Darwin Kirby: Memory Eternal!

Darwin Kirby: Memory Eternal! March 2, 2006

One of the great characters in Anglican (or any) church life has died. The Rev’d Darwin Kirby, Jr, passed away yesterday in North Carolina. I received a call this morning from a lady in Houston — of all places — who was searching for info about Fr Kirby and came across my blog thanks to the following post from last year. (The funeral is scheduled for a week from this Saturday, March 11, at St George, Schenectady.)

Trusting in the Lord’s mercy, heaven’s about to become a lot more colorful.

May God rest his soul with the Saints …

A dear friend from Pawleys Island, from a long line of Episcopalians, once commented: “For years I’d wondered where all the colorful characters had gone. After becoming Orthodox, I found them.”

The author of the following lines, a life-long Episcopalian, died yesterday. I was taught by one of his former Curates, Fr Charles Henery, and worked for another, Fr Andrew Sloane. Thus I heard many stories about Darwin Kirby. I’ve also had the pleasure of his company on several occasions and he has been a consistent supporter of my Orthodox missionary efforts over the years.

Last year, I found myself without something to read. I picked up Fr Kirby’s autobiographical Jottings – Easily Satisfied with the Best, much to my delight. I’d read it years ago but, during this Fast-Free week before Lent, it was just what the doctor ordered. If you’re turned off by colorful characters wearing collars, it’s definitely rated PG-13, you may wanna stop reading now. What follows are quotes that made me take note or laugh out loud. They also left me longing for another time and age. Fr Kirby was Rector of St George, Schenectady, NY, for 40 years. May his memory be eternal!

(Oh, and “Cheers!”)

In Fr Kirby’s reminiscing about a favorite Bishop, I thought of my own, Metropolitan PHILIP:

It is inspiring to be in touch with a man of power, imagination, inflexible determination — one who uses these gifts, not to bend other men, but to serve and enrich them, to fire them with one’s own selfless enthusiasm for a greater effort of intelligence and faith. One breathes a long breath of relief that human nature has capacities in it other than predatory and idiotic …

Father Yates, the Chaplain of General Seminary, said once in a sermon: “God, in His goodness, reveals Himself variously — breaking up the great splendor into flashes which our littleness can catch, in a poem, in the vivid phrasing of an idea, in someone’s way of believing, or hoping, or loving, or enduring. In some perfection of achievement each one of us knows the insight, the inspiration, if only for a brief hour that shakes our lethargic aims and interests into vibrancy, changing, through enrichment, our very own concept of what life might be. These insights we gather and hold and cherish, for we can not want beauty until we see its concrete constituents and weave them into the pattern of our longing … until we can say, ‘This thing or this has quickened me. And this I want by God’s help to be, though the way thereto is by fire and a cross and ashes’.”

Well, from what I’ve said, you can discern that he was not “laid back”. People use the phrase, “laid back”, today, as if it were a compliment. I often wonder, were the Apostles “laid back”? Do you think so? Is that how the Christian Church was built, by being “laid back”? I think it’s an excuse for not doing much or not trying very hard. Some people are so “laid back” that they’re laid out!

After receiving his Master’s at Yale, Fr Kirby decided to enter the priesthood …

I went to my father’s office to tell him about it, and he said, “I don’t give a damn what you do with your life, now get out of here, I’m busy.” Well, the moment had come, it had happened at last. What I had hoped for, longed for, prayed for would happen. I was on my way!

Here, he relates a story about Fortescue …

A story I have always enjoyed … tells of Fortescue one day at Solemn Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He was standing near the rear of the church when an usher came up and said, “You are supposed to kneel down here, sir.” Fortescue turned to him and said, “Would you get the hell out of here.” And the usher replied, “Excuse me, sir, I didn’t know you were Catholic.”

On churchmanship, greatness, etc …

He said that he was a moderate churchman. I often wonder what that means — like the moderately clean or the moderately honest or the moderately truthful.

I think of Gladstone. Once he turned to his wife, after he had received an honorary degree describing him as a very great man, and he asked his wife, “I wonder how many great men there are?” And she replied, “There’s one less than you think there are”

On the retirement of a fellow priest and the question of how much does the clergy depend on the warmth and adulation of the laity:

How much do we depend on it? Don said, “I sure as hell am going to find out! I’ll find out what people do on Saturday evening instead of having sweating palms, tossing and turning, and being unable to sleep.”

On struggles with the hierarchy …

He first told me that story of a bishop who was speaking and there was something wrong with the microphone. The bishop said, “There’s something wrong with this thing.” To which everybody shouted back, “And also with you.”

Comments from his pal, Don Henning …

Speaking of a mutual acquaintance, he said, “He rose rapidly in his own esteem. He’s everything he says he is and a great deal more.”

And to me when I asked if I looked seventy, Bob said, “Not any more.”

And to the comment: “I’d rather commit adultery than have a martini,” he remarked, “I didn’t know there was a choice; hostess, cancel that order.”

From his pal, Bob Robinson, et al …

Following a social gathering, I remarked to him, “Everyone thought you were almost as charming and amusing as I was.” He replied, “How unperceptive some people are.”

“Rape,” he said, “is a technical term which covers a multitude of acquiescence. And, a summer on the beach makes the Darwinian theory utterly convincing.” He said, “When you go to the beach, you learn two of the great verities of life: the most perfect work of art is the human body; and secondly, there aren’t any!”

He once said that “… after struggling with reality for forty years, I’m glad to say that I have finally won out.”

While he was teaching at Brown University, Paul Thompson, priest and Rector at St Stephen’s, Providence, became a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. After this happened, Paul Thompson said to Bob Casey, “It’s sad — since I made this step and had this conversion, so many people don’t pay any attention to me; they don’t speak to me, they just don’t seem to like me any more.” Bob Casey replied, “Nonsense, Paul, there are lots of people who never liked you in the first place.”

On our modern dilemma, Orthodox take note:

The main thrust if this: once Christians were tortured, burnt, and crucified, but the more the Church was persecuted, the stronger it grew. The enemy’s latest weapon is much more effective. Don’t destroy Christians, isolate them. Keep them busy talking to each other, so they have no time to speak to the unbelieving world outside. The keener the Christian, the more he or she should be loaded with committees. “If you cannot burn them with fire, burn them with meetings,” says the Devil. Perhaps this is the Devil’s latest weapon for disarming the church.

On his buddy, “Aunt Alice” …

Speaking of a mutual acquaintance, I once told her that Martha Anderson had died, and Aunt Alice replied, “What a blessing. At least I hope it is for her; it certainly is for everyone else.”

After one of our Wardens had died, she inquired, “How is Mrs Peters bearing up?” I replied, “Oh, very well.” To which Aunt Alice responded, “Well, she’s had lots of practice.”

After her marriage to Hewlett Scudder, she became an Episcopalian. She used to say it was very important to keep the word “Protestant” on the title page of the Prayer Book, because it got so many people in under false pretenses. Suddenly you wake up one day and find you are part of the Catholic Church. She gave away Hewlett’s wine cellar after his death, and, after meeting so many High Churchmen and being around so many clergy, she realized what a terrible mistake she had made!

On the subject of drinking (as a matter of fact she drank very little), she commented once, “Well, I’ll have another drink since we’re all going to drink ourselves to death.” I observed to her that I had read that people who become alcoholics usually suffer from a sense of inadequacy and have a very low self-esteem. To which she replied, “You must have found this very reassuring.”

Claire Green, a neighbor, had a stroke. I told Aunt Alice, who said, “What a relief, I thought she was losing her mind.”

On one occasion she asked me to explain what Our Lord meant when he said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I tried to explain it as best I could, that for the joy that was set before him, because he was going to redeem the world, and so on. She didn’t think much of any of these explanations. She concluded by saying, “I don’t think he ever said it.”

On the ministry to the sick, et al …

We all have our great moments in this area. I remember Paul Elmen going to a hospital, and some nurse rushed up and asked if anyone could speak Greek. His wife volunteered Father Elmen for this purpose, but all he could think of in Greek when he got to the patient, who was screaming loudly, was to quote the lines from the Iliad about “rosy-fingered dawn on the mountain top”. She then screamed louder than ever!

One individual I visited in the psychiatric section said to me that he only had three problems: money, religion and sex. As I left, I wondered what else there is.

In our dealing with people we are often inclined to think that, at least on certain occasions, we are not appreciated. It’s good to remember the old saw that ten per cent over-estimate you, ten per cent under-estimate you, and eighty per cent never think of you at all.

On coping with parish ministry, antagonists, etc …

Anyone could make many random remarks on running the operation, and, here and there, may provoke an insight or a wry smile. We are all sailing and swimming through the same waters. We are all endeavoring to “cope” and to keep the “show on the road” and to “muddle through”. And we are all building the New Jerusalem. It is also true that many an ass has entered Jerusalem!

There are a number of people who may best be described by that old phrase: “Lay Popes.” Those are the ones who would like to call the shots and run the parish. And, of course, the only rule you can follow is — “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Usually the person who is so gaited is one who has not been fully happy in his career or his family, and uses the Church as an arena in which to exert authority he could not wield elsewhere.

Such is our fallen nature that we sometimes think that Antichrist is very near. We can usually find three or four candidates alive today. We’ve all met a number of cads. A cad is nature’s failure to produce a gorilla. I am talking about our relation with individuals and not with groups of people, such as the House of Bishops.

Speaking personally, I do not consider people with different opinions from mine as congenital idiots. I do not take it as a personal affront, or consider that they are feeble in intellect or inferior in character — at least not necessarily. It is true that now and then you run into “a second rate second-rater” — individuals who like to manipulate others to do their bidding. These are the persons who do not want leadership in their priests. They do not want things to be great. They wish to bring a parish down to a lesser dimension so that they will feel more comfortable and not threatened by excellence.

Don Henning’s formula was, “Don’t speak ill of the dead, just knock the hell out of them while they’re still living.”

It was Madame de Stael, I think, who said that “… if we knew all, we would forgive all.” If we could understand everything about another person — his background and his life — we would forgive him and understand and gradually come to like him. I’m sure that this is the road to take. Sometimes at night, when I am saying my prayers, I end by saying — “God bless all the people that I don’t like and all the people who don’t like me.” And that covers a mighty multitude.


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