Living Faith / Dying Dionysius

Charles “Dionysius” Caldwell

Few men impact our individual lives, casting a bright shadow that looms long and large.  In the days since burying my former Pastoral Theology professor, Charles Caldwell, I have pondered my small cadre.  Should the Lord tarry and my life continue, perhaps I’ll know others.  For now, I count giants on one hand.  The Very Rev’d Dr Charles Caldwell is one. `

After serving 50 years as an Episcopal priest, Charles Caldwell converted to Orthodoxy shortly before he died, taking St Dionysius the Areopagite 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 gravity-tempting books and xeroxes sloppily clenched under one arm, dark trench coat and longish oily hair flailing about; as usual, he was 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, the rumors and tales of Fr Caldwell began to paint the man larger than life.  Folks loved him or hated him; it sounds like a cliché, but it was true.  There were two distinct camps on campus – I will not label them.  Suffice it to say that one camp is alive and well in a dying communion, the other has in large part left the building.

Professors had their own leanings which on a tiny campus 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 in a haughty fashion – 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 here.  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 been battled 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 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 which we would all soon discover.  He railed against the contemporary heresy of political correctness, and sang 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 TV news and the crazy state of the world.  I said, yeah – some hope to see seventy-two virgins when they die, we just hope to see one.  He laughed till I thought I’d hurt him.

How did this conversion come about?

Back in 1997, while serving as an Orthodox priest 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.  While there was no Chrismation that day, I did have him bless a new cross (necklace) 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 regular (by today’s standard) in our snail mail correspondence.  He did not do the Internet.  He wrote me back in June of 2012 to tell me he only had a couple of months to live.  He always used to send money 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 stating that, with Ellie’s approval, I would come to Chrismate him before he died, if he so desired.  I even placed a smiley emoticon by that statement – as if to say, “If this offends, look – I’m smiling.”

It wasn’t long before I received a reply from my mentor saying:  “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 his affairs in order, reading 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 mentor and friend.

On the day I was buying the plane tickets online, 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’s going to hang on all right, he wouldn’t miss this!”

And, he didn’t.  On Monday, September 4, 2012, I entered his hospital room and it was full of joy.  The first question I asked was:  “Are you ready for this?”  Without reservation or hesitation, he said:  “Yes, I am!”  You might think we were talking about the Chrismation.  I understood, and believe he did, too, that we were discussing moving beyond the veil.  Dying.

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 5th.  As I spoke with him that morning, I noticed, draped around his neck under his hospital gown, that old baptismal cross he had blessed for me years ago.  On the Sunday before his funeral, the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, I had blessed it with holy water and placed it on the holy table for the Liturgy.  I’d had no time to get him an appropriate baptismal cross, so I gave him mine.

Fr Joseph Shaheen of St Paul’s, Naples, visited him a couple of times in the following week.  Then, eight days after being received into the Church, Charles Dionysius Caldwell fell asleep in the Lord.

Fr Joe Shaheen and I buried him on September 18, 2012.  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 communal 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 mnemonic for the Passions) 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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