He died in the Lord.
It's a cliche, I know, but I don't think I've ever used it before so for me it's fresh. My friend Bob Siegel died in the Lord--I'll say it again. Hallelujah.
He was head of the department when I started a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a good friend and poet told me about him. "That Siegel's a Christian, I think--you ought to talk to him sometime."
He was a poet. I was in fiction. I never had a class from him, and in the years I stayed in Milwaukee, I don't think I visited with him more than a half dozen times, total--once at his house, as I remember, once at a conference just outside of the city, but otherwise just a few times at the university. Honestly, I don't remember what his office looked like. I couldn't have been there often.
But I knew he was there, and that was no small thing for a grad student then, a believer in a world where there didn't seem to be many. Post-modernism has widened the horizon of fashionable isms and systems of belief, but when I was in graduate school very few subscribed openly to orthodox Christian faith. My office mate, a great guy I really liked, a good friend, was confirmed Wiccan.
What I'm saying is that I knew Bob was there, not like a father really, but very much like a brother. I knew he was there--I don't know, just in case.
So I've known him for years, far better after my grad school days, far better because the two of us and a couple dozen more Christian writers have met annually to talk, to read, to pray.
How might I describe him? Immensely generous with his love; brilliant, simply brilliant, but also thoughtful, wise; quirky too, and witty, his work laid out with a mine field of grins; gracious, always a ready smile. I'm not even sure why the very first words on the page came into my mind when I thought of him this morning, but they did: he died in the Lord. He was my friend; and this I know: he died in the Lord.
He might not have liked me using this poem to describe him, but I think it is him, in a way, even though the focus is Mary, mother of Jesus. I know he was a believer as a boy; if there was some kind of conversion moment early on, I don't think I ever heard him speak of it. He was a Wheaton grad, solid in his faith already at 17, I'm sure. Here's how he sees Mary--the poem titled "Annunciation."
She didn't notice at first the air had changed.
She didn't, because she had no expectation
except the moment and what she was doing, absorbed
in it without the slightest reservation.
What's at the core of those four lines is Mary's already substantial faith. The angel had promised an experience she had no way of imagining, but it was her faith that kept her steady and on course. She was "in the Lord."
Things grew brighter, more distinct, themselves,
in a way beyond explaining. This was her home,
yet somehow things grew more homelike. Jars on the shelves
gleamed sharply: tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs
on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose
as if they were forever.
I don't doubt for a moment that if I would have asked Bob what difference his faith meant in his writing life, in the real here and now of his existence, he couldn't have answered question more beautifully than he has here, when he describes Mary discoveries after the touch of the divine. Suddenly, things have astonishing beauty--"tomatoes, peaches, even the crumbs/on the table grew heavy with meaning and a sure repose/as if they were forever." He might well have said that's exactly why he's a poet.
When at last she saw
from the corner of her eye the golf fringe of his robe
she felt no fear, only a glad awe,
the Word already deep inside her as she replied
yes to that she'd chosen all her life.
It's an imagined portrait of something that really can't be imagined, which is exactly why poets try. This young lady, long before she carried the Christ, had faith. She consented to have the holy child only because she was already "in the Lord."
This morning I'm thankful for having known my friend, the poet Robert Siegel. It's hard to believe that he's gone, but I am more than happy to say that without a doubt he died in the Lord.
You can read Bob's obituary here.