When, on 30 June 2003, my father died after several years of quite unexpected stroke-induced blindness (utterly without precedent in our family history, so far as I know), the words of a hymn that had never particularly been among my favorites kept recurring to my mind:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day.
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O, Thou who changest not, abide with me.
On 11 April 2005, not quite two years later, my brother and I had to make the extraordinarily painful decision to withdraw life support from our mother. We were told that she might require twenty-four to forty-eight hours to pass away, but, mercifully, she was gone within perhaps twenty minutes – which seemed, incidentally, to justify our decision. Curiously, as she breathed her very last, a piano instrumental version of “Abide with Me” was being piped into the room via the hospital’s sound system.
Change and decay – and, frankly, death – have been much on my mind of late.
My brother’s sudden passing on 23 March is probably a sufficient explanation for that. But Richard Cracroft’s recent death has brought it to the fore again. One after another, revered mentors of mine, people who have played pivotal roles in my life, good and admired friends, have departed this world during the past few years: Truman Madsen, Hugh Nibley, Arthur Henry King, Davis Bitton, and others.
It’s impossible not to feel melancholy about these departures, and impossible (for me, anyway) not to think of a couple of quatrains from Edward FitzGerald’s marvelous nineteenth-century recreation of the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam”:
We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumin’d Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
Among these revered teachers is R. Douglas Phillips, very recently departed.
My wife and I were in a plane returning from Istanbul on the day of his funeral two weeks ago, and we deeply regret the fact that we were obliged to miss it. Doug Phillips was an important and influential teacher to us both.
He was, in several classes (e.g., on classical mythology, and on the Greek text of Thucydides), my guide into the world of classical antiquity. Here’s one anecdote from my studies with him, which is still – alas — very vivid in my memory:
It was a class on Greek lyric poetry. At home the night before, I was preparing my readings for the next day.
But one of the poems was astonishingly, stunningly, obscene.
I was shocked that Doug Phillips, of all people, would assign that particular poem at BYU, of all places. Still, I proceeded to work through it, dutifully looking up every obscure word and getting ready, if called upon, to translate it. I was certain that, when he had realized his rather embarrassing mistake, Doug would pass over the poem in silence. We certainly wouldn’t be translating this particular item.
But I was wrong. And, of course — naturally, predictably — he called upon me to do the translating.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “Of course.”
“Alright,” I said, feeling extremely awkward.
And so I began.
“What??????” he burst out, when I’d scarcely finished the opening line.
It turned out that I’d made a crucial interpretive error in that very first line. The poem wasn’t obscene at all. Not even remotely. It had absolutely nothing to do with the subject I’d mistakenly read into it. (What does this all say about me?) The trouble was that, once I’d begun down the false path that I’d inadvertently chosen, it all actually made reasonable sense. Everything in it could be read . . . well, obscenely.
It was a mortifying experience. Fortunately, though, the class was tiny, and all male. And, fortunately, I’ve forgotten the specific poem that I so badly misinterpreted. The rest remains crystal clear — especially the deep, awful embarrassment — but, for some reason, I can remember neither the text nor the name of the poet.
Doug served afterwards as the first president of the Greece Athens Mission, opening that country up in 1990. He’d served his own mission in Japan, and had spent substantial additional time there as, among other things, a translator and interpreter. He’d also studied in Tübingen and in Göttingen, and had married a German. But, although his Greek (from Homeric through Attic or classical to koiné) was excellent, it was the Greek of an antiquarian. He later told me of going around Athens, soon after his arrival, with a modern dictionary, constructing sentences according to the rules of ancient syntax that he pronounced in the accent of a university-trained classicist, until, finally, a girl behind a shop counter, doubled up with laughter, begged him to stop. It was, she said, just too funny!
Doug Phillips was a kind, humane, and gentle man. (Once, after I’d joined him on the BYU faculty, he had to drive me from the faculty parking lot to get gas for my car: My gas gauge had evidently broken, and it still showed “full.” But it wasn’t. I seem to have had an unusual number of such incompetent misadventures around Doug.) His last years were, I understand, very difficult, but now he’s far beyond that, and – in contrast to FitzGerald’s/Khayyam’s discouraging view of human doom — he’s victorious:
και ο καιρος της εμης αναλυσεως εφεστηκεν
τον αγωνα τον καλον ηγωνισμαι τον δρομον τετελεκα την πιστιν τετηρηκα
λοιπον αποκειται μοι ο της δικαιοσυνης στεφανος ον αποδωσει μοι ο κυριος εν εκεινη τη ημερα ο δικαιος κριτης ου μονον δε εμοι αλλα και πασιν τοις ηγαπηκοσιν την επιφανειαν αυτου
(2 Timothy 4:6b-8)