Archimandrite Anastassy (Newcomb)
A Solis Ortu Usque ad Occasum....
It was raining that day in San Francisco. I was concerned we were not going to be able to park close enough to the Old Cathedral on Fulton St. in order to get to our appointment with Fr. Anastassy on time. He was expecting us for tea, and I was eager that my young friend J. meet him. Fortunately, we found parking close enough and we were twenty minutes early for our meeting.
I had first met the archimandrite when he visited the retreat center I was then living in. He had come just to meet the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who he considered a saint. He had even sent his spiritual daughter, a nun who took care of him in his old age, to make a retreat with us. It was an odd encounter, but I would later find out his real reasons for his friendship with us.
He was an astounding sight for a twenty-one year old: long black robe, long snow-white hair, a trim snow-white beard, and a small chotki with a gold tassel around his wrist symbolizing his rank of hegumen. (“When I die,” he told me, “I will be buried with one that is all black.”) My friend says that he looked like he had just fallen off of the boat. There are certain people in life you meet that just don’t make an impression; they exude something. They are more a glow than a presence. This Russian Orthodox monk is one of the only people I have met who has done this for me.
Officially, he held the rank of mitred archimandrite, hegumen, and dean of the Old Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in San Francisco. Later he told me his story: he was Irish by blood from a wealthy family. He had been a Roman Catholic seminarian and somehow befriended a retired Russian bishop. He became Orthodox and went to Mt. Athos to become a monk. He was a novice in the Monastery of St. Panteleimon when political turmoil forced him to flee Greece. He had been a student of Georges Florovsky, a parish priest, and a collaborator with Fr. Seraphim Rose. (He showed me with great pride the spot where Eugene Rose was received into the Orthodox Church.) All this time, however, Catholicism was still in him. It’s funny that the most Orthodox person I ever met turned out to be one of the most Catholic as well.
He invited both of us into his monastic living space, where he had a small kitchen and a rather nice table set up for tea. On the walls, there were the usual icons of Orthodox saints, but there were also pictures of St. Teresa of Avila, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a statue of the Immaculate Conception. Later on in the conversation, he showed us a wood carving of St. Therese of Liseux that he said was carved in Russia in the 1920’s.
I then thought back one of the first times I met Fr. Anastassy. He was at a sung Mass kneeling in the front row in our chapel. I was serving the Mass, and when I gazed at him from the corner of my eye, I don’t know what he was praying or what he what he was thinking, but it looked like prayer. Real prayer. An old monk hunched over, maybe remembering all of those Masses he had served, all of those childhood memories before him again, through a thick veil of a lifetime of Old Slavonic and incense. Was he coming home at that Mass? Or was he already there?
He was a liturgist by training, which explains why we hit it off so well. He saw something in me, I don’t know what. He had all kinds of visitors, and maybe he treated them all the same. But I’d like to think he saw in me someone who was sincerely seeking something. That something was to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. He even took me into the altar and began to explain the Byzantine sanctuary to me.
“The altar has for corners. They represent the four corners of the world…”
The way he said this is not something I can express in writing. It was a conviction and word so strong that it could almost make what it said happen. But it was true, above all physical or rational truth. I still remember this old man making three prostrations to the altar when he entered. God was really there, and He still is.
He took us to the narthex of the Cathedral and showed us a box covered in a black sheet. He lifted up the sheet to reveal a coffin with Old Slavonic letters scrawled all over it.
“It says: ‘Man thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
It was his coffin. The one he is lying in now awaiting the Last Judgment.
Time passed. I went off to seminary with the thought of Fr. Anastassy on my mind. I don’t think there was a day when I did not think about or pray for him. When I came back to the States, I was at first hesitant to get back in touch with him. I let almost a year pass before I called him again. Oddly enough, they remembered who I was when I called on the phone. He offered to talk to me after Divine Liturgy one Sunday, so I made the journey up to the Old Cathedral on Fulton Street once again.
The Divine Liturgy was exceptionally long. In spite of his advanced age, he did not believe in rushing the service. Indeed, he even gave a long sermon right after the Gospel, much of which I didn’t understand. (Old people tend to ramble on…) At the end of the Liturgy, I was invited to sit with Fr. Anastassy and his spiritual children at the main table. As it turns out, Fr. Anastassy had quite a following of once agnostic young people who he tried to form into good Orthodox Christians. (“I don’t accept Catholics as catechumens,” he used to say, “the divisions in the Church are bad enough as they are. I only make exceptions if they come from very irreligious households.”) It was a bit awkward being the only Catholic there, but Fr. Anastassy made sure I felt at home.
He was interrupted in his meal by a group of new converts who had come especially to see him. They had attended Divine Liturgy at Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary St. and were told to go meet the old staretz. He cordially greeted them and began to talk to them about how to be a good Orthodox Christian.
“Never let your Orthodox Faith become a source of pride for you,” he said, “and above all, have a deep devotion to the Mother of God. He who does not believe in the Mother of God does not really believe in God.”
He then brought out the mandyas of St. John Maximovitch for all to venerate. The new converts had there jaws open in amazement, just like children hearing a beautiful story for the first time.
I had a couple of other meetings with Fr. Anastassy before starting my failed monastic adventure. Fortunately, he did not live to see my failure. Of course, I asked him questions about the monastic life, and he told me all sorts of things that are to be expected in those conversations. Out of the blue in one conversation, however, he told me,
“And don’t let anyone convince you to become Orthodox.”
Why did he tell me this? To this day I don’t know. I do know that for Fr. Anastassy, the divisions in the Church really didn’t exist. He taught his catechumens using the Catechism of the Council of Trent. (I saw it with my own eyes.) He was great friends with many Catholic clergy in the city. And he had a great devotion to St. Therese of Liseux who he affectionately called “my girl”. (He was cured of a childhood illness due to her intercession.) At the same time, he was on other issues intransigently Eastern, being a devoted disciple of Florovsky.
(For the record, he was very much a believer in the Uncreated Light of God, but said that we shouldn’t worry about it since seeing it is a special charism reserved for the few.)
Fr. Anastassy died shortly before I left for the monastery to become a monk. I called by chance the Old Cathedral on the day of his funeral and missed the ceremony. Apparently, his death was not really that publicized by the ROCOR at the time. It may have been because of his pro-Catholic tendencies.
As I reflect on all of these holy people I have met, their examples often make me feel ashamed of myself, of my selfishness, flakiness, and pride. But that is all that it is: wounded pride. Would Fr. Anastassy be ashamed of me if he was still on this side of the eschaton? That is the wrong question to ask. The right question is what these holy people have passed onto me. It is like spreading seeds in the desert. You can focus on all of the seeds that did not grow, or on the seeds that may have sprouted and then were charred under the sun of high noon. But when the end of the day comes, and the sky turns the thousand colors of fading fire, there is still that one small flower still standing, blowing in the desert breeze. That one poppy is my Faith, and this old traveler helped plant it, along with the others I have written about. And that alone is a cause of joy for them.
(Don’t worry, I have one post to go in this series. Stay tuned.)