Father Dodge and Hot Stuff
When I arrived at St. James, the congregation was being served by Fr. Bill Dodge, a retired school teacher who was a Title Nine priest. Title Nine is a strange little piece of Canon Law also known as “the old man’s canon”—though to be politically correct it should now be known as “the old wo/man’s canon”. (If it’s not “ageism” to call people “old” these days….) Episcopal Church law is more strict about ordination than most any denomination; however, Title Nine is an “out”, a way around the rules for those late in life who feel called to priesthood. If the Church determines the call is legitimate, the candidate is allowed to study privately, usually with a near-by priest or group of priests and be tested after the term of study is met.
That’s what Fr. Dodge had done. He’d become a priest through the back door. When I was newly ordained, after four years of theological study and two (count ‘em—two) Master level degrees, I had little patience with Title Nine priests and even less with Fr. Dodge. He was in his 70’s and, to my exalted standards, not up to snuff. But I was going to be a deacon for a year and needed somebody to help me liturgically. Deacon’s Masses, which are weird both theologically and as liturgy, would serve from time to time, but the congregation deserved a “real “ Mass monthly or so and Fr. Dodge was the best I could find. Plus, for reasons beyond my comprehension, the parishioners seemed to have a deep affection for him and were always happy to see him. It wouldn’t have been astute of me to get rid of the old codger since I needed him and the parish wouldn’t like it.
(It’s embarrassing and humbling to listen to myself talk like that! I thought of myself as such “hot stuff” in those days! I was God’s gift to St. James Church and worldwide Anglicanism as well. At least that’s what I thought. The truth is, looking back, I was brash, arrogant and unkind almost all the time. Hot Stuff, indeed!)
In addition, I considered myself a liturgical genius---the be all and end all when it came to ritual and celebration. In fact, I’d spent four years at Harvard and Virginia Seminary, neither of which has any claim to teaching liturgical practice. Liturgy at Harvard had been mostly of the “feel-good”, lots of balloons and readings from Kahil Gibran. Worship at HDS began with Unitarian politeness and didn’t go much further or deeper. In fact, any resemblance to Christian, much less Anglican worship was totally accidental. A typical chapel service would include—in no particular order—readings from the Koran or Hindu scripture, a little jazz played by my friend Dan Kiger or other musical students, some silent meditation and the singing of some of the hymns of Hildegard of Bingham. The Archbishop of Canterbury would have been horrified! The closest thing to a Eucharist I remember was when Rabbi Katinstein brought some Passover bread and Harvey Cox talked about the religious symbolism of sharing food and we all went up and took a piece for ourselves. I loved it, felt I was in the forefront of liturgical renewal.
Virginia Seminary was, when I was there, a “Low Church” seminary. That meant that worship was restrained, proper and in good order. That (“restrained, proper and in good order”) meant that no Popish nonsense would be allowed to infect the purity of Protestant worship. One of the lame jokes we often told was this: “You know what streaking means at VTS? Running through the chapel in full Eucharistic vestments!” There was a lot of controversy at the seminary when I was there because altar candles had been added to the “communion table”. Candles made some of the faculty nervous. You shouldn’t open the door to “catholic” practice---first come candles and then (gasp!) incense and the adoration of the blessed sacrament!
Once, during my senior year, some of the students from more High Church dioceses organized a “high mass” with chanting, bowing, genuflecting, incense and much crossing of oneself. I was fascinated. I’d never seen such a thing. My old nemesis, Reginald Fuller, was the celebrant. He was “streaking” around the chancel in his vestments, censing the altar, chanting in his Oxbridge accent, genuflecting like one of those little yellow birds that keep dipping into a bowl of water. Several of the faculty walked out in a huff at such going’s-on. There was serious discussion over sherry about suspending the student planned Wednesday services.
That one service was all I knew about Anglo-Catholic worship when I arrived at St. James. Fr. Dodge, I have to admit, seemed to know when to cross himself and genuflect (which I couldn’t do without nearly falling on my face). St. James, like most African American parishes, had been founded in a rich High Church tradition that disappeared when the first white priest came to be their Vicar. So, one good reason for keeping Fr. Dodge around was so I could figure out how to celebrate in a way that was Anglo-Catholic in a mirror dimly. So, those times I’d let him come and celebrate I’d watch him out of the corner of my eye to try to find a pattern to his movements.
However, Fr. Dodge didn’t seem to follow any discernable pattern. I came to believe that if he ever knew what he was doing, he’d forgotten how and was crossing himself at random places in the service. Even though I didn’t know how to celebrate a real mass, I resented him for not knowing! And that wasn’t the end of my complaints about him. His hands shook when he elevated the host and chalice, sometimes spilling wine on the fair linen. He’d lose his place and I’d have to prompt him with a stage whisper several times during the service. He mispronounced words all the time. Several times, rather than “in your infinite love” he said “in your INFANT love”! I mean really, how much could the good folks at St. James and I stand of this sloppiness?
And the one time I let him preach—horrors! He read his sermon haltingly at best, mixing words up and shaking to beat the band. Besides that, if he’d had any kind of decent delivery at all, his theology was more Pilgrim Holiness than Anglican. He talked about Jesus as if he were a good guy from down the street, someone who would teach you a lot and lead you to heaven when you die. Obviously, he’d never studied homiletics—or much of anything else so far as I could tell. I was embarrassed for him, but more than that, I was embarrassed that I needed him.
So the day of my ordination finally came. I invited Fr. Dodge to be in the service out of guilt over what I planned to do. He was so excited about being near the altar with the Bishop and the two dozen other priests. He told me afterwards that it was one of the greatest days of his life and that he was so proud to work with me.
The next week I fired him.
Well, it wasn’t really a “firing”. I drove up to his house high up on a hill about 20 miles from Charleston and talked to him on his front porch. I explained how now that I was a priest I really didn’t need for him to drive all that way twice a month. I told him he needed to take it easier at his age. I reminded him that there were two churches much closer to his home that would probably be overjoyed to have his help. I thanked him for all he’d done and told him that I really didn’t need any coffee and that I’d had lunch already. “No,” I said, “I really don’t have time for a piece of pecan pie.”
He said he understood. He told me how much he’d enjoyed working with me and how much he’d learned from me. “You’re going to be a wonderful priest,” he said.
I thanked him and slinked away to my car. By the time I got back to Charleston, what few qualms I’d had about what I’d done were melted away. I was a priest—a wonderful one at that—and I was finally free of Fr. Dodge. Things would really get rolling now at St. James. It would be like releasing the emergency brake that had held me back while I was a deacon.
A month or so later, Remitha came to see me. Made an appointment and everything instead of just dropping in like usual. We even sat in my office and did small talk—something Remitha never did and wasn’t good at. Finally, she cleared her voice and began….
“I wanted to come and find out if anything was wrong with Fr. Dodge,” she said. “I notice he hasn’t been here since your ordination.”
I started explaining how since I was a priest now I didn’t need him as much. “And,” I lied, “at his age, he and his wife felt it was a long way for him to drive….”
She held up her hand and got up. “That’s fine,” she said, “just as long as he isn’t sick again….”
She was half way to the door when I caught my breath and said, “Again?”
She spoke with her back to me. “Well, his first stoke wasn’t too bad….”
“First stroke….” Is all I could get out.
“But the second one laid him up for months,” she said. Then facing me she continued in a soft voice, “but you know, since we didn’t have a priest, he got his wife to drive him down and he did the service sitting on a stool. He couldn’t give us communion, of course, but Morris and Ben did that for him….And when the service was over two of the younger men would carry him down to his wheelchair and…..”
I didn’t hear much more. I wished she’d stop talking or I’d be struck deaf and dumb or the floor would open up and I could crawl inside.
“You know what I admire most about Fr. Dodge?” she was asking when I tuned back in.
I shook my head and tried to speak. I think I was struck dumb.
“How he was willing to continue his ministry even though that wonderful reading voice he had and the regal way he held himself at the altar was taken away from him.”
“He had a good voice…?” I croaked.
“Sometimes he’d sing a solo for us,” she said, killing me with her matter-or-fact tone. “And I wish you could have heard him read the service,” she continued, consigning me with her smile to one of the lowest circles of hell. “Before the strokes he was one of the best speakers I ever heard. He gave up a career in radio to be a schoolteacher. Did he ever tell you that?”
I found that I was sitting back down though I didn’t remember doing it. “No,” I said, softly, “he never did.”
“Well,” she said, backing toward the door, “just shows what a humble man he was. Humility makes a man a wonderful priest….”
Then she was gone and I was left alone to consider humility.
(One of the things that happened at VTS on a regular basis was “Bridge before Lunch”. There were half-a-dozen or so card tables and while whoever was assigned to help set up lunch was doing their job, bridge would break out. My partner most of the time was Rodge Wood. I was a novice at bridge but Rodge was a master. He’d played in tournaments before coming to seminary. As inept as I was, Rodge carried me. We were a good team, so good that none of our classmates would play with us but the underclassmen could be duped into a game.
They’d see us at a table and come over and ask if we’d like a game. Usually, since no one wants to be in over their heads, they’d say, “are you any good?” Rodge would answer for us both. “Jim’s bad and I’m OK.” Then we’d embarrass them for a few hands.
Once, over lunch, I asked Rodge why he didn’t tell other people the truth about his playing.
Rodge quoted scripture: “He who humbles himself will be exalted,” he said.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s what the passage means.)
“Humility” has the same root as “humus”, dirt, earth. True humility isn’t about demeaning yourself or pretending to be less than you are. True humility is realizing, beyond any doubt, who you are and where you come from. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
Being humble means being close to the earth from which we all come. A friend of mine often says she “doesn’t trust anyone who hasn’t had their face of the pavement.” What she means, I believe, is that once you’ve hit bottom you realize that whatever you accomplish or however far you rise the earth is patiently waiting for you. The bigger part of humility is perspective and point of view.
Things look rather distorted when you’re a Hot Shot. It’s like flying in a plane and thinking about how everything down on earth looks small and toy-like. Things may look that way from up high, but you best not forget that they aren’t really small—it’s just your perspective and point of view.
While Remitha talked to me about Fr. Dodge, knowing all the while what infamy I had committed, what a rat I had been, my face had descended from “on high” to the grit and grime of the pavement. The ground, the earth, the humus had swallowed me up. It was a blessed gift, one I’d need to receive countless times again.
I called Fr. Dodge and drove out to his house. I told him that I had been wrong. I told him that I wanted him to come back, twice a month, to celebrate and preach once each month. I told him I realized that I didn’t want to do it all by myself. I told him I was sorry and asked him to please consider coming back.
He was as gracious as before, only this time I hadn’t had lunch and we ate tuna-fish sandwiches on homemade bread, washed it down with sweet ice tea and each had two pieces of Mrs. Dodge’s pecan pie.
For a year or so after that, I sat at his figurative liturgical knee. I came to delight in his mispronunciations—“infant love” might work better than “infinite love” when all is said and done. It became a pleasure to prompt him or merely point to the altar book in the right place. I finally started “lining” out the service when he celebrated by pointing to each line as he read. (In fact, I train the seminarians who work with me these day to do that for me!) And, for the first time, I noticed how he was with the parishioners of St. James. He never pretended to remember names when he didn’t. He listened to them intently and didn’t say much in return. He smiled almost constantly and the slight crookedness of his smile from the strokes came to be dear to me. I never bought his simplistic theology, but I did learn that if we can’t talk about heaven we most likely will never be able to imagine it…or go there….
Then he died, suddenly and in his sleep. It was my honor to commit his ashes to the ground. I drove up to his house on the hill and scattered them in the garden he loved to work in, among his flowers and bushes. Mrs. Dodge told me how much “Billy” had enjoyed working with me and being at St. James.
“He told me many times that you were a wonderful priest,” she said, brushing away a tear.
“Takes one to know one,” I told her and she beamed.
“That makes him happy,” she said, “I just know it does.”
We left Fr. Dodge in the garden (and in the heaven he so clearly imagined) while we went inside to tell stories, laugh and cry and eat some pecan pie.