyone else I know. His library was enormous, taking up the entire basement of his house, and everyone who knew him considered him a walking encyclopedia and polyglot. If he didn't know something, or hadn't read at least six books on an Eastern theological, historical, linguistic, or cultural topic, then it was truly obscure!
He died suddenly last night in Staten Island. I had been close friends with him for nearly a decade, and wrote what lies below in tribute. (A longer version will be published elsewhere.)
It was a fiercely hot and humid day. We were trapped on a ghastly bus driving back at dusk from Lviv to our camp in Rovesnyk. The bus kept overheating and every ten minutes the driver had to stop, get out, pour some water into the engine, and wait for it to cool off. Then he would start up again, careening recklessly down too-narrow roads at break-neck pace while we all braced ourselves for what we were sure was our imminent arrival before the “awesome tribunal of Christ.” On board this rattling trap of death were all the teachers and students of the English Summer School of the Lviv Theological Academy—as it was then called in 2001.
I had gone to Ukraine with Fr. Roman Galadza to teach English that summer to students of the LTA—precursor to today’s Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). There I met someone who would change my life: the Archpriest Robert Anderson, known to everyone as the incomparable Fr. Bob. In one of those strange twists of life, I had to go half-way around the world to meet him even though we both lived but a few hours from each other in Ontario.
A year after returning from Ukraine, I found myself at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa as a doctoral student, and my friendship with Fr. Bob took off.
He lived in a charming little house on Chémin de la Montagne, enabling him to refer to himself sometimes as a mountain hermit. We had many long and wonderful conversations in that house, many meals, and much laughter. I would get to know that house intimately over the years as I not only visited regularly but looked after it every summer when he returned to Ukraine as spiritual director of UCU’s English Summer School. One summer, in fact, I got there in the nick of time as the pump on his well had exploded and begun to flood the basement. This was a problem in itself, but it was very nearly an unimaginable catastrophe because all of Fr. Bob’s many, many, many books were kept in his basement—probably because if they had been on the main floor, it would have collapsed under the weight! Fortunately we were able to get the water stopped before the books were damaged.
Fr. Bob, ordained in the Holy Land in 1972 at the hands of the late Melkite Archbishop Joseph Raya of blessed memory, spent the last two decades in and around Ottawa. In 2005 in Ottawa I asked him to put together a brief CV so that I could introduce him. This is what he sent me:
Archpriest Robert Anderson has served as pastor since 1973 of Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishes in Wilton, North Dakota; Chatham, Ontario and, since 1990, in Kingston, Ontario. He holds a B.A. in French language and literature from St. Peter’s College in Jersey City with several diplômes from the Institut Catholique in Paris, a B.Ed. from the University of Toronto, and a Masters degree in Oriental Christian Theology from Maryknoll Seminary. A teacher for over three decades in Catholic schools in the Bronx (New York), Chatham and Ottawa, he taught all grades from 5 through 13. He taught French, various religion courses and world religions in English as well as in French immersion programs. Fr. Robert retired from teaching in June 2004 and now continues to dedicate his time to his parish, evangelization in the Eastern Churches and as one of the dukhovnyks at Holy Spirit Seminary in Ottawa. He has been spiritual director of the English Summer School of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv for the past six years.
I left Ottawa in July 2007, but Fr. Bob and I talked regularly on the phone, exchanged e-mails almost daily, and saw each other whenever we could. His normal practice, after celebrating Christmas liturgy at his parish in Kingston, was to travel to his sister's in New York for the holidays. He was there again this year when, suddenly, on Sunday December 26, 2010, he collapsed and died.
In previous years when he was there we would invite him to my in-laws just across the border in Connecticut for drinks and dinner. My in-laws, who grew up in the Bronx, loved hosting Fr. Bob, not least for his endless supply of fascinatingly “useless trivia” (as he would put it) about New York City and environs. My sons—including Aidan, whom Fr. Bob baptized in Ottawa on Theophany in 2007—were endlessly fascinated with what he called his “big rug” (i.e., long beard) and always loved to see him, as did we all.
And now he is gone. When I received the stunning news, my thoughts turned back to the eloquent homily of Joseph Ratzinger from June 1988 at the funeral of his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Mourning and consolation touch one another at the death of a believer. 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. But there is also consolation in this sorrow: his life has taught us how to believe.
Indeed Fr. Bob taught me how to believe, impressing on me in a singular way the fact that, as he always put it, “Christianity is a way to survive death.”
Those of us who are academics are often in danger of over-complicating things, but Fr. Bob, a master teacher with a New Yorker’s impatience for obfuscation and nonsense (he would have used a different word: bullsh**t), always got right to the heart of the matter: Christ has destroyed death and His followers can live forever. Now, when I try to explain to my students the wonderful, if maddeningly complex, world of Eastern Christianity, I am able to say that if they don’t remember the date of the Union of Brest, or the number of the sacraments, or the name of a particular icon, they must at least remember the one simple, beautiful truth at the heart of all Christianity, Western and Eastern: Christos Anesti!