Death of the Richest Man in Dallas
We stood at the parsonage door in the rain, worrying that we were at the wrong place -- could this ramshackle house in Oak Lawn really be where the archbishop lives? -- and that we were underdressed for the dinner to which we had been invited.
We had seen Archbishop Dmitri in his church, St. Seraphim's Orthodox Cathedral, on the Sunday we visited, and found the very sight of him -- tall, gaunt, his long white beard resting against his black cassock -- thoroughly impressive, but thoroughly intimidating.
The man looked like an Old Testament prophet. Julie and I didn't dare turn his invitation down.
We knocked. Someone opened the door. The house was jammed with people, food, and conversation. Everyone was there to celebrate the Orthodox Feast of the Dormition, which Julie and I as Catholics knew as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Seated there in the middle of the scrum was the austere archbishop, laughing and chattering, the happy genius of his household.
We didn't know it then, but Dmitri's party would change our lives. The old man died last weekend in that same house, surrounded by many of the Orthodox Christians we first met on that rainy August evening.
As it turned out, my wife and I were overdressed. As Catholics, we figured an archbishop would be an exalted personage who carried himself with a sense of inner pomp. By that time, frankly, I had had quite enough of bishops and archbishops.
I was on the ropes spiritually, battered by several years of writing about the sex abuse scandal in my church, and disgusted beyond measure with our hierarchs. They carried themselves with such a pride and entitlement, but when it came to protecting the children of the faithful, they had disgraced themselves. Even though this Dmitri was an Eastern Orthodox archbishop, I can't say I was excited about supping with his kind.
He welcomed us that day with grandfatherly warmth, but in truth, we didn't have the opportunity to talk with him much. As it turned out, we didn't need to speak with Vladyka (a Russian term of affection for bishops) to learn a lot about him - indeed to learn everything essential.
For example, that house. It was a dump. The kitchen roof was leaking. This is how an archbishop lives? Well, yes, it's how this archbishop lived. He cared nothing for comfort. He never forgot that he was a monk first. Vladyka gave his money to his cathedral, to evangelism, to the missions, to the poor.
In the kitchen, a tall Ukrainian and a short Siberian took me aside and told me how much they loved Vladyka. They spoke of his kindness, his holiness, his humility. "You will never find an Orthodox bishop like him in all of Russia!" said the Siberian.
The Ukrainian poured three shots of vodka, and handed me one. "To Vladyka!" said the Siberian, raising his glass. We drank.
Tables and shelves groaned under the weight of casseroles and platters of food, most of them brought in by parishioners for the party. I remarked on how beautiful the desserts were. Vladyka made those, they told me. To support the cathedral in its early days as a 1950s mission, Vladyka worked for his sister in her Dallas restaurant. Because of that, Vladyka became a serious cook, and loved to make fancy desserts for holy days.
Here was an archbishop who knew what it meant to fast -- indeed, who practically lived in poverty -- but who also knew what it meant to feast.
At some point, Julie motioned for me to come over. I squeezed through the crowd and saw Vladyka sitting in a side room where the little children had gathered during the party. The kids sat at his feet, listening.
"Look at him," she said. "He's listening to their questions and telling them about Jesus. He's not talking down to them, either. It's amazing."
Suddenly, the conviviality drew to a close, and the crowd turned toward an icon of Jesus on a mantle in Vladyka's dining room. A hush fell over the room. Archbishop Dmitri rose and began to pray with great solemnity and reverence. And then, the feasting began in earnest, with the merry old monk presiding over affairs like Gandalf the Grey at Bilbo Baggins's birthday party.
Driving home that evening, I told Julie, "That seemed like a family reunion." It was a family that we two exhausted, broken, fearful Catholics wanted to be part of. A year later, Vladyka took us in. He never argued doctrine with us, or spoke an ill word about Catholicism (for which I, who experienced the loss of his Catholic faith like an unwanted divorce, was deeply grateful). All Vladyka did was show us love and friendship, and celebrate the liturgy with awesome reverence. That was all we needed.
Just after midnight last Saturday, as I sat in my Philadelphia apartment listening to hurricane winds lash the windows, the Ukrainian who poured me the vodka toast that evening, telephoned from downstairs at the archbishop's house.
"He's still breathing, but it won't be long now," my friend said. "Please pray. Just pray."
Vladyka lay dying upstairs in his house, surrounded by clergy and parishioners, who had been keeping vigil at his bedside for the days and weeks of his final illness. For my poor part, I took my most beloved icon down from the shelf, hit my knees, and prayed for God to welcome my dear old friend home in peace.
As I lay prostrate in prayer, I thought about the many liturgies I attended that he celebrated, and the conversations we had about the faith after my conversion. I recalled the times I stood in St. Seraphim's Cathedral watching Dmitri on the altar, a man out of time, thinking, "This is what a saint looks like." None of those memories spoke as eloquently about the man's measure as did that house party.
I had showed up that night bitter and full of cynicism about bishops, so puffed-up and proud, and the way they treat the faithful. In the deep modesty of his household and in the profound love and respect his people had for him, I saw that this man Dmitri was someone altogether different. In his sweet-spirited humility, I saw an icon of Christ, shining through the spiritual darkness in which I had lost my way.
Vladyka's final months were tragically painful, owing to the cathedral's agonized struggle this year with Bishop Mark, whom the Orthodox Church in America sent to be the retired Vladyka's replacement. The iniquitous Mark nearly destroyed the parish before he was finally driven away; many at St. Seraphim's believe the turmoil he caused hastened Vladyka's demise. Only God knows the answer, but the rest of us have learned this awful spring that there aren't any Orthodox bishops like Dmitri in the OCA either.
That said, Dmitri's leadership was not flawless. I never saw problems, because I came to know him only in the late winter of his life. But some parishioners with long memories told me that as personally holy and pastoral as he was, Dmitri hated conflict, and didn't exercise strong administrative oversight when he needed to have done so. (This is also true of Pope John Paul II, incidentally).
Nevertheless, Dmitri's life, and the church family he leaves behind, serves as a powerful witness to the power of true humility to change lives, heal the spiritually sick, and even to save souls. The men and women who kept bedside vigil for Vladyka in his final days, who fed him and cleaned him and held him, and who prayed for him as he breathed his last - they knew who this man was, and what God did through him. They loved him as fiercely as they were loved by him.
The day of Vladyka's passing, the Orthodox blogger and Dmitri friend George Michalopoulus wrote that a Greek archbishop once told him after Vladyka's retirement service that the holiness of +Dmitri, and the rarity of such a bishop in the Church, makes the sad divisions among the American Orthodox seem like nothing.
"He was right," Michalopoulus wrote. "In the grand scheme of things, we either know saints, or we don't. Tears were running down both our faces."
I think we knew a saint.
Robert Dmitri Royster left this life in the upper room of a dilapidated cottage, one so frail the faithful worried that the ceiling would collapse from the weight of those praying at his bedside. His razor-sharp mind had been scattered by old age. His once-strong body had been stripped by mortality of all dignity. The elder had barely a penny to his name, having given it all to the service of the Lord and His people. But I believe he died the richest man in Dallas. Blessed are his spiritual children in their inheritance.