Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. 1 Corinthians 1:25-29
Father Michael Robson was my parish priest. He passed away two weeks ago while I was away from home, engaged in ministry in Italy. The last time I saw him was at the regular Liturgy we have been celebrating at Morden College, where he had been living for the past 14 or 15 years. He had been looking increasingly frail over the last year or so, yet seemed most alert during the liturgical prayers which had formed so much the focus of his own spiritual life.
I remember well the first time that I met him. It was perhaps 25 years ago. I had begun my journey towards Orthodoxy and had been reading many books. Eventually it seemed right to make contact with the Orthodox Church. I happened to send a letter to Abba Seraphim, the man who became my bishop and received me into the Orthodox Church 20 years ago. He invited me to Stacklands Retreat Centre, not too far out into the countryside in North-West Kent.
I spent the evening with my own father, with Metropolitan Seraphim and Father Michael. We walked in the grounds of Stacklands Retreat Centre, where he was the Administrator for over 20 years, and then shared in a meal together. I was touched immediately by his gentle spirit and humble manner of conversation.
In the years that followed that first meeting I met him often, and then together with Subdeacon Michael Kennedy, as we continued our journey towards Orthodoxy. He celebrated the Orthodox Liturgy at Stacklands every six weeks, usually with Metropolitan Seraphim, so that we could have an experience of Orthodox worship.
In 1994 I became Orthodox, and a few of us began to pray together in Maidstone. When the opportunity came to use the Chapel at the Maidstone Cemetery, Father Michael began to celebrate the Liturgy with us, and for 15 years or so he served as the priest of our Community of St. Alban, worshipping first in Maidstone at the Cemetery Chapel, and then in our own little church of St Alban in Chatham.
Father Michael was a man of prayer, and a priest who celebrated the Liturgy with great care and reverence. His service at the altar was both the foundation and the fruit of his personal spirituality. He was one of those spiritual fathers who led by example, a true pastor. How often he would remember some anniversary and send a little greeting. And at every Liturgy there was a list of his own intercessions on the altar. Over the years I worshipped with him I saw his appreciation and understanding of our own Orthodox spirituality flourish and become an important aspect of his own preaching.
He had attempted to become ordained within the Church of England on several occasions in his life, and his own biographical notes record how committed he had been to service of God in the Church from his earliest years.
The passage from the letter to the Corinthians which I have chosen as the theme of this homily perhaps applies well to Father Michael. He was no fool by any means, but in the eyes of the world it had seemed that he did not have the qualifications preferred for service as a priest. He failed various academic tests on various occasions and these became obstacles in the fulfilment of his vocation.
But in fact the ways of God are not the ways of the world. And in the will of God he found himself the Administrator of a Retreat Centre, and able to lead that life of prayer and quiet pastoral care towards which he had always been attracted. I am sure that it was his years at Stacklands, over 20 of them, which prepared him more for his service as a priest and pastor than the several interrupted attempts at gaining academic qualifications.
He was not mighty by any means, nor was he considered academically wise by the standards of the world, but he had a spiritual strength which sustained him, not least in the long illness at the end of his life. And he had a spiritual wisdom about him, which was the fruit of years of prayer and pastoral care.
Outwardly speaking, Father Michael was one of the weak, one of those chosen by God to confound the world. He relied in humility on the grace and strength of God, and so was able to be used by God in the service of others.
There is a danger for each of us that we approach our service to God and others as if we were strong in our own strength and abilities, and so were offering God something of which he had need. But there is in us no good thing apart from the grace of God. All of our abilities and skills are of no value, indeed they are harmful to us and to others, when we treat them as something we have that makes us strong and wise in our own strength.
How are we to serve God and others? It is surely with a humble sense that we are indeed weak, and that even our sense of being strong and capable is an aspect of that self-delusion to which we are prey. We should not pretend that we are weak while actually believing we are strong. Rather we should confess gratefully that every good gift, every talent, every ability, is already given by God and properly belongs to God who gave it.
It seems to me that Father Michael lived in such a manner. He was well aware of his limitations, but gave his whole life over to God to be used as He willed. And receiving that sacrifice, offered in humility, God used Father Michael to bring peace and grace and life to all those he served as priest and pastor.
He visited Egypt with Metropolitan Seraphim, and was very touched by the crowds who gathered around him seeking a blessing. He would not have thought himself worthy of such attention, but the faithful Orthodox in Egypt appreciated his gentle spirit and the savour of the Holy Spirit which was upon him.
Nearly six years ago, after many years of faithful service as a priest, Father Michael became suddenly very ill, and almost entirely debilitated overnight. I remember the last time that he stood at the altar in our little Church of St Alban, being supported by myself and Subdeacon Michael Kennedy. It was too much for him even to hold the chalice. Yet even in the last years of his life he would remember family and friends by name and ask after them. He continued to show that pastor’s care as far as his condition allowed him. He never ceased to be a priest, becoming most alert during times of prayer and worship.
What should we say? From a worldly point of view he had failed to become a priest until well advanced in age, and then had to retire from an active service during the last years of his life. Everything about him seemed to represent weakness according to the values of the world as St. Paul writes. Yet he was manifestly used by God in ways that he had not expected or imagined.
It is unlikely that I would have become Orthodox myself without his faithful and humble witness. It is unlikely that our community in Maidstone and then in Chatham would have persevered to the present day without his faithful and humble service. To a very great extent my own service as a priest is rooted in his own ministry and example, and I stand as fruit of his own ministry over many years of quiet and selfless commitment to those in his care.
It must have seemed to Father Michael that he lacked those abilities which the world requires in those who are considered successful. He was turned away from ordination on several occasions. But God had other plans and views us all from a different perspective. Hidden away from the world as Administrator of a Retreat Centre, God was nurturing those qualities which were later to be so important in his ministry as a priest. He became strong in faith and wise in the Spirit through years of prayer and service. Offering that which he was, however humble in the eyes of the world, he became one of those worthy of honour in the world to come.
He was, to many of us, a father and friend, a spiritual man, an example of faith. May he rest in peace, having laid up a treasure in heaven, and rise to eternal life.
Father Michael Robson, Memory Eternal! Memory Eternal! Memory Eternal!
Father Peter Farrington