It might seem ironic that a man of such eloquence would slowly lose his ability to speak. That a professor of speech would be unable to speak, clearly and forcefully.
But what I witnessed in Robert in the process of his dying was a humility and a peace and a deep, generous, unselfconscious faith. Robert loved the scriptures, he loved the Eucharist, he loved the tradition. It’s just who he was. He believed in God, and from the beginning he accepted even his dying as a gift, a grace.
This is easy to say but for Robert it was really true. I saw it. I felt it.
Near the end when he was struggling to make himself understood we were talking about the gospel, and when he reached the end of a long, scrambled sentence he finally got to the word “relinquishment,” and I knew what he meant, he was really being eloquent after all, because on one level he was punning. We’d both just signed a form called “Voluntary Relinquishment of Tenure,” Robert because he was dying and me because I’m retiring, but what Robert was really talking about is how we all have to die to our false selves, how we all have to empty ourselves out, and how death was helping him do this, helping him complete this stripping away, this opening up. Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, Jesus says, it remains just a seed. But if it dies, it grows, it produces much fruit, and this is what Robert was trying to say and did say, this is what he was talking about, that we spend our whole lives trying to overcome our arrogance and our pride and our self-centeredness and now his body was finishing the task, his tumor was forcing him to give up even his words, even his syntax, and so to help him draw closer to God and to the love of God and the joy of God, a love and a joy he had always glimpsed and always known in part but was now about to know fully and completely.
I’m talking about the cross, of course, I’m talking about Christ, who for us is not just the model and not just the pattern but the source of all hope and the source of all joy.
There’s a beautiful prayer about this by Teilhard de Chardin, the twentieth century Jesuit scientist and theologian. It’s a prayer for the grace to grow old and to die without fear:
When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
when the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;
and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;
in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
I don’t want to romanticize death, which is often so demeaning and so hard, as it sometimes was for Robert. I know there’s always the danger for us as believers that we’re just explaining away what so mystifies and frightens us. But Robert was on the frontier, he was ahead of us, and when he reported back this confidence and this peace, when I could feel it in him and see it him, week after week, I felt my own faith deepened. I felt heartened and encouraged and blessed.
Or there’s a beautiful passage in a sermon by Robert’s beloved Augustine, that great rhetorician, that great professor of speech. It’s about the voice of John the Baptist in relation to the Word, who is Christ.
“When I want to speak to you,” Augustine says, “I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine,” and it’s our voices we use to do this, it’s our voices that carry the meaning across the space between us: “The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet is still in mine.” This is who Robert was, as a teacher and writer, and also as a husband and father and friend. It’s who we all are, people who try to share what is in our hearts.
Relinquishment, Robert said. Relinquishment.
And then Augustine says this–he moves to a profound theology:
When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: my joy is complete.
Robert has died and he has risen, as he did again and again in his life, but this time it’s for good, it’s for all, and in his kindness and in his humility he is calling us to die, too, to our smallness, our selfishness, our pretentions. Now Robert’s joy is complete. He has conveyed what was in his heart and he has been taken up and borne away, into the Word itself.