Today before sunrise, Fr. Robert Siu has at last returned to his Lord. He is not a priest many of NLM's readers have heard of, and yet I feel compelled to write him a tribute on this page all the same. He was the retired priest in residence here in Lander, WY, and his passing is not likely to gather much national attention. Yet for the parishoners of Holy Rosary Parish, and for students, faculty, and staff here at Wyoming Catholic College, we have been privileged to be present at the passing of a saint.
Fr. Siu's passing was not unexpected; throughout the summer we knew his time was approaching, and these last few weeks the imminence of his departure has been ever more evident. Yet when I received word that the time had finally arrived, I prayed the very words that King Josiah had prayed at the parting of Elisha, and which Elisha had prayed at the parting of Elijah: "My father, my father: Israel's chariot and its charioteer!" For the first time, the meaning of those words prayed by one who had lost his spiritual father seemed remarkably clear. My spiritual father, the one whose prayers had defended me from my enemies, whose calm wisdom stood guard against the tempter, and whose absolution rescued my soul from the oppressor is no longer here. There are not many words for it.
Fr. Siu was a son of Chinese immigrants in Hawaii. Raised a Buddhist, he converted to Catholicism while still a child, against the wishes of his mother. At the moment of his baptism, he said he knew he was to be a priest. Once ordained he had a varied career: a pastor and then theology professor at a seminary in Hawaii, and then eventually released for studies on the mainland of the US. Once here he continued his studies, and served as a hospital chaplain and pastor in various places, before finally coming to Wyoming in 1980. I asked him once what brought him out to this high mountain desert, and he replied, "I always wanted to be a cowboy."
This man of the Far East who ended up in the Wild West, struck up a friendship with me, a man born in that West, but who had set his sails for Byzantium. By the time I knew him, he was no longer in active parish ministry, but had moved on to offering spiritual direction as our local spiritual elder. He would spend hours studying deeply the works of the Carmelite Doctors, and then try to integrate their thought with the Thomistic studies the students at WCC were undertaking, and add that occasional perspectives on Salesian and Ignatian meditation. The man was a veritable fountain of knowledge, who, when he was not reading, was praying. (Okay, that is a slight exaggeration; a lifetime member of the N.R.A., he would also go out to practice his marksmanship until just recently.) I spent many hours with him discussing how to relate St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel to St. Thomas Aquinas' Treatise on Charity, and then to integrate that wisdom with the experience of the Byzantine hesychasts. At over ninety, he would still call me late in the evening to ask a question about an obscure line in the Summa Theologiae, or confront me after Church with a burning question: "Have you grown in holiness since I last saw you?"
A week or so ago, I was able to be present at one of Fr. Siu's last Masses, celebrated in the rectory. He wanted to celebrate a Mass that "brought it all together", and so he offered a Votive Mass for the Sacred Heart and still managed to deliver a homily. Now a Votive Mass to the Sacred Heart, celebrated in a living room by a partially vested priest is about as far from the Byzantine notion of liturgy as one can get. And yet, as this ancient priest, carefully and intimately offered one of his final Masses, I was drawn into that fundamental reality that is the end of any liturgy. Here was a good and faithful servant, offering his very self as an immolation with this Holy Eucharist. While he was aware, he refused morphine, and when possible, even water in order to win souls for Christ. During the night he would toss and turn, engaged in an epic spiritual battle for those souls most in need. And now, here, in this living room, with no incense, chant, or iconostasis, this priest united all those heroic struggles to the act that makes angels tremble. Perhaps more than at any other liturgy in my life, I felt like the prophet Isaiah, taken up into the Holy of Holies and beholding seraphic holiness handling flaming coals. And beholding such a sight, stripped of all its earthly splendor yet shining with Divine Light, I felt my heart cry out: "I am a man of unclean lips." Yet after that Mass, when Fr. Siu told me to go forth and serve the Lord, I hoped I could communicate to others the beauty of holiness that I witnessed in that man.
In this day and age it is a rare blessing to have a real spiritual father, and those of us granted that grace in Fr. Siu may never find another like him. It is snowing today in Lander, and that gives me some consolation that even the material creation is marking the departure of such a figure. While there were no flaming chariots, a snow-storm in September is at least a nod in that direction.
In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto thy departed presbyter, Robert, and make his memory to be eternal.