Story by Brother Kenneth Cardwell
Brother Sixtus Robert Smith, FSC
July 14, 1914 – September 12, 2006
Those of us who met Brother Sixtus Robert (Smith) after he turned fifty will probably be unable to think of him without recalling his shape. Pear, tomato, potbellied stove — whatever image seems right, Robert had and maintained his singular shape till the end of his earthly life. He was a very physical man. Not strong — though there is the story of him trotting along on a “pasha hike” to Lake Ediza in the High Sierra — but vigorous, lively and decisive. When he walked, his feet pushed at the ground. When he gestured, he jabbed the air or stubbed his three fingers on the Seminar tabletop. At a Seminar picnic and field trip somewhere in Marin, a snake wound its way into the rough circle of a dozen dazed, lounging and posturing young men. Robert, coming up, pounced, snatched, grabbed the witless reptile and tossed it, shocked, into the woods.
He looked like Krushchev; he talked like Doctor Johnson. He was Aristophanes’ Androgynous Man, spherical and always on-the-make. He was a bottle-shaped Russian doll-within-a-doll, the ugly-attractive Socrates who electrified Alcibiades in Plato’s Drinking Party. Robert poured out glasses of Laphroaig to see if we liked it. He would have learned whisky, he said, but he could not afford it. Therefore wine. Which he knew. To drink with his paprikash, Hungarian “Bull’s Blood.” To drink with his homemade borscht, he poured fifty-dollar Bordeaux into cheap glasses cradled by freshmen born in Bakersfield and Red Bluff and Berkeley. It was — he did not say this — a test: Were we receptive of, attracted to, the best? Robert looked for that. What was good in you or seeking the good? He wanted to meet that you, not the one you were putting on for this or that reason — the smart you, the religious you, the fashionable you, the someone-else you. And, for some of us, he seemed to know who that you was better than we did ourselves. “And what and how was so-and-so doing?” he wanted to hear. “Ah yes, of course, that is exactly the kind of man he is.” He knew, it seemed, all kinds — Jacob Klein, “Jasha” to him; people who, for me, still have names. And nameless ones. I was in Paris — a number of Robert stories start this way — and Robert wanted me to hike up the three flights of stairs to meet a student of his, a “Johnnie” from Annapolis. She was beautiful, he said; she was absolutely stunning, he said. She was in fact beautiful, though she didn’t look it. I later understood.
The well-worn stories — how he kept the wad of big bills in the right-hand pocket of his tatty jacket, the small bills in the left; how he slept through the Mozart and woke at intermission to critique the playing of the second violins — frame a knowledge harder to share. I came to him with a personal problem too painful to recall, too overwhelming then to tell. He listened to my clumsy and unintentional evasions and responded to what I could not and did not say. I was all alone in the world. And then I was not.
Last month a smarmy British litterateur in earnest, televised, conversation about “Faith and Reason” dropped the remark in passing that of course no post-modern European hoped to meet parents or friends after death — “such a childish belief and against Reason.” And I thought that perhaps this famous writer had never met but only bumped into or rubbed up against people in this, his present, European, life. Robert, wherever he was, had the gift of meeting you where you were. In that meeting might be the instant joy of Russian black bread and vodka but always would be the enduring pleasure of words and persons lovingly attended to. Those of us who were so met have some reason to believe, and good reason to hope, that we will meet again. We are, after all, no longer living worlds apart.