Reflections on Archbishop Dmitri

My wife and I moved to Dallas towards the end of the summer of 2007. The day before we arrived–it was a Sunday–we attended Liturgy in a small little Antiochian parish in San Antonio.  As we chatted with the good folks afterwards, the folks chimed in about possible parishes we might find in Dallas. Though we were coming from an Antiochian parish, and though these people were at an Antiochian parish themselves, they pointed us in the direction of the OCA cathedral. ‘’I’ve heard good things about that Antiochian parish’’ one parishioner said to me, ‘’but you should also check out St. Seraphim.  Archbishop Dmitri is a kind of Gandalf figure for the South.’’

That is the kind of endorsement one simply cannot ignore. The following Saturday, on a late August evening, we found ourselves in a vigil service within the sanctified walls of the cathedral Vladyka Dmitri had built. I remember that the hot, evening air was quiet outside, but inside the cathedral people were worshiping and offering themselves as living sacrifices in the concentrated way that comes about from standing on stubborn Texas clay. After the reading of the gospel, Vladyka inauspiciously emerged from behind the kliros to give blessings to the faithful. I remember, even before receiving that first blessing from Christ by the hand of Vladyka, being struck by his presence.  It was an odd thing: powerful and soft, graceful and magnetic, discernibly personable and discernibly heavenly, full of unique personality while also being an empty conduit of Christ. The ancient virtue the Greeks called megalopsuchia–what St. John the Forerunner meant when he said ‘’He must increase, but I must decrease’’–was exemplified in the person of Vladyka Dmitri. He was truly magnanimous–-“large souled”–-because he was filled with the love of God, and the light of the Diocese of the South was the Divine Light reflecting with bright gentleness from this man, beloved of God.

I count it an unworthy gift of God that He blessed me to have this man in my life. I was his parishioner, and he my Despota. I do not claim to have a privileged relationship to him: like so many others I drank gallons of coffee with him, both in the parish hall and in his kitchen, heard the same stories over and over, laughed at his jokes, and took questions to him as they arose. It was impossible to treat him like a legend or a celebrity. This the occasional traveler would find out when, upon bringing Vladyka some dogmatic, academic, or formal conversation, Vladyka would turn instead toward a pleasant story or to talk to an infant or toddler. I have often wondered if this was Vladyka’s favorite sermon–breaking off idle theologic in order to remind us that one must be like a child to enter the Kingdom.

These things everyone saw; but that this is not a privileged perspective only reinforces the greatness of the man.

He would love to share stories, often the same ones over and over. “You’re from California,” he would say to me. “I was first a bishop in California, an auxiliary bishop–-Bishop of Berkeley–-back in the 60’s.” At this point he would chuckle. “I got along well with everyone out there. They would see me, wandering around the University in a cassock, and everyone thought I was like them!” His eyes would shine, and from deep within his beard would come a soft laugh.

I once asked Vladyka about serving in WWII, where he was a Japanese interrogator for General MacArthur. He spoke with his usual kind-heartedness about his time in the service, but his maturity never threatened his characteristic levity.  Because the Japanese were not trained on how to behave when captured-–since they were never supposed to be captured-–he said his job was just to talk with them; a task well suited to his nature.  He told me of a “chat” with one Japanese soldier who had occupied his time on watch by diagramming the deployment of the Japanese fleet.  The man was so proud of his little sketch he proudly displayed it to the young serviceman Royster, oblivious of the consequences, which militarily, proved to be significant.

As our father in Christ, his children would lovingly share daily stories about him. He was known for always drinking coffee, no matter the time of day. He preferred his coffee strong, and, if possible, with chicory. He had acquired the taste while in New Orleans for graduate school, and ever since then Cafe Du Monde had been his favorite. After helping him out around the house one day, he gave me a can-–one of about 15 some voyaging monastics who had stopped by previously provided him. I loved Vladyka too much to want to finish the can, and yet was too much under his influence not to. When he made coffee at the parish, he would make it unbelievably strong. He would dump the recommended scoop into the coffee maker, say “How about let’s make this a strong batch”, feed it another scoop, and then – with customary twinkling eyes –“Ah, three for the Trinity.” If you wandered into the parish hall when he had made the coffee you might be warned by the regulars that you were about to drink, “bishop’s brew”.

His penchant for coffee was matched only by his assiduity for translation. He would frequently explain why he chose certain words over others. For the most part he used the King James; he believed the Gospel should be voiced as exaltedly as possible, and that the language we heard in Church should demand from us our very best attention. He would explain why he insisted on using “debts” rather than “transgressions” in the Lord’s prayer. He would gently insist the readers pronounce “victuals correctly as “vittles” when reading through the Psalms. His homilies had the same thoroughness and attention to detail, but despite his incredible facility with languages his decisive eloquence spoke simply and lovingly.

Vladyka was always found in the parish hall before or after the services. If you wanted to spend some time with him, all you had to do was show up an hour or two before Wednesday Vespers. He would be sitting at a table, talking to his dear friends who ran the St. Seraphim bookstore. You were always welcome to pull up a chair and join in to the conversation. And it was the conversation you would find yourself part of, not his conversation; for though he was defered to, he was happy to listen. He was a fixture in the parish hall after each service. Though accompanied by one of his smiling subdeacons, Vladyka’s arrival was never ostentatious or distracting from the existing atmosphere in the hall. He would always stop and talk to the youngsters, whether a solitary newborn or boisterous group of five year olds.  The babies loved him, and the youngsters adored him–running up to ask for a blessing or squeeze his knees. “And who’s this little guy?” he would always ask of my little son, his short-term memory failing. “Gregory? Well how you doing little Gregory?”

In August of 2011, after one of the last liturgies he attended, I walked by his table in the parish hall, carrying my infant son.  One of the deacons who was sitting with Vladyka at the table stopped me. “Vladyka wants to see him”, he said, gesturing towards my son.  I brought him to the table, where Vladyka, feeble but joyous, poked a finger at him. Gregory laughed. Vladkya could barely speak–the deacon, with an ear to Vladyka’s lips, had to echo his words to those of us at the table. In a wheelchair, without a voice, he continued to preach his humble sermon to us in his life. Even as an wizened old man about to leave this kingdom he revealed to us the way in which we are to enter the next. He was an 87 year old child, attending to my child, and proclaiming the gospel to the world.

I moved away from Dallas weeks before Vladyka fell asleep in the Lord. The last thing I did before I left was get his blessing. It was a weekday and the church parking lot where I parked the moving van was all but empty. I stumbled up the rickety steps to get to his second-story apartment–a small, simple place hovering above the first story he used for hosting. A couple steps in the door and I was past the outdated kitchenette and at his bedside. He was lying on his back, oxygen tubes in his nostrils, even more thin and wan than days before. For some reason I was nervous, and stumbled over my words. Barely able to speak, he teased me. I laughed, and his eyes flashed with his customary kindness. He raised his hand in blessing as I lowered my face to kiss it and I left Vladyka as I met him–with a simple blessing on a hot Texas day.

My most enduring memory of Vladyka is of him during the liturgy, standing between the Royal Doors, cross in hand, sweetly crying out to God, “Look down, Oh God, from Heaven, and behold, and visit this vineyard, which Thine Own Right Hand has planted, and establish it.” That image is seared indelibly in my soul–the icon of a true bishop.

I knew Vladyka in the ways so many of us knew him, and he left his mark on us all. He loved the people of St. Seraphim, and they loved him back. It was not loud; quite the opposite. It had the soul-pleasing presence of a constant wind winding its way through the forest, or the soothing sound of the fingers of the tide tenderly touching the land. But behind the peaceful serenity of a lapping wave upon the shore is the fearful power of the breakers–and as Vladyka spoke and lived with us gently, the tremendous power in his life was evident. Many of us could speak of such things, but would rather take them and cherish them preciously and privately. There was Vladyka for us, and there was Vladyka for me; and for me it shall stay.

Memory eternal!

[Note: this has been slightly altered version of what I first wrote the day after Archbishop Dmitri reposed on Aug 28, 2011, and posted elsewhere shortly thereafter. This weekend we moved Vladyka’s body from Restland cemetery to the memorial chapel adjacent our sanctuary. It was a weekend of unspeakable beauty and joy, and Vladyka’s presence is felt.]

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