Friday, November 5, 2010


In July of 2002, I was in Assisi with my daughter, thinking about history, things Catholic, and St. Francis, when I received the news that Roland Murphy had died in Washington. I had just that day remembered that I had failed to mail him a birthday card. We’d spoken by phone a few weeks earlier, and I knew he was failing. Sometimes a death isn’t a surprise, but the finality of the loss falls like a thud in the mind – and there was nothing left to do but to remember, and to tell stories, which I did with Sarah over a long Italian dinner.

I had met Father Murphy my first day of Divinity School, when by sheer luck I became his advisee. Fr. Murphy was unforgettable. Just his size: he loomed. My roommates and I had him over for dinner and he knocked over a bottle of wine, as his legs wouldn’t fit under the table. And yet from his height he curved downward to us in class, almost as if God’s accommodation to us mortals was imprinted on his posture. His hands were long, crowdedly pecking on an old manual typewriter. He handwrote much, despite what he called “this damned palsy” – including the last note I got, whose legible sections detailed his illnesses and his pending writing projects, with a PS that read, “At least I don’t have Alzheimers yet.”

All students recall him at 6’7” ranging about the front of the room, Bible in hand, voice booming, boring into some passage like a miner chipping away stone to find diamonds. He was always in motion. Occasionally he would crash into the blackboard, erasers tumbling in a cloud of dust. Once he spun on a remark made on the other side of the room, and his Bible flew from his hand, as if thrown at the hapless student.

His face (which I jokingly told him reminded me of that El Greco version of St. Jerome as a cardinal, which hung in his office and graced the cover of the Jerome Biblical Commentary) was effusively expressive, deploying an assortment of grimaces, scowls, smirks, grins, raised eyebrows. From behind that face came these sounds, gutturals, too deep for mere words: Ha! Or Huummm?… or a growling Ugghhh…, pained evocations from within, if you showed lack of comprehension, but then the rewarding Ummmm, like a bear having swallowed a delicious piece of meat, should you utter something wise. The most brilliant student was humbled, the appetite whetted; the slower students were always encouraged.

We who studied with him do not remember the precise points that he made in his lectures, but his palpable, giddy excitement over an open Bible was contagious. Students did not call him Dr. Murphy. They did not call him Prof. Murphy. And no one called him Roland, although he would not have minded. We called him Father Murphy. Being Protestants, I think we relished the idea of having a Father. He certainly was Father to me.

I loved Old Testament with him so much I didn’t want to leave when everybody else departed Divinity School, so I stayed on, served as his research and teaching assistant, and somehow managed to complete a Ph.D. under his direction. He was ridiculously busy as one of the world’s premier scholars, but he wore his extensive learning lightly, and was modest about honor and acclaim. Once I stepped into his office, sat down, and said, “Tell me about this George Washington Ivey chair” (one of the most prestigious honors at the university just awarded him) – and he said, “Well, look under your behind, you’re sitting on it.” At his insistence, I always sat in the chair, as did countless students who discovered to their surprise that this bountifully productive writer was always interruptable. He would look up from that typewriter mid-peck and talk with you for as long as was needed, and then plunge back into his work unflustered. Of course, were it time for his daily swim, the interruptor got to walk with him to the pool.

Fr. Murphy taught the Wisdom books of the Bible. He not only knew a lot about wisdom; he was wise, perhaps the wisest person I have ever known. He was my teacher, my doctoral advisor, but also my mentor, and even my friend. I did not make any important life decisions without consulting him. To this day, when I feel that gaping hole of uncertainty, that hunger for some perspective or somebody to tell me the truth, God’s truth for me, I miss him terribly.

Fr. Murphy was revered by scholars all over the world, and even more beloved by elderly Catholic ladies I have met in places like Rock Hill, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He once told me he decided to be a priest when he was a little boy. To prepare himself, he learned French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, and a few others languages so he could hear confession from any person who happened to come. His professors steered this brilliant young man into the study of Bible, where he proved to be a valiant pioneer, opening the windows of the Church to the strange world of the Scriptures. Catholics did not read the Bible much before the Second Vatican Council, which declared In order to keep the gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the living teaching office of the Church has been granted the task of authentically interpreting the word of God. This task should be performed in such a way that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the People of God, thereby enlightening their minds, strengthening their wills, and setting men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. This sacred Synod encourages the sons of the Church who are biblical scholars to continue energetically with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor and with loyalty to the mind of the Church. Roland’s photo should appear in the margin at this point in the Vatican II documents.

But Fr. Murphy’s contributions to Catholicism were matched by his ecumenical achievements. He quite naturally became the first Catholic faculty member at Methodist Duke Divinity School, and brokered countless conversations among Christians of all persuasions, helping them to understand one another.

Father Murphy actually died with considerable panache, exquisite timing: one day past his own 85th birthday, he died on what Roman Catholics observe as the Feast Day of Elijah – awfully cool for a professor of Old Testament, and as he was of the Carmelite order, those quirky Catholics devoted to Elijah! I imagined him being swept up into the heavens on a chariot to meet St. Francis, those little old ladies who adored him, his own mother, and brother, St. Jerome, and Elijah himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.