Remembering Robert Farrar Capon
Father Robert Farrar Capon, the Episcopal priest and author of many books, most notably The Supper of the Lamb, died last week at the age of 88.
Though I did not know of him or his work until I was an adult, he was known to many of the people among whom I grew up and lived and worshiped, though not, to them, as a writer, but as a beloved if eccentric member of the community. He lived for many years on Shelter Island, New York, which is just a short ferry ride across the bay from the town where I grew up; it's a place I have been countless times. When, as an adult, I checked Father Capon's books out of the local library, I noticed that they were signed with a barely legible flourish and a cross. "He's quite a character," Jean, the librarian, also a Shelter Islander, said. "I haven't seen him around in a while, though. I don't even know if he's still alive."
A few days later, while flipping through the 'C's in the local yellow pages to find the number for the Chinese takeout restaurant—in my hometown it's still easier to find numbers that way than via Google; and, foodie or not, weekly Chinese takeout is a family tradition—my eyes fell on "Capon, Robert F." I scribbled the number down, and called the next day.
Mrs. Capon ("CAY-pun. It's CAY-pun, honey," she told me gently, after I called her "Mrs. Ca-PONE," as if she were the wife of the gangster) talked with me for nearly an hour. I told her how much her husband's books had meant to me, and that I was writing a book of my own on faith and food. Would Father Capon be up for a short visit and a chat?
Sadly, he wouldn't be: "do you know what hydrocephalus is, honey? He's got water on the brain." Though he was sporadically coherent, he couldn't be left alone and wasn't really up for visitors. Still, every day, she told me, they celebrated the Lord's Supper, and she cooked for him. "That Peapod delivery is so wonderful," Mrs. Capon told me. "I can get what I need to make meals and I don't have to leave him." He loved being read to, she said; Sarah Young's Jesus Calling seemed to reach him; his face broke into a rare smile of delight when she read from it. From Mrs. Capon's description of their routines, worshiping and eating seemed to form the foundation of their life together—appropriately enough for a man known for his work on theology and cooking.
Mrs. Capon was a bit surprised when I told her that I particularly liked Father Capon's first book, Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage, an unconventional and, though dated, delightful celebration of the joys of marriage and family life. His argument for premarital chastity is particularly memorable, if quaint: marriage is a long business, he argues, and it would be a shame not to save certain delightful discoveries for the marriage bed instead of furtively rushing through them in the backseat of a car somewhere. He also makes a somewhat unconvincing but amusing argument that the ideal mother is a plump mother: more of her to love.
But after 27 years of marriage and six children, Capon divorced his first wife, Margaret. "As it has turned out," he wrote in The Romance of the Word, "there were a lot of departments in which I was not a success, not to mention several in which I was, and still am, a failure. … I dedicated a great deal of time and effort to my children's religious formation, only to find them now mostly uninterested and non-practicing." The failure of his first marriage and subsequent remarriage ended Capon's career as dean of a diocesan seminary and priest-in-charge of a mission church. His was not a life of "triumphant goodness or heroic efforts" but of "dumb luck and forgiveness." This only underscored his gratitude for God's grace and mercy; elsewhere he wrote: