Archive for October, 2006

October 31st, 2006

Le silence eternel de
ces espaces infinis m’effraye

Posted in Reading, Sounds of Silence by ed

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. Where in Sam Hill is the editor?

Pascal, Pensees

October 8th, 2006

Brother Robert Smith
At St Mary’s and Mont LaSalle

Posted in Arts & Private Life, Death by ed

Brother Robert was honored in absentia on September 23 at St Mary’s College in Moraga, California, at a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Integral Program, which he founded there in 1956, inspired by St John’s College in Annapolis.

The Program’s history was rehearsed. Hundreds of former students were on hand with memories. And I realized that BR was an even bigger person than most of us who knew him in Annapolis had surmised.

Yet the picture that took shape was familiar.

To a Theology student who had failed to prepare: “Well if you’d just read the damned Scripture …”

Another student said his mother met BR once — and never failed on the phone through three decades thereafter to inquire “How is that Brother Robert?”¬† My own mother met him at Reality 1981, and often asks the same. “That Brother Robert. How is he?”

Denis Kelly was scrubbing pots in the St Mary’s kitchen on the day Alexander Kerensky came to town.

BR, familiar with Russian emigres from sojourns in Paris, had apparently been bragging during visits to Stanford, where Kerensky nursed his exile, of the glorious stroganoff regularly whipped up by the St Mary’s cook — a grand old-country Pole named Gustav.

So it came to pass that Kerensky would cross the bay and first mountain to Moraga.

But Gustav, a grand drinker, got nervous and stupid drunk. So pot-scrubber Kelly was detailed to do stroganoff, “searing the fillet, sauteing the mushrooms, whisking together the mustard and sour cream, following the barely comprehensible mutterings of Gustav.”

But in the dining hall all was glorious indeed.

“BR beamed and Monsieur Kerensky (they were speaking French, of course) demanded to meet the magnificent chef…. I propped Gustav up as we entered the room to great applause. With a flourish BR presented Gustav to Kerensky, who bowed over the great chef’s hand.”

The Integral Program is very like the one Johnnies know, but embedded within a conventional university’s departmental¬† structure.¬† So Integral competes with Comp Lit and Chemistry and Business Administration — and students are culled ad hoc each year from the herd of entering freshman.

“We look for the ones who look smart and confused,” a tutor told The San Francisco Chronicle in August.

So. Late 50s. The program is new and weird, and hungry for students. BR knocks on a dorm door after dinner. A freshman answers, responds best he can to the energetic queries of this obviously important if oddly shaped person — then BR delightedly cries “Follow me!” and points with a missing finger to some office across campus.

“The next day I discovered I was an Integral student.”

All the old students gathered on stage during the dinner, surrounding a big photo of BR from the 50s. As flashbulbs popped I imagined his Johnnies there as well. But of course no stage could contain the multitude.

So. Quite an evening. The clarity of vision and warmth of feeling — for a man who’d been absent 34 years — was astounding.

I had come out weeks before to talk with BR at the Christian Brothers home on Mont LaSalle outside Napa. We did talk, across his last week, but usually through a painkilling haze.

Other Johnnies came: Chester Burke, Christian Holland, Mark Pothier, Laura Strache, Steve Werlin, and others I missed — and Theo Carlile, who has been a tutor ever since BR recruited her from a St John’s senior class, two years before St Mary’s went co-ed.

The funeral was on campus, in the magnificent Mission-style St Mary’s chapel. A former Bishop of Oakland, purple skullcap and white mitre, came walking up the aisle with a seven-foot crook.Four priests attended, two of whom were BR’s students.

Brother Donald, a student, colleague and dear friend of BR’s, and now high in the order’s leadership, gave the first eulogy.

Then Peter Gilbert (Annapolis ’81), who’d arrived a day late to talk with BR, but just in time to speak of his life on the east coast. Two days thence. A daunting task.

Peter spoke of healing the Schism, a labor dear to BR’s heart. Dared recall that BR left St Mary’s “after some disagreement with the administration as to whether the Integral Program should be allowed to continue.” Then spoke of how Faith gave BR the freedom to be a consummate Liberal Artist and teacher.

The Brothers are still talking about Peter’s eulogy, and will publish it. St John’s could not have sent a better ambassador.

Brother Robert was buried among a hundred Brothers at Mont LaSalle the next day. And a week later the Integrals gathered for their 50th anniversary, having hoped as late as Labor Day to hear him speak of the program himself.

The day began with Crito seminars, then Pascal after lunch (Penguin 198-200), each reading having been selected by Brother Robert.

Each seminar I attended was a probing, disciplined, edifying conversation — a common sample, I imagine, of daily Integral fare, fruit of 50 years of the Program at work. Any Johnnie would have felt right at home.

So it seems there is one Program. Authored by Scott Buchanan in 1937. Nurtured ever since and reshaped a bit by hundreds of dedicated tutors. And fashioned for St Mary’s by Brother Robert, inspired not only by Buchanan and Jacob Klein but also James Haggerty, his great teacher and then colleague at Moraga, who traveled with Buchanan, McKeon, Adler and Hutchins, and first brought Buchanan’s seminar idea west.

Brother Robert spent his last years at St Mary’s defending the Program against theo-pedagogical criticism and interdepartmental grumblings. Then a new president arrived thinking to close the Program down.

BR rose to the defense. Fur flew. And a deal was struck: the Program could stay, but BR would have to go. 1972. 58 years old.

The success of Integral has long since silenced its critics. And the Brothers don’t talk of the old battles much.

Neither, with me, did Brother Robert. He would speak of the St Mary’s program with pride, but never of being its father and protector. Perhaps saying more seemed more trouble than it was worth, better things to talk about always at hand.

St Mary’s to St John’s …

West coast to east …

Catholic liturgy to the Orthodox, Latin to Greek …

Was our friend in Annapolis an exile at heart?

The thought for me is new. Enlarges his legend. Recasts some things he’d often say and do.