+ (Father) Charles “Dionysius” Caldwell

Fr Caldwell and Basil Caldwell November 2001

Few are the men who impact our life, looming larger than life.  In the days since burying my former Pastoral Theology professor, Charles Caldwell, I’ve pondered my small cadre.  Should the Lord tarry and my life continue, perhaps I’ll know others.  For now, I number them on one hand.

The Very Rev’d Dr Charles Caldwell is one.  So much so that when my wife was with our second child, and we were discussing names for our son, we decided to go with two men who had helped to shape our lives and ministry.  Basil’s middle name is Caldwell.
After fifty years as an Episcopal priest, Charles Caldwell converted to Orthodoxy shortly before he died, taking St Dionysius the Aeropagite as his patron.  It was my great and humbling pleasure to Confess, Chrismate, Commune, and Anoint him.  Two weeks later, I was blessed to bury him.
A bit of back story …
The guy was a nut job.  (Even his sister, when asked at the funeral, “Was he always slightly crazy?” replied, “SLIGHTLY?”)  He was a wild man.  Although having lost a leg due to cancer years before I met him, it’s hard to picture the man being still.  Imbedded in my mind is a constantly moving image of Fr Caldwell hustling to class – prosthetic leg flailing, cane digging forward, a plethora of books and Xeroxes sloppily clutched under one arm, dark trench coat and longish oily hair flailing about; as usual, he’s late for class.  It was a sight to see; still is.  He lives on in my mental loop.  Smiling, never still; slightly crazy, still.
I came to Nashotah House in the summer of 1989.  Long before classes began that fall, rumors and tales of Fr Charles Caldwell began to paint the man larger than life.  Folks loved him or hated him; cliché, but true.  There were two distinct camps on campus; I will not label them.  Suffice it to say that one camp lives on in a diseased and dying communion, the other has, in large part, left the building.
Professors had their own leanings which, on a tiny campus like Nashotah House, were impossible to hide.  But it wasn’t Fr Caldwell’s label that caused a stir.  (Lord knows, we all had friends across the divide.)  It was because he was himself.  He was not defined by you or your beliefs.  He did not live, nor change, to please you.  And he was always teaching.  Always.  Yours was to learn, always.  This was not done haughtily – he did not lord over you.  He taught as if his salvation depended on it.  He could be moody, but he was never unloving.  I won’t rehash old Episcopalian battles – to what end?  But I can say that everything Fr Caldwell taught us back at Nashotah House – from culture clashes, to sex perversion skirmishes, to church wars – has warred out before us in the years since.  
One of Fr Caldwell’s favorite quotes, heard often in class, was from H. Richard Niebuhr’s work, The Kingdom of God in America (1937), which criticized the liberal social gospel, describing its message as, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  
The nutty stuff he taught us in his Pastoral Theology classes?  True.  All of it.  One had to experience the ordained ministry to understand; by golly, Fr Caldwell was right!  He was no dummy, just slightly crazy.

Fr Caldwell taught more about Orthodoxy than Anglicanism.  He taught prayer and care and tons about the human condition and the Cross of Vocation with which we would all soon struggle.  He railed against the contemporary heresy of political correctness, and sung the merits of studying CG Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Rollo May.  Mostly, he was a loving family man who was devoted to the Mother of God.  He loved to laugh, he loved to smile.  I trust he still does.

(On our last meeting, while visiting after Communion one week before he died, we were talking about the news and the crazy state of the world.  I said, “Yeah, some hope to see 72 virgins when they die, we just hope to see one.”  He laughed till I thought I’d hurt him.)
How’d his conversion come about?
Back in 1997, while still serving on the East Coast, having corresponded with Fr Caldwell since seminary, I visited him at his home in Naples, Florida.  At one point during the visit I said, “Father – I brought Chrism.”  He smiled and said, “Let’s do it!”  But as his wife, Ellie, later pointed out – his having recently suffered one of many strokes – his reasoning wasn’t the best.  There was no Chrismation that day.  But, I did have him bless a new neck cross for me.  I know, he was Episcopalian; this was certainly unorthodox!  But, there’s more …
Since that day in 1997, Fr Caldwell and I were fairly regular (by today’s standard) in our snail mail correspondence.  He’d always said that if he was received into the Orthodox Church he wanted to take St Dionysius as his patron.  He did not do the Internet.  His old foe, cancer, once again ravaged his body; he wrote me back in June of this year to tell me he only had a couple months to live.  He used to always send $ to my son, Basil Caldwell, on his birthday.  This year, he sent extra money to make up for the years he would miss.  I replied to him on the Feast of St Elisha, saying: 

Your most recent letter, as with all your letters, is a testimony to your unswerving faith and perseverance!  You and yours are a model for us all.  I am so weak that the least little ailment bothers me.  But you, Father, seem to slay great dragons on a regular basis.  God bless and keep you.  You are in my prayers when I pray; pray that I pray more.

I ended that letter by saying that, with Ellie’s approval, I would come Chrismate him before he died, if he still desired. It wasn’t long before I received a reply:  “Yes, please come Chrismate me before I die.  I want to be Orthodox!”  I must confess, not knowing how to make this a reality, I drug my feet in replying to his letter.  
Several weeks had passed when I received another letter from Fr Caldwell, saying:  “If you are going to Chrismate me before I die you’d better come quickly.”  He then went on to inform me that he had been getting affairs in order, reading the prayers and the Funeral Service from the Antiochian Service Book, etc.  So, having received a blessing from my bishop, I began making arrangements to fly to Naples to Chrismate my friend.
On the day I was online buying the plane tickets, his son called to tell me that Fr Caldwell had been moved to Hospice Care.  I told him that I would be there on Labor Day; tell him to hang on!  He said, “Oh, he’ll hang on alright; he wouldn’t miss this!”
And, he didn’t.  On Monday, September 3, 2012 I entered his hospital room and it was full of joy.  The first question I asked was:  “Are you ready for this?”  Without hesitation, he said:  “Yes, I am!”  (You might think we were talking about the Chrismation.  I understood, as I believe he did, that we were discussing moving beyond the veil.)
After his Confession, we were joined by some of his family, those who live in the home place – wife Ellie, son Stephen, and daughter Margie – for the Chrismation, Communion, and Anointing.  From that point, our discussions were sober and morbid.  The newly-illumined Dionysius was preparing to go to his rest, to finally be still.
I stopped by to Commune him the following day – Tuesday, September 4th.  As I spoke with him that morning, I noticed, draped under his hospital gown, that old baptismal cross he had blessed for me fifteen years ago.  On the Sunday before his Chrismation, I blessed it with holy water and placed it on the holy table for the Liturgy.  I’d had no time to get him a new baptismal cross, so I gave him mine.
Fr Joseph Shaheen of St Paul’s, Naples visited him a couple times in the following week.  Eight days after being received into the Church, Charles Dionysius Caldwell fell asleep in the Lord. Fr Joe and I buried him on September 18, 2012.  Obit
In between his death and burial, the Church celebrated the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.  The reading for the Sunday after the Elevation:
The Lord Said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.  (Mark 8:34-9:1)
Anyway, it was all very fitting in every way.  I don’t really know how to tie up this long tribute to a beloved friend and teacher.  So, I’ll just mention a few more things about him:
  • Fr Caldwell, late for class but never for chapel, prayed the Akathist to the Theotokos each evening in his choir stall prior to Evening Prayer.
  • Pale Gas.  I’ve done retreats, received a doctoral degree, and published a book all thanks to Fr Caldwell’s introducing PALE GAS and the Two Trees to us back in PT3.
  • Fr Caldwell’s Three Rules of Pastoral Ministry:  1) Listen 2) Listen 3) Listen.
  • “Your job as a priest is not just to read the Scriptures, but to read the Living Human Documents before you.” 
One final note – a curious one, but such is life.  His lovely wife, Ellie, just before I left the family home in Naples following the burial, gave me an envelope.  She said she wasn’t sure what to do with it, started to bury him with it, but decided that I might want it back.  “Your medal,” she said.
He blessed, I wore; I blessed, he wore; I now wear.  That cross.
Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.
May his memory be eternal!
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