Fr. John Konkle's Reflections Given at the One Year Memorial
Mother Gabriella asked me to say a few words as well. If you were here for the Divine Liturgy you heard a more extended reflection on Fr. Roman and his role in my life, but I will here add a few stories.
Fr. Roman was filled with joy in many respects. In the simplest way, he simply took delight everything. There are so many stories we all have from our own interactions with him, and they all have their own charm and humor.
One Sunday morning Fr. Roman came into the chapel sacristy. I was vesting. He entered with a bright smile on his face and exclaimed with the delight and enthusiasm of a four-year-old: “The birds are all Greeks.” Now many of you have heard me say this before, but it was common for Fr. Roman to say something simple and brief to me, and I would stand there in silence--because I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He would pause as if he were giving me time to think about what he could possibly mean. On this occasion, after pausing, he said, “They’re all singing, ‘kyriaki, kyriaki, kyriaki.” The day of the Lord, the day of the Lord, the day of the Lord. And, well, I’m absolutely certain he was right, that’s what they were singing; read the Psalms--all of creation is singing. But Fr. Roman heard them singing. And, well, I’m sorry to say this for those of you who aren't’ Greek, but they were singing in Greek.
On a different occasion, I remember walking out these doors [from the trapazea] with Fr. Roman on a Wednesday morning after breakfast. It was, again, just like a four-year-old arising on Christmas morning and seeing all the presents under the tree. We walked out that door and there were robins on the grass outside, and Fr. Roman immediately exclaimed with his child-like delight, “How do those robins know where the worms are?!” He didn’t want to know a scientific explanation. He wasn’t even really asking a question. He was simply thrilled. That’s the way he was--absorbed with a fascination for the common things of life that most of us overlook. He didn’t simply ‘see’, but experienced, the divine jubilation of the ordinary; there was nothing mundane for him.
One spring about this time of the year, he came to me and said, “Have you seen the magnolia in your back yard?” I said, with embarrassed softness, I didn’t know there was a magnolia in my backyard. He said, “you have the most beautiful magnolia, and it’s in your back yard.” He was walking with a cane then, but he made an excursion at that time just to see the magnolia bloom in the backyard of St. Nektarios house. It wasn’t just nature; he, of course, loved nature, but for him the invisible attributes of God were clearly seen in the handiwork of God’s creation (Rom 1:18ff).
Similarly with people. I remember many Paschas ago when there was a family here with very, very young children. And the children were unbelievably well behaved during the long services. He had left the Sanctuary for a bit during the long services and when he returned he said, “Do you see those children? They’re angels!” And that’s exactly how he saw them.
So there are all these stories of Fr. Roman’s delight, his joy. A delight in nature, a delight in people. We could go on for a long time recounting such stores of his pure delight in what he was experiencing--because he was always experiencing God in the customary and routine events of this life. Priests often come to the Monastery to serve, and when they were finished serving Fr. Roman would come to me always something delightful--not simply positive, but uncompromisingly delightful--to say about them. I don’t want to embarrass anyone so I won’t mention any names, but this is the way it always was; he saw the beautiful things in others. So that’s one set of stories pertaining to his delight and joy in the world around him, and his presentness to it.
On quite a different sort of theme, there were three times in my time with him when he was--well, I don’t know what to say, it was like he was in a trance. He was in another world. It has had quite a profound influence on me. Here I’ll mention one, the first. It was a Saturday evening after vigil in the summertime. The new Church wasn't built yet. We walked out of the old chapel together, and the sun was setting between the cloister and the guest house. We both stopped, transfixed by the beauty of the setting sun. There was a period of silence, waiting, receiving the experience. Then, out of the blue, Fr. Roman said, “You know, the communists won.” I was dumbfounded, but I could tell that he wasn’t talking to me. He was just saying these words in whatever space he had entered--standing next to me in body, but in spirit in a world I didn’t see. And I was thinking, “you don’t have it quite right; remember: Regan, Gorbechov, tear down that wall.” I had the history all figured out. I didn’t say any of that, of course, I just waited. Then, after his customary pause, he said, again, not to me, but simply speaking these words as from or into another world, “They taught an entire generation that living for a lie is better than dying for the truth.” I was so pierced at that moment, and still am, given what his life was like. It wasn’t really, he wasn’t really, I don’t know how to describe it; he wasn’t depressed, he wasn’t sad; it was factual, but not dry facts. It was the life he had lived, his own country, his own land, his own people, that he was so intertwined with. Deeply reflective, but not burdensome. I was so grateful just to have been there. Not words directed at me, but words simply that came from his heart, the things he reflects on, what he’s thinking about at different times in his life.
Another special gift, not unique to me, but maybe it happens disproportionately to me simply because of my role here as the resident priest, is that people will come and tell me their own Fr. Roman stories. I know you share those with one each other. One that stood out to me that happened, Oh, I don’t know, four or five years ago. It happened right there between these two tables [in the trapeza] after lunch. A man, maybe in his mid-30s--I had never met him before and haven’t seen him since, and he hadn’t been here in ten or twelve years--it was pretty clear that he wanted to speak with Fr. Roman, but Father would sometimes have a quick get-away after the meals and he was nowhere to be found on this occasion. So this man was stuck with me, and he said, “Fr. Roman changed my life.” I’ve heard that phrase many, many times from people. So I said, “Tell me the story; what happened?” He said, “I was here about ten years ago, and I had never met Fr. Roman before. He came up to me; he did not introduce himself; he simply said to me these words, ‘In our culture, we have to stop listening to music that makes you want to break things.’ And then he walked away.” That was the sum total of their exchange. So, I had to say, “why did this change your life?” And he said, “Because I used to listen to music that made me want to break things.” It turns out that he changed the type of music he listed to, joined his parish choir, and started for the first time in his life taking ownership of this Orthodox faith. He knew, he understood, immediately, the influence that music was having on him, and he responded to the word God gave him through Fr. Roman--so short, so concise, so beautiful, so transformative.
It was such a profound experience when Fr. Roman would say something which was exactly what we needed to hear. Words that had no antecedents--but like the Spirit, blowing in from we know not where. These words were no less practical than they were spiritual. So many times, especially when I first came here--similar to the stories of Fr. Michael Butler--I was ordained right before coming here; I knew nothing of what it was to be a priest, to serve the services. And Fr. Roman would sit in the chair on side of the Sanctuary and it was inevitably would say exactly what I needed to hear. It would be simple and practical; e.g., I would be standing at the Holy Table thinking to myself, “I know we're supposed to have a Gospel for the saint today; what on earth is should it be?” And right at that time, he would say, “The Gospel for the saint today is from St. Demetrius, October 26th,” or whatever it was that day. But that’s what I wanted to know!” I would think to myself; “how did he know that?” This sort of experience happened so many times I can begin to recount them. I would almost never ask a question; he would simply tell me what I needed to know, often the very thing I was wondering about at that moment.
One final story. The most important one to my own life, my own experience, was in the first few months of being here, in the summer of 2009 in St. Andrew Chapel. It was a Saturday morning. I was in my normal nervous state, and I asked Fr. Roman--I didn’t ask him very many questions at all, I mostly just sat with him. You know there is this saying in St. Anthony the Great. Three brothers come to visit St. Anthony, and two of them ask him questions. And they come back again the following year, and the same two ask questions. And again in the third year. St. Anthony then asks the third brother, who has never spoken in his presence, why don’t you ask any questions? He says, Abba, it is enough to be in your presence. That’s always the way I felt with Fr. Roman. Questions were superfluous. I have lots of questions I probably should have asked him, but I didn’t. I was always content to be with him. I just waited for him to speak.
But on this occasion, unusual for me, I said to Fr. Roman, “How do you stop thinking about what other people are thinking about you?” The context was that I’m serving these services, making lots of mistakes, and I can’t stop thinking of what others are thinking of me. And he replied--I wish I could impersonate him, but I can’t--he replied, “Oh Father, no one is looking at you.” And this was followed by his characteristic long pause. And I’m immediately thinking, “What you mean? Liturgy is about to start. There’s a bunch of people out there on the other side of the iconostasis. I’m making endless mistakes. Are you from another world? There most certainly are people looking at me.” And then, I suppose when he knew my mind had run its course, he said, “The only eyes that are on you are God’s eyes, and He looks at you from within your heart.” That’s the--for me--that will always be the characteristic of Fr. Roman. He was so intently aware of God’s eyes on him from within his heart that he didn’t even notice anyone else’s eyes on him. I’m not that way. But he told me where I needed to go by telling me that story.