A Different Sort of Liturgy

Dr. Karl Maurer-- I'm not sure who took this photo, but it was on my computer and I rather like it because this is how I always remember him: sitting in front of the classroom, marker in hand, probably correcting our Greek pronunciations. (Note: I have since found out that it was Hans Decker who took this photo. Thank you, Hans.)

Dr. Karl Maurer-- I'm not sure who took this photo, but it was on my computer and I rather like it because this is how I always remember him: sitting in front of the classroom, marker in hand, probably correcting our Greek pronunciations. (Note: I have since found out that it was Hans Decker who took this photo. Thank you, Hans.)

My writing tonight will be of little interest to my average reader as its intended audience is a select few. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and feelings in light of yesterday’s memorial service in honor of Karl Maurer, a dear friend and mentor whose absence these nine months has been grievously felt.

I cannot describe the experience of being at the memorial other than to say that it was one of the most liturgical moments I have ever known. During those few hours together in Upstairs Haggar, it was as though we were living outside of time, completely on the outside of our reality. To spend a few hours together with old friends whom I had not seen in so long (years for some), with no other purpose than to remember, honor, and love so dear a mentor, teacher, and friend—is this not sacramental?

I was excited to be at the memorial and to be able to meet (or at least listen to) many of Karl’s family and friends from his life before UD. There were stories shared as well as some of Karl’s own writing: poems he wrote as a young man, letters from his college days, and translations he had shared. There were several moments that particularly moved me that I would like to share or at least express my gratitude for. I have no doubt that someone other than myself could make a much better account of our time together—Daniel Orazio comes specifically to mind, as his memory is far better than mine. Until Daniel or some other brilliant classicist manages to record some of what happened, I hope that my own rambling commentary will do.

I should also note that we have all been asked to write some piece or another about Dr. Maurer and that this is not mine. I have been thinking about what I will write for the book we are creating, but have not been able to put pen to paper as of yet. There is too much to say and no language has come to me yet that can express it fully.

Some of the most beautiful moments from yesterday that come to mind are from his family: his daughter, sister-in-law, and siblings. His daughter, Caroline, shared something she had written the night of his death. Part of the text of this was shared earlier, after the funeral in May, but it was a completely different experience to hear Caroline read it. I loved her description of his scent, “ it consisted mainly of tobacco, Altoids and old books.” Her stories about her father’s gentleness fit perfectly within my memory of a man who could seem so difficult, but once you came to know him you recognized the gentle soul of a poet.

Karl’s sister-in-law, Veronica, very generously told us about the process through which Dr. Maurer came to UD and made us laugh talking about how he only found this job when he started to ignore the advice of all others and be himself. She spoke of how blessed he was to find a school that would appreciate his eccentricity. She also told us something that apparently others knew but that I did not—that Karl had been offered a contract to to be the editor of the Oxford Classical Text of Thucydides and therefore to establish the best possible text of the work, based on a comparison of all the different manuscripts. His work on interpolation in Thucydides was, of course, the perfect preparation for such a task. But he turned this opportunity down because he could not leave his students. She had told him that he should take the opportunity, that this could finally validate his life and life’s work. His response was that his students validated his life and he therefore remained at UD.

This story, especially, stuck out to me—not because it was a shock, but because it was so perfectly “classic Karl.” As a PhD student at a tier one research school, I am perpetually surrounded by people who value research and scholarship above the actual job of teaching. When I speak of wanting to teach at a teaching-focused institution like UD, I am considered inferior. When I admitted that I would be happy to teach at a good Catholic high school if there are no tenure-track positions available, one instructor apparently lost respect for me. But those are not the teachers I want to emulate. Karl Maurer is. (This is not to say that I think scholarship is not important—after all, how else could he have gotten such an amazing offer if his own work had not been well known and respected? I enjoy my research and writing and I have just enough ambition to want to do it well and have it be read.) The teaching, that’s the reason that I’m here in this program. I felt my own work and life validated through Veronica’s reminiscences.

Karl’s sister, Holly, shared some of her memories from growing up with Karl. I wish I could remember specifically what she said, but it was well said and revealed more about his unique character. Karl’s brother, Christopher, shared his own stories and then read us one of Karl’s poems, which was about butterflies, followed by a recording of Karl reciting three other poems, also about butterflies, from memory. This was particularly wonderful, because we could hear his voice. Before the third poem, he made a remark about how he would only recite the first and last stanza because they were the ones he had memorized. I laughed because of how he said it and how it was just Karl being himself. It was lovely. 

In addition to the family, we were blessed with one of Karl’s teachers from U Penn and a friend from Oxford. Dr. James O’Donnell shared with us the story of when he wrote Karl’s recommendation letter to come to UD. He apparently had included in a draft (though not the end product) a sentence that said something to the effect of, “Had Karl lived in certain cultures at another time, he might have been burned at the stake for wizardry.” (Note: I have been told by Daniel Orazio that the exact quote was "In certain pre-modern societies, Karl Maurer would have been burned at the stake for wizardry." Thanks, Dan.) I wish I had everything he said written down, but Dr. O’Donnell spent some time telling us about medieval Scotland, where people thought that someone with a good understanding of Latin was a person of suspect and potentially a wizard. They mispronounced the word “GRammar” as “GLamour,” which is where we get “glamour” for “spell.” He then (of course, how could he resist?) said that Karl Maurer was the most “glamourous” man he had ever met, a phrase that I had never imagined I would hear in my life (but one that, given the etymology he had just explained, seemed most appropriate).

Kenneth Martin was the other of Dr. Maurer’s friends and I very much enjoyed everything he had to say. He had a completely different experience of Karl than anyone else there, given that they had been “best buds” in their early twenties while at Oxford. He told us some stories about Dr. Maurer’s quirks and habits and then shared with us a precious part of a letter (one from his collection of many) in which Dr. Maurer described many things and complained about a paper he was working on that he asserted was so detestable that he hoped Oxford would simply go up in smoke.

Who, exactly, is surprised by this assertion? On the contrary, the twenty-year-old Karl Maurer in this letter was distinctly the same as the fifty-year-old Karl Maurer that I had known and loved.  I am so grateful to Kenneth for sharing this letter. He mentioned to me after that he has twenty more just like it. I sincerely hope that we are able to read some of the others in the future! I wish, again, that I could remember more clearly some of the stories Kenneth shared (I should have been taking notes) because they were so very Karl.

In addition to all of these wonderful visitors, there were also several students who shared memories, several alumni and one current UD student.

Adam Cooper shared a poem by Hardy that Karl had translated into Latin. The poem, “Afterwards,” was most appropriate. I remember Adam posting this poem the day Karl died and it comforted me then as it does now. I will include it (though not the Latin translation) here:

“Afterwards” by Thomas Hardy
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
'To him this must have been a familiar sight.'

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, 'He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.'

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
'He hears it not now, but used to notice such things'?

I was grateful that Adam chose to share this with us yesterday. Thank you, friend.

Daniel Orazio shared his own stories but also read a letter from a blogger who Dr. Maurer had corresponded with for a few years as well as a short reflection from Matt DeGrood, who couldn’t be there.

There are many other moments, stories shared by students, family, and friends that I haven’t included. We were there for three and a half hours and perhaps could have gone that much longer again.

Fortunately, we did not have to go home. Felipe, whose generosity should certainly be noted, invited us over to his home for a reception and fed all of us while giving us space to continue celebrating his dad for a while longer.

At the reception, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at length with Mr. Kenneth Martin as well as to meet and speak with Holly Maurer-Klein. I very much enjoyed hearing the stories they so generously shared. I unfortunately did not get to meet everyone in the family, but I was able to visit with a few. When I left at ten o’clock last night, the party was still going strong. My hour-long commute, however, made me turn in early, as I had Mass back at UD this morning.

I cannot find the words to express my gratitude to Dr. Sweet, Felipe, and everyone else who had a role in making this memorial service happen. I know that many were disappointed that it did not happen sooner, but I can see now why Providence made us wait. The time that has passed since May 4, 2015 has given us time to process our loss, time to grieve, and therefore time to remember the beauty of the soul we were blessed to spend so short a time with. The opportunity to have such a diverse group present to remember Karl and bring him back to us through story, even if just for a short time, was a precious and unique one. Thank you for the blessing. 

I will conclude with a poem that I love by Wendell Berry, a poet whom Dr. Maurer enjoyed almost as much as I do. 

by Wendell Berry

And now to the Abyss I pass
Of that Unfathomable Grass…

Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death —
A word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life; conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfect compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.

But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say

Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure

Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle

Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal.

I may be already heading back,
A new and better man, toward
That town. The thought’s unreasonable,
But so is life, thank the Lord!

So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don’t muck up my face

With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.

Admit the native earth
My body is and will be,
Admit its freedom and
Its changeability.

Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day’s round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.

Beneath this stone a Berry is planted
In his home land, as he wanted.

He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,

Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler from Ireland,

Another played the eternal fool
By riding on a circus mule

To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After

Doing that they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you

Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice.