There is a group that I chat with frequently. It consists of several priests and a layperson, three intellectuals and one wannabe (that would be me). We talk about topics far-ranging and fascinating, from patristics to theology, musical tastes to some of the best poetry known to man (I admit, they lose me there…). Last Friday, after the rest of the gang went off to bed, a discussion was continued between two of us about the need to revisit the Orthodox funeral service. I’m not going to get into details, but the main point was that there should be less emphasis on being food for worms and a greater emphasis on resurrection, and the new heaven and the new earth – the major points of emphasis found in the New Testament, but not so clear in the Orthodox funeral service.
My partner in conversation was Fr. Matthew Baker. How sadly ironic that eight days after our discussion that service will be said for him.
I had only known Fr. Matthew for half a year. He and I were introduced through mutual friends and through a mutual interest in many things: Maximos the Confessor, T. F. Torrance, Kate Bush and beer to name a few. Intellectually, I was nowhere near his equal. He pushed me, but I never felt that he was condescending. And as soon as we were introduced, every conversation was full-bore. We were friends, brothers, and concelebrants. He asked me to read a particularly challenging chapter of his dissertation, which I did but honestly quickly found myself wondering if I was going to be able to help him in any way. His thoughts were complicated, his thesis rather groundbreaking. Yet I did what I could to be of aid, making a few comments that were really more surface-level rather than anything more incisive. We both promised to revisit that chapter in the near future.
He asked me to come visit him when I was going to be in Boston for our National Convention in July, maybe serve a liturgy together. I asked him to come to Pittsburgh and visit us for whatever reason he could think up. I dearly wanted him to come to Pittsburgh and talk to us, the Orthodox clergy and laity. We needed to hear what he had to say. But honestly all I wanted to do is have a beer and hang out with a friend.
Our last conversation included a request to exchange phone numbers so that we could talk as opposed to being locked behind a keyboard. I valued his intellect, his enthusiasm, his compassion so much, he respected my years of experience as a parish priest and my ways of ministering to the flock with which I was entrusted. Yes, that very last conversation actually said we need to converse more. Some forty hours later he was gone.
It is still hard to come to terms with his passing. It will be made real when I’m up at midnight or so and looking for a conversation partner to spend some time in conversation. Then the silence will serve to remind me.
Yet out of this tragedy some good appears, like a crocus poking though a late spring snow. The generosity shown to the Baker clan though this site and now this one shows the depth of compassion of their Internet “family” and also the depth of love and friendship people have for Father Matthew and for his family. Thank God.
And then there are those of us who, with strengthened purpose, wish to carry on his legacy. His concerns will now become part of our own. His love of the faith and his scholarship will become a part of the work that we do, and may we be worthy inheritors of the same.
Memory eternal, the Presbyter Matthew: my friend, my brother and my concelebrant.