It has been about one year since the death of my dear friend Fr/Br. Robert Stanion, CFR (3/23/09). In these last few days his memory has been weighing heavily upon my mind and so I felt that other than praying for the repose of his soul I would write a little story about him so that I could share my experience of this man with others. For those of you who do not know who he is I could never fully communicate the nature of the man. However, in short, I think that he would like to be commemorated as a little brother who followed St. Francis as best as he could. He was an OFM(cap) Brother until around the time he became one of the "founders" of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He loved to cook and he loved to sing (both of which he did to varying levels of success). His life was lived for the sake of unity especially manifesting itself with his constant affection for the Orthodox and wayward priests. He talked more than most, listened more than most, was impossible to live with but a delight to be near. Eccentricity does not begin to describe the basic disposition of Fr. Robert. Rather, holiness is the word that hits the mark most near. Those of us who knew him well consider ourselves blessed and all around better for having been gifted with the experience.
I'll never forget the first time I met Fr. Robert. I was in NY visiting the CFRs with my classmate from the seminary and friend Fr. Michael Kmiotek, CFR about 8 or 9 years ago. I was in the kitchen and he was arriving through the back door of the friary and I noticed that instead of a Rosary at his side he had a chotki. Being familiar with the Byzantine traditions I decided to greet him with the traditional seasonal greeting. This was my first mistake. From that point on I could not get rid of Fr. Robert. So, each time I visited the friars I always made time to see him - or he made time for me.
In my years in and out of New Mexico I would make sure to visit Fr. Robert any chance given to me. One morning I stopped by to have my confession heard and I caught him coming out from celebrating daily Mass wearing red Byzantine vestments. Of course, I arched my eyebrow at him and he knew he was caught. But, characteristically he just smiled a mischievous smile and said, "What? Their nice!" I just shook my head and laughed. He was always showing me a new icon or some new weed he had found to use for cooking, treating each with equal reverence. He decorated the friary at St. Francis Xavier Parish (at that point just a 'house') in what he was sure was authentic Southwestern style. Of course, I hadn't the heart to tell him that what he thought was our tradition was really a contemporary fusion of non-New Mexican Southwest and California styles. But, no matter, he went about his business getting people to make furniture and paint walls in vibrant hues. If you got anywhere near Fr. Robert you were eventually caught up into some project of his or another. The man lived life as a mad-genious chef with every pot on a high boil tossing everything into the soup to form a culinary masterpiece layered with the seasoning of the lives of everyone he met. Everything and everybody went into his soup!
Everyone has different stories about Fr. Robert but I want to recount one that touched me personally. I believe that God gave Fr. Robert many gifts. I don't simply mean the ordinary gifts that God gives to each person at the service of His kingdom. Rather, what I mean is that I believe that God gifted Fr. Robert with particular charismatic gifts for the sake of building up the Church. On one occasion I personally experienced one of the most frightening of those gifts.
One summer while I was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe I had one of those epic and not uncommon vocational crisis moments. It just so happened that my friend Fr. Michael was in NM visiting the community that had been established there (this was when the house was at San Jose Parish). Fr. Michael and I were discussing this problem that I was having in my car, parked in front of the parish office. As we were discussing this issue another car drove up and in it was Fr. Robert and Fr. Terry Messer, CFR. Fr. Terry went to the passenger side to talk to Fr. Michael and Fr. Robert came to my side to visit. So, we chatted for a bit and in mid-sentence Fr. Robert stopped speaking, became very grave, pointed at me and said, "Stay on the path, don't deviate, this is where God wants you." He then nearly shook himself, refocused on me and continued where he left off as if nothing had happened. Needless to say, I was a little startled. I don't know how long I stayed there slack-jawed but I do remember that I was convicted in my heart and confirmed in my vocation. Things became more complicated later on in my vocational life yet I always remembered what Fr. Robert said in that prophetic utterance. I will never forget him knowing my struggle without me telling him. In that moment I believe that God granted him the gift of reading what was on my soul and in my heart. It was not a comfortable experience but in the end it has brought me great comfort, consolation and a confidence in my vocation that I would otherwise doubt at least every other day. Fr. Robert in both an ordinary and an extraordinary way was a honed tool ready to be used for the Lord's purposes.
I last saw Fr. Robert, in the flesh, the January before his death while I was staying with the CFR community during my home visit. I remember waiving to him as he was being driven to the airport to fly for a necessary surgery that would be the cause of the complications from which he would not recover. He gave me his blessing and I prayed for his safe travel then my friend left and I didn't see him anymore. I think of him often and I pray both to him and for him. When I do so I can't help thinking of my other priest friends who have died over the years and so I pay for them (and to a couple). This last January on my home visit one of the first things that I did was to visit Fr. Robert's grave. I have mixed emotions about his grave being in Albuquerque. On the one hand I would like to see him (as any religious would want) buried with the rest of his brothers at their cemetery. However, I and the others who make pilgrimage to his grave would not have that opportunity if his remains were not in New Mexico. Perhaps one day he will be found among his brothers, but for now he is in the bosom of a land that has drunk the blood of so many Franciscan martyrs. It is indeed a fitting and sanctified soil to mingle with the remains of a precious and holy friar. I miss my friend dearly and this pilgrimage through this life lacks a certain explosive joy now that he has completed the procession. Yet, I can't help but smile when I think of him enriching the recipes of San Pasquel, giving dirty looks to St. Bonaventure, singing with the Oriental Patriarchs, working for St. Anthony of Padua and resting in the Divine Mystery with his Holy Father Francis. Yes, I believe that this man is a Saint and I pray for the day that he is elevated to the Altar because I have never met anyone more authentically human nor anyone more obviously holy.