THE SWAN LADY AND ST. RAGE
May 15, 2007
I went to see my urologist today down in Greenwich. I can never get there on time since whenever I drive toward New York City I become a traffic magnet. It doesn’t matter which way I go—and there are really only two ways: I-95 and the Merritt Parkway—I’m like the fine lady from Bambury Cross except “I will have traffic wherever I goes….” The trip down was uneventful, or, more precisely, eventful only in ‘where’ the traffic jams were; however, the way back I saw the Swan Lady and St. Rage.
The Swan Lady was just passed Exit 9. She had parked on the side of the road and was walking near the so-called slow lane against traffic. The ‘slow lane’ at that point (my magnetism having been worn low by a complete Urological exam, ‘nuf said) was going about 55 or 60 and I thought the lady must be crazy, walking so slowly, so near to speeding cars, carrying a brown blanket. Then I saw why, as traffic was slowing down for her. She was walking slowly toward a swan that was standing beside of the north lanes of Interstate 95, seeming to consider crossing over. I was two lanes over and thought about pulling over to see if I could help but couldn’t get across. So I sped up to Exit 10, got off and circled back to Exit 9. By the time I’d done all that—only a few minutes—both the Swan and her savior (I pray) were gone.
I thought about it all the way home. The swan looked confused rather than frightened, like he didn’t know what had happened to the water he’d been in before he leaped a barrier and ended up in the break-down lane. Since there are swans in Cheshire and in Hamden, I was fully aware of their reputation as being aggressive and touchy. And they are huge creatures, when you think about how much bigger they are than other birds. And I believe they need a good run to get themselves air bourn so there was no way he had enough run way to cross the Interstate in flight. I thought about Watership Downs and how the rabbits would sit beside the newly constructed roadway and ponder what it all meant. And I thought about the time I hit a wild turkey that flew in front of my car on the Merritt when the kids were young and what a holy mess that was how we are screamed and then cried most the way home. I even thought of Sandra Milchin, the only child of the only Doctor in the town where I grew up. I hadn’t thought of her for decades. She had been killed at 18 when she swerved her car on a mountain road to avoid hitting a dog and hit a tree instead. Dr. Milchin never got over it and lived to be very old, still practicing into his 80’s, continuing to save lives until he died in a consulting room while stitching up a lacerated knee. How many lives he saved, I thought, and he had no way to save the one that mattered most.
Then there was the time I was with my cousin Marlin, driving to Grand maw Jones’ house when the traffic suddenly stopped. I was 8, maybe 9, and Marlin was maybe Sandra Belcher’s age. He got out and stood on the hood of his car to see if he could figure out why traffic had stopped where there was no traffic. He shouted something, reached over to where I was sitting and took a hunting knife out of the glove compartment. “Stay here,” he said, running down the side of the road passed the stopped cars. Of course I didn’t and got there just in time to see the deer someone had hit and terribly wounded have its throat slit by my cousin, Marlin. I was close enough when it happened to be sprayed by arterial deer blood and see the look of thanksgiving in the suffering animal’s eyes as he looked up at Marlin. (OK, I know that is a remarkably unjustified anthropomorphism—to see ‘thankfulness’ in the eye of a young buck deer—but I was there and that’s what I saw.)
Where I grew up, surrounded by mountains and two lane roads through ‘nowhere’, the people who taught driver’s education always made a big deal about not trying to miss things that run out in the road in front of you, not even to slow down. And they always told the story of Sandra Milchin and the sadness in her father’s eyes all of his days. But it doesn’t do much good. I think it is almost an automatic instinct of human beings to try to avoid hitting creatures who run in front of their cars. Dogs and cats are obviously animals most everyone would swerve for, given how much they are a part of our lives and how we know someone would be waiting for them to come home as darkness fell. But most everyone, I believe, tries to avoid hitting squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks and raccoons and possums as well. OK, may not possums since they are such nasty and scary creatures.
The woman I’m married to was a Swan Lady once. She was on a Merrit Parkway entrance ramp and saw a swan casually strolling up the side of the ramp as if it was going to hitch-hike to Hartford. She stopped and got out, over the screams of my son—“Don’t get out! You’re going to get killed!” And since it was an entrance ramp and not a busy six-lane highway like where the Swan Lady today was walking slowly, holding her blanket, Bern was able to get the people coming on behind her to stop—especially since she’d parked right in the middle of the ramp! Any way, the swan that day was saved to do something equally suicidal another time. I can only hope the Swan Lady of I-95 was as successful. When I got back, as I said, she was gone and so was the swan. Since I didn’t see swan parts strewn all over the road, I can will imagine the best.
(Here’s how she was moving—softly, one foot carefully in front of the other—like a dancer during the slow movement of the ballet. Or, perhaps more descriptively, since she was holding the blanket in two hands in front of her, she was moving like a matador approaching the wounded bull, standing still, looking dazed. Though that’s not a good metaphor since the matador is using the cape to hide his sword and she was, obviously, simply wanting to use it to shoo the dazed-looking bird back over the barrier to the water on the other side. She was thin and small—not unlike a dancer—and about 60 with closely cropped black and gray hair. The look on her face as I saw it passing by, was a look of total concentration, great patience and a restrained sense of urgency. She was, in the brief moments I saw her, beautiful.)
That instinct of humans to try to avoid hitting creatures in the road is one of the prime pieces of evidence I would give for the basic, primal, marrow-deep ‘goodness’ of our species should I be the defense attorney before the Throne of God. Though one could argue that this particular instinct is born, not of compassion but of the instinct to avoid any kind of collision, I maintain that it demonstrates (as so few of our actions do) that we have some sense of unity with and responsibility for the rest of creation. I know that when I avoid rear-ending another car or the driver behind me stops before hitting me, my reaction is a feeling of relief that I am safe. But when I look in the rear view mirror and see the squirrel I did everything short of running into someone’s yard to avoid hitting is sitting on the sidewalk looking nonplussed, my feeling is the relief of knowing I did no damage, I did not kill another creature.
Though our basic goodness is proven to my satisfaction, it is obvious from the amount of road kill everywhere that our actions do not always live up to our intentions. Just like everything else in life, I suspect. Road kill affects me deeply. A dead dog or cat almost stops my heart, but a raccoon gives me pause. I’ve often thought that I would, if I were very rich, endow some organization that would drive little hybrid vehicles painted bright yellow with a black band of mourning across the hood. Everyone would know this was the “Road-Kill Patrol”, a group utterly dedicated to giving a decent final disposition to the creatures along side the highway who died for our sins of speeding along in lethal weapons. Burial or cremation should be the fate of those creatures, not to lay in the sun and bloat and be constantly run over again until there is not much left of them than the proverbial greasy spot in the road.
I think about Road-Kill a lot, probably because there is always so to remind me of it. I even wrote a poem about it once.
THE SKUNK AND THE KITTY
On my way out, up the hill to where I go,
I passed a patch of road
where a skunk and a black cat
were both dead—road kill.
My car window was open
on an uncharacteristically warm
January morning—foggy and strange.
So I carried the skunk smell with me
all the way to where I was going.
Something about the smell of skunk,
millennia in development,
whether as evolution or God’s plan:
skunks have an odor to peal paint,
leave you hyperventilating
and just a little nauseous—
more than a little if smelled before breakfast.
I though all day, where I was,
about those two creatures—
dead as doornails and splayed on the road.
The cat was someone’s friend and companion.
The skunk was a marvel of defense mechanism—
a mother/father of small defense mechanisms.
Both were deserving of a better fate
than to swell and burst and decay on a state highway.
I prayed for them at noon prayers—
silently, of course, lest I seem to animistic in my faith.
The skunk and the kitty—both black,
both nameless to me
(though the cat surely had one,
and who can say about skunks?)
so I couldn’t pray for them by name.
Going back down the hill,
from where I’d been to where I live,
I noticed the cat was gone—
claimed, perhaps by some human who loved her,
given a proper burial, mourned, missed.
Appropriate funereal rites, as bifit her.
The skunk was there still—
torn to pieces by the tires
of SUV’s, Buicks, foreign cars, UPS trucks.
His odor was less on the way back,
but, God bless him, still potent.
And I wondered—heretic and pagan
that I truly am—
whether he died for our smells….
When I was almost home, still pondering the impenetrable mysteries of road-kill, of human goodness, of the Swan Lady’s courage and beauty, all that stuff—I passed a laundry with a sign, about 20 feet high with those letter’s you wedge on it like letters on your holder playing Scrabble. There was a ‘special’ on sweaters, which struck me as odd since it was 80 degrees or so. Then I thought maybe people get sweaters cleaned in May and put them in plastic boxes under beds to sleep until the first chill spell in October. I never think that far ahead and there’s no room under the futon I sleep on for boxes—plastic or otherwise. I am destined by my lack of forethought and sleeping furniture to pay full price for cleaning my sweaters next fall when it seems I need them and they are 6 months dirty.
But below that was what caused me much consternation. In big, red, capital letters at the bottom of the sign, it said ST RAGE. I drove for 10 miles trying to remember if I’d ever heard of St. Rage and wondering why on earth that was on the sign. I often see signs in front of businesses with some vaguely religious aphorism on them. Further south, down in Dixie, businesses don’t hesitate to put “JESUS SAVES!” on signs out front. But this is New England, the land of closely guarded and mostly hidden faith: and St. Rage, for goodness sake. Who could that be?
When I got home I was about to ‘Google’ St. Rage when I noticed on the internet that Jerry Falwell, of all people, had died. I’m proud that I didn’t say “good riddance”, but I must admit I have more feelings about the deaths of road kill than immediately gripped me from reading about Jerry’s demise. And it was just while I was examining my conscience and beginning to feel like a terrible person (doesn’t each man’s death diminish me, after all?) when what should jump into my head but the letter ‘O’. I whispered a little prayer for the soul of my brother Jerry and decided to start writing.
The church should be like the Swan Lady, like the Road Kill Patrol, not like St. Rage.
The church should walk with great and graceful care on the edge of every highway, guarding those in danger. It is, after all, the edges and margins of life where the church is needed—and you can never imagine all the places that might be. Years ago a parishioner said to me, “What we need is a ministry to the apparently well.” That has haunted me all these years. What she was saying is that even though she was bright enough and together enough to ‘appear’ whole and well, there was within her a stunned and frightened swan standing beside 8 lanes of speeding traffic, wondering how to cross. The church rewards obvious dysfunction with some minimal attention. Those in the hospital get visited regularly, communion gets delivered, hands get laid upon their heads. But once they’re discharged and home—apparently well—the church moves on to the next ‘critical situation’. The church is good in emergency, for the most part. I know my way around ER’s with great efficiency. I know how to sit by the death bed and bring a ‘non-anxious presence’ to those I’m sitting with and, hopefully, to the dying. I know how to walk with people through the maze of details after a death and to provide a funeral that is full of grace and comfort. But after that, when life begins anew, I don’t follow through very well unless the ‘apparent recovery’ of those months of mourning breaks out into something critical again. I am adroit at preparing couples for marriage and parents for baptism and the liturgies we do at St. John’s for those events are so good that we get ‘follow up’ business from people, not members of the church, who came to them. “Why do you want to get married here? Why do you want your child baptized here?” Those two questions, the first I ask when someone outside the parish comes for sacraments, are, more often than not, answered by: “Well, I came to a wedding/baptism at your church and….” I am extremely hospitable to those requests and more often than not prove my adroitness at preparation and grace as a liturgist once more. But do I have a system to follow up afterwards—even in the weakest of ways…a note, a call, even a form letter a month or two after the ritual? Not really. They have joined the ranks of the ‘apparently whole and well’ and the church moves on looking for new adventures, fresh meat. And who is more like a frightened swan than the newly married and those with babies that they have no idea how to care for?
If this time off to think and reflect and write does nothing else, it is going to prompt me to get people together to talk about how the church can be a swan lady for even the apparently well. When I went to get my blood test after my Urological exam, the young woman who found me in her computer said, excitedly, “You’re an Episcopal priest!” Computers know everything, it seems. Her daughter, whose picture she showed me, was baptized in an Episcopal church down there in Fairfield County. She launched into a description of abused perpetuated on her family by the Roman Catholic Church having to do with sacraments. I went along with the flow and told her horror stories from my experience. We had a fine old time bashing the Roman church for not treating people well—which is on the same level as bashing a skunk for stinking or road-kill for being dead. But when I asked her if she went to church regularly, she told me she didn’t and with a far-away look in her eyes said, “when we showed up a few weeks after the baptism, it was like they didn’t know who we were.” Of course not, they had been dosed with a sacrament and were now ‘apparently well’ and able to fend for themselves.
Now that I think of it, churches like the Episcopal Church do by night what the Romans aren’t ashamed to do in full light. They ignore people who come seeking the sacraments without having ‘proved’ themselves worthy. We welcome the sacrament-seekers and ignore them after they’ve been ‘done’. Everyone, no matter how ‘apparently well’ has a confused and terrified swan within them. The church needs to be more like the Swan Lady and be with them before they walk into traffic. We’re much better as the Road Kill Patrol. We’ll pick up the remains after some other church has run them over and nurse them back into an illusion of support and of being loved by the church. But that’s not enough, not by half. We give them the first thing they came after then leave them by the side of the road again, not realizing the first thing was simply the ‘first thing’ they were seeking and we need to keep them close so they’ll feel free to ask when the “second thing” and the third occurs to them. The only question—the question that requires real focus and commitment and true compassion—is this: How to do that?
Maybe that’s where St. Rage needs to come in…St. Rage is the patron saint of ‘following through’. I’ve been blessed the last few years by being surrounded by other staff people who are gifted in following through and dedicated to details. I’ve always been a ‘forest’ kind of guy rather than a ‘tree’ man. I can make the profound public statement about the social issue of the day—but I don’t follow through and ‘do’ anything about it. I can speak eloquently about the ‘goals’ of this or that project, yet I stop there and don’t provide the structure to get to the goals.
I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I can hazard a guess that in my 18 years at St. John’s I’ve been a part of 500 funerals, 200 weddings and probably more baptisms than funerals. The number of people I’ve touched in those 1200 or so liturgies—the people intimately involved and the collateral folks as well—is staggering and embarrassing to me. And, if I might be the opposite of embarrassed for a moment, I’ve done a surpassingly good job in all those events. It’s what I’m good at. What I’m lacking is how to follow up and stay in touch and complete the deal—be a priest to people after the fact of the liturgy. Maybe others do it well, but I’m just guessing that this is an area—because of our ‘critical care’ model for the church—that isn’t done well all that often. And I’m not talking about ‘results’—about so many people in church we’d have to add a service or two though the building seats 600 comfortable or so much money in the pledges and plate that we’d have to have an armored car come pick it up each Monday. What I’m talking about is ‘what the church should do’ to BE the church. We must figure out how to minister with power and meaning to the ‘apparently well’. Until we do that with the same impeccability that we do liturgy, we are falling short of our role in people’s lives.
The Lord be with you. (And also with you.) Let us pray: St. Rage, hear our prayer and rage out against the church when we seek only the public and heroic ministries and betray the needs of those internal swans within all of us. Guide us to be Swan Ladies to the obvious and to the hidden. Lead us by the dangerous paths beside the roadway. Give us the blanket of love and hospitality and in all things let us live on the margins and meet people there. Amen.
St. Rage should not be a model for the church today. St. Rage has done enough to damage us already. I won’t even bother to list even a few of the atrocities of the church against the children of God from the distant past—they are well rehearsed and mostly ignored by Christians today. I want to start more recently, like with the rise of the late Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. When I was reading the news report of his death on America On Line there was one of those annoying polls to take about what you would remember most about Rev. Falwell. (I just went back to AOL to try to make sure I had the categories and results right, I discovered that the story—though still there after some looking—no longer had the poll as part of it. It has been over 24 hours, after all—yesterday’s news!) But since I always take those polls just to see how out of step I might be with the AOL nation, I remember with some accuracy, the questions and the results. The poll asked you to click on the following choices of your memory of Jerry:
0 Controversial stands
0 Building a congregation
0 Political influence
“Other” was my choice since I hate and despise what Jerry Falwell did and stood for. He initially claimed that the events of 9/11 were the judgment of God on America for homosexuality and feminism and something else I can’t remember—bunny rabbits, perhaps. He both built and stoked the fire of hatred for gay and lesbian people that has pervaded this nation for almost 20 years. He supported any military action in the Middle East because he wanted Armageddon to happen so Jesus would come again. He laid landmines under most of the progressive social agenda. He did not encourage killing doctors who preformed abortions, but he never said it was wrong either. He started the ‘creationist’ nonsense that was accepted, in the first debate among Republican presidential candidates by at least three—maybe five—of them as the God’s truth. And he founded a ‘university’ based on the opinions of his church, which must have made challenging young minds to think about things they’ve never imagined could be true (what a college education should, most likely do) pretty improbable.
The interesting thing was the result of the AOL poll. As nearly as I can remember it was this:
Building a congregation—5%
I may have gotten the percentages a bit wrong—but I know that was the order of the results. And I’m betting, not even knowing who in the hell votes on these polls, that most of the people who voted for “other” had something scathing to say about the good pastor. And that the fact that he built a congregation of a dozen friends and family meeting in a body repair shop, or somewhere, into a world-wide religious institution involving millions of donors and hundred-of-millions of donations, plus a TV channel didn’t strike many people as what to remember him for is, in an ironic way, informing.
Jerry Falwell was a devotee of St. Rage. He set people against each other in dozens of ways. He cowered Republican politicians into kneeling at his altar and kissing his ring. He brought millions to the voting booths by appealing to their fear and anger rather than their better angels. He created an atmosphere of religiosity that many who never sent him a penny got caught up in—we’re right, those other people are wrong, fuck ‘em. But, by God (some ‘god’, certainly not the one I love and who loves me), Jerry took a stand and dared anyone to counter it. And he ‘did’ things and ‘changed’ things and ‘had’ things in abundance. Which is the golden ring that Episcopalians and other Main Line churches so covet.
But we are not the devotees of St. Rage—at least, not most of us. Archbishop Akinola and Bishop Minns and those who foam with hatred and self-righteousness wear his medallion.
But not us, not if we are able to comprehend that our role is to be the Swan Lady for the dispossessed and the Road Kill Patrol for those ground under foot by our culture and society. Not us, if we are courageous enough to be ‘irrelevant’ and embrace the possibilities not being relevant contains. Not us, if we can only find it within us and invite God to sustain us in practicing a ministry of “being” rather than doing/changing/having. Not us, if we would rather dance on the margins than ride down the middle of the road, avoiding some things in either direction but smashed into irrelevancy both ways.
Nobody much cares which choice we make—except God and the least of these, God’s family….