Friday, December 21, 2012

Matti Moosa

"So, why don't you come over and have some nice...pie!"

It was a familiar bidding, and one I always looked forward to receiving, especially at the end of a long day serving as the vicar of two parishes in the countryside of western Pennsylvania.  I was single in those days and sorely missed the company of people I had known in New York City.  In fact, the transition from being a free-lance clergyperson and academic researcher in the world's greatest city to being a basic, meat-and-potatoes parish priest in Edinboro, Pennsylvania was such a shock to my system that I filled all of my waking hours with work, driving back and forth between two churches and visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and parishioners in a route that covered 1500 square miles.  Given that winter lasts about nine months of the year in Erie County, and that it snows every single day of winter, those treks could be arduous.

I had invested in an answering machine, which was an extravagance, because in the pre-cell phone days it was the only way my far-flung congregation could get important messages to me.  Well, by important, I mean they could record complaints about the organ music, complaints about the new hymnal [yep, the hymnal was new back then], complaints about the new Book of Common Prayer [ditto], complaints about my sermon...well, you get the picture.  I reached the point where I would have to sit down and steel myself before I hit the "play" button.

But once or twice a week, there would be a message from Matti Moosa, either bidding me to come have some of his freshly baked pie or describing in detail the mildly insane and totally hilarious dream that he had the night before.  [I remember in particular a dream that Matti had of his death.  He was always irritated by the fact that the archdeacon drove a Mercedes Benz and could be ostentatious about it.  In the dream, he was riding to heaven in the archdeacon's Mercedes and St. Peter, much like Matti, took great umbrage at the idea of a priest driving what in western Pennsylvania in the 1980's was a very showy car.  The Great Fisherman, in Matti's dream anyway, forbade the archdeacon entrance to the Kingdom, permitted Matti a place in the realm eternal, and kept the car for himself.]

At first, I knew him only as one of my parishioners at my new parish.  I had a number of university faculty in that congregation, professors of everything from English to Education to Chemistry; the vice president of the university always sat in the front row, but Matti was easily the most learned.

He was born and raised in Baghdad in a house that had been in his family for almost 1000 years.  Yes, that number is correct.  In Iraq, he had been an attorney, working among the other members of what was once a large and vibrant Mesopotamian Christian community.  Somewhere along the line, and I never got the whole story, he earned the right to study at Columbia University, earning a Ph.D. in History.

He was also an ordained deacon in the Syrian Orthodox Church.

As the Episcopal Church in the less-urban portions of the United States was in those days the closest relation to Orthodox Christianity, Matti, his wife and three children, became faithful members of my first parish as a rector.

He was one of those professors that most students would initially be afraid to have, as he expected them to be as serious and studious as was he.  As he was blessed with a photographic memory, he could quote whole sources from books long out of print.  I think he knew about every Middle Eastern language, and would sometimes lapse into Arabic syntax when excitedly presenting a point about historiography, Franco-British geographic manipulation, theology, the absurdity of continuing Muslim/Jewish strife, or when yelling at his frequently flatulent dog.  For all his seriousness, his sense of humor was, as I have found with many Middle-Easterners, at turns child-like in its joy and sublime in its regard for human foible.

On the occasion of our first dinner together, after pie, he described the book he was writing, an examination of the Maronite sect of Christianity, and asked if I would be willing to help him with it.  Of course I said, "Yes".  Within moments I had a type-written manuscript roughly the weight and thickness of one of the larger telephone directories.  I took it with me that evening, only to have Matti call me the next afternoon to ask if I was done with it yet.

He also wrote a well-received and timely history of the extremist Shiites of Islam, a translation of the poetry of Kahlil Gibran and of all of the poetry of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.  There was never a time when his dining room table wasn't covered with research papers, 3x5 cards, obscure notes in at least two languages, and all sorts of other objects related to scholarly study, except when we gathered together for vast Arabic meals finished with the most American homemade apple pie I'd eaten since my late grandmother's.

My salvation for those years, lost as I was afraid I was in the middle of nowhere, was with Matti, his learned and interesting family, and the fascinating scholars, poets, and writers that he brought from around the world to that former farmhouse on the outskirts of Edinboro.  Without him and his family's support and encouragement, I doubt that I would have ever continued in what became my life's work.

There are times, when our table is surrounded by family and friends, and the laughter and comments are ranging about the room, when I think back to those days long gone, when I would sit at Matti's table, in the midst of some argument about transubstantiation that was being heard in multiple languages, and remember the smile of sheer joy that he had.  It was then that he would say in Arabic, "Fadal".  In other words, "everyone eat and share the bounty that has been provided."

A great sentiment, don't you think?  It really sounds better in Arabic, though.

[Matti's Amazon.com page, yes, his own page, may be found at this link.]