This is a manuscript about my memories of priesthood. Some of it I've posted before, but not all at once.
It's nearly 400 pages, so you can't read it at one sitting. I think it's not finished, but I've read it in the last few days and like how it ends.
Enjoy, if you dare....
Tend the Fire,
Tell the Story,
Pass the wine
(Memories of Priesthood)
“Farther along we'll know all about it,
Farther along, we'll understand why;
Cheer up, don't worry, live in the sunshine,
We'll understand it all by and by.”
(refrain to a mountain hymn)
“...nothing could more surely convince me
of God's unending mercy than the
continued existence on earth of the
--Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
“...Then the well spoke to me.
It said: Abundance is scooped from abundance,
yet abundance remains.”
I. The Archangel Mariah
The one question that drives people in seminary crazy is this: “Why do you want to be a priest?”
There are several reasons that question so bedevils those studying for Holy Orders. First of all, everyone and their cousin has asked you that since the first moment you imagined it might be a possibility—your being a priest and all. There is no end to the people wanting to know why you want to be a priest—those already parish priests, discernment groups, bishops, commissions on ministry, standing committees, admission committees, seminary professors, strangers you meet at cocktail parties, on and on....there is no end to the people wanting to know why you want to be a priest.
A second reason is that a call to a priest is, primarily that: an invitation from God to you. It's a deeply personal and profoundly important event or series of events. There is, even in this era of “tell all”, some needs for privacy. If what God has to suggest in your heart of hearts isn't one of those things you have a right to keep to yourself, then what is?
But finally, the most prominent reason nobody in seminary wants to answer that question is that, on the deepest level, you don't have a clue! For most of the priests I know—not all, certainly, but most—the 'call to priesthood was as complex as a jet engine. There are lots of parts to it, most of which can't be extricated or distinguished from the parts right next to them or at either end of the whole contraption. I doubt that there are many people who can explain all the intricacies of a jet engine. The same is true, it seems to me, about a call to ordination.
I once witnessed one of my seminary classmates lose it when asked the question. We were at some reception or another at Virginia Seminary and a well-meaning, sincere woman was talking with him ans asked, “Why do you want to be a priest?”
He took a gulp of sherry and said, “One night I was sleeping naked with my window open during a thunderstorm” (being southern, he said 'necked' instead of 'naked') “and lightening came in my window, struck me on the genitals and didn't kill me....It was either become a priest or go live in Tibet.”
I swear this really happened.
Once the woman recovered from apoplexy, she said, in a gentle Tidewater Virginia accent, “I imagine that doesn't happen often.”
“Only once to me,” my friend said, looking around for more sherry.
My friend, Scott, when he was a seminarian at Yale and working with me at St. Paul's, New Haven, told me he was about to lose his mind with the Standing Committee in the Diocese of West Virginia.
“No matter how many times I tell them,” he said, “or how many different ways, they ask me again.”
“Why don't you tell them you want to be Magic?” I asked.
Scott laughed. “Are you crazy?” he said.
“Who knows,” I told him, “it might shut them up.”
After I preached at his ordination, Scott gave me a wondrous pen and ink sketch based on 'being magic'. It's here in my little office with me. I still love it, two decades later.
I don't have to resort to tales of lightning storms or the longing to be magic. I know why I decided to be a priest. The sky didn't open up. I didn't hear God speak to me out loud and in English. It was simpler and yet more marvelous than any of that.
I was visited by the Archangel Mariah.
Mariah was the only member of St. Gabrial's mission, the campus ministry at West Virginia University, back in the late 60's and early 70's who was older than 35 besides Snork, the priest. Mariah was in her late-70's back then. St. Gabrial's had a ministry of hosting international students in the basement of Trinity Church on Friday nights for games and food and companionship. Mariah was the source of that ministry. That's one reason she came to St. Gabe's. The other reason was that she wanted to be around young people. She couldn't stand stuffiness in any guise. The three-piece suits and women in hats at Trinity's services were too much for her. She preferred the company of college students and week-end hippies.
I strain to remember her over 40 years of memories. She was a tiny woman—no more than 5'2” and most likely about 90 pounds fully clothed and soaking wet. She had wild gray hair that she wore tied back as best she could. And there was her face: her eyes were an indescribable color—blue, green, hazel in different light—and lost in the most remarkable set of smile wrinkles I've ever seen. Mariah smiled and laughed so much that she tended to look a tad Asian—there were small spaces for her eyes to shine through. She had all her own teeth and showed them off smiling and laughing. Her face, in spite of her age, was actually 'girlish', elfin, like the face of a loris or a lemur—some exotic animal whose name begins with an L.
Mariah's passion (what Joseph Campbell would have called her 'bliss') was the international students at WVU. Every Friday night you could find her in Trinity's undercroft playing card games and listening, playing backgammon and listening, playing some American board game and listening. She was always listening to the young people from faraway places with strange sounding names. WVU had a remarkable Engineering program so there were hundreds of students, mostly young me, from Third World Countries studying in the part of the middle of Nowhere called Morgantown, West Virginia. One of the informal courses they were forced to study on their own was Culture Shock 101. In the '70's there were no ethnic enclaves in Morgantown, unless you consider Rednecks and Sorority Girls ethnic groups. Those students from Africa, Asia, central Europe and the Middle East had no contact with their homelands besides each other. There was no Internet back then and international phone calls were still ridiculously expensive. It wasn't like living in New York or DC. Morgantown was referred to by many of the students at WVU—many of whom, like me, were from the sticks to begin with—as “Morgan Hole”.
At that time, there wasn't much in Morgantown for anyone, much less people thousands of miles from home. And nobody much was interested in the well-being of those foreign students except Mariah. Mariah was interested in them with a vengeance.
She welcomed them into Trinity's basement, into her home and into her vast, expansive heart. She got them to write home for recipes and tried to reproduce them as best she could from the local Kroger's selection of foods and spices. She tried to learn enough of their languages so she could greet each of them as they would be greeted at home. She matched them up with people and the University and in town—all of whom she seemed to know—who might have some faint connection to or interest in Afghanistan or Bulgaria or Korea or wherever they were from. She was a one-woman network of 'connections' for those folks so far from home, those strangers in an oh so strange land.
There was something biblical in her commitment to the strangers in her midst. She would welcome them all and do any and everything possible to make them a little less anxious about finding themselves plunked down in such a place as Morgantown. Mariah was sometimes the victim of those she befriended. Being from a different culture and far from home doesn't make someone trustworthy. If there is a lesson to be learned from working with any minority group—racial, cultural or economic—it is this: People, so far as I've been able to discern, are, in the end, 'just People'. We all share the same deep-down 'being of human beings'. The international students Mariah dedicated her energy to were so different than the outsiders and oddballs Snork loved and cared for—that is, some of them will rip you off big time!
The Lord only knows how much money Mariah parceled out to foreign students. And surely only the Lord knows how much of that money could have just as well been tossed of the bridge over Cheat Lake. But she never fretted about it. That's what she told me when I spoke to her after seeing $100 or so pass from her hand to the hand of a Nigerian I knew loved to gamble.
“Never mind,” Mariah told me, “I'll just let God sort it all out.”
On one level, that is ultimate foolishness. On another, deeper level, it may just be one of the best ways possible to live a life. And that, above all, was what Mariah was good at—living wondrously and well. I've never had the courage to live letting God 'sort it all out', but it certainly worked for Mariah.
While I was working as a social worker, Bern and I lived in the third-floor apartment of a three-story house down a charming brick street in Morgantown. During our time there, the home base for St. Gabriel’s Wednesday evening Eucharists was the attic of that house, accessible only through our apartment. We would gather up there—20 or 30 of us—and celebrate the holy mysteries seated on the unpainted floor. When we passed the peace, there was always the danger of getting a concussion from smacking your noggin on the exposed beams. It was a dimly lit, uncomfortable space, but it served quite nicely as the upper room of St. Gabe's.
It was after one of those outrageously informal communions that Mariah, who I had already determined was a saint (St. Mariah of the Nations) revealed herself as an Archangel. After Mass—if I can dream of calling our attic worship that! --we would all retreat down the stairs to our apartment. There was always food. People brought cooking and brownies (often with a special ingredient) cheese and home-baked bread, fruit both dried and fresh, nuts and seeds and we'd have some feasting. Plus, there was always a lot of wine. Some of St. Gabe's regulars would go down on the front porch to smoke a joint—not normal, I suppose, for most Episcopal coffee hours.
I was in the kitchen with Mariah. She'd managed to get me there alone by some miracle since people tended to clump around her wherever she was. There was something about how intently she listened to whatever nonsense you had to say that made her a people magnet. But we were alone in the kitchen when she said to me, balancing her plastic wine glass and a handful of cheese with remarkable grace. Then she said, “When are you going back to seminary and get ordained?”
I was three glasses of wine and a trip to the porch past whatever state of sober grace the Body and Blood of Christ had given me up in the attic. I was then, as I am to some extent today, a 'smart ass'. Ironic and Sardonic were my middle names in those days. I can still be depended upon to lower or deflate whatever serious conversation I come upon. “Nothing is serious or sacred” has been my motto most of my life. I never realized how annoying that can be until my son demonstrated, in his teen years, a genetic predisposition to that same world view.
So, in my cups, you might say, I replied in a typically smart ass way.
“My dear Mariah,” I said, “I'll go back to seminary and get ordained when I get a personal message from God Almighty.”
She smiled that smile that made her eyes almost disappear and, after a healthy drink of what I assure you was not good wine (we drank only that vintage in those days) said words that changed my life forever.
“Jim,” she said, “who in the hell do you think sent me and told me what to say?”
Never, before or after, did such a word as 'hell' pass through Mariah's sainted lips. She was never even mildly profane. I stared at her, suddenly as sober as a Mormon or a Muslim or both at the same time.
She finished her cheese, put her wine glass in the sink and embraced me. I held her like a fragile bird. She kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “You've got your message....”
She left me in my kitchen with dry ice in my veins and some large mammal's paw clutching my heart. I found it hard to breathe. Two trips to the porch and a full juice glass of the Wild Turkey I kept hidden under the sink on Wednesday nights changed nothing.
I called the bishop the next morning. Only after I had an appointment with him could I tell Bern what insanity I was up to and breathe properly again.
Mariah died a few months later. I was one of her pallbearers. She was as light as air for us to carry—three international students and three members of St. Gabriel’s carried her. Archangels don't weight much. They are mostly feathers and Spirit. She was buried from Trinity Church. Snork did the service and did her proud in his homily of thanksgiving for so rare a soul. I had just been accepted to Virginia Seminary. Bern was in New York acting in an off-Broadway show. We would meet up in Alexandria in September.
Mariah's granddaughter, who was a member of St. Gabe's as well, embraced me at the reception following the funeral. It was in the basement of Trinity Church where Mariah had spent so many Friday nights. Many of the foreign students brought ethic food. Clara told me Mariah had asked about me on the day she died. I'd left my acceptance letter in Snork's office and he'd shown it to Clara. I hadn't tried to call when it came since Mariah was in the Intensive Care Unit. Her so full and generous heart had simply worn out from so much loving.
So, it was Clara that told Mariah I was accepted at VTS. Clara said her grandmother smiled that eye disappearing smile when she heard. She smiled through her great weakness.
“You tell Jim,” she whispered to Clara, “that I told him so....”
Her last words for me: “I told you so.”
That works for me. That will do nicely.
2 Job Descriptions
A seminary classmate of mine, who was also a priest in West Virginia when I was there, was once riding an airplane from Los Angeles to Chicago. My friend, let's call him Joe, was wearing, as he seemingly always did, a clerical collar and a black shirt, black suit and black wing-tips. Joe is quite a large man so his priest outfit always made him look like a black-out curtain from the London Blitz. He spent the flight talking amiably with a salesman from the Mid-West. They developed one of those airplane friendships and exchanged business cards and the descent began toward O'Hare. Just as the 747 was taxiing up to the gate, Joe's new friend asked, “What do you do?”
Joe glanced down to make sure his uniform was in place—and hadn't they talked about the church somewhere over Idaho?
“I'm an Episcopal priest,” Joe replied, confused.
The salesman smiled. “Oh, I know what you are,” he said. “I was just wondering what you do.”
It is an interesting observation and question. What on earth does an Episcopal priest do? How can you describe a role that I believe is more ontological than functional? What's the job description? Doesn't every professional DO something?
Once, at a cocktail party in New Haven, surrounded by Yale 'people' (the population of New Haven is divided into 'Yale people' and the masses of the unwashed) I had a long conversation with a physicist from India with one of those delightful post-Raj English accents that sound like a bird's song. You hear that accent most every time you call customer services (aka “help!”)
for your computer. All those folks seem to be in India. Since I didn't have on a clerical uniform—and never once flew on an airplane with a collar lest I be seated beside some psychologically disturbed stranger who wants to confess at 40,000 feet—I had told him when we greeted each other what I 'did'. And he told me what he 'did'. Its what people do.
(Here's a fascinating aside: back in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, when people meet for the first time the question comes trippingly off each of their tongues is “where are you from?” not “what do you do?” I haven't asked enough people who grew up in really rural places if that was true back home for them. So, I don't know if it is purely and urban/rural distinction or has something to do with the culture and ethos of Appalachia. But I know and know fair well that back home you could tell a lot more about a stranger by knowing where they were from and 'who their people were' than you could by finding out how they earned their money. I still have the tendency to ask people where they spent their formative years, believing as I do that there is a wealth of instant knowledge and intimacy in discovering someone's roots. But in the place I live now and amidst the people I know now, the first question in invariably, “What do you do?”)
So, I told this Indian physicist that I was and Episcopal priest and he asked me with the guilelessness of someone who was 'from' a place half-a-world away and who was Hindu, if he was anything religious at all, what my 'work' consisted of.
Even then, I had begun to believe that being a priest is an ontological rather than a functional thing, so I fished around in my brain for some way to describe succinctly what my 'being' in the midst of a parish looked like beyond the obvious worship and meetings.
“I'm a member of a community,” I told him, “and I function as the leader of that community in our ritual life. And I am very aware of what is going on in and around the community so that when I see God breaking into the day-to-day, I can say “Stop! Look! There's God...right there!”
He considered that in that lovely, calm and timeless way people from the Indian sub-continent seem to have naturally, took a sip of wine and then said, smiling knowingly, “You're a process observer.”
He, of course, had to explain to an English major that a 'process observer' was an indispensable role in the sciences. Much of what science is about is watching experiments and noting what happens. It is, he told me, rather tedious and painstaking work (not unlike the day-to-day 'duties' of a parish priest) but finally crucial to the march of scientists to the day when they have the String Theory down pat,
“A process observer,” I said to myself, giving the little voice in my head a line to speak of my composition instead of just listening to it chatter on of its own volition. I rather liked the term, yes, I did.
The actuality is this: one of the things parish priests DO, it seems to me, is 'point to God in the process.' We do it in the Eucharist—all the sacraments—in a most obvious way. “You may think this is just fish food and bad port”, priests say in the Mass, “But I'm going to 'point out' to you that this is ALSO the very Body and very Blood of Christ. How about 'dem apples?” Or, like this: “You may imagine this is just a little baby and some water and some oil, but I'm going to reveal to you a different way of looking at all this...a way that brings to mind the Creation and the Exodus and John the Baptist and Jesus and the oil of anointing a royal child and the fact that this squirming little creature is actually the most loved Child of God.” Or this: “I know everyone here assumes you are simply a man and a woman anxious to get the reception over and shed these fancy clothes and do what men and women do in the dark, wine-soaked night. But I tell you a Mystery—you are beloved of God and God approves, blesses and watches over you. Go after each other with passion and zeal—it is as the Almighty has ordained.” Stuff like that is what priests “do”. Process observing—seeking to unconceal the oldest String Theory of them all: that God is in control in some way we seldom recognize and can only faintly understand.
Once, several years ago, the remarkable Organist/Choir Director of St. John's—the finest musician I've ever known who doesn't have a big, honking attitude—found a Spiritual he thought I might like, knowing I'm partial to Spirituals. It was called “I Believe This Is Jesus” and went like this--” I believe this is Jesus....Come and see.... Come and see....” Bob's idea was that I would, after the fracture of the host, sing the “I believe this is Jesus” part and the choir would respond, “Come and see.... Come and see...”, then sing the rest of the song while I administered communion to those serving at the altar. Great idea—real 'process observer' stuff.... I’d break the bread and then hold the paten and chalice up and sing, “I believe this is Jesus.” Which I do believe, by the way.
So, without telling anyone but the choir, that's what we did. I broke the bread, took a deep breath since I'm rocky about my singing ability, and broke into song. When the choir responded with the 'Come and See' part, I made 'come here' gestures to the congregation, shifting from foot to foot, remembering why I love Spirituals—you can't stand still and sing them. I turned to give communion to the others at the altar—including the assistant Rector and the Parish Administrator—and they were all staring at me as if I were a crazy person just escaped from the looney bin with sharp weapons. After I force fed them the bread and wine—fattening up the Christmas goose—they dissolved into that king of laughter that there is simply no way, no way in heaven or on earth, not act of will available to human beings to repress. The “I Believe this is Jesus” Mass passed immediately into St. John's lore. When I talk to people who were there, it still comes up occasionally—them laughing more than me since I am 'process observing—and I can still sing it. I'll sing it for you if you ask me nicely.
I had this ongoing conversation about ontology and function and what a priest 'does' with bishops, priests and lay people if it just doesn't seem to precious and tedious to them. I come down heavy on the 'being' side of the distinction. I actually think a priest's job description is to be in the midst of the community. The functional stuff is neither rocket science or brain surgery. In fact, most of the things a priest does—since we are the last of the 'generalists'--someone else could do much better. Say Mass, for example—I'd suggest training in theater would make for a more dramatic Eucharist than studying theology ever could. Visiting the sick, another example—couldn't a nurse or a social worker pull that off with great aplomb? Teaching Adult Classes—well, give me someone trained in education every day to someone who can recite the Nicene Creed by heart. Counseling the troubled? A seminary education makes you a counselor as much as a class in auto mechanics makes you a jet pilot. Parish priests, if they took my advice, would avoid 'counseling' like the plague and get a rolodex (oops, dated myself) a 'smart phone' full of professionals to refer people to. I can listen to someone's problems but seldom, if ever, do I know or suggest an answer.
(Aside to parish clergy: you know the old saw, “misery loves company”? My belief is that “misery loves misery” and if you start fooling with someone's misery and aren't fully trained to handle the consequences—oh, like they'll blame you if they have to face life without their misery and blame you if you leave them miserable—it's what we call, these days, a No Win/No Win situation. Besides, when people tell me their problems, instead of having the necessary psychological training to bring them to see that only they can solve their problems, I get 'hung up' in their problems, find them fascinating and probably wouldn't want them to go away because they interest me! Call a real professional, that's my advice to a parish priest. Run, don't walk, away from anyone who comes to you for 'counseling'. End of aside.)
So, here I am, trying to describe 'what I do' when the reality I deal with tells me that being a priest is much more about 'being' than 'doing'. I have this argument with people all the time and it goes on and on. Most clergy are so embarrassed that they don't have a 'real job' that they make themselves incredibly busy and overworked to somehow justify what I think is a fact: like Woody Allen said (and this goes squared for priests) “90% of life is just showing up.” Priesthood is about ontology, about 'being' much more than it is about 'doing' or the functions we necessarily fulfill in the Church of God. People, over the years, before I retired, often said to me, “I know you're busy,” as prelude to sharing some joy or sadness. And I would always say, “I'm not busy at all. I sit around waiting to hear from you.”
Perhaps my ontological view of priesthood is the result of my remarkably high view of the sacraments. I believe 'being a priest' is contained and fully lived out in the 'being' of 'being a priest'. The busyness we create is smoke and mirrors and vanity. I've done it too, but I think the most egregious example of putting 'function' over 'being' is exemplified by something that happened here in Connecticut a decade or more ago.
Connecticut always has, for nearly 30 years, three bishops. Count 'em, three bishops for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Amazing. I am reminded of Will Rodgers' observation about Methodist ministers. What he said was: “Methodist ministers are like manure. Spread out, they tend to do a lot of good. All in one place they begin to smell.” Well, well, three bishops for Connecticut. (Sniff, sniff....)
But anyway, fifteen years or so ago, someone had the bright idea to have Connecticut's three bishops do a time study of what they 'did' as bishops. This, in its inception was a miscarriage of an idea. First of all, who cares? Secondly, why on earth would they agree to do it? These are Bishops for goodness sake! In our polity, they are the cream of the crop, the tops, the Eiffel Towers, the Pacific Oceans of the world of the Episcopal Church. Why would they spend time writing down how they spent their time? And record how much time they spent writing down how they spent their time? Astonishing that someone convinced three more than reasonably intelligent “princes of the Church” to go along with such a hair-brained idea. Time studies for Bishops qualifies as an abomination in my book.
Anyway, they did it. And what is even more outrageous than their agreeing to do it, they allowed it to be published. I remember it vividly. Changing the names to protect the guilty, it went like this: the Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Wall, could claim to spend 80+ hours a week trying to bring in the Kingdom of God. Bishop Cool, one of the two (count them) Suffragan bishops, clocked in at 79 hours a week toiling in the vineyard of the Lord. But the second Suffragan, Bishop Rowdy, tallied up his hours and only worked, on average, 50 hours a week.
I was astonished and horrified by the spectacle of three Bishops lowering themselves to record how long they were on the phone to some troublesome person in St. Something or Other's with a ridiculous and totally fabricated complaint about incense or the lack of incense in their parish. Embarrassing is what it was. But I was so proud of Bishop Rowdy. Bishops, like priests and deacons, take a vow at ordination to be a 'godly example'. Since a bishop has been ordained three times, they have agreed to be a 'godly example' thrice. I called Bishop Rowdy and said, “you are the only 'godly example' I have as a bishop. I don't much like you and don't agree with your theology or politics, but by the breath of the Baby Jesus, you are MY BISHOP from here on out. Only you give me the example of not being busy by design and letting your ministry consist of 'being' for me and the whole diocese. Thank you. Bless you. I love you.”
Actually, I didn't say it all that way, this is poetic license at work. But that is what I meant.
There was a long, awkward silence on the phone line.
“Bishop?” I said.
He sighed. I heard him sigh. “Jim,” he said, slowly, deliberately, I pray regretfully, “after I saw the other two bishops' time sheets I went back and found 25 hours I neglected to record.”
Holy God, how can a bishop (or anybody) misplace 25 hours a week? And how can priests seek to 'BE' when their bishops are competing to see how functional and 'busy' they can be? How vain and weirdly arrogant for those of us in ministry to imagine our 'doing' is what will bring in or impede the coming Kingdom. Why would we spend so much time worrying and fretting about 'doing' enough rather than seek to explore the nature and purpose of the 'being-ness' of being ordained.
My friend John told me this joke once. “An email arrives that says, 'Start worrying, letter to follow'.”
It seems to me that we priests are always worrying about whether we are doing enough to justify our existence. The busyness we create out of nothing is designed so that people will think we are busy about the Lord's work. Being comfortable about 'being' would be more clearly a 'godly example' to the people than running ourselves ragged with make-work.
Back in 2000 I visited 37 of my seminary classmates as a project for a sabbatical. (By the way, in this Diocese, three month sabbaticals are required for each five years of active ministry. I know people who never took one in three decades. They either felt they were indispensable to the parish, which is simply wrong, or they were too nervous about their 'authority' that they couldn't see a value in being away for three months! And, also by the way, the bishop wants to ascertain that priests in this diocese have something they plan to 'do' while on sabbatical. Heaven forbid someone would simply take the time off for themselves and for well-being!) One of my classmates—a guy who was only with us for the last year of seminary and who had been a Roman Catholic priest before he married a woman with five children—told me how gratifying it was to have left VTS and gone to a parish where he had remained for all 25 years since our graduation.
“I've been here long enough,” he told me, “that the people accept the fact that being a priest is the only job in the world that is focused on 'being' rather than doing.” What a thought—a whole career of ministry in one community focused on 'being'! What a pity we don't trust parishioners enough to share that example for life with them. What a pity that we need to make people think we are so terribly busy that we shouldn't be bothered by their petty concerns and wonderings and questions and longings. That, in fact, is precisely what being a priest entails—to be free and available and ready to 'be' with people whenever they need that presence.
I'm not suggesting that 'being with people' will “save them” or “heal them” or do anything more than simply being present with them in their joy or confusion or pain or loss or wonderment. There is a wonderful psychological term: the non-anxious presence. Therapists seek to provide that for their clients—just to be with them, whatever is going on, without anxiety. A calming presence is what most of us need when stuff is happening in our lives. Just that—a shadow in the background that is simply 'there' without attaching themselves to the emotions and feelings of the moment—that is what most of us need, most of the time. And that, it seems to me, is how a priest can 'be' in the midst of the community he/she serves.
I have done what used to be called “EST Training”. Most religious folks I knew at the time thought EST was mind-control and a monstrous intrusion into the lives of those who submitted themselves to it. I am still involved, 20+ years later, with the Mastery Foundation, that uses the 'technology' of EST combined with the practice of centering prayer. I took the Making a Difference workshop when I was considering renouncing my vows as a priest and what I came out of the three days with was my priesthood all shiny and new. The workshop is 'ontological'--it is about 'being' not 'doing'.
Back over a quarter of a century ago, when I was at an EST workshop, I called to tell them I couldn't come to the second weekend because a beloved parishioner of St. Paul's (the parish I was serving at the time) was dying and I had to be with him. The EST Training leaders gave me much grief about my 'commitment' to the training and what if I'd been hit by a truck, who would be with Aaron, who would be his priest then? It seemed a far go to compare missing two days of the training to being a victim of a hit and run, but I listened. I finally rejected all the b.s. arguments they threw at me—some of it reasonable b.s. but b.s. all the same—and went to visit Aaron when I should have been in my chair at the EST training.
Aaron was in a coma and I couldn't 'do' much of anything. I couldn't give him communion or talk with him or reassure him as he was slipping into that good night. So, after 15 minutes I left his room, having anointed him and given him final unction—I could “do” that, after all. I rode the elevator to the lobby and was unlocking my car when I remembered the first weekend of EST and the emphasis on 'being' I had learned there. So, I went back up the elevator to the 5th floor and went back to Aaron's room. I sat by his bed for over two hours. From time to time I would read a psalm from my Prayer Book aloud, but mostly for me since he wasn't in my time/space continuum. After two hours, I kissed his 88-year-old face and headed for the door.
At that very moment, he awoke momentarily from the coma of his last sleep and said, with the basso voice I'd know from him before his illness: “Jim, thanks for being with me....”
It never occurred to me in that moment to 'do' anything. I didn't rush to him bedside and give him communion. I didn't open my BCP and say a prayer. I only answered, “you're welcome Aaron,” and left. Three days later I was the celebrant and preacher at his funeral. I had done my job. I had BE-ed with him. That was what he needed and I was given the privilege of sitting in his presence for a while.
Actually, I do have a definition of the job description of a priest. I've used in in a couple of ordination sermons that did not get me in trouble with a bishop. I think the form of it is—if not RIGHT—at least in the country where RIGHT lives. Here's how it goes: the 'job' of a priest is simply this, to tend the fire, tell the story and pass the wine.
A parish priest has an enormous amount of discretionary time. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. And that time should be spent being the Shaman of the Tribe. I really believe the metaphor of the Shaman is one we priests should embrace. We should walk backwards and sideways. We should speak words our mouths are unfit for. We should do the holy acts and dwell in the 'being' of our being in the midst of the Tribe. We wait with the expectant father. We sit by the sick bed. We pour water on the babies. We whisper nonsense syllables over bread and wine. We light the candles. We tell and re-tell the story of our Tribe in old ways and ways made new. We anoint the sick and dying. We rejoice with the joyous. We are there when one of the Tribe moves to that Good Night. We pour dirt on the casket. We unite the lovers. We sit and wait and are not anxious whatever is happening. Shamans are the role we play in the Tribe who loves us and we love to death.
So, we tend the fire.
Everyone else is too busy in the tides and times of living to pay proper attention. The priest must add the green branch to the dying fire and blow on it until it takes and burns. The priest must know the history of the Tribe and breathe it into the fire as the flame turns to embers. We are the fire-tenders, the wood gatherers, the ones who choose between the green wood and the seasons as is appropriate. That is who we 'are' and how we 'be' in the midst of the Tribe.
We also 'tell the story'. It is a story everyone in the Tribe knows, on some level, in some way. So, the way we tell it must annoy and inspire and provoke. It is the story of our particular Tribe and of the larger Tribe we are a part of. It is the story of a God who created us in the very image of God's self and of a God who took on our flesh and a God who died, as we shall die, yet rose from death to prove to us that Life is the last word, the ultimate word, the only word that matters, really matters. So, we tell this story with mouths full of pebbles and in halting, stuttering words and with an eloquence we neither deserve nor can rise to, except the Spirit leads us and gives up speech. We tell this story as the tribe sits by the fire we tend and we watch their eyes...heavy, full of sleep, confused and questioning, brimming with tears. It is always the eyes we must watch—those subtle pathways to the soul—as we tell the story in old ways, often heard, and in new ways to surprise and delight and confound. We have tended the fire and told the story.
What is left is this—to pass the wine.
When I used to do baptismal classes, I'd bring out the symbols that are part of the service: bread, wine, water, holy oil, a candle and the scallop shell that's used to pour the water. If there were several candidates, I'd mix the parents and god parents so they would be with people they didn't know, and give each group one of the symbols to talk about. The distinction I'd make between symbol and sign is simple: a sign 'points to something' while a symbol not only 'points to something' but participates in the deeper reality of what it points to. Then, after conversation, the group’s report back on their particular symbol.
I'm always interested in the report back about wine. We are still part of a remarkably Puritanical culture where wine is not openly praised. Of course, I know church basements and parish halls are full each week with AA meetings—there is a downside to alcohol. But my thought has always been that the deep-down value of something can be measured most accurately by how much it has been misused and abused. Oh, take Christianity for example. We Christians have a lot to account for when it comes to oppressing and persecuting people with our faith. The Christian faith has been so misused and abused that it must be of great value—silver and gold and pearls.
Most of the time, the group reporting back on wine will make a joking reference to the intoxicating quality of wine. They are seldom comfortable to reflect on the joy and goodness of wine. The seldom mention that we refer to alcohol as 'spirits', a telling figure of speech. Most people don't feel confident in being counter-cultural enough to say wine is a good and gracious substance. Never has any group reported back by saying In Vino, Veritas, So I tell them how valued and important wine is to the tribe gathered by the fire, listening to the story. Invaluable, I say—that's what wine is to the life and metaphor and myth of the Tribe. There must be wine to make us mellow and congenial and to “inspire” us and bring the story to full bloom and to make the dying fire look like a wondrous and warming blaze to keep us safe from the Darkness all around us.
So, the priest passes the wine.
None of the functions or tasks or acts of my priestly job description actually 'require' ordination. Just about anyone could tend the fire and tell the story and pass the wine. But in our Tribe—the Episcopal Church—we have long ago determined to set someone 'apart' for those acts, those liturgies, those rituals. So, we ordain priests and entrust them with the work of “being” in our midst to “do” these small but oh, so significant tasks. The Shamans of the Tribe walk backwards, speak in nonsense syllables and touch the Holy Things.
A dear friend, the wife of a seminary classmate, told my wife that when her husband was ordained, “his hands changed”.
My wife, God bless her, said she hadn't noticed any change in mine.
Here is the conundrum about being a priest: nothing changes really. It isn't the ordination that matters so much as the willingness to “be” when all the world around is so obsessed with “doing”. That is the difference, the set apartness, the uniqueness of the calling. His/her hands don't change—not a chance, that's just an illusion. What happens, so far as I can tell, is simply this: some sap agrees to 'be' rather than 'do'. (A onetime assistant of mine told me, “Jim, you can do nothing better than anyone I've ever met....” As I remember she was frustrated by my inactivity when she thought I should be doing something or another. But I took it as a confirmation and a compliment.)
The Truth is, it's a great job—process observing, tending the fire, telling the story over and over again, passing the wine. The down side is if we take ourselves too serious or confuse yourself with Jesus or decide you can save the world or anyone in it. That is the road to ruin. Keep the job description simple—observe the process, keep the fire burning, tell and retell the story, take a good sip of wine before passing it on, have the courage to not feel guilty about simply 'being', don't 'make up' stuff to do and keep you busy. And it's a great job, actually....
Holiness: the longer and more often you 'think something', the more likely it is to become something you believe.
There are a multitude of things less empowering to think and believe than that everyone, simply everyone, has a face that is the very Face of God.
3 In the Beginning
I never intended to become an Episcopal priest and spend the best years of my life in parish ministry. What I intended was to earn a Ph.D. in American Literature from some reasonably prestigious university and then teach contemporary literature at some small liberal arts college while I wrote the Great American Novel. Well, the road to priesthood is paved with such intentions.
John Stasny, was my favorite professor in college—I took seven of his classes in my eight semesters so it could be said that I minored in Mr. Stasny. At any rate, he and Manfred Otto Meitzen, head of the Religion Department (who later died in a motorcycle accident in Branson, Missouri) came to me in my senior year and told me they had recommended me for a 'trial year in seminary' to be paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. All I had to do was go through some interviews and tell the Rockefeller people over and again that I didn't want to go to seminary.
“I don't want to go to seminary,” I told them, “I'm waiting to hear from the University of Virginia and Iowa for graduate school.”
“That's perfect!” Mr. Stasny said. (Although he was a tenured professor at WVU, he didn't have a doctorate. I once asked him why and he answered, “Bradley, who on earth would test me?” I had to agree.)
“How's that 'perfect'?” I asked. “I don't want to go to seminary. It's never crossed my mind....”
“Perfect,” said Dr. Meitzen, “just tell the committee that over and over.”
So, just to please these two men I admired greatly, I went to Pittsburgh to be interviewed. I told the committee in a dozen ways and inside out/upside down a dozen more that I most certainly DIDN'T want to go to seminary.
“Great,” they all said, over and again, “that's just perfect!”
So, I became a Rockefeller Fellow and went to Harvard Divinity School on the Rockefeller's money, stayed another year and got a degree—an MTS, 'Master of Theological Studies', which, along with $3.75 will get you a small coffee at Starbucks.
Remitha Spurlock, one of the most holy people I ever knew, who was a member of the first parish I served—St. James in Charleston, West Virginia—often said, “God works is mischievous ways.” And so does God—along with the Rockefeller foundation.
You know, after reading the chapter about the Archangel Mariah, why I went back to finish a professional degree and became a priest. But I blame John Stasny and Manfred Otto Meitzen for pointing me toward that all-wrong trip to Harvard Divinity School, where I'd get bitten (as I imagine they thought I might) by the Theology-bug and change all my plans.
I landed at Harvard at the best time ever: 1969. Hell's bells, things were a poppin' in those heady days! In my four semesters, three of them were cut short by a student strike, a faculty strike and a combined student/faculty strike. I was immersed in the chaos I love and thrive in. Ask anyone who knows me—I do best in chaos. And if it doesn't exist, I will find a way to create it.
I was friends with a law student at Harvard named Helen Anderson. She later became a writer about 'law and women' and occasionally had a column in the The New York Times. But in those weird times in the late 60's and early 70's, Helen was a drama queen. The day the National Guard was called out to protect the ROTC building—Harvard had ROTC, amazing—Helen came to my room in Divinity Hall to tell me, “the Revolution is starting and I have nothing to wear!”
I was once down at the Boston Common with Helen and Don, my best friend at Harvard. Helen got a run in her panty hose. Nothing would do
her but go to Jordan Marsh to buy new ones. The young clerk asked her what shade she wanted and Helen said, “how many shades are there?”
“Two hundred and twenty four,” the clerk responded and Helen burst into tears.
“I can't cope with that much pressure,” she cried and headed for the Ladies' Room. Don made the decision for her and got burnt cinnamon, if my memory serves me. Once we delivered them to the bathroom and Helen put them on, it was if nothing had happened. We went to ride the Swan Boats.
I'll try in these musings and reflections and memories to share some thoughts about parish ministry and 'the Church'(that wondrous and schizophrenic institution) but most of what I will write will be about the people who served me more faithfully and well than I ever served them. People are, after all, the real raw material of parish ministry—much of the rest is window dressing and smoke and mirrors. To quote The Rev. Wil B. Dunn, the parson in the comic strip Kudzu, “human relations is my field....”
For the last decade or so of my full-time ministry, I decided not to have an office. I did most all the writing and study I needed to do at home or sitting in the parish library with the door open. I know I probably annoyed the office staff no end by hanging around on the first floor so much, but it seemed to me that what I was 'for' was to be present to the daily swirl of activity of that very busy urban parish. Hundreds of people came through the church doors everyday—the soup kitchen was feeding 300+ a day when I retired, the Choristers were there two afternoons a week, a dance group used the building twice a week, someone was always trying out the McManis Organ, people wandered off the street to take a look and I was usually there to give them a tour of the remarkable building, lots of local groups used our rooms for meetings, and parish members who just popped in always saw me wandering around. That was a good thing. Being around people suited me much more than being in an office doing something that probably, in the cosmic scheme of things, was pretty unnecessary.
I once asked the son of a very active Episcopal lay woman what his mom did all the time. “She looks for meetings to go to,” he told me. He was six, I remember.
I think lots of church folks, especially clergy, 'look for meetings to go to' to demonstrate how busy they are. Meetings were, of course, a part of my life, but I didn't 'look for' them. Instead, what I did, at least in the last decade of my full-time ministry was 'hang around'. It suited me rather well, I believe.
Divinity Hall, where I lived for a year, was next door to the Semitic Museum. Harvard, in its infinite wisdom, had leased an office in that building to the CIA for recruiting purposes. Remember—this was 1969—the SDS or even more radical group, found out about the CIA office and tried to blow up the Semitic Museum one night. There were a whole host of firetrucks and other emergency vehicles out on the street and I wanted to see what was going on. There was Dr. G. E. Wright, an Old Testament scholar, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk holding some relic that had been damaged. He was weeping.
G. E. Wright was a renowned person in his field. He was one of the best teachers at Harvard and known far and wide, along with Professor Von Radt from Germany, as a leading light in Old Testament studies. He was also renowned for saying in his lectures: “there are two ways to study the Old Testament. The Von Radt way and the Wright way....” That was always greeted with laughter and applause.
And there he was, sitting on the curb, weeping over the lost documents and artifacts from the explosion, which, by the way, didn't damage the CIA offices at all. In that moment, there on Divinity Avenue, I realized the value of 'the past'. Until that moment I believed stuff in museums and rare book collections was nothing more than 'old stuff'. But seeing this world-wide wide acknowledged, aging man, weeping over the loss of 'old stuff' convinced me forever of the value of history and the 'stuff' history created. And I respected Dr. Wright a great deal from that moment forward.
One of the theology professors at Harvard was Richard Reinhold Niebuhr—son of Richard and nephew of Reinhold. Ralph McGill, another theologian, once commented about Dr. Niebuhr: “what was the boy going to do after all? Drive a cab in San Francisco? Theology is the family business.” (Dr. McGill had, in fact, driven a San Francisco cab for a few year, a vocation he said was a perfect prelude to a life spent talking about God.)
Niebuhr as a strange character to us all. He was a quintessential absent-minded professor. Once he wandered into the lecture hall carrying an armful of fat books, spead them all out, rearranged the order they were in, turned to a particular page in each one, stared at them for a while and drew on the chalk board in wild, cruel, looping lines until he had created what looked like a deformed tornado. He stared at that for a while, at the same time cocking his head to listen to a bird outside the open window singing to the perfect Spring day.
“The Void,” he said, not bothering to look at the 75 or so students sitting in tiers behind him. And then, almost to himself, he repeated, “the Void...” In a moment, he drew a stick figure of a man in the midst of the funnel cloud. He stepped back and said, reverently, it seemed to me, “Homo religiosis.”
He listened to the bird again, closed and gathered his books and left, perhaps to go to his study, perhaps to walk around in the warm April sun. We never figured out whether he just forgot he had a lecture to give or if the bird's song has mesmerized him.
I was walking back to Divinity Hall with my friends Don and Cal, still stunned by what we had witnessed.
“You could ever make this stuff up,” Don said.
Cal asked, “what did that French phrase mean?”
You couldn't have made Cal up either.
Cal was dozing beside me in a New Testament lecture by Dean Kristor Stendahl, at that time, the once and future bishop of Sweden. When Stendahl got started talking about the Holy Spirit, he said, “Jesus promised his followers to send the Paraclete.”
Cal woke up and shook my arm.
“Did he say 'parakeet'?” Cal whispered, ready to write something down.
Another time, in a Stendahl lecture, the Dean said, “within two decades of the crucifixion, the apostles began to peter out.”
He paused for all of us to moan.
“Wasn't that a-Paul-ing,” he asked.
Of all the brilliant, odd folks at Harvard, Frank Cross took the cake. He was an Old Testament scholar who, someone once said, probably dreamed in Hebrew. He made Niebuhr seem focused and alert. The story went like this: one morning Frank Cross got in his car, was thinking about Isaiah or Numbers or something, forgot to shut the driver's side door and tore it off on the tree beside his driveway. The next morning, in his rental car, he did the very same thing. The morning after that, the legend said, he had the tree cut down.
Then there was Rabbi Katenstein who taught a course called “The Life Cycle in Christian Worship”. All the students were Christians of various hues, 16 different hues among 17 students. All semester we brought in examples of how our particular cult of Christianity celebrated certain aspects of the 'life cycle'--birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, sickness, death, burial, like that. I was the only Episcopalian in the class and thanked the little baby Jesus and whatever God might be for the Book of Common Prayer—1928--because it had all things, even a service for the purifying of women after child birth—something the Rabbi went nuts about in joy. His job, it occurred to me much later, was to teach us Christians how Jewish we really were. Almost every liturgy or ritual we brought up in that class was an opportunity for Rabbi Katzenstein to let us know the Jewish/Jesus roots of all our fanfare and celebrations.
It stunned me. I began, half way through the class to wonder why I hadn't had a bar-mitzvah, since obviously, as a Christian, I was a Jew as well. That class served me well when I invited a Muslim group to make their mosque in a building St. John's, Waterbury owned. Rabbi Katzenstein taught me, in no uncertain terms, that, not only are the hues of Christians not that important, the distinctions between Faiths were not that significant either. God/Yahweh/Ala, thank him for that.
(I just realized, writing this, that all of these great people who taught me so well are probably dead or old, old men. It was nearly 40 years ago and they were all in their 50's when I knew them—except for Dr. Meitzen, who ended his stay on earth outside the Country Music Capitol of the Universe. I'll always hope he had seen some shows before he and his wife died on that motorcycle, rather than thinking they were on their way to see Dolly and George and Garth when they died. It's difficult for me to think of the them as any older than they were when they taught me wondrous things about theology and life. Generations come and go and leave behind valuable things. G.E. Wright, sobbing in front of the Semitic Museum knew that only too keenly. And, as I age, I value the wisdom and the kookiness of those marvelous people more each day.
After my visitation from the Archangel Mariah, I went to Virginia Seminary for two yeas, which meant I had four years of theological education instead of the normal three for ordination. Both EDS I Cambridge and GTS in New York City agreed that I could come for only one more year. They were willing to accept all my credits from Harvard. Virginia Seminary was not so open. I needed two years of field work in a parish to meet their graduation requirements. I made me so angry that I decided to go there and make their lives miserable for two years. Which I did. Well, perhaps not 'miserable', but I kept them on their toes.
That's an exaggeration. VTS is bigger and stronger and has more integrity than you can imagine. I may have annoyed the seminary around the edges, but it hardly made a dent. The truth is, I look back on those two years with gratitude and appreciation. Who I was when I showed up in Alexandria was angry, arrogant, self-centered and profoundly ironic. Whan I left, I was a little less of all that and ready to be a priest. What formed me at Virginia Seminary was the incredible faculty and their commitment to 'making priests'. Virginia never claimed to be a 'graduate school of Theology'. It was a training ground for parish priests. That's what VTS claimed to do, what they did, and what they did quite well.
So, here are some people from VTS:
Charlie taught several things, but he excelled at Liturgics. He began each year of the year long 'Introduction to Liturgy' by handing out what he called “Forty Beastly Questions”. Then he taught to the questions. It was a remarkable approach. We spent two semesters wrestling with the questions Charlie posed.
I remember one that we labored over mightily: What is necessary for baptism to be valid?
The point to this question, as with all the questions, was to struggle with liturgical issues in a way we never had before. 'Baptism', for all of us, I suspect, was a ritual performed in a parish church by a priest after dutifully training and informing the parents and godparents of the child (and speaking seriously with the occasional adult candidate) about the meaning of the sacrament, the history of 'washing' in Jewish practice, the role of parents and god-parents and how to 'speak loudly' when answering the questions asked of them from the Book of Common Prayer.
Charlie wanted us to get way, way past that image to the very nuts and bolts of baptism: “what is necessary?”
“Water and oil,” we said, thinking we'd figured it our, “and a priest and witnesses.”
“Well,” he told us, “what about the baptisms in blood on battlefields over the centuries? Are they invalid?”
Some of us were through at that juncture. Charilie's questions never had a 'right' answer, he just wanted us to arrive at an answer we could live with.
But some others of us had to admit we found all that 'battlefield baptism' rather romantic and didn't want to give it up. So, for those of us, the most obvious answer, “water and oil”, didn't work.
“So, how about a priest?” we asked Charlie.
“Read the rubrics,” he told us. (Rubrics are the little instructions in the Prayer Book. They're called 'rubrics' because in early editions of the BCP, they were written in red. Rubrics and Canons are what govern the Episcopal Church. Another piece of Charlie-Wisdom was this: “never unknowingly break a canon.” He knew that most of us would break more than one along the way—but we should know what we were doing and be able to answer for it if ever asked.)
Well, in the rubrics about baptism, it is clear that a deacon can administer baptism with the sealing in oil to be done later by a priest or bishop. And, in emergencies, any 'baptized person' may do the ritual, if the person recovers, the rest of the service should be done by a priest, omitting the administration of water. So a priest isn't necessary. Any baptized person can baptize.
“So”, we raced back to Charlie to say, feeling proud, “all that is necessary is a Christian and the words of baptism.”
He told us to go think about it some more. Would God—the God Charlie knew and loved and we were learning about—would THAT God deny baptism to on of God's beloved children simply because a baptized Christian wasn't present?
That divided the house of those still inquiring about the 'right answer', just as Charlie intended. Some held out from that point on for the need of a baptized Christian for baptism to occur. A few of us were more open to the possibility that Charlie's God, more expansive than ours by a long short, would let a heathen baptize someone in extremis. Charlie had taken away almost everything that made us comfortable with the sacrament—water, priests, oil, Christians. What was left.
“The words said,” we told him, the few of us, fairly panting that's we'd at last solved his puzzle. “You need the words, 'in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We were so delighted to give him the answer.
He smiled and laughed—Charlie was a great one for smiling and laughing. Then he said words to the three of us I think I will never forget and pray to remember always. “So, you're telling me that the Great God Almighty who spread out the universe and created all things, the God who lives and moves and has being in our midst, would deny baptism to someone who desired it because the only person there with him was a deaf-mute Muslim?”
That was the last straw for one of our trio. All the others had already answered the question for themselves in a way they could live with—which was the point of the whole exercise I later understood. Charlie just wanted us to realize we'd 'come down' where we'd 'come down' for a reason. He forced us to look at familiar things so critically, so analytically, that we'd always know 'why' we believed what we believed. But the two of us sought him out at lunch in the Refectory one day.
“OK,” one of us said, “what if the only thing necessary for baptism to be valid is the 'intention' to be baptized?”
He stopped his fork half-way to his mouth.
“We are now way beyond doctrine and dogma and practice,” he said. “We're beyond ritual and rubrics. We in dangerous territory. The Enemy is near.” Then he took a bite. Charlie could say stuff like that and not sound silly.
As he was chewing, I felt we were on the edge of a precipice, looking over a sheer cliff, nothing below us, nothing to keep us from jumping off.
“I'm not saying 'this is the right answer', there being no right answer,not really. The two of us were hanging on every word. “But what if, just what if—and I'm not saying I believe this in any way,” he said, growing as somber, save one other time, that I'd ever seen him, “what if the intention is God's alone?”
My friend and I left Charlie to finish his lunch. Oddly, we never talked about his response to our question. It would have been frivolous and vain to have discussed it and analyzed it and a betrayer to have told others about it. But I know I've pondered Charlie's strange words ever since. They are always in the background of my considerations about theology and God.
“Jump,” the Buddhist masters say, “and the net will find you....”
Charlie gave us 39 other 'beastly questions' and I only realized decades later that the purpose of the questions was not the 'answers' but the 'inquiry' the questions set in motion. And I realized that by then, Charlie's God had become my God—a God that prefers the struggle to the resolution, the wrestling to the winning, the deep wonderings of paradox to certainty and clarity. For that realization, I am forever grateful.
We also did a liturgics practicum with Charlie—we called it 'play church'. We baptized baby dolls, anointed each other for healing, did marriage services for each other (and since there were 15 men and one woman in my section, we participated in same-sex unions long before our time!) buried shoe boxes and had mock Eucharists. When I was distributing the wafers once, Charlie stuck out his tongue at me. Having grown up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the mountain Methodist Church where we hardly ever had communion (and when we did it was sitting in our pews with our little personal crouton and a tiny plastic cup of grape juice) I was startled at his tongue and started laughing.
“Put the wafer on my tongue,” he told me. “Try not to make finger contact with my tongue and then move on....”
The first parish I served was a Black parish. Black Episcopalians tend toward 'high church' where receiving the wafer on you tongue is the norm. So Charlie saved me from enormous embarrassment and endless explanations when, on my first Sunday at St. James, fully half of those coming to communion stuck out their tongues at me.
Just one more thing I have to thank God and Charlie for....
Finally, Charlie probably kept me from getting expelled from VTS even though I graduated second in my class. My assigned adviser was Reginald Fuller, a renowned New Testament scholar who actually co-wrote one of the best books I ever read, The Book of the Acts of God, with G. E. Wright, who we last saw on the sidewalk outside the Semitic Museum at Harvard. But I hadn't had any classes from Dr. Fuller, though I'd met once morning a week with him and his other advisees at his house for worship. Once, he celebrated communion with us in the living room wearing full Eucharistic vestments. Odd, I thought.
He was the shining light of the few Anglo-Catholic students. One morning a week, chapel was the responsibility of students. The high church students convinced Reggie to celebrate a 'high mass', with incense and bells, chanting and bowing. Back in that day, such carryings-on were not tolerated by the low church folks at VTS. Several students and more than one faculty member walked out rather than be present at such Popish Nonsense. I'd never seen such a thing and stayed throughout, mesmerized by the smoke wafting around the chapel, by the eerie cadence of the chanting, by the exaggerated manual acts of Dr. Fuller.
Anyway, he didn't know me well. He didn't understand my ironic kind of charm. He didn't know I was a serious student whose quips and sardonic way of talking simply announced the seriousness with which I too, my calling by the Archangel Mariah and, I hoped, Charlie's God. Besides, it was my job to make the idyllic life on the 'holy hill' in Alexandria a little more interesting....
Dr. Fuller stopped me in the hallway of Aspinwall Hall, the main building at VTS about half-way through the last semester of my senior year.
“Mr. Bradley,” he said in his Oxbridge accent, “we need to make an appointment to discuss the ordinal.”
I knew fair well that was British-speak for 'the ordination service', something taken very seriously by a seminary committed to producing parish priests. But what I said was flip, ironic, smart-assed and, in the end, stupid.
“The Baltimore Ordinal?” I asked, much to the amusement of the students in the hall around us. I always intended to 'amuse' and poke fun at most everything. I succeeded rather well with all save Dr. Fuller, who turned on his heel, redness rising in his face, and made his way to the Dean's office to describe, in what I am sure was flawless English, my impertinence. Not to mention my arrogance and frivolousness. All of which, I must humbly admit these many years later, was 'on spot', as Reggie would have said. And, as I would have said, 'true'.
To graduate from VTS you had to, obviously, have enough credits and not have committed a felony offense. In addition, you had to have your adviser 'sign off' that you were fit to be a priest. Well, my little, inappropriate joke about the Baltimore Ordinal had hardened Dr. Fuller's heart. He would not approve me for graduation—and, therefore, ordination—without an apology, which, in my Young Turk days of trying to prove to Virginia Seminary that they were fools for making me study two years instead of one, I was not willing to give.
During all this, and after pleas from the Dean to apologize, which I refused--”the man has to know how to take a joke,” I remember saying—I contacted double pneumonia and was in Alexandria Hospital, a few blocks from the campus. Incidentally, I had two room-mates in succession at the hospital die on consecutive nights. The psychiatrist came to see me to make sure I wasn't freaking out and took my request to not have any other room-mates seriously. So, for over a week, I laid in bed, had treatments, sucked up gallons of antibiotic laced saline through an IV and wondered if I would graduate.
All my classmates decided to try out their hospital visitation skills until I put in a request not to allow anyone in except my wife. However, Charlie Price charmed his way through the insulation I thought I had and came to my bedside.
After asking about my health and recovery, Charlie said: “Jim, I hope and pray that some day you will come to a moment, a principle, some issue or another that you will be willing to risk your career, your priesthood for. I really hope that.”
Then, after a pause, he added, “Jim this silly fight with Dr. Fuller is NOT that moment....Apologize, get a new adviser and move on.”
He was absolutely right. So, I did apologize, got a new adviser, graduated and was ordained.
So much I owe to Charlie Price. So much. Even more than that.
Looking back, I feel like an utter fool about the whole Reggie-Gate thing. That is an appropriate feeling since I really, really was a fool.
Mary Ann Mixx
Dr. Mixx as the only woman professor at VTS when I was thee. She was a New Testament scholar and, from all accounts, a superior one. Her presence on campus was an oddity to us all—the only female and, save one other, the only un-ordained professor. Once, sitting at the same table at lunch with her and hearing other students discussing Romans, I got on my “I Hate Paul!” rant. Everyone was initally aghast, first that I would 'hate Paul' and, probably more importantly, that I didn't know Paul was one of Dr. Mixx's passions.
I saw her in a hallway a few days later and apologized for my hatred of Paul. I didn't repent it, please notice, but apologized for whatever might have offended her about it. (I wasn't quite the total pain-in-the-ass I claim to have been at VTS!) She waved my apology away, and, instead of saying what most of the professors said when accosted by a student in a hallway: “Well....” while looking at their wrist watch. Instead of that, Dr. Mixx said, “you have any plans for winter term?”
Winter Term was a two week mini-semester after Christmas and before the Spring semester began. There were tedious classes that met every single day for two weeks, too much information too fast, and too much library time all at once for students who had come, long before, to live in Academic time...semesters, not two weeks. I hated the winter term.
“I haven't decided yet,” I told her, delaying as usual, making decisions about classes, or anything, for that matter.
“Do a reading course with me,” she said, “on Paul's letters.”
A 'reading course' was the last refuge of people who didn't really want to go to class. Like me. My heart lept up....
“You want to make me love Paul?” I asked, always suspicious of the motives of people smarter than me.
She laughed. “I don't care one way or the other how you feel about Paul,” she said, still chuckling. “I just thought it would be fun for both of us....”
I was stunned. A VTS professor making a suggestion on the basis of 'fun'! How could I turn that down.
“Me too,” I told her, “I'm always up for some fun.”
Here's what she asked me to do: A. read all Paul's letters and give her a list of the things he said that I hated and have a conversation with her about my list; B. Put the letters in chronological order instead of the order in the New Testament, read them that way, and write a paper about what I learned from the exercise.
The truth is, I only had a faint notion of the reality that Paul's letters aren't in chronological order. So that was a valuable research exercise. What shifted for me as I read Paul in the order of writing was that most of the stuff I hated came in the earlier letters when Paul was harsh and judgmental and boastful. Read in the order in which they were written, I noticed a softening, a mellowing of Paul that I hadn't been able to notice before. As he aged and became certain of what he initially believed (that Jesus was coming back on next Tuesday if not next Monday and that he, Paul would be there to greet him) his tone shifted subtilely. There was more ambiguity, more openness, a new found ability to hedge his bets. That later Paul wasn't the monster I had always experienced.
I still hated him, I told Dr. Mixx in our conversations and my final paper—but not for the same reasons as before. Then, as now, 35 years later, I am sad that Christianity is more “Pauline” than “Jesus-like”. Over the centuries, Paul's thought has insinuated itself into the fabric of the faith and altered the all-embracing, never met a stranger kind of faith Jesus sought to pass along. The church is fussy and strict and patronizing in ways obvious and not so obvious. We are wed to doctrine and swayed by dogma that doesn't have much at all to do with the “suffer the little children to come unto me” attitude of Jesus. When compassion bumps head with canon law, guess which side almost always wins? But what I did learn profoundly is that I need to give Paul a bit more of a pass on things. I considered, back then, what if the letters I have written in my life were all that people knew of who I was and what my trust was in? What I consider now—much more frightening—is what if all that people knew about me was gleaned from going over the e-mails I have written rather than from knowing me face to face?
Horrors! So though I don't yet adore Paul, I cut him a break. And for that I am always grateful to Mary Ann Mixx.
Interestingly enough, something that got me in hot water with the Dean, before the Reggie Fuller Fiasco, was an article I wrote for the “Ambo”, the student newspaper, using the front door of Aspenwall Hall as a metaphor for what was lacking at Virginia Seminary. That door was ten feet tall and solid oak and took a strong person to open. I wrote in my article that it was a “Pauline Door”--a door that represented the rigor and narrowness of Paul. I called for a “Petrine Seminary”, one based on the acknowledged frailties and weaknesses of Peter—the one who doubted, the one who ran away, the one who betrayed. I simply identified more with Peter than Paul.
I got a note in my little mail box in the coffee room to come see the Dean. I went straight to his office and his secretary showed me in. It was morning so he offered tea or coffee. I was wishing it was late afternoon because everything that happened in late afternoon at VTS involved an offer of sherry.
I sat down, sipping my coffee (having fussed with sugar and cream while he fussed with lemon and cream for his tea) and when we were both adequately seen to, the Dean spoke.
“Jim,” he said in his oh-so-sophisticated Tidewater accent (if you aren't familiar with the Tidewater Accent—coastal Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina—you don't understand that it is exactly the accent a Dean of Virginia Seminary should have). “Jim, I am very distressed with your criticism of me in the last issue of the Ambo,” is what he said. His accent made my name sound like “gi-um” and both 'distressed' and “criticism” seemed to have gained a syllable as well. But it is a mesmerizing sound, soothing and soft and sophisticated in the way that mint juleps and magnolias and the architecture of Monticello is sophisticated.
“Dean,” I said in an accent that he would recognize as Appalachian, coal-miner son, trailer-trash, hillbilly, “I wasn't criticizing you, I was criticizing the Seminary.”
He took a delicate sip of his tea. Then he said words, though in one of the most delightful of all American accents, that chilled me to the bones and sinews.
“Jim,” he said slowly, “I AM Virginia Seminary.” Then he went on to explain how such a seeming impossibility could be so.
The accent was lulling me into sleep or compliance. It was like the 'Turkish taffy' the White Witch offered the children who went to Narnia. I was a stranger in a strange land. I put my almost full cup of coffee down on the little table between our two wing chairs. I reached over, interrupting him, to shake his hand.
“Dean,” I said, standing up, moving toward the door of his office, “I'll never do it again. I promise you that.”
Something I know to the depths of my being is this: never try to reason or argue with a man who thinks he's a seminary or any other major institution, for that matter.
Speaking of 'reading courses', I wanted to have one for the last semester of my Senior year. I didn't want to take four classes, as was expected and required. I even had a topic. I wanted to write a paper about the theology of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I took my ideas to the usual suspects—the people I thought would buy into my getting out of a class. None of them wanted any part of it, more I think, because they only vaguely knew who Kurt Vonnegut was than because they didn't think it might be an interesting topic. Finally, I asked David Scott, one of the most conservative of the members of the faculty. And much to my surprise (probably his too) he agreed although he didn't even 'vaguely' know who Kurt Vonnegut was!
So David read five of Vonnegut's novels just so he could talk with me about the writer's 'theology'. Then he read my rather lengthy final paper. I wish I had a copy of it except I almost certainly remember it as more insightful, ground-breaking and brilliant than it actually was....
Here's the thing: a teacher who is willing to read five novels he would have never otherwise read in order to teach and evaluate a student's work—well, I don't know what is more committed to education than that. Reminds me of the character from the Canterbury Tales who would 'gladly learn and gladly teach'. Though we didn't agree on much of anything (besides, eventually, that Vonnegut was a very theological writer!), David Scott won my heart.
(Once in an ethics class, David suggested that masturbation could lead to loss of fine motor skills and most every student in the room dropped their pencils. Even though that actually happened, David had my heart. And God bless his....)
Fighting with Fitz
Fitzsimmons Allison was even more conservative than David Scott. When he left VTS it was to become Rector of St. James in Manhattan, the quintessential 'low church' of New York City. Then he became Bishop of South Carolina. If you know anything about the Episcopal Church, you realize being Bishop of South Carolina is theologically akin to being a bishop in the Global South. South Carolina rather redefines 'conservative' in the Episcopal Church. Fitz was the only other member of the staff besides the Dean who objected to my comparison of the front door of Aspenwall Hall and the theology of St. Paul to my preference for a door that would open easily and the theology to be derived from the accounts of Peter in the gospels.
We began to exchange opinions in the pages of the Ambo. I still have, somewhere, copies of what I wrote and what Fitz wrote in reply and what I wrote in reply to his reply and what he wrote in reply to my reply to his reply. Just like the previous sentence, all of our writings were rather discombobulated and not very interesting. It certainly wasn't up to what a debate between Calvin and Luther might have been like! It was a smart-ass student and an equally, though better educated, smart-ass professor throwing bricks at each others' glass houses. I'm too embarrassed about how lame my words and arguments were to even share them with you. I'm sure, from the perspective of all these years, Fitz would feel the same.
What our disagreement boiled down to was a vastly different view of 'human nature'. But isn't that always so in debates between the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, or, as we now call them in the Episcopal Church—Orthodox and Progressive. I was (and am) of the theological persuasion that we human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and just a little lower than the angels. Fitz contended that the whole point of the 'Fall' was true and human beings, not bound by rules, doctrine and dogma were not much above odious little vermin. I exaggerate both our positions, but you get the point.
I had suggested that a seminary with a 'high view' of human nature—which, coming from a Pilgrim Holiness background, I considered 'distinctly Anglican'--wouldn't need grades because everyone, for the love of learning and enlightened self-interest, would work just as hard without the threat of grades. Fitz contended that just because some people might indeed 'not need grades', the flotsam and jetsam of the student body wouldn't do anything but mess around and not study if there weren't grades to keep them in line.
Well, you can see from that little exchange that our debate wasn't a dialog of Plato. We eventually agreed to disagree, but I look back and thank him both for arguing with me and giving me credit by considering me a worthy opponent for argument.
I still believe I'm right about the being of human beings. Given all the considerations and pains and suffering of life, most people are better than we could otherwise expect them to be. Fits eventually left the Episcopal Church to be part of the movement associated with the ultra-orthodox theology of the Anglican Communion's Global South. So, true to form, he still believed he was right too.
What his gift to me was is the knowledge that people of vastly different views CAN agree to disagree and respect each other in the midst of their disagreements. There's not enough of that around these days in the church, or, for that matter, in the country or in the world. Respecting the integrity of you avowed opponent changes the playing field, makes it a place of honor rather than bitterness and unrequited anger.
As I said, there's not enough of that around these days, anywhere.
Jess, dear Jess
Jess Trotter was the dearest man you can ever imagine—probably more 'dear' than you have imagined or could imagine. He was a deeply spiritual Christian, a social activist of no mean repute and a father or grandfather figure to us all. He was my field work colloquium leader. Field work (which I did for two years at Christ Church, Capitol Hill) was a major part of the theological education at VTS when I was there. I pray it still is. Field work—actually being present to a real life parish or a ministry setting while in seminary—is the anchor that holds a theological education to this world and keeps the students from drifting off into an oh, so fascinating alternative reality of 'God Talk' devoid of what is so in the actual world. In my time as a parish priest, I have supervised 21 seminarians in their field work. Although those 21 young men and women taught me much more than I ever could have taught them about anything, I was responsible for grounding them in the 'real world' of church while they were still comfortably and safely ensconced in the womb that is a Seminary.
There is a great deal I could tell you about Jess. He was a priest and a man who had known great personal suffering. And unlike most suffering—which is mindless and nonsensical—the suffering Jess knew actually was salvific, actually made him a better man, a better priest, a better friend and guide. But beyond all that, he was as wise as a Buddhist Master, as learn-ed as a medieval scholastic, as kind as a loving mother, as gentle as a spring breeze in Alexandria, Virginia. Jess was a mentor, friend and brother to all the seminarians who fell under his spell. I would have sailed the North Atlantic in February if he told me to. I would even go into Washington D.C. And sit on the steps of St. Paul's K Street for two hours and look every person who passed in the eyes if he told me to.
Actually, it was that last thing—sitting on K Street, making eye contact with every person who passed that he suggested to me that I do. “And when you look at them,” he instructed me, “say to yourself these words, 'that is the One Christ died for', and if you can, begin to believe it.”
It is astonishing to me that I have had eleven years of education beyond high school. Eleven years of study, four degrees, and I all of that, the most valuable and useful lesson I learned took place in a two hour span, sitting on some steps of a church on K Street in Washington, D. C. on a May afternoon when I looked hundreds of people in the eye—members of Congress perhaps, federal workers, lawyers and doctors, clerks and secretaries, an insurance agent, several police officers, military folks in uniform, a mail carrier, delivery people, students, children, street people, illegal aliens, drug dealers, a prostitute or two I imagine, people black and brown and white and Asian, people who worked in the embassies around the city, harried mothers, people cheating on their spouses, the unemployed, the elderly, the infirm, people on crutches and in wheel chairs, rich people and poor people, people with every hue of hair and curl and people with no hair at all, a veritable panoply of the wanderers on the earth that is the human race. And each one I saw, I told myself, “this is the one, the very one, for whom Christ died.” I said that so many times, with such hope that I would believe it, that I came to understand the deeper Truth Jess was teaching in his gentle, unassuming way—each face I saw was, in a way beyond all believing, a Face of God.
I owe so many people—many of whom I haven't mentioned—so much from those years at Harvard and VTS. So many to whom I owe so much. But none more probably or more profoundly than I owe Jess.
To this day, like it or not (and often I don't like it!) I cannot look another human being in the eye and not say “This is the One—the very One—for whom Christ died”. And, because I realized what the point of the exercise was, finally, I know each face I see is, without doubt, one of the myriad faces of God, Charlie's God and Jess' God.
Here was Jess' genius, his
4. 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 IX priest. Title nine is a strange little piece of canon law sometimes referred to as 'the old man's canon'--though to be politically correct it should now be known as 'the old wo/man's' (if it's not 'ageism' to call people 'old'). Episcopal Church law is more strict about ordination than most denominations; however, Title IX is an 'out', a way around the rules and process for those late in life who feel called to priesthood. If the Church determines the call is legitimate (whatever that means!), the candidate is allowed to study privately, usually with a near-by priest or group of priests, take a seminary class or two if one is near, and be tested after the term of study is fulfilled.
That's what Fr. Dodge had done. He'd became 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 IX priests and even less for 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 someone to help me liturgically. Deacon's Masses, which are weird both theologically and as liturgy, would serve from time to time, but I thought the congregation deserved a 'real' Mass at least monthly 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 is embarrassing and humbling to read what I just wrote! I thought of myself as such 'hot stuff' in those days. I was God's gift to St. James Church and the world-wide Anglican Communion 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. But the fact was that I'd spent four years at Harvard and Virginia, neither of which has any claim to teaching liturgical practice. Worship at HDS began with Unitarian politeness and didn't go much further or deeper. Actually, any resemblance to 'Christian', much less Anglican worship was totally accidental. A typical chapel service at Harvard would include—in no particular order—readings from the Koran or Hindu scripture, a little jazz played by my friend Don 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 Eucharistic I remember was when Rabbi Katzenstein brought some matzos, 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 on the forefront of liturgical renewal.
Virginia Seminary, when I was there, was fiercely Low Church. That meant that worship was restrained, proper and in good order. No Popish nonsense would be allowed to infect the purity of Protestant Episcopal worship. One of the lame jokes we often told was this: “You know what streaking is at VTS? Running through the chapel in a chasuble!” There was a lot of controversy when I was there because 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 some candles and then (gasp!) incense and the adoration of the blessed sacrament.
The high mass Reginald Fuller did 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.
The problem was, Fr. Dodge didn't seem to follow any discernible 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 how. 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 you infinite love” he said, “in your INFANT love”! I mean, really, how much could the good folks at St. James and I stand 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 theology or 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.
The day of my ordination to the priesthood finally came. I invited Fr. Dodge to stand at the altar with me and the bishop out of guilt over what I planned to do. He was so excited about being at the altar with the bishop and about being part of the procession of two dozen other priests. He told me afterward 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 30 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 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 I really didn't need any coffee and that I'd had lunch already. “No,” I said, “I don't really 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. But 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—potentially 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 Spurlock, one of the saints of St. James, came to see me. She made an appointment and everything instead of just dropping in like usual. We ever sat in my office and made small talk—something Rimitha seldom did and wasn't good at. Finally, she cleared her throat and began....
“I wanted to come and find out if anything was wrong with Fr. Dodge,” she said. “I've noticed 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, “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 halfway to the door when I caught my breath and said, “Again?”
She spoke with her back to me. “Well, his first stroke wasn't too bad....”
“First stoke...”, 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 communion, of course, but Morris and the Colonel 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 that I would 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 glorious 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-of-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 Dante's 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 discovered I was sitting back down though I didn't remember doing it after I stood up when she started to leave. “No,” I said softly, “he never did.”
“Well,” she said, backing toward the door, “just shows what a humble man he was. Humility, I think, is what 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 Virginia Seminary on a regular basis was 'bridge before lunch”. There were half-a-dozen or so card tables in the room outside the refectory 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 Robert Wall. I was a novice at bridge but Robert was a master. He'd played in tournaments before coming to seminary. As inept as I was, Robert carried me. We were a good team—so good that none of our classmates would play with us but the underclass folks could be duped into a game.
They'd see us at a table and come over and ask if we'd like to have a game. Usually, since no one wants to be in over their heads, they'd say, “are you any good?” Robert would answer for both of us. “Jim's bad and I'm OK.” Then we'd embarrass them until lunch started.
Once, over lunch, just after Robert had taken a Five Spade bid by finessing the trey, I asked him why he didn't tell other people the truth about his ability.
He 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 came 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 said she doesn't trust anyone who hasn't had their face on 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 in life, the earth is patiently waiting for you. The biggest part of humility is perspective and point of view.
Things look rather distorted when you're a Hot Shot. It's like flying in an airplane and thinking about how everything 34,000 feet below 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 your point of view from up there.
While Remitha talked with me about Fr. Dodge, she knew what infamy I had committed, what a lying rat I had been. While she talked, my face descended from on high to the grit and grime of the pavement. The ground, the earth, the humus swallowed me up. It was a profoundly painful but blessed gift, one I'd need to receive countless times afterward.
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, if he only would, twice a month—once to celebrate and once to preach. 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, 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 iced 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 even 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 as he read. (In fact, I trained seminarians to do the same for me in the last decade of my full time priesthood!)
And, for the first time, I noticed what his magic was with the parishioners of St. James. He never pretended to remember names when he didn't. He simply asked politely. He listened to them with steady intensity 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 allow that if we can't talk about 'heaven' we must likely will never be able to imagine it...or go there....
Then he died, suddenly and in his sleep. It was my honor, after the bishop did the funeral, 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, even after his strokes, 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.
“It 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 humus of his garden (and in the heaven he so clearly imagined) while we went inside to tell stories, laugh and cry and eat some pecan pie.
- Some People I
I've mentioned the Rev. Wil B. Dunn earlier on in these musings. He was a character in the comic strip 'Kudzu' by Doug Marlette (also an award winning political cartoonist). The Rev. Wil was a rotund preacher who always dressed in black with a string tie and a huge hat reminiscent of Mexican padres. He was a cynical, self-serving minister who developed what he called 'a ministry to the fabulously wealthy' and pandered himself to a rich Southern bigot. Of course the comic took place in the South where Kudzu grows and such preachers as Wil are in abundance. Rev. Dunn and the strips title character, an angst ridden teenager named Kudzu Dubose, often had philosophical and psychological discussions while walking down a dusty country road. Kudzu would confess deep secrets to the pastor, looking for guidance. Once, when the teen asks, “What would you do if you were me?” Wil B. replies, “If I were you, I reckon I'd give up, change my name, have plastic surgery, and move to Nome, Alaska....” In the next frame Kudzu looks confused and depressed and the parson continues, “...of course, I'm not you.”
Another time, after Kudzu tells him one of his most profound thoughts, Rev. Dunn responds, “Son, don't ever tell that to another living soul.” In spite of his unorthodox counseling style, Wil B. often said, “Human Relations is my field....”
In a way, Human Relations is the only 'specialty' of the last generalists we call 'parish priests.' Once, when a friend, surprised to know (as people often were) that I worked more days than Sunday, asked me what I did on the other days. I told him, “I walk around and talk a lot.”
In fact, I also walked around and 'listened' a lot too. Language and presence are the only real tools of parish ministry, so far as I can see. And it is involvement in people's lives that defines the role of a priest. A cynical description of 'human relations' for priests, one I've heard too much, is this: “Hatch 'em, match 'em and dispatch 'em.” Baptism, marriage and funerals are some of the statistics about what a parish priest does, but it is probably just 'being there' that matters most, if it matters much. When I'm not being skeptical, I can see that 'being there' in peoples' lives matters a great deal.
HOWARD AND LEE-ANN
They just showed up one day for the Eucharistic. I knew Howard because he frequented the Soup Kitchen from time to time, and though he didn't seem like the typical guest, he was on a margin somewhere. Every once in a while, he'd help out the sexton or work in the parking lot for big services, gently telling the overflow cars where they might find a spot. He's a big man who's partial to wearing western clothes—cowboy boots and hat, a fringed leather jacket, little boa ties with a skeleton steer's head as the clasp to hold the strings together. He was an affable and humorous man without a steady job, though he was glad to work. He wasn't typical, but I came to think of him as one of the Wanderers on the Earth that passed through St. John's. But I couldn't, for the longest time, figure out why he wandered.
I found out from someone that Howard had once worked in construction, high-up stiff on bridges and buildings that paid a handsome salary. I asked him about it and he told me that no one would hire him any more.
“How come?” I asked.
He smiled, “I tend to fall too much....”
He had fallen from several stories twice, a couple of year apart, and ended up unconscious for a few days the first time and a few weeks the second time. “I guess they thought the medical costs were too big a risk,” he told me. “Bosses don't like paying for intensive care.”
Some time later, I asked Howard about his comas, which is what they were, after the falls. He was a bit vague about it all, but he told me something remarkable. “I guess I wasn't through with the work after the first time,” he said, growing uncharacteristically somber, “so they needed me to fall again so I could finish it.”
Question him as I might, he couldn't tell me who 'they' were or what the details of the 'work' of being unconscious was all about. However, he was adamant that a coma is a place where things go on in a different sphere, a different level of existence than being awake and walking around. And it wasn't like dreams, he told me, although his dreams became more and more vivid after the falls. But the 'work' wasn't dreamlike, it was 'real' in a way as real as being conscious is. I tried to imagine all that in a dozen ways. Sometimes I'd come up with a new metaphor and check it out with him.
“Was it 'work' like physical work?” I asked once. “Did you have to 'do' things? Who told you what to do?”
He grinned a crooked grin that by them I realized was most likely the results of brain trauma, and shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said, closing his eyes, perhaps trying to picture it in his mind. “Something like that, but not exactly. And they never told me who they were.
Later, I imagined them as angels who met him in some 'waiting room' between existences and encouraged him to finish something he needed to do in his heart or soul. That made Howard laugh until he had to wipe his eyes. “It sure wasn't heaven,” he finally told me, “or very holy at all.”
So, I went away to think about it some more. At least I had a reason why Howard didn't seem inclined to hold jobs and sought out the soup kitchen from time to time. Falling 40 feet or so and landing on your head once, much less twice, must have jumbled things up pretty well. He would never discuss the medical procedures he underwent. Either he was embarrassed about how much his brain had been tampered with by surgeons or he honestly had no idea what they had done to him while he wad doing his coma work. Once I knew the story, I did notice suspicious scars and indentations on his head and places where hair didn't seem to grow. And I began to suspect that his craggy, just out of line face hadn't always looked that way but was the best the doctors could do with what the falls had given them to work with.
I never thought of Howard as 'unfortunate'. He seemed to have a sunny and optimistic disposition and genuinely enjoyed his life, such as it was. I'd occasionally see him in the back of the church on Sundays and could tell when he reached out for the bread that his hands had done a great deal of physical labor. He almost always had tears in his eyes when he received the sacrament and would grip my hand with both his when I laid the wafer in his palm. His hands were huge and powerful. I didn't feel sorry for Howard at all. Then Lee-Ann showed up and I came to almost envy him.
Lee-Ann was from a whole different world than Howard. She was a schoolteacher, obviously bright, very well-spoken and dressed like a middle-class woman of 40-something. When they came to communion together that first day she was in church with Howard, his eyes were brimming over and he was smiling like a crazy man, beaming, radiant. 'The look of love' was all over him, breaking out from deep within and almost illuminating him. Howard was in his 40's as well and had never married, or, to my knowledge, ever been serious with women. But that day, kneeling beside her, glancing at me and then at her, he was like a child who had discovered something wondrous beyond compare, like a man who found a treasure in a field or a pearl of great worth. Everything about him spoke loudly. “Look what I found!” he was saying, without speaking a word.
Interestingly enough, that first Sunday I saw them together, there was an interment of ashes in the Close. When St. John's congregation approved the idea of burying ashes in our court yard, after a loud and unexpected debate, a committee laid out a parcel of ground where the ashes would go. It is discretely marked off with four stone markers that create a rectangle 6 feet by 15 feet or so. If you didn't know what you were looking for, you'd never find that burial ground—that was one of the stipulations of the committee. Since St. John's is in the middle of a city and the Close is a place of heavy traffic, the committee didn't want people to be able to find the burial spots lest they do something untowardly or disrespectful to them. So the rule was: “all ashes interred will be interred in the designated area.”
That Sunday I was breaking the rule, much to the chagrin of some folks, and interring some ashes next to the church, outside a Tiffany stained glass window that depicted an angel orchestra. I'll get to why I broke that rule somewhere else—suffice it to say that Howard and Lee-Ann witnessed the interment that morning.
When Howard introduced me to Lee-Ann, after the cremains were poured and the prayers uttered, she was wiping away tears and told me how moving she thought the interment had been. We talked for a while and then they went off, hand in hand like two teenagers, down the sidewalk to Lee-Ann's car. They became regulars at church after that and got involved in things Howard had never considered doing before Lee-Ann. They were fixtures after only a month or so. I can see them at the coffee hour in my mind's eye, leaning against each other, talking with a group gathered around them, drawn—I suspect—to the warmth of their obvious love. Howard bloomed in the wonder of his great good luck and in a few months they came to me wanting to be married.
All during their pre-marriage sessions, I couldn't keep a smile off my face as I asked the questions I typically ask and encouraged them to talk about their lives and their relationship. I don't think I've been, before or since, in the presence of a couple whose devotion was so palpable. It wasn't just Howard who had found a treasure in an unexpected field and was willing to give all that he had to that treasure. Lee-Ann was no less smitten. During the months I knew her she seemed to grow 10 years younger—her middle-aged good looks transforming into an ageless beauty. And I had no doubt that it was love that did the wonders for both of them.
Usually, when I ask a couple at the first session 'why they want to get married?', I tell them there is only one 'wrong answer'. And when they say “we're in love”, I tell them that is the one wrong answer because love will go away. I don't do that in a crass or cruel way, but it is important to me that people realize that like any 'emotion', love comes and goes. My skeptical assertion is only to lay the foundation for suggesting that marriage requires 'commitment' more than love—so that when the bad times come, times romantic love can't manage alone, there is something else to rely on. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” is, after all, what the vows say. And I just want to be sure that the couple understands that romanticism and infatuation and sexual attraction might not be enough to manage those vows without something nearer the bone, something like a choice you make rather than something you 'feel'.
I've had lots of couples balk at my suggestion that love might not be enough to forge bonds to withstand the realities of life. And, at least I don't go as far as my friend John, a psychologist who tells people in pre-marriage counseling that the moment will could when they realize it “would all be better if the other one would die right now!” I suspect that moment occasionally shows up in the course of a life-long relationship, but I soft-peddle it by telling couples that love comes and love goes and love comes again and it is in those times when love seems to be on vacation that they must reach down and let the 'choice' of being committed take over.
Howard and Lee-Ann smiled broadly at my assertion about 'love' not being the right answer. They looked at each other and glowed. “Don't worry,” Lee-Ann said, “we've got it handled.” And I must admit that I believed them completely.
Lee-Ann's teenage daughter from a previous marriage started coming with them to church. It was obvious that she was as taken with Howard as her mother was. The three of them struck me as a remarkable 'fit'--perfectly at ease with each other, gently teasing and totally committed. Lee-Ann, I decided was absolutely correct: the three of them had it handled.
The celebrations of marriage tend to run together over time, but I remember clearly the exchange of vows between Howard and Lee-Ann because they were both crying and laughing at the same time while they tried (with scant success) to repeat what I told them. And everyone in the church that day was crying and laughing as well. I don't remember anything quite like it.
So, you obviously realize by now that something as astonishing as the way these two star-struck lovers had found each other when neither of them had any intention of stumbling across such rare joy must end in profound tragedy. We are all skeptical enough to imaging the dropping of 'the other shoe' and cynical enough not to believe in Fairy Tales with 'happily ever after' endings. (Maybe it is only in retrospect that I can write such things. I know for sure that I wished them joy and long-life because I derived such pleasure from their happiness. But, after what happened, it is hard not to look back and imagine such a purity of human joy was bound to have something bad intervene. I simply don't know why it so often seems that bad things happen to good people.....But they do.)
On their honeymoon, Howard and Lee-Ann were white-water canoeing when their canoe capsized. It took Howard a few moment to find his feet since the water was rushing and the rocks were slippery beneath him. But he came up, sputtering and laughing, realizing he was in about two feet of water. He told me much later that he looked down stream first, thinking he would surely see Lee-Ann, drenched and bruised, but laughing as the sun sparkled off her orange life jacket and her golden hair. He waited a few moments and began to call to her, looking at the banks of the river—only 12 feet wide at that point—expecting to see her there waving. When he couldn't see her on the shore, a terror made worse by its unexpectedness suddenly gripped his heart and he started running up stream, as best he could, slipping and following considerable quantities of the roiling stream because he kept yelling, “O God! O God! O God!” over and over, reverting to that most simple and primal of prayer forms that disaster drives us to pray.
When the others realized Howard and Lee-Ann were no long with them, they pulled in the shore and rushed trough the woods, back up-stream. I was told, not by Howard, but by someone who claimed to have heard the story from one of the white-water group, that it took three men to drag him off her, on the river bank where he had dragged her limp body and tried everything to revive her. Howard broke one of the men's jaw and did damage to them all until he collapsed into a shattered heap that the EMT's carried out on a stretcher and delivered the two of them—one dead, the other praying for death—to the nearest hospital.
Two legends persist: either Lee-Ann struck her head and was knocked unconscious, face down, or somehow her life jacket tangled on the rocks and held her under until she drowned. I can only pray it was the former and she did not have to experience the unrelenting terror of being underwater, aware and hearing Howard's plaintive shouts of “O God!” as she died. Which ever really happened, she died in water not much deeper than a bathtub and much of Howard died with her.
I did more funerals than weddings in my 35 years as a priest, so they blur in my memory even more than the joyful celebrations. And I don't remember much about Lee-Ann's memorial service, not because it was just one of hundreds, but because it was one of those rare funerals when I was personally so grieved that I hardly remember being there, much less presiding. I believe that a priest develops a sixth-sense about joy and sorry so that he/she can begin to evaluate the mood of the moment. And that day, the day of Lee-Ann's service, was off the Richter Scale of mourning. It was like walking into the looking glass—the joy of the wedding was cruelly reflected in the stone-cold mourning and suffering of the funeral. And they were so close together as to make your head swim with incongruity, like being caught in the death's grip of a rushing stream.
There was no interment of Lee-Ann's ashes that day. Howard carried them with him in the front seat of Lee-Ann's car. When he got home, he put the box in his bed. He took her cremains wherever he went for several months. He stopped shaving and mostly stopped bathing and nearly stopped eating. He grew guant with grief and disheveled by disaster. His smile disappeared and, after finally bringing me the ashes to bury, so did he for a long time.
I had promised solemnly to God and the Close Committee to never again venture outside the designated burial after interring Sonja's ashes beneath the Angel Choir window. But when Howard finally brought Lee-Ann's ashes to me, he remind me that their first Sunday together at St. John's had been the day of Sonja's burial.
“Lee-Ann told me over and over,” he said, between shuttering sobs, “that she wanted to be buried under a window too. She said it so much I had to tell her to 'shut up' about dying.” Hepaused for a long time before continuing. “It was the only time I was ever angry with her. I just couldn't stand hearing her talk about dying....I couldn't stand it.”
So, for the second time, I broke the rule. Lee-Ann's remains are under the window next to the one where Sonja's ashes abide. For several Christmas' someone always put a poinsettia there, and at Easter a lily. I wasn't sure if it were Howard or Lee-Ann's family. He family took Lee-Ann's death almost as hard as Howard did. Like him, they disappeared until one November day, near Thanksgiving, a couple of years ago. Lee-Ann's mother called to ask if I had seen Howard, knew how he was, where he was....My answer was 'no', three times 'no'. She was disappointed and concerned. “I worry about him now,” she told me. “For the first few years I didn't want to see him, didn't want to be reminded of the sorrow...or the joy. But now I'm ready. If you see him, make him call me....”
One of the things we tell ourselves when people die is that at least we have the happy memories. But sometimes, remembered happiness is as sharp a pain as remembered loss. Especially when the joy was so complete and so short-lived as Howard's and Lee-Ann's. Mourning is a complicated enterprise—much lie doing work unconscious, not quite understanding the task or how to complete it, not knowing who or what is making you work, knowing it is as necessary as it is difficult.
I saw Howard several times I the last two years before I retired. Suddenly, he'd show up in the back of the church and bring himself, weeping openly, to the altar rail. Lee-Ann's family found him first. On rare occassions they'd track him down and come to church with him—her mother, her sister, even her daughter once. It was excruciating to see them together, but better to see them together—still broken in remarkable ways, but standing up and moving on, trying to smile, full of memories that ache with the heights of joy and the depths of despair.
Once, when they were there, I snuck out of coffee hour into the Close to smoke one of the cigarettes that drove most of the parish crazy. Those I served and who served me became 'the tobacco police' for me. They tried shame and fear to make me stop. I should, maybe I will. But that cigarette took me out where I saw Howard and Lee-Ann's mother and sister draped around each other, looking down at the little piece of earth beneath the Presentation in the Temple window where Lee-Ann rests. There was nothing to say, but I stood with them for a while, embraced each one and slipped silently away as they presented their tears and longing and, by that time in the process of their loss, their thanksgiving for Lee-Ann's life at the Temple of our achingly sad and profoundly radiant humanity.
When the idea of interring ashes in the Close first arose from a group of parishioners who wanted to find their final rest on the grounds of St. John's, I thought it was a slam-dunk, an idea whose time had not only come but to which no one could possibly object. After all, weren't church burial grounds a fixture in many places and didn't the cathedrals of Europe serve as crypts as naturally as they served as places of worship? A no-brainer of an idea that was brought to the Annual Meeting of the parish as an afait comple—right? Oh, no, beloved, not so fast....
Dr. Sweeny, a retired physician, one of the sweetest men I ever met, got up and started asking questions I could not only not answer, I could not exactly understand. He wanted to know about health codes and what if the church closed some day and a court house was built where the Close was now and about other laws we hadn't considered or looked into. By reputation alone—as a sweetheart and a brilliant doctor—he threw the meeting into chaos. Others were coming to the floor microphone to display their insights into a subject they had never considered before the previous five minutes. Motions were made and amended and voted down. Other motions were made, amended and tabled. Chairing the meeting, I was swimming in depths of Roberts' Rules of Order far beyond my ken. Finally, a motion for a full report on all the issues raised be prepared and a special parish meeting be called to make the final decision.
The whole experience reminded me that there's no such thing as an 'obvious answer' to a bunch of Episcopalians with a microphone. It also convinced me of the existence of my guardian angel, who blocked, during the debate and vote, the thought I had as soon as it was over, saving me from my poor impulse control. After the motion for a report passed and someone got up to talk about something else, I turned to Lucy, the Senior Warden, sitting beside me at the table and whispered, “that was an awfully long discussion over a few ash holes!” She laughed and whispered back, “thank God you didn't say that out loud!” And thank God I did...and my better angel as well.
At any rate, what was proposed and passed unanimously a few weeks later was, I must admit, a lot more 'put together' than the original proposal. Lots of details—like how to keep track of whose ashes were where, and some simple paperwork to be filed, and the rule about only interring in the designated spot came out of the extra time for thought. It was that last thing—the rule about not just burying ashes hither and yon but I a marked off spot—was the rule I broke when I interred Sonja beneath the Angel Choir/Orchestra Tiffany window.
When I first met Sonja, already a member of the parish for over 80 years, she was in her early 90's and spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings serving lunch to elders in St. John's auditorium. It was an outreach ministry done with the Commission on Aging. Sonja was, in many cases, 25 or more years older than the people whose plates she carried to their tables. She called them 'the old folks' and sometimes, 'the old farts' because Sonja had a mouth on her that would make a sailor, or most anyone, blush. She once told me, “when you're as damn old as I am, you can say anything you please.” Then she winked through and over the coke-bottle-bottom glasses she wore and pinched me. When you were as damn old as Sonja, you could also pinch and poke and kiss anyone you damn-well pleased too.
She had come to this country from Sweden when she was two or three with her baby brother, whom she adored, and her parents. She claimed to remember the voyage and coming through Ellis Island. And she certainly remembered having broken her leg when she was eight or so and sitting on a wall in front of her house with her leg in a cast. Along came John Lewis, the venerable Rector of St. John's from 1900-1940, in the first years of that long incumbency, out doing house calls. Dr. Lewis told her she was a pretty girl and asked if she went to church. She told him no and he went right in her house and signed up that Swedish family to come to the 'English' church. He baptized the two kids and welcomed her family and sat with them when the news came that her brother, who was a soldier in WW I, had been killed in action. She always carried a picture of her brother with her and her eyes would well up whenever she showed it to you. He was a handsome man in a uniform. It struck me as remarkable that I knew someone whose younger brother had died in the First War. To hear Sonja tell it, he signed up at 16, lying about his age. She was just out of high school and working. His death broke her heart.
She worked for one of the clock makers in Waterbury for 50 or more years. During much of that time, because she was small and agile, with supple fingers, she was one of the women who painted the luminescent, radium packed paint on the hands and numbers of the clocks so they would glow in the dark. She worked with tiny, delicate brushes that she kept pointed by placing them between her teeth and pulling them out, ingesting, over the years, more radioactive material than could possibly be good for you. Yale University did a long study of all the women who had painted the clocks. Many of them died young of bizarre diseases, cancers in obscure places. Sonja was the last member of the study group, living to be 103, and was hardly sick a day in her life. “I shine in the dark,” she told me, more than once. As Kurt Vonnegut was accurate in saying, “So it goes....”
(If anyone ever asks me what I think is the secret of longevity, I will tell them, “be skinny and never marry.” Sonja was far from being the only long-lived spinster lady I've encountered along the way. I always tried to keep up with whoever the oldest member of St. John's was at any point. The current leader, though I'm not there to keep tabs on such things any more, is Gladys. I remember when Gladys had massive surgery for colon cancer. She was 93 and weighed 85 pounds prior to the surgery. She, like Sonja, was eccentric and a tad crotchety. For example, her nephew told me that Gladys and one of her brothers didn't speak to each other for over 40 years due to some oversight neither of them had been able to remember for two decades. Also, like Sonja, Gladys has a quick and acrid wit. When a nurse came in and said, “Mrs. Lancaster, your chart isn't complete. We don't have a list of your medications.”
Gladys gave him a withering look. She'd already made it clear to him she didn't think male nurses should care for aging women. She said, her voice dripping with insult, “it's MISS, Sonny....And there's no record of my medications because I don't take any....”
He looked at her for a moment, slapped her chart shut and replied, “I guess that's the way to do it.” When he left, Gladys smiled at me with great satisfaction.
Three days after the surgery, she was eating solid food, fully dressed and read to go home. “I've gained five pounds in three days,” she told me.
“Better be careful,” I told her, “your weight might catch up with your age...” I love those tough old women.)
Sonja would talk about the indignities the researchers from Yale put her through over the years. “But,” she always added, “they give me a check for each check-up. I'm going to outlive them all.”
As irascible and opinionated as Sonja could be (and she had an opinion about everything and everyone) she was fun to be around, partly because of her cantankerousness and sardonic comments. She had a little fan club among the faithful of St. John's who always made sure she had somewhere to go for Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas. One Thanksgiving, a few years before she died, still and hale and hearth 100, everyone in her ad hoc support group was going to be out of town. One of them called me, frantic, and told me Sonja didn't have an invitation for Thanksgiving dinner. I told them I'd be honored to ask he and after some arguing about her not wanting 'to be a bother', she accepted gracefully. My children, who were in their teens, were horrified by the news that someone over 100 years old was coming to dinner. They already thought the collection of friends we generally have over on Thanksgiving were hopelessly senile and embarrassing—like me and their mother. But once Sonja got there, seated by the fireplace in the kitchen while dinner finished cooking, she somehow charmed them (or pinched and poked them, I'm not sure which) into sitting “for a minute”, she said, “and talk to an old woman.”
Sonja became the center of attention for the day (a role she relished in her own quirky way) and she regaled our children and our guests with stories galore and risque comments and remarkable puns about what others said. She ate everything on her plate and after I'd taken her home with a plate for the next day and come back, my son—a hard sell at any age, but especially back then—told me, his face and voice filled with astonishment: “Do you realize she's lived the whole 20th century and then some?” I did, of course, realize that, not nearly so brain-dead as a teen imagines his father to be. He shook his head and went on, “imagine what changes she's seen....” He said that almost dreamily. Then, after a moment's reflection, he concluded with a smile of admiration: “That is one classy old broad....”
And she was—profanity and pinching and poking notwithstanding. Sonja was a classy old broad. And more full of piss and vinegar than most anyone I ever met.
She had outlived her friends and all her family since there'd been no contact with Sweden over the decades. St. John's had become her family—the only one she had besides the people who lived around her in the elderly high rise just across the Green from the church. Most of them she considered 'old farts' or worse. It was the bosom of the church that nurtured her in her aloneness (I'm not sure she was ever 'lonely). It was her church family that loved her in spite of (and because of) her independence and stubbornness. Some of Guardians of Sonja at the parish would be frustrated at her unwillingness to accept the level of help and assistance they wanted to give. She would steadfastly refuse rides to church in almost any weather. “It's just across the Green,” she say, “a person needs some exercise.”
She was a musician and played the piano at 90 and 100 as well as most folks who say they play he piano. Her voice had abandoned her so she resigned from the choir at St. John's in her mid-90's. But she loved music, loved it profoundly. Her radio was always tuned to the classical station and in her last few years she played it so loudly that I'm surprised the old farts in her building didn't complain—but then, their hearing was probably much worse than Sonja's. This is where the offense I committed about the burial of her ashes came in.
One day she came to see me about her funeral. She was 98 or so, but she wanted to make the arrangements, she said, “just in case”. She picked the hymns for her service and said, “I'll leave the readings to you, I don't listen to them anyway.” Then she gave me that patented wink.
“One last thing,” she told me, “I want you to bury my ashes under that window with the angels making music. There's one playing a piano—I imagine that is me.”
I told her the rule about where ashes could be interred and even walked her out to show her where the spot was, right in front of a bench beside the walkway on the outside of the Close. She stood with me, letting me hold her hand, and shook her head.
“Some street person will piss on me if I'm there,” she said. “I want to be over under my window.”
Perhaps it was the audacity of taking personal possession of a priceless and irreplaceable Tiffany window that impressed me. “MY window,” she said, just like that. Or maybe it was wanting to fulfill the longings of a woman who had lived almost a century. Or, most likely, it was because I was afraid to cross Sonja on anything, much less something so final as that. At any rate, I told her I would bury her ashes where she wanted.
“Promise?” she asked.
“I promise,” I told her.
“Cross your heart and hope to die?” she said.
I solemnly crossed my heart. Then she winked and pinched me and refused both a ride home and my walking with her. She sat off down the sidewalk around the south side of the Green. I watched her all the way to her building's door. She stopped several times to talk to people and almost smacked someone who tried to help her at the crosswalk. One classy old broad—with an edge to her.
I remember ferrying Sonja to the doctor one day and then back home. It wasn't a long trip, but as we were driving, she kept pointing out 'landmarks' that weren't there anymore. She was able to remember where businesses that had been 'out of business' for 50 years had been, where homes of her friends and members of the church had sat—though long since replaced by different buildings. She pointed out restaurants and schools and factories, long gone, but not forgotten, by Sonja. I invited her to just ride around with me for a while and she demurred, never minding spending time with a younger man, which included all but a handful of the men on the planet. She had macular degeneration, but I knew from experiencing my father with the same condition, that periphery vision improved as it became harder to look 'right at' something. For an hour or more, I drove the main streets of Waterbury and more than a few of the almost forgotten streets—but Sonja remembered and told me the history of the city for the past century in that one short ride. Her mind never dimmed—God bless her—and she went into that mysterious darkness (finally!) with her brain still working. Sometimes she attributed her memory to sucking on radium for all those years or to her Swedish genes or to just 'paying attention' for so long.
Sonja liked a glass of wine and she liked music and she always wore a wig, sort of a Mamie Eisenhower-looking haircut, mostly gray as befitted her great age. I never knew it was a wig, being genetically impaired from noticing such things, until I saw her in the hospital during the last days of her life. I walked into her room and saw this woman with snow white hair, thin and long enough to reach well down her back, in the bed. Her hair was so white it almost disappeared into the pillow and sheets. I was reminded of the shock I had visiting my 'Mammaw' Jones in the nursing home and seeing her hair down. Mammaw always wore her hair in a tight little bun on the back of her head since the Pilgrim Holiness people thought a woman's hair was too erotic to display to the world. Orthodox Jews believe the same thing and their women wear wigs as dowdy as Sonja's once they are married. Muslim women wear the head scarf. Hair IS erotic, and as shocking as it was to me, seeing Sonja with her hair down, spread out around her in the hospital bed made me want to weep with wonder. It was beautiful—that century old hair—fine as strands of silk and white as the hair of Scandinavian fashion models.
“My God, Sonja,” I said, not practicing impulse control very well, “you're a toe-head!”
She winked and I saw it quite well since the hospital had taken her glasses as well as her wig. “Pretty snazzy, huh?” she said. Sonja, I suddenly realized, had been alive when 'snazzy' became something people said. She had lived through and outlasted over a century of language innovations. It was an odd thing to reflect on, but my mind was throwing up thoughts from the sub-conscious level to distract me from the certain fact that when you're 103 and in the hospital, all is not well. I sat with her for a long time, not saying much, and she, for a change, wasn't chatty. I just held her hand, astonished by how strong it still was—the better to pinch and poke with—and wondered what on earth she was thinking.
A few days later, I visited her in another hospital room. She had a roommate who seemed to be comatose and was hooked up to all sorts of medical gadgets that sighed and whimpered and ticked. The woman looked terribly familiar to me, but then, I told myself, old people all look alike.
Sonja was sitting up in a chair, covered with sheets and gadget free. She smiled at me when she saw me out of the corner of her eyes, which was, after all, the only way she could see me...or much of anything.
“How are you doing, Sonja?” I asked, kissing her cheek and having her almost crush my hand as she took it.
“I'm in a damn hospital,” she said, “how well can I be doing?” Then she winked.
It turned out that she was ready to leave the hospital, according to the doctors. She told me a social worker was imminently coming to talk with her about discharge. “They want to send me to a nursing home,” she whispered, almost conspiratorially, “but I'm not going.”
I tried to be rational and honest and explain to her that she couldn't imagine she was well enough to go back to her apartment. She listened with simmering impatience and then said, “I'm not going to a nursing home, mark my word....”
So we spoke of other things and I gave her communion and kissed her cheek before leaving. She grabbed my neck with her strong right hand and squeezed until I thought I might cry. “Did you see my friend next door?” she asked, finally releasing me. I thought she meant 'next door' at her apartment and was trying to explain I didn't even know who lived next door to her when she interrupted, rolling her cloudy eyes at my stupidity, and said, “no, I mean in the bed 'next door'.”
It turned out that it was another member of St. John's, a woman in her 90's—another skinny, unmarried woman in her 90's—who had been in a nursing home for as long as I'd been at St. John's. That's why she looked so familiar to me, but my ageist prejudice had kept me from recognizing her myself. When she died, a few weeks later, it was discovered that she had left her estate to St. John's, nearly a million dollars she and her unmarried brother, who had died two years before, had saved up over the years they lived in skinny, unmarried bliss. Nobody had imagined such a bequest from her. But when I turned back toward Sonja, surprise on my face, she told me, “I knew her and her brother well. They both worked for the phone company. She's got money, you know....”
I anointed that parishioner, but not Sonja, because I knew Sonja would relent and go to a nursing home, alternatively driving the staff crazy and seducing them into loving her, and outlive us all. Freda, beside her in the next bed, was not long for this world I could tell. So I gave her the last rites of the church and prayed for a speedy release for her from earthly bonds. And I was struck later by what the odds were about two women of such ages who had know each other for over half-a-century and had gone to the same church, ending up in the same room in a hospital in a city of over 100,000. Just my sub-conscious mind working overtime again, I believe. As I was finally leaving the room, I met the social worker coming in to talk with Sonja.
“You've got your work cut out for you,” I told her. “Sonja says she's not going to a nursing home.”
I said it light-heartedly, figuring that Sonja would relent finally, after an extended bout of contrariness. I also thought I'd better come back the next day to see Freda, if she lived that long. But, like she always did, Sonja surprised me and Freda outlived her. After her contentious conversation with the social worker and her oath-filled promised never to go to a nursing home, Sonja asked to be put back in bed where—either out of an act of will or ultimate stubbornness—she died within the hour.
Her funeral was one of those rare occasions where all the tears—and there were plenty of them—were out of relief that Sonja hadn't suffered and out of joy for having had the pleasure of her company on this odd journey from cradle to grave we are all on.
After the service, an elegantly dressed man with a Spanish accent came up to me and hugged me. His cologne was both expensive (at least to my spell) and perfectly applied. He was like a gentleman just arrived from the Pampas or Old Spain. He told me how much he had loved Sonja—he and his 'friend'--and that he was so moved by her funeral that he would become a member of the parish. I thanked him, asked his name and decided I probably wouldn't ever see him again. Lots of people tell me, after weddings and funerals, that they are going to join the church. I chalk it up to emotions that will soon fade. But they don't always and he was a member of the church for quite a few years before he died. Even after we started a Spanish Eucharist, Diago kept coming to the English mass. He was elegant to the end of his life. He always hugged me and his cologne was never overdone and was certainly not anything you could buy in a drug store. He was one of the gifts, out of multitudes, that Sonja gave to St. John's.
Sonja, because she always 'handled' things well, had made arrangements with a funeral director. She came to the church in a casket and was afterward cremated. That's why her interment beneath 'her window' was on a Sunday. We kept her in the vault for a few days. There were often some cremains in St. John's vault awaiting final disposition. Sometimes they were there for quite a while, until the family could get everyone assembled from across the country, things like that.
(The reason I started storing cremains in the vault was that one Sunday we were doing an interment between the two services and, lo and behold, the funeral parlor had forgotten to bring the cremains down on Friday! Luckily, one of the partners in the firm was a member of the parish and rushed out to get the box of ashes. He arrived back just as I was about to inter a box of 48 black magic markers instead. I usually don't let the folks stay until I pour the ashes in the hole since they are as light as cigarette ashes and tend to blow around a bit.)
It might seem a bit macabre, but I actually felt good about having folks around, living in the vault (well, not 'living' living, but resting there for a spell. Like Freda, Sonja left her earthly possessions to St. John's. There wasn't a lot of them and most of them—pots and pans, furniture, clothes, towels and such—we gave away to various agencies who could pass them on to someone else. We kept her upright piano and it still resides (I imagine) in the Guild Room on the third floor of the parish house. It's not especially good and is most likely out of tune, but sometimes someone plays it for the church school children to sing. Someone, I hope, might tell them the story of where it came from and the remarkable woman who owned it and gave it to the church. History, after all, is a much too neglected object of conversation these days.
Two of Sonja's church family and I were the ones who cleaned out her apartment. Among so very fetching photos of Sonja's life we found a lot of her with another woman over several decades. As we passed them around, one of the people said, “this must be the woman she always called 'my friend', don't you think?” I had heard her say it a few times. I remember her saying, “my friend and I used to...” (fill in the blank) and “after my friend died....” Then I remembered the words of the elegant Hispanic man at her funeral: “my friend and I loved Sonja....”
We sat there, the three of us, and looked at photos of Sonja and 'her friend' through the years. No one said it out loud, but I believe we all knew we'd tripped over the obvious. Those two women in dozens of poses: joyful, solemn, teasing, smirking, laughing...all the while growing older—from young, handsome women on a beach, to older, less playful women in front of a monument, to middle-aged women on a porch, to the women they were, in their 60's in a living room beside a fireplace. I don't know about the other two people, since we didn't say it out loud, but I had a rush of happiness. Sonja had spent some 40 years of her great, long life, with someone she obviously (from their faces in those pictures) loved profoundly. She hadn't spent her life 'alone'. She had 'a friend'. And they were in love. Sonja just happened to outlive her by 40 years.
The other thing we found was a lot of literature from the group called the Rosicrucian Order. That group, an esoteric cult from the 17th century, mostly Germans, claimed connections to the church of the first century. The whole mess is too complicated to explain simply, so let it go at this: Rosicrucian ('The Rose Cross') theology/philosophy posits a 'college of Invisibles' from inner worlds, composed of individuals who were 'Adepts', sent to aid in the spiritual development of humanity. Rosicrucian literature is a mish-mash of hermetic philosophy, alchemy, connections (however vague) with the Sufi sect of Islam and an influence of Free Masonry. People like Francis Bacon are suspected of being members of the orders and Adepts. It is Christian occult raised to the highest level and on steroids. Where is Dan Brown when we need him? The DeVinci Code didn't scratch the surface. Lordy, lordy, Sonja might have been and Adept! Who knew? Who could have known? It was a secret society after all.
Surprises emerge when people sift through what you leave behind after entering that mysterious door to whatever comes next. Be careful what you leave behind, unless your purpose is to leave behind a few choice bits for people to mull over. Which wouldn't surprise me at all where Sonja (God bless her soul) was concerned.
So we interred her ashes one fine Sunday morning after the 10 a.m. Eucharist, on the very day that Lee-Ann decided to come to church with Howard. The rest you already know.
Before Sonja died and Lee-Ann died, Jonah died.
Jonah isn't his real name, of course. I haven't been using anyone's real name in the stories of these people. Those who knew them will recognize them no matter how I change the names. But I call him Jonah since the Biblical Jonah was swallowed by a fish and the Jonah I knew was swallowed up whole by life.
I had two incarnations in my life at St. John's. I was there before I was 'there'. I was the supply priest for four months until the parish called a full-time interim rector to be there until they called a rector a year or so later...which was me again.
One of the first Sundays as supply priest, I was in the middle of my sermon when a man came down the side aisle, dressed in ragged clothes, carrying a broom and shouting what seemed to be a mixture of light profanity and quotes from the Bible. This happened at the 8 a.m. Service with only 20 or so people there. I was in the pulpit, four feet or so off the floor of the nave and Jonah (as I learned he was called) stopped right beneath me and looked up, respectively removing his hat. He addressed me as 'Preacher' and launched into a series of questions about 'webs' and 'the fuckin' Virgin Mary' and 'why won't the Lord leave me alone?' Since he never paused in his tirade to offer me a chance to answer his questions, I waited until the stopped for a breath and said, “Tell me, sir, what is your name?”
“Jonah,” he said, seeming suddenly quiet and almost sane.
“Jonah,” I said sincerely, hoping to hell that it worked, “I want to thank you for all you've told me. I want to thank you, Jonah....”
He looked at me for a long moment. Then he put his hat back on and said, “you're welcomed, Preacher”, then left with his broom.
After the service, the congregation was almost giddy and surrounded me, smiling broadly, all of them.
“That was just right, Fr. Bradley,” one of them said.
“The last Rector didn't know how to deal with Jonah,” another told me.
“Wanted to have him thrown out when he came in,” someone interjected.
“But you did the right thing,” another added.
“He's harmless, you see,” one more suggested.
“And we don't mind him at all,” was the penultimate statement.
“Not at all. We rather like him,” someone said and they were all silent, smiling.
I had passed the Jonah Test—a pop quiz I'd never expected. They were so pleased that Jonah hadn't been mistreated that I didn't have the heart to tell them I had no idea what I was doing when I spoke to him.
Here's the story in short-hand that took me several years to learn. Jonah had come from a good family in Woodbury, an upscale suburb of the city. He had inherited and improved his father's general contracting business. Jonah built houses and office buildings and strip malls all over central Connecticut. He had a beautiful house and a lovely family—two daughters who were 9 and 11 when he lost them. He was a pillar of the community and obsessed with making money to add to the money he already had, oblivious to his own peril. One day he came home from work, late of course, after dinner and just before the girl's bedtime to find a darkened house and a note from his wife that they were gone....Gone.
His wife had cleaned out their bank accounts and most of their investments—at least that's how the story goes that I pieced together over time. Then she simply disappeared with the two girls who were the love of his over-worked, money-grubbing, there-is-never-enough life. Such as it was. And when they disappeared, I mean 'they disappeared'. None of the private detectives Jonah hired or the relatives of his wife he contacted could find her. Not for years. By the time I knew him he had somehow found her and carried a phone number with a Florida exchange on a slip of paper in his shirt pocket at all times. A couple of times I called her—and his brothers—for him, but they never wanted to talk to Jonah. By then the bridges had been burned and collapsed into a river that washed them to the sea.
Jonah walked out on his business—leaving houses and strip mall half built and involving him in law suits that became frivolous when he came back from wherever he went...Nineveh or Denver or someplace. When he came back he was a consummately broken man—financially, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. It was a few months after his family disappeared that Jonah disappeared as well. He was gone (according to the stories I heard from others) for a long time. The fish of life swallowed him up and spit him out on some foreign and punishing shore. I tried to decipher the tales he told me when I talked with him, and I talked with him a lot. But part of it was gibberish and part was mental illness and all of it was in a code that only Jonah possessed the key for, and he wasn't telling.
Colorado figured prominently in his ramblings, and trains, and a 'she devil' somewhere, and the webs the Virgin Mary spun to ensnare him, and the not so beatific vision of a Lord who wouldn't leave him alone or release him from his personal purgatory. So, to appease the Lord who bedeviled him, he swept the streets of Waterbury and fed the pigeons on the Green. I often watched him feed the pigeons. He would come up with loaves and loaves of day-old bread (the kind just perfect for French toast—and sit on one of the benches of the Green to scatter the bread for the birds. After a while, because there were so many pigeons and so much bread, Jonah would disappear, swallowed up in the soft, feathery belly of a whale sized flock of birds. I worried about him, surrounded like that by a hundred birds or more—but then I'm of the generation that grew up with nightmares over Alfred Hitchcock's movie. Jonah was older than me and, if I'm not projecting too much, was most likely comforted by the blanket of birds that covered him, by the sweet down feel of their bodies, by their weight against him, by the cooing noise they make. The worse he ever experiences were some peck marks on his hand and claw wounds on his face. He didn't seem to mind.
He was always around. He did the circuit every day: from Immaculate Conception church, where he left flowers or a box of Russel Stover's candy before the state of the Virgin; to St. John's, where we would talk; to the corner grocery stores and convenience stores who would give him a loaf of bread until he had enough; to the pigeons on the Green an finally to his primary job of sweeping the streets. I would give him money on occasion and at the first of the month, he would bring it back two-fold. “I need to give you something for trusting me, Preacher,” he would say.
Once on a Good Friday, during the interminable three hour service we Episcopalians have, he came up to me during one of the extended silences. I was sitting in my black cassock in the chancel, trying to appear somehow penitent and grave, when Jonah came right up and said, “Preacher, can I have $10?” I could reach my pocket through the convenient slit in the garment and gave him the money more to get rid of him than out of the goodness of my heart. Twenty minutes later, he was back with a $10 box of candy. He came up in the chancel again and gave it to Mary Ann Logue, the Curate of St. John's at the time, a woman in her mid-50's who Jonah always called “the white haired preacher woman with nice breasts”. Mary Ann had learned 'Jonah Control' by that time, so she tanked him in a whisper and reminded him he needed to be going. After the service I told her, “the next time I see him I'm going to give you $10 and cut out the middleman.” But that would have ruined the fun and my continuing adventure of trying to figure out “Jonah World.”
For a couple of years I kept notes on what Jonah told me each day, but after that time I realized I was collecting code and gibberish on paper so I gave it up. I visited him once in the boarding house where he lived. His room was surprisingly orderly and spotless. He was clean and fresh from a shower, his hair carefully combed. He gave me a warm Coke and a stale cookie he found in a drawer. He continued the tale he always told and I left both astonished by his room's neatness and his appearance and more confused than ever.
(My older first-cousin, Marlin Pugh, once took me into his room that he had painted black and gave me two packs of Dentine gum when Dentine was smaller and more potent than today. He insisted I chew them all while he told me this strange and wondrous story:
“One dark and stormy night, three tramps sat around a fire. One said, 'Antonio, tell us a tale', so Antonio began....'One dark and stormy night, three tramps sat around a fire, one said 'Antonio, tell us a tale,' so Antonio began, One dark and storm NIGHT, three tramps sat around a fire. One said, 'Antonio, tell us a tale'....So Antonio began: 'ONE DARK AND STORMY NIGHT....' “)
I realized as I was writing it that there is no way, even for an old English major, to figure out how to punctuate the story of Antonio and his two fellow tramps. There aren't enough ways to distinguish between the quotes within the quotes within the quoted, for one thing. And, for another, the whole story, which Marlin carried on for 10 minutes or so while my mouth burned from Dentine, is utter nonsense raised to the level of the sublime. And that was Jonah's story as well. No way to punctuate it or understand it or decipher the code. All that—understanding his story and all—dwelled deep in the profoundly damaged mind of Jonah, who showed up back in Waterbury after his three year exile during which he experienced God know what, wandering the country in search of his daughters. And when he reappeared, he wasn't the successful, canny businessman he had been. He was a crazy man with a broom.
Early in January of 1992, after I'd know Jonah for two and a half years (nearly four years if you count the time I knew him when I was the supply priest), he came to my office as discouraged and frustrated as I'd ever seen him. Discouragement and frustration increased his powers of profanity, so excuse this memory of what he said.
“God-damn the Lord, Preacher,” he began, “I've been sweeping the streets for years now to set those fucking people free and I set them free and the damn Lord and the motherfucking Virgin Mary still won't let me stop sweeping. I'm supposed to go and fucking sweep the God-damn snow today on this shitty, fucking cold day! Why won't they let me be?”
Jonah literally collapsed into a chair in my office and his worn, wet broom fell to the floor. While he rested, I had a remarkable realization. During the last days of December 1991, the Soviet Union had imploded in on itself and the former satellite nations had declared independence. In some mystical and convoluted way, Jonah believed he had swept the Soviet Union away by sweeping the streets of Waterbury. Or else, that's what 'the Lord' told him: “Sweep these streetus until the Soviet Union is free and you will be free as well.” Or perhaps it was what the Virgin Mary told him: “I must keep you in my webs until you bring me enough candy and flowers and set those people in Eastern Europe free to worship me....”
I truly don't know about the voices he heard, but I know he believed them and I know he believed he had accomplished his Herculean task and deserved to be set free of his madness, his compulsions, his jabbering and his pain.
I felt like I'd found the lost chord or the missing link...and yet, I was no closer to Jonah without his madness than ever, I simply understood a tiny part of what was a harmless but haunting psychosis. He was as crazy and tormented as ever; perhaps even more so since the voices he heard—the Virgin and the Lord—had lied to him, misled him, used him horribly and for what purpose? What purpose indeed?
Some Waterbury fire-fighter, who deserves to be knighted if not made a saint, took Jonah in for the last couple of years of his life. I visited them in the fire-fighters neat little ranch house. Jonah was suffering from heart disease, little wonder, and never got over the betrayal of the Lord and the Virgin Mary and never escaped the Lord's command to sweep and feed the pigeons nor the Virgin's webs that kept him from being free.
He died, I was told, on the Green, feeding the pigeons. I was on vacation at the time. So when I came back and heard he was dead, his body swept away by his sane and successful brothers for a private, anonymous burial, I was saddened greatly that we never said goodbye. It's only a tale I heard around a fire bout his death, but I'd finally like to imagine he didn't so much die as he was ultimately swallowed up by the whale that haunted him all the latter years of his life, turned him upside down and inside out with grief and loss, left him on a small boat in a large and angry sea that gave him no rest.
I wonder about his wife and daughters—grown now, with children of their own. What stories do they tell of their father? And how could they know what a tattered and broom-carrying prophet he became: a prophet of the way life can be so tragic and messy and unfathomable and crazy that it will finally swallow you whole?
I wonder if the pigeons on the Green ever missed him—which makes me wonder about the life-span of a pigeon and whether memory can be passed on through the DNA of their species.
It all comes down to this, after all—for Jonah and Sonja and Lee-Ann and me and, ultimately, you: it comes down to the living and the dying and the being astonished by the cast of characters we meet along the way. The final choice is simple—dispair or hope. Human relations boils down to that in the end, and little more.
I miss Jonah and I live with the hope that somehow, in this life or the next or somewhere in between, we all get repaired, renewed, filled up with some abundance of life.
But, who knows? Who could know? Who, after all, would want to know?
- Is there life after Funerals?
When I retired from full time ministry, I told a couple of the Funeral Directors I worked with that I would be available to do 'trade funerals'. (Two things from that sentence: 'trade funerals' are funerals for people who don't have any connection to a church but think of themselves, however vaguely, as Christians; secondly, what used to be known as 'morticians' prefer to be called 'Funeral Directors'.) In my 35 years as a priest, I've decided most of them deserve that title. They do much more than 'mortuary service'--embalming, dressing, burying people's bodies. The really good Funeral Directors deal with a lot of pain in their work. They 'direct things' for people who, because of grief or shock or guilt, aren't up to 'directing' things for themselves. Death catches people unawares, even when the lead up to the death has been months, if not years, of fear and suffering.
“When people die it is like a bird flying into a window on a chill February morning.” That is a line from a poem I read in college. It was a poem written by a friend of mine about her friend who died in Viet Nam. (Lord, it's been so long ago—that war that formed my generation one way or another—and it is still as new as today for me.) Lila's poem seems universal to me though. She talked about the shock and disbelief that death brings. “When people die it's like bears are loose in the streets, gobbling up the children.” That's why who don't fret about it during most of their lives, want clergy at their funerals. And that's why, people need someone to 'direct' the funerals for them.
Any how, I got a call just over two months after my retirement from Lou, a funeral director in Waterbury, telling me when this particular family with their particular needs came in, he knew I was the only person he would trust to do the service. Well, he had me hooked by appealing to my ego, which, a friend once told me, was 'as large as Montana'. So I said 'yes', then Lou, that sneak, told me it was a service at the funeral home, during the wake, for a 16 year old girl who had been raped and murdered by a friend of hers. That happened at the base of this enormous illuminated cross that soars above I-84 on the way to Waterbury. The cross is in a place called Holy Land. Holy Land was the creation of some overly-zealous Italian guy decades ago. He had the cross erected and then tried to recreate Israel in Connecticut. I've been up there before. The whole thing has fallen into ruins of Israel in the midst of a forest of sorts with paths through it going all the way up to the highest point in the area where the cross stands. A group of Filipino nuns now own the property, but it has become the hangout of teenagers from all over the area.
(An aside of import before more about Phoebe's wake. Lou, the guy who called me, is someone I've worked with a lot over the last two decades. His funeral home is well known and respected in the area and though it is 'an Italian funeral home', ethnicity being still important around Waterbury, many Episcopalians use it. One of my favorite people at St. John's was Nancy. She was a Warden, a remarkably active member, a generous and gentle woman and a dear friend. She used to make me egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches when I would go to her house for lunch. Some of the best of both I've ever eaten...that was Nancy's gift, to give only the best.
Lou was the funeral director who got the 'call' to collect Nancy's body from the hospital when she died. Her son and I were in her room when she passed through that wondrous and terrifying door to what ever comes next. She would be moved to the mortuary in the hospital, where Lou would pick up her body. But he came to the room instead and sat by her bed and wept, holding her dead hand. From that moment on I would trust him—as brusque and 'God Father Italian' as he appeared. “Hey, Father,” he would say over the phone when he called about a funeral, “I got one for you....” But I knew this: whoever cried at Nancy's deathbed was a friend of mine.)
So, when Lou called I would have agreed to do the service even if he hadn't massaged my ego. 'Death', after all, is what priests' DO. In my years since ordination I have officiated at well over half a thousand funerals. And sat by that many and more death beds. And been with many hundreds of families as one of the ones they loved was reaching out for the doorknob of that wondrous and terrifying door—the door all of us will open and enter sooner or later. God bless us. Really, God bless us....
There is an ancient Roman priest in Waterbury who is legend among the Funeral Directors of the city. One of them told me Fr. Spinelli performed over 200 funerals a year. In his 80's himself, he buried more people in a year than I buried in a decade. In my 35 years as a priest I've done over 500 funerals. Some of them were for people I never really knew who had families and friends who mourned them in ways I never experienced. And then there were several hundred who were members of my parish and friends of mine. And I tried to 'perform' (a terrible description of what I do at funerals, but not inaccurate) each one with the same focus and commitment as any other.
Funerals are vital and holy moments. Whenever we brush up against death, things get sacred in a hurry. Not nearly enough attention is paid, in my mind, to the importance of funerals in the training of priests. There is really nothing else, for a priest, besides the weekly observances of the breaking of bread for the community, that equals the obligation and opportunity of presiding at funerals.
We are rubbed raw with emotion when people die. (“When people die it's like a man man is in charge of the power plant: Light/Dark/Light/Dark.... When people die.”) There is no other moment when it is so profoundly necessary for a priest to be present. Not to 'clear things up' or say something meaningful, but simply to sit by the bed of the dying or hold the hands of the living and shake your head slowly when asked 'the meaning' of it all. That's what people need in a time of seeming meaninglessness—someone to agree that is so, just so the mourning folks don't think they are crazy.
Unusually enough, Phoebe's funeral wasn't the worst one I ever attended. In fact, if such a thing is possible, the wake of that 16 year old child—victim of a boy she considered a 'friend'--was less troubling than many. Her paternal grandfather took the microphone and invited people to come up and tell “Phoebe stories”. And people did—former teachers, red-eyed friends, members of the family—and the stories somehow took much of the pain and shock and horror of her death out of the room. There was also a screen that was full of slides of her—it was a power point, I think, and in the pictures Phoebe was full of life. Since she had been cremated, there was no coffin to draw attention to the reality of her death. I suppose Ibsen was right, there is no suffering that cannot be borne if we put it in a story and tell the story to each other.
The worst funeral I ever participated in was the service for Joan, a beautiful woman of 40-something in the first parish I served. Joan suffered from bone cancer—not a way I'd pick to die—and she did suffer from it. In the last days even the sheet on her hospital bed brought her pain. I knew dead was near so I visited her every morning for the last week or so. The last morning I broke one of the few rules I have about what I do. I didn't go to the nurses' station to check on her condition but simply walked into her private room. The fact that the door was closed didn't surprise me since Joan had complained about the constant and sometimes disturbing sounds of the wing.
So I walked in to find her naked on her bed, her feet tied together with gauze and her arms straight down at her sides. She was being prepared to go to the morgue in the basement. The nurse who was washing her turned to see me, shocked at first but recognizing me, she simply said, “less than an hour ago. She's finally at peace.”
I had to agree that Joan's face was uncreased by pain for the first time in a year. She looked serene and lovely. Finally at peace, indeed.
Joan's funeral was one of the “mixed funerals” I had at St. James in Charleston. Sometimes the deceased was the Episcopalian and the family were black Baptist or AME or something more fundamentalist than that. Joan had joined the Episcopal Church while in college to escape the harshness of her family's faith. But they insisted that the funeral should be in the funeral home and their 'preacher' would help me. I knew Joan wouldn't have wanted that but I was young them and not bold enough to stand up for the dead against the wishes of the grieving family.
The funeral director was a Baptist but he well understood the Episcopal Church's ways. So, just before the service he closed the coffin and helped two of the women from the church put the pall on. I had been talking with Preacher Jones for 10 minutes before that, agreeing that he could speak for a while and I would do the burial office from the Prayer Book. “And Preacher Jones,” I said in my harshest whisper, “the coffin remains closed....” (I had been to family funerals of some of the other members of St. James and seen how a closed coffin would be opened to let the congregation have one more look at the dead.) Preacher Jones, a retired coal miner with several fingertips missing, hadn't been within spitting distance of any seminary of any kind and didn't know the Episcopal practice any more than he knew how to speak Hindi. I was going to stay in control of the service.
“Yes sir, Father,” he told me, “just the way you want it....”
After the solemn, lovely tones of the liturgy and readings, Preacher Jones got up to begin his sermon. He started out softly, reminding people of 'Otto, the Orkin Man'--a popular ad campaign for a company who specialized in pest control...mostly termites. He was using Paul's image of the earthly body and the heavenly body--'tabernacles' in his King James language. He said that Joan's earthly tabernacle had been ravaged and that the doctors and treatments were like Otto's work on our houses when they were infested by termites. But her heavenly tabernacle would be perfect and in need of no cancer control. It was an interesting metaphor and I was thinking about how that was closer than I could come to describing the bodies we supposedly will have in the Kingdom. I drifted off a moment in the image and was propelled by to full alertness when I heard him say, in one of those low, rolling voices Black preachers are so good at: “I believe there are some here who have not had the privilege of viewing Sister Joan's earthly tabernacle one last time....”
I rose and touched his arm. “Preacher Jones,” I whispered, “don't go there....”
But by that time several people were moving down the aisle toward the coffin. Jumping away from me like a much younger man than he was, he snatched the pall and pulled it from Joan's coffin. The two ladies from St. James practically dived forward to grab it before it hit the floor. I couldn't get to him because was already surrounded by weeping and wailing mourners. The decent good order the BCP had brought to the room was gone, replaced by a frenzy of what posed as grief but seemed to me to be pure dramatics.
The funeral director was pushing forward to try to restore things to some sense of decency but Preacher Jones was pulling on the locked lid, jarring the casket around. Evan, the funeral director, looked at me with horror—he told me later that Joan's funeral convinced him that the Episcopal practice was, after all, the best way. I nodded to him and he opened the casket with the tool he used before Preacher Jones and the surge of people could knock it from its stand.
What happened then was a tempest of despair. One woman was actually keening and a large transvestite (I knew she was because her name was Robert) actually lifted Joan's body up and held her for a while, sobbing all the time. The storm stopped almost as suddenly as it began. Evan straightened Joan's clothing as best he could in a room full of people, quietly closed and secured the lid and with the help of the stricken women from St. James, restored the pall to its place.
Preacher Jones was worn out by then and after getting some “Amens” from the congregation, went back to his seat. I finished the service though tears of rage and failure. I had let Joan down at the end. She would have been horrified at such goings on. And I led her coffin to the waiting hearse, Even apologizing to me each step of the way.
After they shut the door on Joan's coffin, Preacher Jones stretched out his hand to me. “I can't go to the grave,” he said, “I'm sure you can handle it.”
Rather than reject his handshake I took his hand in mine and began to squeeze his finger nubs. He was in his 70's and I was barely 30 and in the best shape of my life. I squeezed until I saw tears in his eyes. Then I whispered, “Preacher Jones, you are one sick son of a bitch”, smiling to beat the band so the people around thought I was being gracious in a terrible situation. I finally released his hand and slapped him on the shoulder in a clerical way, but hard enough to make him stumble a bit.
That was the worse funeral I ever had a part in.
My first funeral was of Miss Bessie. Miss Bessie was 97 and lived with her two sisters, 93 and 87. She had been dying in the same hospital on the same day as the birth of my son. Labor was slow going and so I made several trips back and forth between labor hall and Miss Bessie's room. I had been telling her about what was going on downstairs, how my son was being born. I'm not sure she could hear me but I kept telling her since it was all I could think of to tell anybody at the time.
After my second visit to Miss Bessie, I was sitting in the room with Bern. Things were going nowhere and she was getting impatient. I wasn't sure things could get worse but they did. A nurse stuck her head in the room and said, in a confused and questioning voice, “your father is here?” We knew good and well neither of our fathers were anywhere near and caught the nurses confusion just as a voice said in a stage whisper: “Father in God...”
For reasons beyond all my comprehension, the bishop had decided to make a pastoral call to labor hall!
“Get his ass out of here,” Bern hissed at me, fire in her eyes.
He was apologetic when I steered him out into the hallway, but I don't think he understood why she wasn't grateful he had come. That taught me another rule for priestcraft—never go to the room of a woman in labor unless you're summons. There are places priests should never go....
While Josh was being delivered by C-section, Miss Bessie slipped away though that mysterious door to whatever comes next. Life and death mingled together, mixed up, passing like ships in the corridors of Charleston General Hospital.
Three days later, our son came home and Miss Bessie had her funeral. There was no moaning as she put out to sea. She had lived a great span of years and had only been sick for a week or so at the end. She was another of those skinny, unmarried women who seem to live so long. Might be a cautionary tale in there for women considering marriage.
The family plot was straight up a hill ten miles or so outside of Charleston. The only vehicle that could get there was a four-wheel drive Ford pickup truck. The hearse carried Miss Bessie to the foot of the hill and two strong gravediggers transferred her to the back of the truck. I had intended to go up, but since the funeral director had to by law and the truck would hold only three passengers, I climbed up in the bed of that Ford and committed Miss Betsy to God and the earth. Then off she went, bouncing up and down on a rocky 45 degree angle.
Her sisters and a few others waited in the car while she was put in her grave near her people. One of the sisters, Miss Mable, said, “just two more trips to go....” I knew she meant for her and Miss Dorothy. But I left before either of them died. They were very thin and unmarried.
Once, shortly after we moved to New Haven, Josh and I were going somewhere in the VW bus. New Haven has several large and sprawling cemeteries within the city limits. By chance we passed two of them in a matter of minutes. Josh, barely 5 years old, said, “there sure are a lot of dead people living in New Haven.”
Mouths of babes and all that. I'm pretty agnostic about ghosts and communications with the Great Wherever, but every time I leave a room for a few moments, turning off the light, I say to myself, “Hello, Virgil!” My father was the world's champion at turning off lights. Since our children complain when they are visiting that our house is too dark, I must be channeling Virgil pretty well.
Lots of dead people live most places, it seems to me.
Once, after a funeral when the cremains were interred in St. John's Close, a young funeral director asked me if a person had to be a member to be buried there.
“No,” said knowing we had interred ashes of several folks from the Soup Kitchen because they had no where to rest.
He smiled broadly. “I have these cremains....”
Turns out his funeral home had a contract with the two hospitals in town to cremate unclaimed bodies. But after cremating them, they weren't sure what to do with them and the boxes were taking up most of a cabinet in a storage room.
“Most of them are babies,” he said.
“Babies?” I asked, “people left their babies bodies at the hospital?”
I was initially horrified until he explained that many of them were still births and premature, damaged children. Some people didn't have enough money to pay for burial and others were so upset and confused they simply signed the papers while in shock.
So, that All Saint's Day, at the end of the Eucharist, we took the cremains he had collected over the last few years out to the Close and buried them together. We put the names on the plaque in the church narthex (front hallway of the sanctuary for those who don't speak 'Episcopalian”). One or two were indigent adults but most were, as he told me, babies. Some of them didn't have first names so they were 'Baby Girl Smith' and 'Baby Boy Jones'. One I remember had the remarkable name “Baby Boy Bugalu”. Whenever I looked at the plaque, I always found his name and caressed it with my fingertip.
So a tradition was born. Each All Saint's Day thereafter, ashes with no where to go found a resting place at St. John's. Other funeral directors found out about it and brought their unclaimed ashes as well. That little sacred rectangle of earth became home to the forgotten and left behind of the dead who lived in Waterbury.
I found out most everyone had the same initial reaction to the babies as I had—shock and a bit of anger toward the parents. I spent time, in writing and All Saints' sermons, explaining that we need to try to imagine the anguish people felt at losing a child and how anguished people often make strange decisions out of the fog of grief.
Then a member of the parish came to me and tearfully told me how she had lost a third semester baby while traveling in the south. It had been decades before and she was so drugged up by the hospital staff that it was well on the way home before she thought to ask what happened to the baby. Her husband, stricken and paralyzed with loss, had signed the body over to the hospital to depose of.
“I can only hope she went to some place like St. John's,” the woman told me, “and now I can finally grieve for that child I never knew.”
The second year a couple of people I didn't know showed up for the All Saint's Day interments. They approached me afterward. They both had the same story as the parishioner. In the case of these two they had both been young and unmarried when their babies were born dead. In fact, the two of them had discovered they shared the same secret, since almost no one else knew their stories. They were weeping too, mourning for those children who never lived and they abandoned in death. The service had been a form of absolution for them both and they weren't keeping the secret any more.
“My husband and my two teenagers don't know about what happened,” one of them told me. “Now I can tell them and I can finally be comforted for that awful loss.” That sounded like very 'good news' to me. A Gospel moment in the courtyard of a church.
Marty and Fran came to St. John's one Sunday and never left until they retired to Florida. Marty worked as a civilian for the State Police and Fran was an office worker somewhere. They were great—Marty was a big, grown up kid who looked like the actor Fred Gwinn. Fran was feisty and ironic and funny. They were great fun to have around. They both were in late life second marriages and were always bringing visiting grandchildren to church. One of them had the first name Bradley, so he and I had more than a passing relationship. That I never knew which of them was the 'real' grandparent said a lot about their relationship.
They were two of those people who move to Florida because it is part of the thought that that's what people in Connecticut do when they retire. All their families were in New England, so they came back often, always stopping in for a Sunday 'hit' of St. John's funky parish life and worship. I liked them both immensely. Marty was one of those 'Corvette guys' who never outgrew his love for fast sports cars. He had a gizmo on his Buick or Oldsmobile or whatever it was--'American' for sure—that allowed him to turn on the motor from a distance. He's leave the heater turned on in winter and the AC in summer and when he got to his car after breakfast it was either warm as toast or cool as sea breezes. I always coveted that feature.
On the way back to Florida from one of their swings north to see family, they wrecked and both were killed. Instantly, I pray. The car went through the medium, across 3 lanes of northbound traffic and through the guardrail on the northbound side and into a tree. Perhaps Marty, who was driving, had a heart attack or went to sleep. I can only hope Fran was asleep and didn't realize what was happening until it had happened. And it happened and they both died and the two families wanted a joint funeral at St. John's. It is a huge, Neo-Gothic church, and I had to figure out how to get two coffins in the transepts without blocking the center aisle or the steps to the altar for communion.
And we got it done. Children from each family spoke, we broke the bread and shared the wine and then went on a wondrous ride. Two hearses were necessary since, unlike bicycles, there are no hearses built for two. We buried Marty first, beside his first wife, who died before he met Fran. Then we wound our way down the Naugatuck Valley to Fran's family plot. I thought of them so much as 'together', it was hard for me to imagine them being separated by death and having two different resting places in the rocky, rich soil of Connecticut. But that's the way we did it. One funeral and two different interments. I only hope those two—who seemed so 'right' for each other, can find the other in the General Resurrection. (Though, honestly, I can't say I believe in such a thing....)
Mrs. Carter was from Barbuda, a little island in the Caribbean that, from the stories I've heard about it from her large extended family, is about as isolated and undeveloped as any island in the chain. She and her family have been in Connecticut for many years—all hard working, soft-spoken and physically striking. Her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and assorted other relatives came to church and sat near each other. The kids—boys in suits and girls in dresses with little hats and white gloves (imagine that!) sat through the services without coloring books or electronic gadgets or even stern looks from their parents. Every time someone told me they wanted to come to church but their children would misbehave, I wanted to say, “Consider the Barbudians”.
Once a new seminarian asked me in hushed tones, “why do all those Black people sit together?” She thought it had something to do with unwritten rules about race in the Parish.
“What would you think if 20 or 25 people sat in the same area and all had red hair?” I asked her.
Something came across her face that seemed like enlightenment. “A family,” she said, “...but so many....”
On Mrs. Carter's birthday, there were perhaps 75 or more family members in church with her. I sometimes thought there were more Barbudaians in Waterbury than in Barbuda. And each of them was fiercely committed to her. She was truly the matriarch of that large and handsome clan. Two of her sons and their families were very involved. Between them and the assorted kids, we once turned over the entire service to honor her on some milestone birthday. All the readers, chalicists and acolytes were related to Mrs. Carter on that day.
She was a delightful and sunny person. “Fad-er Bradley”, she would say in her charming accent, “how are you today?” She always brought me something from her trips back to the island. One gift was a huge and perfect conch shell that is still in our back yard. Another time, because she knew I kept bottles of hot sauce around the church for my use, she brought me some hot sauce from her home. “Dis is not like your haht sauce, Fad-er Bradley,” she said, “use jist a drop or two.”
Well, I like hot sauce and thought she underestimated my taste for it. One morning I sprinkled it liberally on my scrambled eggs and spent much of the next hour or so drinking ice water and blowing my nose. I should have never doubted her wisdom.
Wise, that is what she seemed to be. She had worked long and hard for her children—mostly as an aide in a nursing home, I believe—and had found wisdom in her work and her years. Besides her immediate family, there were others she had unofficially adopted. People I knew to be her nieces or cousins all called her 'momma'. And as she lay dying, she waited for one of them to come before opening that mysterious door and passing through. I've never figured out how people know 'to wait', postponing death until some particular person shows up, but I've seen it enough to know it is so.
I visited her often during her last illness. The nursing home where she was wasting away was on my way home, if I went the long way. And I had seen her the afternoon before her death, surrounded, as always, by quiet, loving guardians from her family. It was a constantly changing assortment of people—many of them children and teens—who sat with her daily and, I suspect, around the clock—always with a CD of gospel music playing from the top of a chest of drawers. The morning of her death a daughter-in-law called and asked me to come again. I told her I'd be there in the afternoon but she insisted I come now. The niece she had been waiting on had come—Mrs. Carter never said that she was waiting on that particular relative, being in a semi-coma most of the last week, but her family knew it was the truth. Several of them had told me, “When she comes, momma will leave....”
When I arrived with my communion kit and oil to anoint Mrs. Carter, the family had filled the room and were spilling out into the hallway. It was 8 in the morning and some of the kids there were in school uniforms with back packs. The people parted for me, murmuring thanks and touching me softly. I never quite got used to the profound respect they treated me with and it was only with great urging that I ever got any of them to call me “Jim” instead of “Father Bradley”. I never even suggested it to Mrs. Carter: I was simply 'Fad-er Bradley' to her.
I said the prayers for the dying, noticing that people in the room were holding each other against what was to come, sobbing without sound, faces wet with tears. Then I realized I only had a dozen or so little wafers for communion. Since there was no room for me to move around, I passed the elements and told them to share. It was like loaves and fishes in Mrs. Carter's circle of love and the last person got as much bread to dip in the wine as the first. An hour or so later, she died.
Her funeral was one of the most elegant and lovely services I've ever known. It was a cold, cold day with spitting snow but when we got to the cemetery, everyone—dressed uniformly in black—stayed until the casket was lowered and the grave was completely full. At first family members tossed in handfuls of dirt and the little girls dropped flowers in the gaping hole. But finally an end loader came and finished the job. The 150 or so people didn't seem willing to leave even then, touching and whispering, telling stories of Mrs. Carter, until they were chilled to the bone.
Having seen her finally buried, the grief lifted for the meal—an amazing collection of island dishes, the next better and more delicately seasoned than the one before. It was through Mrs. Carter and a reception after the funeral of one of her relatives that I first tasted goat. The thought was somehow revolting to me, but it was so well prepared that I loved it. I wouldn't dare try to cook goat though.
Several of her grandchildren were in the Chorister Academy at St. John's and I would talk to them before rehearsal. After her death, they told such sweet stories about Mrs. Carter. One of them, tall and beautiful, said, with whimsy instead of sadness, “I love her more each passing day.” I found that remarkable coming from a 13 year old. And I knew it was true.
Gravesides are the last place people still have some connection to the one who has died. Most people walk away with the casket still above ground. Somehow the practice of filling in the grave seems a better final parting—not leaving such intimacy to strangers. It is at gravesides that the stark finality of death becomes finally undeniable. I remember helping fill the grave of my dear priest friend, Peter. He was deeply involved in environmental ministry and was a long time chaplain at a exclusive private school. One way or another—as seminarian, part-time assistant, interim rector, assisting priest—Peter's altar had almost always been at St. John's. His wife and daughter were wonderful parts of the parish family and just before I retired, I baptized Peter's grandson. When his parents and godparents presented him and said, “we present Peter to receive the sacrament of baptism”, I nearly wept in joy and in the memory of my friend. I remembered much, in that moment, about Peter's life, but I also remember softly dropping evergreen boughs on his casket and then helping shovel in the dirt. Something healing in being part of that last gift to him.
Once, in one of the first few funerals I was part of at St. James in Charleston, Evan, the Baptist funeral director handed me a handful of rose petals. He intended me to scatter them on the casket at the words of committal.
“What's this?” I whispered, confused.
“For the casket,” he whispered back, confused himself by that point.
“I want dirt,” I told him.
“Dirt?” he asked, a little aghast.
“Dirt,” I repeated and he found me some.
It is sometimes remarkable to me that Christians have developed funeral practices that seek the lessen the finality of death when it is the finality itself that we need desperately to face head on to begin to heal.
When you have children, they are always babies in your heart. My children are both in their 30's. Josh has three children of his own and is a lawyer. Mimi works in Development for the American Ballet Theatre and is a woman. Mimi is a woman—graceful and lovely beyond her knowing...but she and the big-shot lawyer are still small children to me. And perhaps the hardest death to bear is the death of a child.
I'm making a list and checking it twice about things I want to check out when and if I get to the Kingdom of Heaven. I want to have a sit down with Yahweh and ask the Great God Almighty to clear up a few things I think were left hanging in Creation. At the top of the list is the question about dead babies.
Dead babies are hideous, awful, unspeakable, unfair, nasty, brutish and ugly. There should have been a default built into the system that never let children die before their parents. Something kinder was called for. Bern once gave me a pen and ink drawing that was of seven tombstones. Each had the names and dates on them. On either end of the stones are the parents. In between are five children. You notice, looking at the picture, that the parents lived to ripe old ages and all the children died in the first three years of life. That is a profoundly painful work of art. If I could, I'd take that with me through the mysterious door for my sit down with Yahweh. “What the hell was this about?” I'd ask God, and wait as long as necessary (it being eternity and all) for an answer.
There was a wonderful young couple at St. John's—let's call them Adam and Eve—who became members while engaged, got married there, remained very active and joyfully, and a year or so after their marriage, 'got pregnant'. It was something they'd longed for, hoped for, waited for. They were transformed by the promise of it all. They turned a room into a nursery and started painting, picked out names, began buying fuzzy toys (Eve) and sports equipment (Adam) for their coming child.
But when Eve went for her seven-month checkup, their world turned upside down and inside out.
The doctor seemed anxious during the examination. His tension was contagious: Adam and Eve caught it in about 10 seconds.
He asked Eve if she'd been spotting. Only a little, she told him, just from time to time.
Pain, he asked, had she had any pain? Indigestion for a week or so, she answered, her heart clutching into a fist.
No heart beat. That was the issue, the problem, the reason for his questions and the death of joy for Adam and Eve.
Their baby was dead. Just like that, their world went from joy and light to the dark night of the soul. And, for medical reasons I do not comprehend, what Eve had to do was carry the baby to term and deliver it, dead as a doornail. She carried the damaged fetus two more months and gave birth to Death.
I'll leave all the excruciating ironies of that for you to sort through—I'm waiting until I get to ask God about it.
So, Adam and Eve lived their lives as if in a web of sorrow. They went to work. They prepared and ate meals. They tried to behave normally in an insane situation. And finally, mercifully, Eve went into labor and delivered her dead child after 10 hours of pain that did not lead to life.
I was there near the end (summons, not on my own). I waited with family from both sides. All this happened in a 'birthing room' of a major hospital. On the door of the room, the staff had put a painting of a black rose. The other doors had blue roses or pink roses on them. In a place of such expectation and possibility, there was this little island of pain—cold, damning pain.
A black rose.
In that 'birthing room', we took turns holding that dead baby—so perfect in every way except she could not, would not ever breathe or laugh or cry or live. And I baptized her, not even sure what I was doing theologically, not caring really, knowing only that it gave some tiny sliver of comfort to people as beaten down, exhausted and condemned to pain as anyone could be. I spoke her name—a name she would never hear or be known by or have nicknames derived from. And I know, from having been through it with both of my wife's pregnancies, what Adam and Eve did, before those horrendous weeks when she found out she was incubating death. They had played out their baby's life a thousand times. They had, in their minds, taken her to the baby-sitter and picked her up, listened and watched for her first words and steps. They had lived with her, through their imaginations—seen her through childhood diseases, off to school and even as the woman she would become giving them grandchildren. That's what expectant parents do—live out their child's life in their hearts, wondering how she'll react to Christmas, if she'll like cats or dogs, what her voice will sound like, if she'll be musical. There is seemingly no limit to the human mind's ability to project life into the future when a baby is coming.
(A related aside: no one I know—even me—takes miscarriages seriously enough. Couples who suffer miscarriages have done the same imaginative living out of their child's life as someone who gives birth to a dead baby. And yet I've never heard any clergy talk about the two in the same way or with the same seriousness. Since miscarriages are usually the result of injury to the mother or a damaged fetus, people don't seem to assume it was a 'baby'. But I believe the pain is the same as losing a child at birth or afterward. Hideous pain it must be. God better be reading up on what to tell me when I ask about all this....)
I was with Adam and Eve for several hours between the baptism and the funeral. I mostly said nothing and did nothing. There was nothing to say and even less to do. All that mattered was being there—and even that only mattered tangentially.
So the day came. The service at the church was solemn and tearful. The long ride to a rural cemetery seemed to be without end. And as we stood in the snow beside that tiny little coffin, the temperature was in the teens and the wind-chill near zero. A bitter day for a bitter task.
It was then that I noticed the spray of flowers on the coffin. They were roses and baby-breath—red roses instead of black and the breath that baby would never draw. There was a ribbon amid the flowers that said: OUR LITTLE ANGLE.
The florist must have been dyslexic and reversed the E and L so that the message seemed to refer to a small geometrical shape rather than a celestial being. As I prayed the prayers at the grave, I prayed as well that I was the only one who had noticed the 'angle' on the ribbon. But as the short, freezing service drew to an end, I noticed Adam shaking his head and biting his lip. Then he nudged Eve with his elbow through their winter coats and nodded to the coffin. She saw it, realized what it meant and I committed their child to the earth while they choked back laughter.
A little later, at a relative's house near the cemetery, Adam and Eve and I drank alcohol and laughed out loud. They hadn't laughed since that awful day two months ago. They had gone through the motions of life, completed tasks, prepared and half-eaten dinners, laid down to sleep with Death in Eve's belly—but they hadn't laughed, they told me, not once, until then.
Laughter at a transposed 'e' and 'l' gave them back a bit of their lives. They went on. Moved to another state. Had a baby. They called me from a far-away hospital to tell me about Tilitha, their wonderous child. I noted without mentioning it that they had named her what Jesus called the little girl he raised from death. “Tilitha cum”, he said, and the dead lived. I can only imagine that was what they experienced—resurrection from the death of their baby.
Every week or so I drive my dog to the oldest cemetery in Cheshire and walk him like I walked the dog before him. There is a section of the graveyard I call 'the Peanut Gallery' because only children are buried there. Often, around the birth days on the stones and around holidays, I'll discover little gifts on those tiny graves. I've walked that path for almost two decades now. I've seen fresh graves, yet without a stone and the toys left on the just turned earth. Through the seasons I've seen turkeys at Thanksgiving, Jack-o-lanterns near Halloween, Christmas symbols, little crosses of palms and Easter eggs on those graves. I've seen it all. And I've seen, over the years, the Barbie doll in disarray, the tiny trucks rusting, the mouldering stuff animals. People do tend to get on with life. My favorite grave is of a teenage girl. (Is having a 'favorite grave' too macabre?) Her name matters not. Names, as important as they are, pale in the cosmic stillness of death. But on her gravestone is says this:
Caring, kind and fiercely free,
She moves on impatiently.
I especially fond of the present tense of “moves”. I'm not at all sure what I think about the mysterious door we all approach, but I'm glad they didn't put 'moved on'. It leaves the whole question of death up in the air a bit—dynamic and full of possibilities.
And I think the words are a wonderful way to say good-bye to a dead daughter. I'm half in love with that 16 year old. She'd be nearing 40 now on this side of the Door. Who know where she moves on the other side.
Fred, an intern who will be a wonderful priest, and I did the weirdest thing I remember doing in a long time just a few months before I retired. “Uncle Jimmy” had died. I was out of town and wasn't at his deathbed but I knew his nephew, a gracious, generous man who lives on the Jersey Shore, had wanted me to be sure to give his 'uncle', who, in fact, was more like his father than his uncle, last rites.
Jimmy was this tiny little man who had a girlfriend who was in a nursing home. He went to see her every day on the bus and then took the bus back to town and stopped by St. John's to sit in the nave and pray. Then he'd go to the Elk's Club and have a nip or two before going home. And once a month he'd stop by the church office and write a check for his 'dues'. Lots of the older folks, mostly union members when the brass mills were working, called their contributions, 'dues'. I'd catch him in the church from time to time and give him communion. Wade, his nephew, an organist at his church in New Jersey, was glad to know all that.
Since I needed to anoint Jimmy, Fred and I went across the street to the funeral home and one of the funeral directors let us in to the embalming room where Jimmy was laid out. There was a woman there too, large, quite young, I thought, and, like Jimmy, covered by a sheet with her head on a little notched support. So I anointed Jimmy, touching his room temperature forehead and asked God to see him through the door into whatever comes next.
When I told Wade about that, apologizing for not having done it before Jimmy died, he simply smiled and thanked me. How gracious people are—Jimmy dead and Wade living.
For the living and the dead, there might just be life after funerals after all.
7. Two Priests (Jack and Snork)
Every priest needs a mentor. Every priest needs a guide through the labyrinth that is 'being a priest' and 'doing priestcraft'.
Every denomination—even a small, mostly irrelevant one like the Episcopal Church—has two identities, is bipolar and schizophrenic. There is the troublesome, canon or doctrine bound, low-level toxin of the 'Institution'. All institutions, is seems to me, are ultimately and fatally flawed. But the 'good twin' is the 'Community' that is the church—IS the church in the most vital and enlivening and astonishing way imaginable.
Every priest needs to learn about 'the Institution' and develop strategies to deal with it...or strategies on how Not to deal with it. The Institutional Church is politics writ large because of the church's habit of claiming not to be political! It's politics in the end and a priest must develop a political sense that allows him/her to navigate the treacherous waters and cross the long, unrelenting desert of the Institutional Church without being maimed, impaired or killed. The politics of the church must be acknowledged and dealt with so the priest might be able to be present fully to the Community—the very harbinger of the Kingdom.
My choice has been—mostly learned from Snork but reaffirmed decades later by Jack—to simply be who I am and do what I do but always cover my back in some ingratiating way. That sounds all to manipulative as I think about it, but it is a decision of 'manipulating' the Institution rather than being manipulated by the Institution. The Institution itself is very seductive. It is possible to convince yourself that you are being a 'team player' and 'going with the flow' of the Institution and that the Institution is basically benign. Just as the Church protests too much about not being political, you seldom find anyone in the hierarchy who will fess up to the manipulative nature of the beast. 'Going with the flow', it seems to me, puts one in high risk of being caught in the powerful undercurrent of the Institution's inertia. Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. And bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. The Institutional Church, remarkably, is both nailed down tight and careening along at a break-neck speed. Failure to recognize that either gets you stuck or run over.
Three examples come to mind in this overly long aside. All three of the examples have to do with bishops. Bishops have a choice to make that will shape their whole episcopate: either 'become' the Institution or acknowledge its power and move around it.
When I was a baby priest, I called my bishop (a good man) to ask his permission to do something I knew to be coloring outside the lines. He stopped me before I could frame the question.
“Jim, is this about something you really feel compelled to do?” he asked.
“Yes, Bishop,” I said.
“Then I'm giving you some advice. Don't ask me beforehand.” He paused to let me get the wisdom of that. “Then apologize like hell and claim ignorance when I have to slap your hand. It won't get you out of having your hand slapped, but I'll still love you for the outrageous nature of your apology.”
That was a man who had a strategy for dealing with the Institutional Inertia of the Church.
One of the best bishops I ever met was as unsuited for the job as a person could be. He was a parish priest through and through who had been a last minute compromise candidate in a contentious and divisive election. To his amazement he was elected.
He told me once about a particularly thorny question that came early in his bishopric. It confounded him so much he went to the office of the Diocesan Archdeacon, a man who had served several bishops, to ask for his advice.
“What can I do about this?” he asked the politically savvy Archdeacon.
Then the man smiled slyly at him and said, “Anything you damn well please. That's why we call you 'Bishop'.”
So, until he retired, that's what that Bishop did in most every occasion. His strategy became 'using' the Inertia of the Institution to forward his best intentions.
Both those men were what I call the 'extinct bishops' of a much different generation. They came to understand their power rather than 'becoming' their office. Giants and Ogres once graced the seats in the House of Bishops. The Giants (like my two friends) did much good. The Ogres
did much damage. I think the Institutional Church recognized and deplored the damage of the Ogres so much that they turned the office into a CEO rather than the Servant of the servants of God. They prevented much damage in doing so, but they also made it harder and harder for bishops—and by extention, priests—to do remarkable kinds of good.
Finally, a friend of mine was elected bishop. He was someone I supported and worked for (trying to ingratiate myself to the Powers that BE). We had agreed about most issues, including what was wrong with the 'corporate model' of the Church. We both, I knew, recognized that the Church's grace and healing power came from the Community Model.
So, we were having lunch—on me (ingratiate when you can, I say)--when I asked him when he planned to do something that B.C. (Before Consecration) we had been allies about. There was a long pause. Then he took a deep breathe and said, “Things look different from this side of the desk, Jim....”
I took a bite of salad and sip of wine to let him explain all that more clearly, in small words I might understand. When he didn't, I said, impolitely and without political ac-cumin, “There's no f*ck*ng desk here, bishop. We're two friends in a restaurant.”
The rest of the meal did not go well.
Jack and Snork would have never said that to a bishop. It's not just that 'they knew better', its simply that they would have known no good would come of it. Jack and Snork taught me to avoid 'no good will come of it' situations adroitly. I was not the best of students. No fault could be found with the teachers at all.
Both Jack and Snork swam below the surface of the rough seas of the Institutional Church. They had internal radar detectors that warned them of the church's speed traps. Both did mostly what they wanted to do, with great grace and no need for acknowledgment, but gave wide berth to potential pitfalls. They were both, in their own ways, more radical and nontraditional than I ever dreamed of being—and I dreamed, beloved, oh I dreamed!--yet they pulled it off without drawing attention to themselves, covertly, burrowing beneath, going under or over but never straight through. One bishop I served with called me his 'young Turk'. But he always knew where I was and what I was up to. I was on his screen and seldom confounded him. Jack and Snork were 'Turks' beyond compare, but they were secret Turks, undercover Turks, wise old Turks, worn smooth by life. The older I got, the more I became like them. At least that is my hope and my prayer.
The first time I petitioned to be elected a Deputy to the church's General Convention, I came in ninth of the nine candidates. I was sitting alone, nursing my wounds in the break after the election results had been announced, when Jack came by and said, “I'm surprised you got that many votes.” He smiled his crooked smile and sat next to me. “You should have come in tenth out of nine....”
He was chuckling at my disappointment. I decided to give him the silent treatment but though Jack was never very talkative, he kept on talking in spite of my ignoring him.
“Look down there on the floor,” he said. We were in the balcony. I dutifully looked. “You see all the people who got elected clerical deputies?”
In fact I could—two men and two women. He was tweaking my curiosity just a bit.
“What do they all have in common?” Jack asked.
Well, not much. Two were my age, one younger, one older. One was bald, one was blond, one had brown hair, two were heavy, two skinny, all white, of course. All parish priests...what else? Then it hit me, they all had on dark pinstriped suits—one of the women's suit had a skirt—and they all had on big, shiny clerical collars and pressed black shirts.
I looked at him. He was still chuckling. I had on sandals, jeans, an open collar shirt and a tan jacket none the better for wear.
I finally smiled.
“You'll never 'fit in' the way the church expects,” he said, growing solemn and wise. “But you could find ways to 'fit in' without compromising your strange sense of integrity. You have two approaches to the Institution of the Church: either you 'ignore', but not benignly, you aggressively ignore it, or, you pick fights with it.”
I was the one chuckling now. Jack had nailed me in ways I hadn't expected to be nailed. I didn't have any particular 'strategy' to get elected Deputy. I just thought they should see beneath the surface and want to elect me. I was being the ill-mannered, contentious kid who wondered why no one ever asked him to play. It worked to get the Institution to leave me alone, but there was no reason in heaven or on earth that they should reward me for being disagreeable.
Jack smiled and patted my leg. “I'm going to go 'play nice' with these folks,” he said, getting up, “You might consider joining me....”
So I did and watched him genuinely enjoy himself as he moved through crowds of people, stopping to chat or tell a joke. It wasn't nearly as painful as I had imagined. The next time—after kissing enough ecclesiastical babies and butts—I was elected to General Convention and was twice more since then. And, as Jack so gently taught me, the kissing up part wasn't unpleasant at all. I discovered most Episcopalians in Connecticut are hale fellows and gals well met, by in large. I'm a better person and better priest for learning that from Jack.
Snork and Jack both worked with and ministered to the margins of society before it be came de rigor for the church to do that. Long before Presiding Bishop Browning declared 'there are no outcasts' in the Episcopal Church, Snork was working with runaways, street people, drug abusers and hippies. Jack had a vibrant ministry to gay and lesbian folks a couple of decades before GLBT were four letters the church recognized. As the part time Rector of Trinity Church in Waterbury—the most Anglo-Catholic parish in the area—Jack invited and nurtured gay folk in remarkable ways. He was their 'pastor' and 'priest' and a quiet advocate for inclusion in the life of the church.
While I was at St. John's, a chapter of Integrity was founded. Integrity is a group for GLBT Episcopalians and their friends. I asked Jack to be the first chaplain to the group—a role I wanted but knew I couldn't play since it became clear that my inviting Integrity to St. John's caused a remarkable fire-storm in the parish. I dutifully and proudly announced I had welcomed the chapter to use the sanctuary and library for their meetings and let it be known that I would be glad to have conversations with anyone with questions. This was in the early 1990's and I was naïve enough to think no one would raise an eyebrow about the whole thing. How silly of me. (One of my character flaws is that I think of myself as 'the norm' in society. I am genuinely astonished when people disagree with my theology or politics.) So I wasn't prepared for the what was truly only four people, but four people with much mischief in mind.
It saddens me to tell you that the Gang of Four could be as destructive as they were. After all, they were just four aging white men, but I quickly learned that four aging, homophobic white men could do a lot of damage to a parish community. Give them credit, two of them were former wardens and did have some reputational power (very important power in a parish). The other two were the masterminds, however; one not even a member of the parish and the second one only marginal. The first move was when the marginal member—someone whose face I knew from the back row at 8 a.m. Eucharists but only learned his name when an usher told me he was upset. So I called him and he came in to talk, or rather, to rage at me. I had some experience with dealing with irrational people, but this was beyond my ken. He called me names, threatened my career and personal well-being, told me how much 'fecal matter' a sexually active gay man ingested in a year and described sexual acts I had neither heard of or imagined (and were, finally, none of my business). That meeting, which ended with me walking out of my office, leaving him there, and going to a local bar, convinced me that I should never meet with any of the group without a witness. I called Jack.
Jack told me he could have warned me if he had known I was going to be so stupid as to meet with someone like that alone. (Of course, Jack didn't call me 'stupid'...something along the lines of 'marginally mistaken'...something Jack-like and kind. But I never faced any of them in person without Jack, sitting like a Buddha in the corner of the room. He always wore a black suit and clericals when he was the silent witness to the escalating attacks on me by the Gang of Four. And early on he told me something very Yoda-like: “Fight not in the shadows...” Jack said.
So I dragged the whole mess out into the middle of the room, into the light of day and parish meetings and sermons and articles in the newsletter. Whatever they did, I made immediately public. Like when they started calling people in the parish directory to ask if they knew that the Rector was letting fagots and perverts use the church. One of the first people in the A's in the directory was a member of the vestry who was a lesbian. She hung up on whoever called and came to find me. She became a firm ally in what was to come. They also, in the C's called a woman whose brother had just died of AIDS to convince her to take up their cause against queers. They didn't 'know' who they were calling, of course.
Through it all, Jack stood by me at every meeting, his 'reputational power' and the volume of his silence radiating trust and safety to all who were confused and confounded by the conflict. The vestry, god bless them, endorsed my decision to invite Integrity to use the church. Not everyone was convinced it was a good idea, considering the conflict it had caused and considering that my predecessor as Rector had 9 years of conflict that had damaged the parish deeply. But the vestry knew that Episcopal Canon Law gives exclusive right of 'building use' to the Rector. And I was the Rector, though the four and whoever sympathized with them were hoping 'not for long....'
Jack gave me a tee-shirt he had made that said on the front: “I'M THE RECTOR, THAT'S WHY!”
Bless his heart.
After several public meeting, Jack silently by my side, where the better angels of the parish were given voice, things began to go away, at least until I found out that the Four had contacted a notorious anti-Gay priest in Pittsburgh for advice on how to rid themselves of me. That's when I called my bishop (the one at the time was no champion of gay folks but was a strict interpreter of Canon Law and the integrity (no pun intended) of diocesan lines. With his permission I invoked the disciplinary rubric on page 409 of the Book of Common Prayer—the part about denying communion to those who “have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation”--telling the Four I would refuse to give them the host unless they ceased and desisted what they had been doing. Within a month or two, two of them died and one moved to Florida. The fourth member of the Gang—bless his heart—repented and became, once more a wonderful member of the community, going out of his way, I heard, to welcome gay folk to St. John's.
All Jack told me after all that was this: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Jack could get away with saying stuff like that.
There was a remarkable gay couple at St. John's while Jack was a member of the parish. They had met in high school and had been faithful to each other for over four decades. Neither had ever had another lover. They had come to St. John's as volunteers for Bill H., who had AIDS. At first they dropped Bill at the door and went for breakfast. Then, when Bill needed more attention, they would take him to his pew and then wait for him in the parish library. Finally, they started sitting with him and when they realized the deep affection of the congregation for Bill, the two of them became members themselves.
They had asked me to give their home a house blessing and wondered if I could throw in a blessing for their 'marriage' as well. This was years before same sex marriage became the law of Connecticut and I knew I would be on dangerous ground. So I talked with Jack. Jack was glad to come along and bless the couples' rings and relationship, using words that sounded quite true to the formula of the Book of Common Prayer.
I asked Jack if he thought I should have done it myself.
“No,” he said. “You're still beholden to the church and could get in unnecessary trouble.” Then he smiled and winked. “I'm just an old retired fart, what can the bishop do to me?”
Now I'm just an old retired fart, the way Jack was then. If I could only be a percentage as gracious and bold and wise as he was—that would be a state devoutly to be desired.
Both Jack and Snork had five children. One of Jack and Marge's kids died in childhood and another was severely mentally handicapped. Snork's five—3 girls and 2 boys—are, I suspect, still alive and well. The difference was Jack had Marge to help him raise the kids and Snork raised his children primarily by himself. Divorce, even so short a time ago as the 1970's was still suspect when you were an Episcopal priest. So Snork wasn't going to become a cardinal rector anywhere—not that he wanted to and not that he would have if he'd been happily married. Snork had this 'white Afro' of sandy red hair. Jack was a red-head too—though when I met him, white haired as he was, I asked, “how did all your kids get red hair?” He snorted. “What color hair do you think I was born with—white?”
Snork's children were always omnipresent. When I first met him one daughter was in her late adolescence and the others spaced above her. The three daughters were all lovely and not a little seductive. It was an odd home to grow up in since Snork was constantly inviting people he found wandering on the earth to come and sleep there. Mostly the visitors just smoked dope and hung out at Snork's house but sometimes they ripped him off, carrying away electronic equipment and whatever else they could sell. One guy really cleaned him out but some of us ran him to ground and got Snork's stuff back. Snork, of course, wouldn't turn the guy in and he was still welcome beneath Snork's roof. As you might imagine, the guy cleaned Snork out again and disappeared.
I was trying to get Snork to explain why he would let the fox back in the henhouse. He bobbed around the way he always did—one mass of nervous energy—and said, “Well, obviously I didn't think he'd do it again....” And then laughed, wondering if I knew anyone with a used stereo and some records for sale.
That was just Snork. It wasn't so much that he was foolish about human nature—though he certainly was—it was more that he was unable to think bad about anyone. Sometimes he could disarm really shady characters by treating them as if they were paragon's of virtue. But just as often, he got ripped off. However, he never seemed more than momentarily put out and was usually sure that he'd been robbed for some higher, purer more exalted reason than simple human greed.
One of Snork's gifts was to allow most of the people around him the opportunity to worry about him and try to keep him safe from his own good nature. Like the time he started a bible study group and had it invaded by fundamentalists. There only seemed to be two kinds of 'Christians' around the campus those days—semi-believing counter cultural types and raving charismatics. At least it seemed that way to me. Trinity, the parish church, had become very conservative so Snork, who was partially paid by Trinity, was always treading softly around there. Not only did he look radical, he was radical. But he was also a loving, kind man, which covered a multitude of his liberal sins. Things eventually got so bad that a group broke away from Trinity and formed St. Thomas a Beckett, with Snork as their vicar. But that was later—what Snork tried to do when I was around was offer alternatives to the conservatives...like his Bible study.
I didn't attend when he started the group but within a week or so he called me and said I had to start coming. After two years at Harvard Divinity School, I wasn't in the mood for Bible study but Snork explained he'd lost control and wanted me to 'kick some ass' for him. Which I dutifully did, out of love for him but also because kicking charismatics' asses was a load of fun. It took about two more sessions—marked by much yelling and accusations of my being a heretic at best and a hater of the baby Jesus at worst—I cleared out the right wing folks.
I told Snork afterward that he could have just canceled the study group or driven away the bible thumpers who were confusing a handful of undergrads who really wanted to know more about God—Snork's sweet and loving God.
He shook his hair heavy head. “I just couldn't do that,” is all he said.
At first I thought it was about not offending the folks at Trinity's right wing sensibilities. But, on second thought, it was simply that Snork did not have the capacity to shout down or offend anyone, ever. He was as gentle a man as I ever knew. And his gentleness soothed and healed those around him much as, years later, Jack's quiet presence had done so much to stop the bleeding over gays at St. John's.
Gentle men—both of them. Would that I could emulate them more fully.
Just before my 25th birthday, my mother had a massive stroke from which she never recovered. She was 63—the age I am as I sit writing this—so the memory is fresh and damp upon me these days. My father had called in the middle of the night, frightened and irrational. I promised I'd leave at daybreak to drive home. It was a 5 ½ hour trip and I was so shaken I wasn't convinced I could do it. My wife was in school and had a performance so she couldn't come with me. I woke Snork up to ask him to think gentle thoughts for me as I drove. Instead, he insisted on meeting me at Trinity Church at 5:30 the next morning.
He was unlocking the chapel door when I arrived. I lived only a few blocks from the church but my hands were shaking as I drove over to the parking lot. Snork wordlessly embraced me and half-led, half-carried me into the dark chapel. He told me to sit and that he'd be right back. I sat in the early morning light in that Gothic chapel, smelling the stone and the candles' wax, listening to the profound silence of such buildings, waiting, hardly thinking at all, frightened but settled. But there was no way I could make that drive to Bluefield. I started thinking of someone I might ask to drive me or, having Snork take me to the Airport in Pittsburgh or the Morgantown bus station.
Then he was back, decked out in full Eucharistic vestments over his jeans and sandals. I'd never seen Snork wear a chasuble before. He even had on one of those useless, anachronistic manaples no one ever wore. Before I knew what was happening, he had started staying the words of the Communion service from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer—words so solemn and beautiful that I stood as he prayed. He gave me communion and anointed me with healing oil. Then he embraced me at the altar rail and said, softly, “I think you can do the drive now....”
And I did.
I drove home and fed my mother vanilla ice cream out of little cups with a wooden spoon though she didn't know who I was or what I was doing. And my Aunt Elise came in one morning and watched me feed my mother ice cream and then wished me a Happy Birthday—my 25th—and then I stood by my mother's bed with my dad a few days later and was with my mom as she died, something I shall never forget or stop being thankful for the honor of that moment.
All because Snork gave me communion and anointed me.
(What I learned from that and never forgot was that about the only thing priests have to offer that makes any sense or difference at all is the sacraments. And in my life as a priest I have always remembered that when anyone was broken or pained or confounded, what I could give—perhaps the only thing I could give—was sacraments. So over the years I've taken hundreds of people into a chapel somewhere and given them communion and anointed them and forgiven them whatever horrid sins they had committed or imagined and washed them in the blood of the Lamb through the remarkable and profound objective reality of the bread and wine and oil and confession. All that I learned from Snork and relearned a dozen times in two dozen ways from Jack.
Both of them knew fair well the power and reality of the sacraments. And they taught that to me....God bless their hearts....)
Jack was the resident 'confessor' of St. John's during my time there, those 20 plus years. People were always disappearing into the chapel with him when I wasn't looking and he would hear their tales of woe and forgive them, whether they really needed it or not (of course 'they' thought they needed it and Jack gave forgiveness freely, completely, wondrously....) and give them the bread and wine with a few well placed words and anoint them with that oh so holy oil. What a privilege it was to sit at their knees and learn such mysteries....
Snork dropped dead at 63—the same age as my mother, the same age I am as I write this. He was in the bookstore at West Virginia University, having just bought something (I wish I knew what so I could read it for him) and almost to the front door. He had remarried and didn't take his heart medicine because it inhibited his sex drive. His second wife was quite a bit younger than he was. The choices we make in this life are strange and wondrous. I can't blame him at all for his.
Jorge and I drove down to Morgantown from the northeast corridore together to Snork's funeral. I had temporarily left the full-time priesthood and was considering never returning. However, I'd been to a workshop called Making A Difference and had gotten my priesthood back all new. One of the distinctions of the workshop—which I have led now for 15 years or more all over the country and in Ireland several times—is the distinction between what we call 'the superstition IS' and 'occurring', or, as we called it then, 'showing up'. The distinction is that if you live in an IS world there are few possibilities. But choosing to live in an 'occurring' or 'showing up' world, life can be full of new ways of being. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that is enough to tell you because I was explaining all that to Jorge somewhere in Pennsylvania and he, driving, said to me: “Let me get this straight...what you're saying is Snork showed up dead?”
Both Jorge and I, two of the half-dozen priests who went to seminary because they knew Snork, said some words at his funeral. I have no idea what I said all these years later. But I know that I said something about how he taught me to be a priest. That I know I said. And it was true, even if I was a slow learner.
A group of us went through Snork's books and stuff. His new wife wanted us to take things. One of the things I took was a round paper plate full of names. Apparently, making this up but it has no other explanation, Snork would take a plate from coffee hour at St. Thomas a Becket and write down the names of everyone who had been there and date the plate with a magic marker. How amazing to me that he could do that—know who had been at the Eucharistic and write them all down afterward. I can't even begin to imagine the concentration and attention that would require. There are 72 names on the paper plate. It is dated, simply, Advent II 1985. That's all—72 souls remembered for having received the Body and Blood. That's all...and more than enough.
Jack loved jokes, bad jokes, really bad jokes. Like this, one he told me: Two old guys in a nursing home. One tells the other, “I don't know how old I am.” The second guy says, “wheel yourself out in the lobby and drop your pants and I'll tell you how old you are.” So they both go in their chairs into the lobby and the first guy takes off his pants. After all the upset and screams of visitors, the two of them are taken back to their room. “You're 87,” the second guy tells the one who dropped his pants. “How did you know?” the first guy asks. “You told me last week,” the second guy says.
On about any level, that is a bad joke. But Jack loved them. He loved to laugh and to hear jokes and tell them. Bad jokes. Really bad jokes.
And everyone who knew him laughed just as hard as he did, not because the jokes were funny, but because Jack—that dear man—told them. Perhaps we will all be judged, not on the quality of our jokes, but on whether everyone laughs with us simply because laughing with us—like laughing with Jack—was healing and pure and good. Like that.
Healing, pure, good...words I associate with my connections to Snork and Jack. And, oh yes, holy....
Jack died with dignity and peace, just the way he had planned it. At his funeral, it was my honor to preach. This is what I said:
October 17, 2009—Jack Parker's Memorial Service
Years ago, I went on a day trip with three men who I love like uncles and mentors and dear, dear friends. Jack Parker, Bill Penny and David Pritchard and I drove up into the heart of New England. I remember we went to a place called 'The Cathedral of the Pines' and we also went to see Jack's mountain—the one he loved and had climbed time and time again and where some of his ashes will be scattered by his remarkable family. We had a great lunch at some place one of them new and somehow got back before it was too late for such a motley crew to be out without getting into mischief!
A friend of mine told me that there are only two plots in all of literature. One is, “a stranger arrives in town”. The other is, “someone sets out on a journey.”
I have memories of sharing part of the journey that is life with Jack Parker.
Memories like that are precious, rare, wondrous and, finally, holy.
I've ONLY know Jack Parker for 20 years or so. I say 'only' because I know some of you have known him much longer than that—his children, his family that he loved so fiercely...and others. But knowing him for two decades was a beautiful gift to me from God. And if I had to choose a word to describe that gift it would be this--'holy'.
I've never known anyone who loved a bad, corny joke as much as Jack.
Most of the jokes Jack loved began something like this: “A rabbi and a priest and a Baptist minister went into a bar...” Or, like this: “Three elderly men were sitting on the front porch of the nursing home....” Or, like this, “A man was trying to sell a talking dog....”
You get the point. Jack would start laughing half-way through telling the joke and anyone who was listening would start laughing with him, entranced by Jack's laugh, caught up in his story, not caring at all how the joke turned out—it would turn out bad and corny—but thankful and joyous to be sharing a laugh with Jack.
There is a word for sharing a laugh with Jack. The word is 'holy'.
There is a word that occurs to me for anything, anytime, 'shared with Jack'.
The word is 'holy'.
Ok, he was not St. Francis of Assisi. Not quite. But he was, for me, a 'holy' man. Truly, really, without fear of contradiction, Jack was 'holy'. No kidding. I'm not exaggerating. Not at all.
He taught me so many things. Knowing Jack was like post-doctoral work in kindness and love and long-suffering and generosity of spirit and joy. Knowing Jack was like a seminar in prayerfulness. He was a priest to be admired, a man to be emulated, a quick study in sweetness. It seems an odd word, perhaps, but Jack was a sweet, sweet man. I know you all know what I mean.
And learning these things from Jack was—have I mentioned this?--holy.
The words from Jesus in today's gospel are among the most beautiful and comforting in all of Scripture.
“Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me...In my father's house are many rooms...If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?”
The Greek word translated 'rooms' is mona. That word has many possible translations--'rooms', 'resting places', 'mansions' (as we used to say), and 'abodes'. That's the one I like: 'abodes'...places to be, space to 'abide' in the nearer presence of the God who loves us best of all.
The last time I saw Jack, I made him promise that he wouldn't die until I got home from a trip to the beach. He said he'd try, but he wasn't sure he could. It was the only promise he didn't keep to me. He had other plans, another place to abide.
That last time I saw Jack, I offered him communion. The sacrament was Jack's favorite food and drink, but that last time he said, 'no'.
“You've been a priest to me long enough,” he told me, with that crooked smile and twinkling eye he always had. “We're just two old friends saying goodbye....”
Jack taught us all so very much about 'living'. And he taught us how to die.
And it is time now—he would have wanted it this way—it's time for us to smile and remember and thank God for the journey and say 'good bye' to our old, dear friend....
“I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”
8. THE SWAN LADY AND ST. RAGE
(This chapter came from some notes and thoughts I put down on paper about the events of May 15, 2007. I know that because I actually dated the notes—quite organized for me! Funny thing is that there are two completely different endings. I'm not sure why I did that or which I wrote first. But I've had no success trying to put them together, so I'll simply put the second one after the first one and you can take your pick....)
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 go….” 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 on I-95. 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 runway 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 all 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 mostly no traffic at all . 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 Merritt 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 eight-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 much of it around. 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’ that completed the true message of St. Rage. 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. But anywhere that the relentless speed and impatience and lack of compassion of the culture creates road-kill. The church must not so much seek to “fix” or “change” all that as to simply be with the marginalized, the forgotten, the misbegotten, the despised, the lost, the lonely, the abused and rejected and left out. Since there is not much the post-Christendom church can do or change, we are enabled to find an identity and authenticity that does not involve the support of the culture and approval of conventional wisdom. It is a chance—this dance of the church…like the slow, calm, fearless dance of the Swan Lady—that the church neglects at our own peril. There is a ‘relevancy’ that does not include sitting in the seats of power and driving the society. There is an integrity not of ‘doing’ or ‘changing’ or ‘having’: the integrity of ‘being’, simply being, with the ones Jesus called “the least of these.” While the culture races on—intent on doing and having—the church must dance the ‘dance of being’ on the verge, in the breakdown lane with the frightened and bewildered swans of our society, willing to risk our lives with them, just to be where we are called to be and to dance….
My Uncle Russell, my father’s older brother, was surely one of the worst drivers who ever lived. He had the terrifying habit of driving by straddling the center line of the torturously twisted two lane mountain roads. Once, after a near miss when riding with him in whatever Ford pick-up he owned at the time, I asked him why he didn’t experiment with driving in the right lane. He looked at me, taking his ubiquitous unfiltered Camel out of his mouth, not even pretending to be watching the road or driving with both hands. “If you’re in the middle,” he said, laughing, “you can dodge things both ways.” What he forgot was being in the middle also meant you could get hit in either direction.
The church, it seems to me, has a remarkable opportunity and rare possibility at this moment in time, to choose the breakdown lane rather than the middle of the road. The Main Line churches have chosen “Hobson’s choice” since the demise of Christendom. While Evangelicals have emerged from the under-class of the American religious culture to stake out a clear and unambiguous position and actually skew the political landscape of the US, we Episcopalians have rolled along in Uncle Russell’s old pick-up down the middle of the road, seeking to be ‘all things to all people’ and dodge things in both directions. The Episcopal church tends to be a pastel blue in the Blue states and pink in the Red states—a tertum quid—neither fish nor fowl. Never was that more obvious to me as on the day the House of Bishops voted at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis to ‘consent’ to the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire—the first open and partnered gay bishop. Since only the diocesan bishops have a vote in those instances, there were only 109 or so votes to be counted. And I know from my own experience and from what other bishops told me that he got at least 17-20 fewer votes than he would have gotten. Bishops who would have voted in the roll call in favor of Gene ‘counted the votes’ and knew he could win without them taking a stand. One of them, an old friend of mine was fetchingly honest when I asked him why he voted ‘no’. “I have to go home, Jim,” he told me. He is a bishop in a very Red state.
So over a dozen bishops of the church chose not to ‘do the right thing’ because they had to drive in the middle of the road back home. That puts a whole new meaning on discretion being the better part of valor—and not a good meaning either. And lots of those who ‘did the right thing’ had some ‘splaining to do and put some remarkable spin on their votes. Since I was one of the clerical Deputies to the GC2003, I attended the series of forums held back home after the GC. All of them had at least a couple of hundred people in attendance. The same kind of forums, held prior to General Convention, attracted between 12 and 40 people. What astonished me was how enraged the most vocal of those people were. They quoted Paul and Leviticus endlessly, reading the passages to the bishops and deputies (in the King James Version most often) as if we were unaware of those parts of the Bible. They were red-faced and shaking with anger and indignation. At one point in one of the worst and most contentious forum, I turned to the lay deputy sitting beside me and said, “When did we tell these people they should read the Bible? And where the fuck did they get the King James Version?” In spite of how much my language offended him, the broke into laughter that he tried to stifle by sucking on his bottle of spring water.
Here’s the thing (although I applaud him for taking the heat) my bishop, just at the moment of the sea-change in the life of the Episcopal Church, tried to swerve into the middle of the road and eventually got smashed up from both directions. He carefully explained the canonical requirements for an election of a bishop and found the New Hampshire vote stayed respectfully within those church laws. He further reminded people of the assumed autonomy of dioceses and that only once in the history of the Episcopal Church had the bishops ‘denied consent’ to an election, that occurring in the chaos following the deep divisions of the Civil War. So, he told people calmly, he had little choice in approving the election of a “faggot' as bishop. (People actually used ‘that f-word’ in the forums!)
What I was praying for—even though the Swan Lady metaphor wasn’t part of my thinking back then—was for the bishop to park in the breakdown lane of what was an especially dangerous high way. I wanted him to get out of his car, take a brown blanket from his trunk, and, risking his own life, be somebody willing to walk against traffic. I wanted him to move with grace and beauty toward that confounded swan on the verge. I wanted him to say, “I voted for Gene Robinson because I truly believe it was the right thing to do. I voted for him, not because his election was ‘valid’, but because gay and lesbian folk are, honest to God, as loved by the Almighty as anyone in this room and they should be involved in this church on all levels. The way you read the Bible isn’t the way I read it. So, get over yourselves. They’re queer, they’re here, get used to it! Next question….”
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I believe he probably thinks he tried to say that. But he was trying so hard to be the reconciler, to ‘build bridges’ and keep ‘everyone at the table’—which I know he sees as his job—that there was not ‘clarity’ about where he truly was in the whole matter. For the Episcopal Church to be like the Swan Lady, we have to BE somewhere and stand there and take the grief that will come. People will leave parishes if we, as a church, choose to ‘be’ with those in the breakdown lane. Parishes will leave dioceses. There will even be some dioceses that will leave the Episcopal Church. And the Anglican Communion will most likely throw us out with the trash. But, it seems to me, we have to become more irrelevant in the eyes of the culture before we find an ontological relevance…a relevance of ‘being’, not doing or having. I, for one (just me talkin’) believe all those losses—lamentable, painful and mourned as they should be—are most likely necessary before the Episcopal Church can lay claim to a new relevance and a new role in the world.
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 two decades at St. John’s I was 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.
(Hand written addendum to second ending)
There is another way of imagining St. Rage that 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 and a University 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….
9. Some People (ii)
LITTLE SAINT JASON
When I was at St. Paul’s in New Haven, one of my neighbors stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you do baptisms?” She and her husband lived in a handsome brownstone on the park—they were a “Yale couple”, she was Vice-President of something and he was a professor of economics. They were the ultimate “yuppies”—a term that still meant something in the 80’s. She was tall, immaculately dressed for success and quite beautiful, blonde and willowy. But she wore her hair pulled back severely and horned rimmed glasses she may or may not have needed. (I met several women who worked in big jobs for Yale who wore clear glass in unflattering frames. One actually told me it was to tell people, “I may be pretty, but I’m smart….”) She was wearing a pale gray, pinstripe suit and a pink blouse buttoned to the neck with one of those floppy little ties that are bow-ties on estrogen. But her shoes, I remember noticing (she was beautiful, after all!) were extremely high heels with almost no visible means of keeping them on her feet. Really sexy, out of character shoes....She hadn’t given in to the corporate image ultimately…her shoes were fiercely feminine.
I allowed that I had been known to “do” baptisms from time to time and she invited me to come ‘around to our house tonight for a drink…5:30 suit you?'
I was fascinated. I knew Donna and her husband, Phil, from the park. Our daughter was about their son’s age—5 maybe—and they sometimes chased each other in the park while everyone around Wooster Square let their dogs off lead to run and poop. But I’d never been invited to their house before. I could hardly wait.
When we’d settled in with our drinks (scotch for Phil, a Manhattan for Donna and white wine for me) I was offered hors devours more exotic than either of them should have time to make before my arrival and we did Wooster Square small talk. Phil, even taller than Donna and nearly as good looking, was a New Haven clone of “Mr. Chips”—casually elegant and tweedy and yet a little awkward all at the same time. He obviously needed his glasses—in fact had two pair with those bands that hold them like long necklaces around your neck. One for distance and one for reading, I imagined, wondering if it were vanity or drama that prevented him from just getting bifocals—but then, I’m always hard on people who ‘come from money’. There house made no secret that one—perhaps both of them—came from money. Everything was understated but expensive from the rugs to the lamps to the properly worn leather couch and chairs to the antique table I sat my glass on and then picked up in horror and looked around for a coaster.
“Go ahead and set it there,” Donna said. “It was my grandmother’s so it’s really old.” The people who come from “real money” are casual about such things, those who got rich on their own are much less relaxed about glass rings on a table worth thousands. After some small talk about the weather (a pleasant September, better than last year) and the neighborhood (“did you know the Mason’s moved to Europe—Mark’s doing a post-doc in France”) we finally got down to business.
“We don’t come to church,” Phil began, showing his humility, “but we are Episcopalians….We were married in the Cathedral in Chicago. And both our parents are serious Episcopalians and they’re all coming out for Thanksgiving….”
Little Jason hadn’t been baptized (“our fault,” Donna said, “totally”—as if it could have been Jason’s fault or the fault of Sarah, their AKC standard poodle) and there was going to be hell to pay to Grand-pop and Grand-mom and Granny and Gramps come turkey day. Before they began to grovel, which they would have, I told them I’d be delighted to baptize Jason, which I was. And we started talking about dates and times, settling on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when the grandparents on both sides could be there. All I asked them to do was come to church a few times, just so they’d be familiar with the racially and socially diverse parish of St. Paul’s and to let me talk with them…and Jason…about baptism for a few hours soon.
They were overjoyed, called Jason down with his nanny, a 20 something au per from France who was teaching Jason French as well as looking after him and taking some classes from Yale on their dime. (I thought I had maybe underestimated the money they came from!) I knew Jason of course, and he knew me as “Mimi’s dad” and we talked briefly about coming to church and talking about baptism. Later mom and dad and Jason spent several hours with me. Phil, of course, and Donna to only a slightly lesser degree, knew the ins and outs of liturgy and church history and the rich myriad of symbols that made up baptism. Jason asked some of those classic kid questions: “will the water be cold or hot?” “Will I have to say anything?” “Will Jesus be there?”
I told them, at some point, that baptism, to my theology, was admission to communion and Jason should receive communion with them on his baptismal day. Donna was a bit horrified: “But he isn’t old enough to ‘understand’ it,” she said. I thought for a moment and replied, “If ‘understanding’ it is a prerequisite, then I shouldn’t receive it either….” It was a hard sell but Jason won the day: “I want to, Mommy,” he said to Donna and the deal was made.
True to their word, Donna, Phil and Jason became fixtures on the third row near the pulpit. From time to time Brigitte would come with them and all of them fit in just fine—a little better dressed than most, but open and friendly and involved. During that time I came, once more, face to face with my devotion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the rich are not like you and me.” I’ve never quite felt comfortable around the moneyed of the world—certainly both a character flaw and a disadvantage for rapid advancement in the Episcopal Church! Donna and Phil were ‘just like me’—we had many of the same interests and opinions. And Jason was ‘just a kid’ dressed in clothes from Barney’s instead of Sears. I came to like them a lot, which prepared me to like their parents as well. Jason’s two grandfathers were cut from the same mold—successful, keen and most likely ruthless Mid-Western business men who never the less possessed the shy, inviting charm of people from the center of the country. The grandmothers were different—Donna’s mom was an older version of her: stylish, lovely, cultured. But Phil’s mother was like someone Garrison Keeler would make up and put in Lake Woebegone. She was a tad over-weight with a broad, smiling face, gray hair in a bun and simple clothing. She would have been very comfortable in an apron puttering around the house.
They were all delighted that Jason, as his paternal grandmother put it, “was finally getting dunked.” And on the day of the baptism they were all radiant and joyful. The baptism went fine—Jason answered loudly when I asked him if he desired to be baptized and stepped up on the little stool I’d dug out to lean his head over the font with perfect grace. But the real grace came when the family, led by Jason, came up to receive communion. Jason received the wafer and carefully, precisely dipped it half-way into the wine before consuming it. Then he said, “thank you” to the chalicist and started back to his seat between the lines of people waiting for the rail.
He stopped beside the first person he passed and said, politely, “I just got the Body of Christ.” That person nodded slightly but tried to remain solemn, just the way we should be on the way to the greatest party ever thrown! So, Jason was a little louder with the next person and louder still with the one after that. By then, the lack of response began to confuse and annoy him and he started pulling on pants legs and skirts: “I just got the Body of Christ!” he said to each person he passed. Donna’s father got to him first and picked him up, looking back embarrassingly at me. Jason was trying to get free from his grandfather’s embrace…there were lots more people to tell about what had just occurred.
I stopped the service right there, asking the organist to stop playing and pointing to Jason in the arms of his grandfather.
“Do you hear what he’s telling you?” I said, softly. “Can you begin to understand what waits for you up here? Jason understands and he’s telling you to run to this table because the mystery and wonder here is more than you imagine…more than you can imagine….”
For months after that, I was told, people going back from communion would lean over and whisper to their friends, “Guess what I just got?” And for a while the spirit of Jason’s understanding astonished us all.
(I had wondered if having Jason ‘dunked’ would be the end of the family’s church going. I wouldn’t have been upset if it had, since the sacrament was valid and real and ‘objective’. But they kept coming for a few months until Donna was offered a position in the President’s office at Northwestern and Phil was asked to teach at the University of Chicago. The jobs were so good they were leaving at the end of first semester. I was sad to see them go, but it gave me a little rush to know that someone had used Yale as a ‘stepping stone’ to what they really wanted!
I went down the day they moved and watched the movers carefully empty the house of beautiful, valuable things. Donna, so unlike her, was dressed in faded jeans and one of Phil’s J. Crew white shirts. Her hair was a mess and she had on neither makeup nor glasses. She hugged me and told me I could find Phil and Jason and the dog and the nanny over in the park. Before I went to say good-bye to them, she said, “did we tell you that Jason’s favorite game now is playing priest? He baptizes G. I. Joe daily and gives us communion ever so often. He wears one of Phil’s tee-shirts and puts one of his ties around his neck. It’s really very sweet.” She said it was ‘sweet’ but she looked worried.
“It’s just a phase,” I told her, “like me.”
“You’re in a ‘phase’?” asked, smiling.
“Yeal,” I said, “but mine came late and has stayed for a while.”
Then I went to find my friends and say goodbye.)
BUTTERFLY (God bless him…)
I’ve changed people’s names up to now, but there is no way to do that with Butterfly. I considered calling him “Moth” or “Bumblebee” or “Hummingbird”, but none of those or any other would do justice to who and what he was. He was Butterfly—I’ll change his ‘real’ name to Michael Caruso from what it was…but that (or his ‘real’ name) does not do him justice. He was Butterfly. He signed his ‘art work’ Papillon, which was his misspelling of the French for Butterfly—“Papillion”. So even he couldn’t come up with a name that worked besides the one he was: Butterfly.
He was 6’6” tall and probably weighed 150 pounds—10 pounds of which was the jewelry he wore around his neck and in his ears. He told me he had a total of 27 earrings, 13 on the right ear and 14 on the left. I never counted, I simply took his word for it. And most of the earrings were of—you guessed it—butterflies. He also wore dozens of ring bracelets on each arm and a ring on every finger of both hands, including his thumb. And bling around his neck before ‘bling’ was the word for it—countless chains and necklaces. And all of that, like his earrings, had a definite theme: butterflies. I cannot imagine where he found so much bad jewelry with butterflies on it. I know he didn’t buy it on E-Bay since he had neither a computer nor money. But over the years of his life, he had found all this stuff and covered himself with it. There is a scene in a novel by George MacDonald, a writer who was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, where a character is completely enveloped by a flock (is that the right term?) of Monarch butterflies. Every inch of his body is, for a moment or two, covered by butterflies. I’m sorry I never found that passage and shared it with the Papillion I knew. He would have danced around the room—all arms and legs and jewelry—with delight and wonder just reading about an event like that. He WAS Butterfly.
He was long since a character around down-town Waterbury before I arrived. Eccentric doesn’t do the job in describing him. Neither does odd, odd-ball, unconventional, unusual, peculiar, strange or weird, which were the synonyms my computer’s thesaurus gave me for ‘eccentric’. I won’t even bother going to Roget’s. Every word there will apply but not describe. He usually wore a Mohawk which revealed a huge gash on the back of his head.
“Where’d you get that scar, Butterfly?” I asked.
“When I was in prison,” he said, “I sort of incited a riot.”
“Where were you in prison?”
“Cal-i-for-ni-a. ‘California there I was, til I got arrested by the fuzz….’ He danced around my office where we were talking.
“What were you in prison for?”
“Weed, Reefer. Possession is the devil’s workshop….” He showed my how to inhale and hold it while offering me his imaginary joint. The ones he’s had earlier weren’t imaginary. I could smell it across the room.
“That’s ‘an idle mind’,” I told him.
“What is?” He continued smoking his non-existence marijuana.
“And idle mind is the devil’s workshop….”
“I had one of them too,” he cackled, moving again. He was hopelessly ADD, he couldn’t sit still for a minute. “It was the 60’s, man….”
“How long did you serve?” I asked.
I was astonished. “Eight years for possession of marijuana? In California? In the 60’s? Everyone would have been in prision….”
Butterfly smiled at me and shook his head, “I possessed 50 acres,” he said.
And he was as flamboyantly homosexual as anyone I ever met. Gay and lesbian folks I knew gave him wide berth. He wore skin tight clothes, his shirt open to the navel (“so you can see my jewelry,” he told me when I asked him why he didn’t button his shirt at least a little) and always had glitter all over his face and head and chest. He wore lots of eyeliner and mascara but drew the line at lip-stick. “Only faggots wear lipstick,” he told me once, letting me in on his make-up philosophy, “and I’m not a faggot—I’m a god-damn screaming queer….”
Did I leave out the tattoos? Dozens and dozens of tattoos on every part of his body you could see—and during the summer, when he wore short shorts, there was lots of skin to see. Most all of them were, you probably guessed, butterflies. When I asked him why he became “Butterfly” he grew serious for one of the few times I knew him and started talking in a soft, almost dreamy voice, unlike his usually rapid staccato falsetto. “When I was a boy,” he told me, “I knew ‘something was wrong’ with me. Everyone said it when they thought I couldn’t hear them. I was strange and freakish and didn’t do well in school and didn’t have any friends. I used to wonder what I’d ‘rather’ be than me. Then one day, I watched a butterfly out in the yard for about an hour. It didn’t go in a straight line. It was so beautiful. It could flit and it could soar. After a while it came and landed on my face and it’s little feet were sticky and so tiny, like eyelashes. I was in love.”
I sat in his silence, fascinated and not a little moved by his story. After a few moments he leaped up from the couch where he was sitting and started dancing around my office. “It’s the flitting part I like best!”
A remarkable thing was how many people were genuinely fond of Butterfly. There was something childlike below the weirdness—something playful and touching and inviting. The two women who ran the Council of Churches—a tough old swamp Yankee and the sweet, rural wife of the American Baptist minister in town both adored him. So did the nun—street smart and savvy—who was the director of the social service agency housed across the street from St. John’s in the First Congregational Church. So did most of the members of the parish—he actually was a communicant though his attention deficit kept him from sitting through a whole service. The oddest couple of his relationships was with Allie, a conservative Republican in her early 30’s who was a member of the American Rifle Association and carried a little snub-nose 38 in her purse at all times. Allie and Butterfly were always talking after church and one day, when Allie had told me she was pregnant, Butterfly came running up to me with her in tow. He embraced her—she was short and her head barely reached his nipples, which of course you could see because his shirt was unbuttoned—“Allie’s got a bun in the oven!” Butterfly announced loudly. “I’m going to be a fairy god-mother….” They looked at each other with genuine devotion and then he pressed her face against his bling.
It’s not that Butterfly wasn’t a problem. He was stoned entirely too much and so promiscuous that it made my eyes ache. I actually feared for him because he’d take about any man he found home. And he had a temper. His primary adversary was Justine, the local shopping cart lady, who hung out at most of the downtown churches the way Butterfly did. She’s a whole story in herself, but they were like the proverbial oil and water. I’d throw both of them off the property for a day or two with regularity. They couldn’t be near each other without fighting about something. Once, during a Tuesday morning Eucharist with the Clericus group, I heard them out in the hall way screaming like banshees at each other with remarkable combinations of profanity. I was half way through the prayer of consecration, but the din was so disturbing that I thought one of them might kill the other. To tell the truth, at that moment, I wished they were the gingham dog and calico cat and would simply tear each other to pieces.
I took off the stole I was wearing, dropped it around one of the other priest’s neck and went to scold the children. I was on them like stink on…well, you know. I got between them and screamed them into silence. “Why has God sent the two of you to me?” I yelled. They looked at me as if I were an alien from a distant galaxy. Then I banished them from the building for two days and went back to receive the sacrament I had only half-blessed.
But the real story—the story that intrigues, delights and haunts me to this day—was Butterfly and Millicent. Millicent was an elderly woman who lived in one of the less fancy “rest homes” that dot any city the size of Waterbury. We, somehow, as a culture, have to warehouse the elderly to keep them safe from others and themselves. Some ‘homes’ do it with a modicum of grace and care, in spite of crushing numbers and limited resources, but most don’t. Millicent’s ‘rest home’ was in the latter category. Once I met her, I visited her with some regularity, especially after Butterfly’s murder. And it was Butterfly who introduced us.
I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that Butterfly and an elderly woman who was dressed rather stylishly—1950’s stylishly, but stylishly none the less—were standing on the street near the entrance to the parking lot. I got out of my car and went to say hello. Butterfly was puffing as hard as he could on a joint while Millicent waited for him to finish toking up. Butterfly, always the gentleman, said, holding his breath, “Millicent, this is Fr. Jim. Jim this is Millicent Randolph.” That was quite a feat to say on an inhale and Millicent and I shook hands.
“Butterfly has told me about you,” she said, in an accent that hinted of Back Bay Boston. “He’s taking me to the A.A. meeting in your church this morning.”
I turned and saw Butterfly knock the ash off his joint and eat what was left.
“You’re going to an A.A. meeting?” I asked him with as much judgment as I could muster.
He swallowed and smiled. “It’s ‘Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said, taking Millicent’s thin arm and leading her a bit unstably toward the church door.
Over time I learned a great deal about Millicent. She actually was an aristocrat of sorts—not from Boston but Manhattan, though she’d gone to school at Vassar and picked up a Boston accent and a Boston Brahman to boot. They lived in Greenwich, summered on Nantucket and had a ‘little place’ in Miami Beach. But one of their perfect three children was murdered while attending Columbia—he was 19—and Millicent fell completely, totally, absolutely apart. By the time her therapy and her taste for scotch and her profound depression began to lift, even a bit, her husband had divorced her, her daughters given up on her, her friends abandoned her and her own family disowned her. She finally encountered her Higher Power in the basement of an Episcopal Church somewhere in south-west Connecticut and dragged herself back to ‘who she’d been’ (“though stronger”, she told me) but by then her body had betrayed her as well. And having used up all her own money, she’d ended up, through a social worker at a rehab center in Fairfield County, at the ‘rest home’ in Waterbury.
“I was in a fog,” she told me, long after that meeting on West Main Street while Butterfly fortified himself for the A.A. meeting, “that lasted almost 15 years.” Her son had been one of those ‘oops’ children when she was 36 and her daughters were 11 and 9. So the fog set in when she was 54 and didn’t lift until she was 69 going on 85, penniless, forsaken, extremely ill.
“How did you meet Butterfly?” I asked her shortly after meeting her. She was sitting in the church, waiting for Butterfly to smoke some dope before walking her the three blocks back to the home.
She smiled and looked her age instead of a decade older. “He volunteers at the home,” she told me. He picks up people’s prescriptions from the drug store and goes to get folks some fast food when they want it and brings around newspapers each morning.
I shook my head. Like a diamond, Butterfly had many facets.
She took a deep breath. “This church is very beautiful,” she said. “Butterfly told me to ask you if you’d do my funeral here when the time comes?”
I nodded and mumbled, “of course.”
Then she continued, “He wants to be buried from here too. He told me. Don’t forget since I doubt he’s told you.”
Nodding more I told her I wouldn’t forget. But then, in the end, I after all, I had to scramble hard to keep my promise.
Butterfly and Millicent became an ‘item’. He began to bring her to church—she’d grown up High Church at St. Thomas’ in New York City and had to get used to our less formal ways. But she always had something insightful to say about the sermon and Butterfly, flitting around, unable to sit still, would make sure he was there to help her up to communion. She became the den-mother of a quite unruly A.A. meeting. Most of the people who came were court ordered and just wanted their paper signed. But she adopted them all—having only dead and estranged children of her own—and kept a discipline and insured that the crowd noise at the break was at a minimum. And Butterfly saw to her every need and every whim (though Millicent didn’t have many ‘whims’ any more—she was down to ‘needs’ and nothing else).
I feel like the author of John’s Gospel: “there are many more stories about Butterfly than are written here….” Just a couple left.
One day, the week before he was murdered, Butterfly simply opened the door of my office and came in. I was with a woman who believed her child was on drugs and her husband was having an affair. I was looking through my Rolodex to find the numbers of a psychologist and a drug hot-line for her to call. I had been present to her pain but she needed a real ‘professional’. She was sitting on the couch, wiping her eyes, when Butterfly butted in, waving a piece of paper and shouting, “I passed! I passed! I don’t have AIDS!”
The woman jumped and looked horrified that such a creature had intruded on her pain and suffering with such a message. Butterfly didn’t ‘work’ for the uninitiated. His charm was an acquired taste. I threw him unceremoniously out of my office and told him to wait on me in the library downstairs. He turned, just like a 10 year old showing you their report card and being rejected, would have turned. He shut the door softly behind himself and I started writing phone numbers on the back of my calling card.
I was furious with him. When I went into the library he was sitting working on one of his ‘art works’. What he did was trace characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and then surround them with leaves and flowers and rainbows and stars and color them in with Crayons and glue stick them to a piece of cardboard. He always signed them “Papillon” (sic) and gave them to people as if they were Picassos or Rembrandts, which, in the last analysis, they were. I’m looking at one he did for my wife as I write this. I keep it near the desk where I work. Her name, BERN is outlined in green, colored yellow and the two little balloons in the B are hearts colored red. Practically everyone I knew in those days had a Papillon original and most people kept them somewhere in sight.
But I wasn’t thinking of that the last afternoon I ever saw him. I was thinking of how inappropriate and intrusive he had been, how he had crossed a line and shattered a boundary, how he had fucked up big-time.
“Aren’t you happy I don’t have AIDS?” he asked, as if nothing had happened 10 minutes before, as innocent as a child…which was the truth.
“I’m very happy for you,” I said, trying not to let my anger show, “and for me…since I’ll have you around to drive me crazy for a long time.” He laughed at that, but I continued, doing my lamentable duty as the “authority” in his life, trying to do “what was best for him”, wanting to “teach him a lesson.”
“Butterfly, you can’t come barging into my office whenever you want,” I said, watching him flinch and twitch, wanting to get up and move but knowing I would disapprove. “You really fucked up today. You’re banned from the church for four days.”
He was about to burst into tears, as he sometimes did. But when he wiped his face with his forearm, he was reminded that he was wearing a black leather jacket, some sizes too large. Then he smiled and got up, coming over to show me the jacket.
“It’s my new boyfriend’s,” he told me, “isn’t it delicious.”
“Where’d you meet this new boyfriend,” I asked, touching the leather. It was delicious. I wished I had one.
“Library Park,” he said, dancing away, his head leaned back, a child with a new crush. “He’s from Brooklyn. Just got into town last night. I got the test for him. He’s really fab-u-lous….”
“He’s really big,” I said, referring to the jacket.
“Oh, I’ll find that out tonight!” Butterfly said, moving toward the door, swishing as hard as a skinny, 6’5” man could swish. “I’ll let you know.” Then he stopped and counted on his fingers. “This is Tuesday,” he told me, “four days will be Sunday. See you then….” Then he was gone.
“Be careful, Butterfly,” I called after him. But I don’t think he heard me. And I didn’t see him Sunday because on Saturday night at some time, his new boyfriend stabbed him to death with the large pair of scissors Butterfly had to cut the cardboard so he could glue stick his art work to it.
And Sunday was Palm Sunday, the first day of the octave that includes Holy Week and Easter—the holiest week of the Christian Year. A police officer who knew Butterfly (didn’t they all?) came by the church about 9 a.m., after the early service, to find me and tell me that Butterfly had been murdered and the murderer was in custody.
I found words in spite of my shock and horror and gathering shame about my last encounter with my friend. “Why did he kill him? Do you know?”
The police officer looked back through his little notebook. “One of the detectives told me it had something to do with Butterfly wearing his leather jacket without asking….”
Everything got very confusing after that. Holy Week at St. John’s was filled with mourning and passion—not just for our Lord, but for our dear friend, Butterfly. Everything was suffused with his murder. Every homily for 7 days mentioned him. I’m sure it was his ‘corpus’ and not Jesus’ that people saw on the cross that year. But his corpse was up in Farmington, at the State Police Forensic lab. I can only wonder what the technicians and pathologists thought of Butterfly’s body—the piercings, the Mohawk, the tattoos, his great height and tiny weight. The scar and metal plate in his head from a prison riot in California decades ago. And the stab wounds, examined, excised, analyzed three ways to Palm Sunday—did they find ‘trace evidence’ of cardboard in the wound from the scissors? What did they make of that?
I couldn’t get a straight answer from the police or the coroner or the prosecuting attorneys office about where Butterfly’s body was or when it could be buried. I burned up the phone lines days past Easter and got nothing helpful back. But I must have been on a lot of those pink “Someone called when you were out” slips, because a local mortician called me to let me know he had Butterfly’s murdered and filleted body and was going to bury him—via his brother’s instructions (His Brother—I had no idea Butterfly had family!) in a pauper’s grave on Friday morning at 9 a.m. I wasn’t familiar with the particular cemetery so the funeral director promised me he’s have someone meet me at the gate at 8:55 a.m. to bring me to the grave. I was there at 8:40, coffee and newspaper to fill the time. At 9 a.m. I started driving around the huge cemetery and saw no one, anywhere. I went to the office that was just opening. I told my story and the cemetery director, a huge Irish man with Spencer Tracy eyebrows and a whisky voice explained to me that contrary to cemetery rules, the grave had been opened the previous afternoon and the funeral director had disposed of the body at 8 a.m. and paid a half-hour of overtime to have the grave filled before 9.
I was so beside myself that Spencer Tracy drove me out to Butterfly’s newly filled grave and I sobbed the burial office over it. On the way back to his office, I asked the cemetery director why, o why, would the mortician have misled me so?
He waited until he got back to the office and we were out of his car to answer. “This was a ‘state burial’,” he told me. “I would venture that paying overtime to have the grave filled was less expensive than a real coffin.”
The concept of a ‘real coffin’ had never occurred to me. What would an ‘unreal coffin’ be?
“He was buried in a very large cardboard box,” the man told me, very aware of how upset I was, “that’s my best guess….And he didn’t want you to see that….”
“He was my friend…,” I said, about to start blabbering.
The man rubbed his thumb against his forefinger and said, sadly, I think, “not to the funeral director.”
When I was back to the church I called a funeral director I trusted implicitly and blabbered out the story. “He didn’t break any laws,” he told me, “but he lied to a priest and was certainly unethical. You could call the State Board about him. Lots of paperwork, not much results. I don’t know what to tell you—he was a bad man….But then, I knew that….”
I called the funeral director who had planted poor Butterfly without my presence. “I told you 8 a.m.,” he said, butter not only not melting in his mouth but becoming chilled. “And he was just a bum.” I hung up. All else was futile. Before I hung up I did get a phone number in Rhode Island for Butterfly’s brother and told him I was planning a memorial service the Wednesday of the next week and invited him to come. He was startled and stunned. “Will anyone come?” he asked.
“Oh, my goodness, yes,” I told him. I’m not sure he believed me but, God bless his heart, he did come.
Three hundred people showed up for Butterfly’s memorial service. No kidding, three hundred people showed up. Instead of a homily, there was a microphone down in the center aisle and people were invited to speak. I lost count at 19 because Justine, Butterfly’s nemesis, came to the microphone and said, in the 5 year old language she has, “I love Butterfly. Fly, Butterfly.” Then she kissed her hand and blew it toward the ceiling of the church. (She also rambled on in ways no one understood for a few more minutes before I went down and stopped her gently.) Butterfly’s brother, who obviously remembered the little boy who had no friends and was weird and got put in prison and beaten there, but didn’t know—had no way to imagine—that his brother was so profoundly loved dissolved into tears and sobs to the extent that I considered calling 911.
It was Millicent who spoke last. After she spoke there was nothing else to say. Something like this was her eulogy for Butterfly: “He became my son—not the son I lost, but the son I never deserved. No one—no one—ever cared for me with more compassion and love and joy that Butterfly. He was a good boy—the best boy ever. I’m not sure how to live without him….”
After talking to his brother at the reception that people had organized in the library—though the library was too small and the food ran out, but the people in the soup kitchen brought in more and more and more because they loved Butterfly too—I took Justine to Butterfly’s grave. Butterfly’s brother told me over and over, “I never knew, I couldn’t have imagined….” He was referring to the love he had witnessed for his deranged, odd, weird, eccentric, crazy brother. Who could have known? Who could have imagined?
I have a dog—well, not actually a ‘dog’ because he’s a Puli—who is hell on wheels to ride in a car with. Unless I strap him down with this gadget I bought at a pet store, he is all over me: barking at the key until I turn it, barking at the gear shift until I engage it, barking at the gas petal until I push it. Then he puts his paw on my arm, as if to direct me where to go—one of his walking places or another. I actually believe he could drive if his legs could reach the brake and he had a thumb to turn the key and change the gears. Well, that was a dim reflection of what it was like to take Justine the 12 miles or so to Butterfly’s grave. At that point in her life—and she’s exactly my age—she was much like a child raised by wolves in France. Since then a couple in the parish have unofficially adopted her and tamed her (to some extent) and transformed her into something rare and wondrous. That’s a story in itself. But on the day of Butterfly’s memorial service, she was like a Puli in my front seat. I belted her in but she kept yelling and reaching over to touch the windshield wipers and the steering wheel and the gear shift. And because there are so many graveyards in a place like Connecticut, she kept seeing them and hollering, “Butterfly? Butterfly?”
Once we got there and I showed her where he was buried, she wept and mumbled something that must have been ‘good-bye’ and was calmer on the way home.
(A few months later I was sitting by Millicent’s death bed. One of her daughters was there and the other was flying in from Oregon the next day. She would have her funeral at St. John’s but the daughters would take her ashes back to Greenwich to bury beside their father, who, rich as Midas, had thrown an embolism two years before and passed through that wondrous, mysterious, terrifying door. After Butterfly’s death, Millicent had called her daughters and, since grace abounds when you least expect it, they had ‘come home’ to their mother. Some sad stories have happy endings, thank the Lord.
I had given communion to Millicent and her daughter—no wine for Millicent, she was through with Demon Rum in all its manifestations. And, with Millicent’s permission, I had said the prayers for the dying. “Surely I am,” she told me when I hesitantly asked, “why not?” I was thinking it might be time for me to leave when Millicent’s daughter took my hand and her mother’s and said, in that upper-class accent she shared with Millicent, “Jim, you must tell me about Butterfly, my mother’s son by another mother.”
I smiled that she knew enough street language to say it that way. The afternoon was just beginning. I had nothing but time.
“You better get a chair,” I told her, “this might take a while.”
Millicent was drifting off to sleep as I began, but her daughter was on the edge of her chair, drinking it all in.
Sometimes you get lucky and things turn out like that….)
COLONEL TED AND THE GANG
Colonel Ted wasn’t the first person I met at St. James in Charleston—he was the second. The first person was an elderly, gangly black man with the improbable name of Israel Goldman. When Bern and I got off the plane in Charleston, there he was waiting at the gate. He introduced himself and added, “it always throws people who’ve never met me when I show up for an appointment.” He was soft spoken and polite, telling Bern she looked ‘radiant’ rather than mentioning she was obviously pregnant and not mentioning the length of my hair or my full beard. Though I objected, he insisted on carrying the one bag we’d brought for a two day visit, though he was probably 75. He walked slowly, as many tall, thin men seem to do.
“Colonel Ted will meet us at the door with his car,” he told us, “he didn’t want you to have to walk far.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “and besides, Ted really resents having to pay for parking.”
Israel carried his hat in his hand until we were outside and then placed it jauntily on his head. He was wearing what seemed to be a hand-tailored suit, a blindingly white shirt and school tie of some kind. “Grambling,” he said suddenly, “my alma mater.” I nodded and smiled. “I saw you looking at it, wondering,” he added. I nodded some more, wondering if he could read minds. “Here’s the Colonel,” Israel said, smiling, “probably burned up more gas than the parking meter would have been.”
The biggest Cadillac I’d ever seen pulled up to the curb and Colonel Ted exploded from the driver’s seat, moving quickly around the car to shake my hand and hug Bern. If Israel was laid-back and non-demonstrative, the Colonel was an extreme in the other way. He talked fast, moved fast and was about the size of three Michelin tires with thin legs in Bermuda shorts and a bowling ball shaped head. They were Mutt and Jeff, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, except they were African Americans. Israel’s skin was the color of coffee with cream and Ted’s was a light tan. I had grown up in a culture where all “Negroes” supposed looked alike because white people didn’t see them very well. But two men couldn’t have been more dissimilar in appearance and demeanor than the two they sent to pick us up for my “interview” at St. James.
It was an “interview” rather than an interview because I was convinced nothing would come of it. We’d spend a few hours with the members of the parish and sleep in a motel and then fly back home after attending church on Sunday and I would have fulfilled my promise to Bishop Atkinson. I was in the last couple of months at Virginia Seminary and had been offered a job as an assistant at a wonderful church in Chicago, which I wanted to accept. I called Bishop Atkinson to tell him the good news and after a half-hearted congratulations and an awkward silence, he told me that Bishop Campbell wouldn’t release me to leave the diocese. Had I paid close enough attention, I would have known that a seminarian ‘belonged’ to the diocese and bishop who had sponsored them in seminary. Had I been a little more astute about the ways of the church, I would have realized I should have called Bishop Campbell—the diocesan bishop—rather than the bishop coadjutor. Had I understood the ‘politics’ of such things in even a cursory way, I would have had the Bishop of Chicago call the Bishop of West Virginia to negotiate my release from my commitment to go and waltz with the diocese that brung me to the dance. But, of course, all those things were news to me. I thought I was a free agent rather than an indentured servant.
I handled it badly by getting angry with Bishop Atkinson (what is it they always do to the messengers?) and complained bitterly about not being allowed to do what I wanted. He listened patiently and promised to call me back right away. When he did, he had a deal—interview for one job in West Virginia and if I didn’t like it, he’d pull in all his chits and free me up to go to Chicago. So Bern and I flew to Charleston at St. James’ expense to do a little ‘play acting’ and say “thanks but no thanks” and begin our lives in the Windy City. On the way back to Alexandria, somewhere over Maryland at 30,000 feet, Bern said, “You’re going to say ‘yes’ aren’t you?” And I answered, “I’m afraid I am….”
That was because of Colonel Ted and the gang at St. James. They were people of such remarkable character that I simply wanted to be among them for a while. And, I must admit, I was fascinated by the profound paradoxes of the parish.
Ted drove down the long hill from the airport into the bowels of Charleston. I’d been there many times but I was surprised at how thrilled I was to the golden dome of the state capital shining in the late April sunlight, skeptic that I am about feelings of nostalgia, especially for ‘home’.
Bern told one of our friends the other day that she thought I could live anywhere. I had mentioned that Bern’s brother was going to move to Morgantown, West Virginia, where the three of us had gone to college. I’d said out loud that I would consider moving to Morgantown.
“Oh, you couldn’t live there now,” our friend suggested.
That’s when Bern said, “Jim could live anywhere.”
“He couldn’t live in Mississippi, I’d bet,” our friend said. “Oh yes, he could,” Bern replied. He ran through a list of places he and Bern could never live and she assured him about each suggestion that, “Jim could live there.” All this was terribly awkward since I was sitting with them on our deck, all of us drinking coffee, but they talked about me as if I were away—living in Mississippi, perhaps. The truth was, she was right.
“So he’d find something to like about anywhere he was?” our friend asked.
“No, that’s not it,” Bern told him, “he would end up ‘liking it’ without any reasons, ‘liking it’ just because he was there. In fact, he wouldn’t even need to ‘like it’, just him being there would be enough.”
“That’s really strange,” our friend observed.
“Isn’t it?” Bern replied.
“More coffee?” I asked, just to see if I was really there. They both said they would like another cup and I went off to make it.
It’s not like me to get attached to places or things. And I’m pretty satisfied wherever I am and with whatever I’ve got. So, seeing the gold dome of the capitol of West Virginia moved my heart, but not much more than seeing anything beautiful anywhere would. “Home”, for me, is truly where the heart is.
Ted and Israel and the two of us had lunch at a Shoney’s restaurant next to the motel where we’d be sleeping. Colonel Ted talked non-stop and Israel laughed ironically at some of the Colonel's unconscious mild profanities. Ted was called 'the Colonel' because he was one. He had beenn one of the highest ranking African-Americans in World War II. Of course, back then, he would have been called a 'Negro'. Ted never objected to that discription and few of the older members of St. James Church objected either. It was a generational thing for them—maybe, having grown up in the world they grew up in, “Negro” was a huge step up from 'colored' or worse. After 20 years as a soldier, Ted started working for the U.S. Postal Service, or whatever it was called back in the 50's. He worked there long enough to get a pension and finished his working life with the Veterans Adminstration. He was the only person I ever met who had three federal pensions.
Ted was the Senior Warden when I arrived. He'd been Senior Warden (the highest lay office in an Episcopal Church) for years before that. A small church like St. James hangs onto good people in high office. Ted, like several of the older members of St. James, was extremly light skinned. He once told me that 'back in the day'--before integration—he always carried a turban in his trunk so that when he and Susan wanted to stop for the night in the southern states they were assured a room. He'd put on his turban and speak broken English and registered without a problem. I remember asking him what he felt about having to do that. He drew a serious look on his broad face and said, “it was embarrassing, in a way....But lots better than sleeping in the car!” Then he laughed. Ted laughed a lot. He was a gentle, large, round man—about 5'10 and at least 270 pounds. His mouth was almost always twisted into a crooked grin He had seen enough of life and pain to know the best defense was a good offense. So, he spread laughter wherever he went.
Even though I'd grown up in a town that was half African-American, I didn't know much at all about Black folks—none of us White folks really do. And so Ted and the gang were my kind, patient, good-humored professors in the study of race. Ted more than anyone. For example, I remember that Ted and I were on the way to lunch at the Charleston VFW when the Veteran's Day Parade passed by. Ted and I stopped and watched it—him waving at some of the Vets as they passed by. When the parade had ended, he taught me a great lesson.
“You know one thing that makes us different, Jim?” he said. I must have shaken my head because he continued...though Ted didn't need response to keep talking. “When you watch a parade you can decide if you like the next band when you hear them coming around the corner. I have to wait until they are in view. If I see some black kids in the band, then I can enjoy the music.”
Ted was correct, although it came like a bolt of lightening to me. I could appreciate the music before I saw the band. Liberal that I am, I thought it was open-minded of me not to care about the racial makeup of the band. I attempted to tell him that—but for Ted it was a more complicated, marrow the bone issue. “Thought like a White Man,” he said, then laughed.
One thing I know for certain—something I learned from Ted and the Gang at St. James—no Black priest in a White congregation would have experienced the love and acceptance, patience and support I received from them. When my pregnant wife and I arrived at St. James, we made up 2/3 of the White membership of the parish. The other White member was married to a Black man. She was, by the way, the house cleaner for several of the Black members. Don't tell me Irony doesn't reign on earth....
Our family—both our children were born in Charleston—were accepted completely into the 'family' of St. James. I never ate in an many parishioner's homes in the other two parishes I served combined. We were wined and dined. And, to be honest, we had much more in common with most of the people at St. James—education, culture, tastes, opinions—than we didn't have in common. The one thing we did not share was race—skin color.
It's astonishing how skin color so dominates the psyches of people around the globe. My son has been to Taiwan a few times with his wife's Taiwanese parents. He tells me that island has some of the most beautiful beaches he's ever seen and that almost everyone on them are tourists. The Taiwanese middle and upper class carry umbrella in the sun. Lighter skin is valued. And consider the geishas of Japan: they powder their faces to typing paper white and are considered the embodiment of beauty and sensuality. The Hispanic congregation of St. John's in Waterbury are divided by many distinctions—nation of origin, accent, class, education—but many of them told me over the years that lighter skinned folks had advantages. Ironically enough, it seems only Caucasions seem to value darker skin. Until the last decade or so of skin-cancer fear, many white people tried to see how tan they could get in the summer. And even now, in the Era of Sun Block, there are products to artificially give your skin a brown glow. Blacks have a different view of skin color than White folks.
I learned, in my Black Studies with Ted, the saying aboout skin color among many African-Americans of a certain age and culture. “If you're light,” it goes, “your're alright. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back.” The “Black is Beautiful” movement changed that for younger African-Americans, yet, as I learned from Professor Ted, skin color is an essential part of describing a Black person to another Black person who hasn't met them. There is as wide a range of distinctions in coloration to some blacks as there are Eskimo words for snow.
One distinction Ted taught me well is the distinction between 'African-Americans' and 'African-Africans'. Mind you, his opinions may have said more about his age and class than about what all Black people think of Africans. It came about when, for the third time, the Bishop had called me to see if someone at St. James would like to host a visiting African priest and his wife. The third time was the last straw for Ted.
“Tell him 'no!',” Ted told me, clearly exasperated by the request. “Nobody here wants to have Africans in their home....And when you tell the bishop that, remember to ask him for a damn Range Rover for St. James.”
Something I have found interesting about the Episcopal Church is how enamored we often are with African Anglicans. When I was a priest in West Virginia, some thirty years ago now, the struggling Diocese would go head over heels about a Bishop from Tanganyika but did next to nothing to involve African-Americans in the power structure of the church. That really burned the older members of St. James, especially after some deep pocket people around the state gave an African visitor a Land Rover the same year some mission church grants were reduced.
So I called the Bishop and suggested that there must be some White folks who would enjoy the exotic pleasure of hosting an African family for a week or two. The Bishop—a sweet and good man—was shocked that not all Black people would be ecstatic to have a chance to talk with someone from their Motherland. I patiently explained, using Ted's logic if not his profanities, that many of the folks at St. James found the African clerics arrogant and dismissive since their families had never been slaves in America. I also told him that families of the members of St. James had been in this country longer than the Irish side of my mother's family and that very few African-Americans, descended as they were from slaves, had no idea what part of Africa their ancestors came from. “Besides,” I relayed from Ted, giving him credit for this insight, “Africans don't understand our culture and smell funny.”
The Bishop was silent for a long time. He might have been considering what people would think of him if he dared comment on the odor of an African visitor. He thought, as Ted had taught me, 'just like a White Man.”
Just before we hung up, I made the request for a Range Rover, thinking he would be amused. I don't think he was.
Ted taught me many things. He taught me 'tolerance' wasn't the great and noble idea most White people thought it was.
“If you say you 'tolerate' me,” he said slowly, trying to get around my White-Think, “the implication is that tolerance is a choice you're making and you can take that choice back if you decide to. 'Tolerance' leaves White people in the dominant, oppressive position.” He waited until he decided I had somewhat dimly understood that subtlety before continuing. “Negroes...Black folk...don't want racial 'tolerance', we want equality.”
The little town where I grew up—Anawalt, WestVirginia—is in the southern most county of the state. Anawalt was roughly 50% Black. Yet I knew only a few of the Black people's names and some of the elders of their community called me 'Mister Jimmy'. There was no bad blood, for the most part, between the races. But we went to different schools and different churches and different beer joints. The Black folk were 'tolerated', and, in many ways appreciated for not making more demands—but there was no thought that they were equal. We had 'racial harmony', not 'racial equality'.Even when things appear to be just and fair, it is often the 'justice' and 'fairness' granted by the dominant and oppressive group.
Even today, I fear—God bless Ted's soul—even today.
(At the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim, there were changes made to the calendar of feasts. One of the new commemorations was to honor the poet Langston Hughes and the writer, W.E.B. Du Bois. In one of the collects written for that Holy Day the term “Black folks” appeared.
Some White-Thinking deputies rose to amend the collect to say “African-American people” instead of “Black folks”. Never mind that DuBois' seminal work is called The Soul of Black Folks and never mind that “Black folks” is a term Black Folks use. To be politically correct, these White folks were trying to change the very language of the people being honored. It was a half-hour of madness...nobody listening to the string of Black deputies who rose to explain the reality and how it would be an offense to change 'Black folks'. Black folks couldn't even call themselves what they wanted unless White folks approved! Somewhere in that I heard Ted laughing and Israel chuckling and Harris fairly screaming with irony.)
Harris, by the way, was a vice-President of West Virginia State College, a historically Black college pretty much ruined by integration and white commuter students. Harris was a devout Episcopalian who would give me tips on liturgical details. Many Black Episcopal Churches are quite high-church...St. James was Anglo-Catholic as long as they could attract Black priests. But economics caught up with them and most every priest in the Diocese was White and attended Virginia Seminary, the Evil Twin of Anglo-Catholicism. I was the 3rd White priest after an 80 year run of Black priests and I had attended Virginia Seminary!
So once Harris asked me politely and with much apology if I would mind 're-vesting' the altar after the Eucharist. I had no idea what he was talking about but agreed to do it if I could. It was after a Sunday service and I had left the chalice and paten on the alter with the purificator beside them. All Harris wanted me to do was wash the chalice and reassemble the whole mess with the burse and veil and whatever that little hard, square thing is called. That was easy.
“I'm on my way to High Church,” I told Harris the next Sunday after leaving the altar reassembled.
“Not in your lifetime,” he said.
Harris also told me once, “any Black man who isn't a Baptist or a Methodist has had some White man messing with his religion.”
I thought for a minute. “Your religion would probably be Muslim or Tribal if the slave traders had never messed with it.”
He smiled at me—he was one of the most charming men I ever met—“Ted may be wrong about you,” he said, “you don't think half like a White man.”
Since I was the priest of a Black Church, I was invited to join the Black Ministerial Group made up of the Black ministers of the Baptist, Methodist, AME and AME Zion churches. (A White priest of an Episcopal Church was more welcomed than the self-appointed, self-ordained Black preachers here and there around Charleston.) So I joined. They received me graciously and generously. I went to many of the monthly meetings but skipped the one when they all took a trip to Cincinnati together to buy suits and, from their jokes the month before the trip, to drink and smoke a bit.
I told Ted about the trip to Cincinnati that I turned down. Then I asked him if he thought I should have gone along for solidarity's sake. He was fairly falling over from laughter.
“Do you even own a suit?” he asked, gasping.
It was a Sunday so I looked down at my khaki colored suit and shook my head.
“No, Jim,” he said, “I mean a SUIT like those boys wear every day?”
Black or navy blue or pin-stripped costing over $100. No I didn't.
“You are such a White man,” he said, walking away to tell Israel or Harris or his wife Susan or Remitha about how I might have gone to Cincinnati with the Black Ministers to buy suits....He was snorting with delight.
Susan, by the way, was Ted's life. His Life, capital 'L'. There were two loves in his life: Susan and St. James. His devotion to both was beyond question. The way Ted looked at Susan made other women long for such looks from their husbands. To say he adored her would, I think, be drastically understating the reality.
Susan was, I believe, a year or two older than Ted (though one didn't ask such questions in the polite culture of St. James). For both of them in was a late-life second marriage. Ted never mentioned his first wife and their divorce. Susan was widowed and her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters lived across the street from her and Ted. Peter, the son, was devoted to his mother only slightly less than Ted was. And Ted had a great relationship with the family, especially the youngest granddaughter, Emily. While her sister was beautiful and brilliant, Emily was large, plain and moderately retarded. She did very well in a caring community like St. James or the town of Institute where so many of the St. James gang lived. However, I didn't believe she'd ever be able to live on her own. She and Ted were magic: Emily would start shrieking with joy as soon as she saw him and his round face would light up. A full bird Colonel and a gangly, slightly out of control adolescent who would never be an 'adult' in a full way would play together like children. Ted would pretend she annoyed him sometimes, but that ruse was easily seen through.
Susan's son, Peter, was a kind but rather sardonic guy. I would sometimes get his jokes an hour later. But he was a faithful father to both is daughters and a doting son to Susan until one day he was driving from Institute to Charleston on the Interstate, pulled his car to the breakdown lane and died of a heart attack.
When I got to Ted and Susan's, I walked into a space of palpable grief. Susan rose from the chair where she was sitting and said, “Jim, oh Jim, did they tell you? My baby died....”
That was the moment that I realized what I should have known all along: the death of a child is the hardest death to take. It is monstrous and unnatural, so out of time and space as it should be, that to lose a 'baby', even one who is 60 years old as Peter was, is the unkindest cut of them all. That's also the day I recognized that the role of a priest at the time of death is simply to be present. There are, really, no words that are adequate, all aphorisms are devoid of integrity, nothing you can do makes a difference. All a priest can do is sit quietly and listen to the words and tears of the living and hold them in your heart and arms. That's what I did most of the rest of that day for Susan and Peter's little family.
Emily, not quite clear what had happened, was deeply disturbed by the enormous emotions flowing around her. So Ted took her for a long walk through the neighborhood, informing people along the way of Peter's death. By the end of the walk, after circling the campus of the college, Emily had become to bearer of the bad news. “She'd stop total strangers,” Ted told me later, “and grab their arms the way she does and say, 'daddy dead'.” He smiled, shook his head and pretended a gnat had flown in his eye and he had to get rid of it with his handkerchief. “It seemed to give her comfort,” he said, “that's the damnest thing....”
When people die, everyone has a story to tell. Henrich Ibsen said something like, there is no suffering so great that we cannot bear it if only we can put it in a story and tell a story about it. Emily's story was a simple one--'daddy dead'--and it got her through the next few days with less stress and more hope than any of the rest of us.
Could it have only been a year later when Susan called me in the early morning, apologized for disturbing me and asked if I could come. “Ted fell in the bathroom and I can't get him to wake up.” I called Clara, Peter's widow, and Harris and then rushed to my car. When I got there, just before the EMTs, Emily met me at the door. “Ted dead,” is all she said then she grabbed me and almost squeezed me in two with that wondrous strength so many retarded people have.
I could hear the ambulance coming in the distance, hurrying to the scene. They could have saved the siren; the Colonel had left the house. Ted dead....
The wake was going to be a problem. Neither of the two Black funeral homes were large enough for the crowds Susan knew to expect. And in one of those events I can only call 'inspired'--like the Spirit got entangled in the moment—I said, “Let's do the wake at the church....”
There was no question about it—it was perfect. Ted could lay in front of the altar where he often served as a chalicist, in the parish church he so loved and the ambiance would be already dignified and somber, unlike the way things get at funeral homes. When Harris and Scottie and Israel and young Mark, the next generation of leadership for St. James, heard that the mortician planned to drive Ted's body back and forth to Charleston between the wake and the funeral, they took things into their own hands.
So it was that Ted lay in state in that little A-frame church in a practically deserted part of north Charleston all through the night. And he was never alone. At first the men were dividing up the shifts, but the truth be known, I think that most of the stayed the whole night, sitting with their friend, telling stories about the Colonel, telling stories to keep away the chill of night and of death. Just as it should have been, the gang spend the night with Ted. The whole thing was gentle and sweet and lovey...just the way it should have been....
10. Going to the Country
My father had a compulsion about ‘leaving early’ that bordered on a mental illness. And that never showed itself with such clarity as when we went to ‘the country’. Truth is, where we lived was ‘country’—extremely rural. I grew up in a town with less than 500 residents and McDowell County was about 1/3 the size of Rhode Island and had some 68,000 citizens when I was growing up—nearer 25,000 now, which makes it a ‘ghost county’ rather than merely ‘rural’. Nevertheless, we called Monroe County, where my father grew up, ‘the country’ and when we went there we had to leave an hour or two before dawn.
When I was smaller, he would take me from my bed and put me in the backseat of whatever Ford he owned at the time and we’d stop somewhere along the two hour drive for me to put on the clothes my mother had brought for me. Later, he would simply wake me up at 4 a.m. and tell me “it’s time to go to the country.” We went once or twice a month, leaving before dawn on Saturday and coming back in the early afternoon of Sunday. I have hazy and dream filled memories of those early morning trips. We’d arrive before 6 a.m. at the house where my father lived as a boy and be greeted by my Grandmother Bradley—her name was Clieve, pronounced ClE-vE, which, if were short for anything I never learned what. I was a teen-ager when I realized that Clieve wasn’t truly my grandmother—she was my step-grandmother, the wife of my grandfather in his later life, after my father’s mother had died. But that wasn’t simply an oversight—not knowing our actual relationship—it was the way the Bradley side of my family operated. I grew up calling lots of Bradley relations “aunt” or “uncle” only to realize when I was older that they weren’t aunts or uncles at all. This for example: Aunt Ursa and Aunt Denie (Geraldine) were the children of “Aunt Annie” and “Uncle Buford”, who were, in truth, my father’s Aunt and Uncle. That made Ursa and Geraldine my second cousins! Such misrepresentation would have never happened on the Jones side of my family. The Jones’ were very precise about relationships—“your third cousin by marriage”, like that. The Bradley’s were less formal and anybody you were related to might be called “aunt” or “uncle”—it just didn’t matter as much to them. My actual first cousin Greg Bradley (well, actually, actually my double-cousin, according to the Jones’, since his mother was my mother’s first cousin and his father was my father’s brother…but the Jones clan kept score relentlessly) tried to put together a genealogy for the Bradley family but kept running into trouble since no one seemed to know the exact relationship of relatives!
Uncle Ezra is a good example. I called him Uncle Ezra all my life but as close as I can get to figuring out how we were related was this: Ezra was the first cousin of Filbert, my grandfather, and Annie, my father’s aunt. That means that ‘Uncle’ Ezra’s mother was the daughter of my great-grand mother’s sister. So, if I can do the math, that would make him my third cousin, once removed, whatever the hell that means! I need a Jones relative to help me sort it out. All I know is that he was Uncle Ezra to me.
Ezra was a tiny man married to ‘Aunt Clovis’ (actually my third cousin, once removed, by marriage—go ponder that!) who was a woman of substance, which means, in Bradley Family Speak, she was a big, big woman. The last time I saw Ezra on this side of the mysterious door of death, his eyes looked into my chin. I was only 14 or so and about 5’7” tall (I reached my full growth at 15 which explains why I was a star on my junior high basketball team and didn’t make the cut in high school). I suppose, just guessing, Ezra was 5’4” or so and probably weighed 115 pounds. At 14, when Clovis hugged her ‘nephew’, my face was pressed against her ample breasts. So, she might have been 5’10 and weighed, let’s be Bradley nice now…220 pounds. Jack Sprat and his wife, for sure—that was Uncle Ezra and Aunt Clovis.
Ezra’s stature was fertile ground for jokes his whole life. One story I was told a hundred and one times over the years was about the night Uncle Ezra got saved. It seems he had gone to a revival meeting and felt his heart convicted to give his life to Jesus. He’d gone up to kneel at the rail and when the out-of-town revivalist came by to pray with him, that preacher said, “God bless the little boys….” Well, as it turned out, Ezra was 22 years old and long since fully grown. After the service some of the local young men gathered around Ezra and started saying, over and over: “God bless the little boys….”
As the apocryphal family story goes, Ezra, who was little but not meek, hitched up his pants and told the crowd around him, “I’d rather be a little fellow like me and go to heaven than great big sons-of-bitches like you and go to hell.” Well spoken, Uncle Ezra, well said….
Uncle Ezra, like most of the Bradley side of my family, was a man not unacquainted with strong drink. Whenever we visited my father and Uncle Russell would disappear with Ezra into the barn of his farm while I was being loved up and fed sweets by Aunt Clovis. When they returned, a half-an-hour later or so, they were flushed and glassy eyed and full of salt and vinegar. Aunt Clovis would shake her head and say, either to me or the cosmos, “Men have to drink, but not in my house….” Most of the men on the Bradley side of my family, all of whom liked a drink or two, seemed inevitably to marry women who didn’t approve of alcohol. My Uncle Sid was the exception that proved the rule. He and my Aunt Callie (who was both my aunt and my second cousin—go figure my family!) both liked a taste….God bless them.
When Ezra died (since I’m still on him and will get back to Grandmother Clieve soon) I was 15 or so. He died in February of one of the winters of my life. His funeral was in the Union Church (Baptist 1st and 3rd Sundays, Methodist 2nd and 4th) in Waiteville. The preacher took a great deal of time preaching Uncle Ezra’s funeral since the young men hand digging the grave were having a hard time. They’d started two days before but the ground was so frozen and it was so cold to dig that they kept having to pause for coffee and a drink of bourbon, just to warm them up. But after a dozen or so pauses those first two days, they were too drunk to dig. One of them kept coming in to whisper to the preacher that the grave wasn’t quite deep enough yet, so the sermon got longer and longer. Finally, after we’d been there for almost three hours, one of the grave diggers stumbled up the aisle and said, in slurred speech, “da hol is ready, preeecher,”
So Ezra joined the scores of those sleeping in that little country cemetery. Many of them are somehow related to me. I remember on one Memorial day, wandering through the graveyard, coming upon two worn tombstones with my name on them: James Gordon Bradley. The sky was white, as in often is in those climes, and I felt dizzy for a while. It was my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather. I hadn’t realized I had a ‘family name’ since it skipped two generations. My grandfather was Filbert and my father was Virgil—good time to go back to what worked in the past!
Most Memorial Days, my crazy ‘Aunt Arbana’, who I never saw because she was crazy and a recluse (and Lord knows what my true relationship with her was—she was probably a fifth cousin once removed or something) would come over before anyone else got there and put little Confederate flags on the graves of many of my distant relatives. Uncle Russell would take them off in a huff while Uncle Del was laughing and Uncle Sid was making jokes. My father would just shake his head and wonder. “Some year I’m going to take them and stick them up her ass,” Russell would say. “Do we even know where she lives now?” Del would ask. “Or how big her ass is?” Sid would ask.
Back at Aunt Clovis’ house, after Ezra had joined his not so clearly defined ancestors in the so frozen and so rocky dirt of the Waiteville Cemetery, I noticed that there were several bottles of whisky set out with all chicken and green beans and pies and cakes. At that time, I simply noticed it—now I wonder, why couldn’t that have been so when Ezra was alive and thirsty?
We’d arrive at Clieve’s house and she would start talking the minute we came up the walk. She was the most talkative person I’ve ever met. When you were with her you were reduced to listening and listening only, with an occasional nod or clucking in surprise. My father’s brothers—Del and Russell and Sid—would never come to stay with her. Russell had a farm in Waiteville through his wife’s family—she was a LaFon, just like my aunt Annie’s husband (actually my great uncle by marriage—I’ll stop trying to explain my family now!) but Russell’s wife Gladys wasn’t from the same LaFons as Annie’s husband…just because I’m from West Virginia doesn’t mean I’m the product of massive intermarriage). In fact, one of them spelled it with a small ‘f’ and the other with a capital ‘F’, though for the life of me I don’t remember which was which now. Anyway, my father’s brothers wouldn’t visit Clieve because she never stopped talking and they couldn’t stand her, never had. But we always stayed with her when we were in the country.
So, surrounded in stereo by Clieve’s constant chatter (oh, by the way, though I called her “Grandmaw”, my father called her Aunt Clieve though she was his step mother—one last example of the looseness of the Bradley clan regarding relationships) we’d enter the little house to the smell of a full breakfast. By ‘full breakfast’ I mean this: sausage gravy, scratch biscuits, fried apples, grits swimming in butter, country ham and red eye gravy, eggs fried within an inch of their lives so the yoke was hard and the edges were brown and crunchy, coffee perking on the stove, three kinds of home canned preserves, fresh churned butter, and potatoes cut thin and fried in bacon grease plus the bacon they were fried in. Clieve must have been up before my father to assemble such a feast by 6 a.m. I had a method to the madness of such a meal. I put sausage gravy on my eggs, biscuit and potatoes and red-eye gravy over my grits and ham (usually a lot since red-eye gravy is made with coffee instead of water and my parents wouldn’t give me coffee yet). Then I’d have another plate for apples and biscuits with butter and preserves. Lordy, lordy, what a banquet! It was in Grandmaw Bradley’s kitchen, under the drone of her gossip and stories (like elevator music, in a way) that I came to believe, as I believe to this day, that gravy is a food group.
We made that trip to the country dozens and dozens of times while I was growing up. And the day we never missed was Memorial Day. There was a Memorial Day dinner in the grange hall that raised the money each year for the upkeep of the Waiteville cemetery where generations after generations of my family lay sleeping. People who had years before moved away came back on memorial day because someone they had loved was in that cemetery and the only way to insure the well-being of that four acre plot of hilly ground was to buy your ticket to the Memorial Day Dinner and eat yourself into oblivion.
I’d be introduced to and shown off to about a hundred people who I was told were my relatives every Memorial Day. Given the Bradley proclivity of fudging relationships, I have no idea how many of those people actually shared my DNA. But let me try to tell you what there was to eat.
There was pork ribs cooked off the bone with sour kraut, fried chicken to die for—crispy on the outside and cooked to juicy perfection within, country ham sliced as thin as paper (as it must be) and cured ham pink and tender, beef stew that would melt in your mouth, baked chicken, and fried pork chops. There was corn—on the cob, slathered with melted butter; creamed, cut from the ear; beans cooked in bacon with potatoes you didn’t have to chew; squash of many sorts (which I didn’t like as a child and long for now); tomatoes huge as softballs cut into thick slices; cucumbers and onions cut up and brined in vinegar; tomato stew with dumplings; fried onions and peppers; rhubarb cooked to tender, tart perfection; creamed onions and peas; green salad made from lime jello, nuts and cottage cheese; red jello with fruit cocktail suspended in it; baby carrots cooked with brown sugar and walnuts; slaw—both vinegar and mayonnaise based; and tossed salad with vinegar and oil. There was, for desert: pecan pie, cherry pie, apple pie, fried apple pie, strawberry and rhubarb pie, German chocolate cake, devil’s food cake, angel’s food cake and homemade ice cream to pile on top of it all. And to drink there would be (what else) sweet tea and perked coffee…is there any other kind of tea, any other kind of coffee, really?
Here’s the point to all this: one of the images that Jesus uses for the Kingdom is the image of the Heavenly Banquet. I take great joy in that and in the passages from the gospels where the resurrected Jesus seems hungry. If there is a life to come—and for me the jury is still out, probably will be until I come face to face with my finitude and stare off into oblivion or whatever comes next—I am ecstatic to imagine there will be eating and drinking there. And that Jesus chose to leave us as a metaphor of what heaven is like, a table set with fair linen and candles where we share in a Eucharistic feast of bread and wine—that is the kicker for me.
Breakfast at Grandmaw Clieve’s house and dinner at the Memorial Day dinner—I couldn’t ask for anything more. Over the years I have certainly developed a palate for other things: Chinese, Thai, Italian, French cuisines; however, if it is eternity we’re talking about, for my taste those two menus will suffice for the first eon or so.
I don’t have a view of heaven much past a place where there are giant women—like Aunt Clovis, sitting in enormous rocking chairs who will rock you and sing to you and stroke you whenever you want. But beyond that, the best I can do with the whole life/death thing is to imagine that someday I’ll be lifted from my bed by strong, loving arms and placed in the backseat of a car, covered carefully with a blanket and, after a trip of confusion and dreams, I’ll wake up “in the country.”
That’s the best I can do about ‘heaven’.
And, for me, at any rate, it works….
The Trouble with Finitude
I try, from time to time,
usually late at night or after one too many glasses of wine,
to consider my mortality.
(I have been led to believe
that such consideration is valuable
in a spiritual way.
God knows where I got that...
Well, of course God knows,
I'm just not sure.)
But try as I might, I'm not adroit at such thoughts.
It seems to me that I have always been alive,
I don't remember not being alive.
I have no personal recollections
of when most of North America was covered by ice
or of the Bronze Age
or the French Revolution
or the Black Sox scandal.
But I do know about all that through things I've read
and musicals I've seen
and the History Channel.
I know intellectually that I've not always been alive,
but I don't know it, as they say,
“in my gut”.
(What a strange phrase that is,
since I am sure my 'gut'
is a totally dark part of my body,
awash with digestive fluids
and whatever remains of the chicken and peas
I had for dinner and strange compounds
moving inexorably—I hope—through my large
and small intestines.)
My problem is this:
I have no emotional connection to finitude.
All I know and feel is tangled up with being alive.
Dwelling on the certainty of my own death
is beyond my ken, outside my imagination,
much like trying to imagine
the vast expanse of Interstellar Space
when I live in Connecticut.
So, whenever someone suggests that
I consider my mortality,
I screw up my face and breathe deeply
pretending I am imagining the world
without me alive in it.
What I'm actually doing is remembering
things I seldom remember--
my father's smell, an old lover's face,
the feel of sand beneath my feet,
the taste of watermelon,
the sound of thunder rolling toward me
from miles away.
Perhaps when I come to die
(perish the thought!)
there will be a moment, an instant,
some flash of knowledge
or a stunning realization:
“Ah,” I will say to myself,
just before oblivion sets in,
'this is finitude....”
11. The Joy of Irrelevancy
So, in the midst of the sermon for his ordination I said, “Michael, never forget, you are being ordained into an almost irrelevant office in an irrelevant institution.”
I said that for two reasons: first, I believe it, and, secondly, it seemed to me it was important for him to hear. He is an astonishing priest and man whose true gifts will shine through most clearly if he can ‘hang loose’ about his role and his relative importance in the scheme of things.
I learned after the service that the bishop didn’t appreciate my insight into what Michael needed to hear and didn’t agree with my analysis of the church. He didn’t appreciate my ‘diminishing’ the church in a sermon to 400 people—most of whom have a vested interest in the relevancy of the church.
I must agree that it was perhaps not the most appropriate setting for pointing out the church’s irrelevancy, but it does need pointed out. The American Heritage Dictionary (2006) defines ‘relevant’ as “pertinent to the matter at hand.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary of Law (1996) clears up for all us Law and Order junkies what is meant when one of the attorneys objects by saying “relevancy, your Honor.” Something is ‘relevant’, according to that dictionary by “having significant and demonstrable bearing on facts or issues.”
I would content, by either of those definitions of ‘relevant’ that the Main Line Churches are woefully irrelevant these days. Not much about the church is ‘pertinent’ to any of the matters at hand in our lives and culture and doesn’t have any ‘significant and demonstrable bearing’ on the issues that consume us. Almost no one I know pauses when considering the matters at hand each day and asks, “wonder what the Episcopal Church has to say that would be pertinent here?” It has not always been so. For 17 centuries or so—from the Council of Nicea until relatively recently—the church was so enmeshed with Western culture that you couldn’t turn around without bumping into both its pertinence and relevancy. I’m not scholarly enough to pinpoint when that began to unravel. Certainly the Renaissance got the ball rolling, but the church wasn’t dislodged from her role all at once. The horrors of two World Wars and the world-wide depression in between them certainly greased the skids. But, if you ask me, the true death knell of Christendom in the US came with the construction of the Interstate Highway System and the explosion of the mass media.
Before you think I’m crazy, let me point out that no less a figure than Stanley Howerwas traces the “end of Christendom” to a particular Sunday evening in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina, when the movie theatre was open for the first time during the hours of evening church services. (Resident Aliens) The explosion of mass media—movies, TV and now the Internet, for God’s sake—replaced most of the entertainment value of Main Line Churches. As late as the early 20th Century, churches were still the center of social life and leisure time (what little of that there was) activities as well as being the formative influence on morals and ideas. The rise of mass media gave the lie to that relevancy. And the Interstates freed people to travel much longer distances to do things than ever before. There are plenty of people still living who remember the time when only a few people on the block…or in the whole town!...had automobiles. (When those people talk about that simpler place and time, they tend to say ‘automobiles’ rather than ‘cars’.) President Eisenhower’s vision of a nation connected together by four lane highways created a booming construction-driven economy, transformed Detroit into the shining city on a hill, put engineers into a whole new class of workers and made possible “the Sunday drive” right past the church and out to the lake.
There were, it seems to me, two models for the church in the height of her relevancy—the village church and the cathedral. Like Orthodox Jews to this day, most everyone used to walk to church…which insured the church they attended was in walking distance. And in a village before radio and, more malignantly, TV, the church was the center of civic, social and political life. And since the village church was so central to life, generation upon generation of heterosexual couples met and married in ‘their’ church. It was a very different world than the one that immerged after WW II.
The cathedral model was the village church writ large. Commerce tended to flourish on the cathedral grounds. All those European cathedrals aren’t in the center of cities because they bought the land—the cities grew up around them. There are two equivalents to the cathedral model today—shopping malls and Mega-churches. You can spend a day in a shopping mall—do your banking in the branch there, have meals in the many eating establishments, do some shopping, find interactive experiences for your children, get your hair cut and styled as well as a pedicure and manicure, visit the day spa, see the cars that are always on display in the walk areas, get your exercise, see displays by civic groups, get a drink, go to a movie, visit the health care satellite hospitals have established, get a tattoo, buy insurance—there is actually no reason to leave a shopping mall for most any needs. I keep waiting for some evangelical group to put in chapels.
The other cathedral clone is the Mega-churches that have sprung up in the suburbs of most all medium sized and large cities. One way Interstates made most Main Line Churches irrelevant is if the church was built before the Interstates were, there is insufficient parking. Mega-churches work “because” of the highways and are islands of holiness in a sea of asphalt. One of the things the folks at places like Willow Creek have done is perfected the art of parking. Sports arenas could learn a lot about how to get cars in and out of a venue efficiently from the Mega-church people. Mega churches also mimic shopping malls by having food courts, gyms, child-care, ‘Christian’ schools, video game rooms and worship that is more like Broadway or Los Vegas than like Canterbury. Mega-churches and sect-like fundamentalist churches are the only ‘churches’ that have figured out how to remain relevant. Mega-churches do it by making themselves indispensable and competing successfully with the larger culture. The Fundamentalists do it by mind control. If I were a betting man I would wager the latter will collapse into irrelevancy before the former.
Mind control—control of any kind—is something that is becoming harder and harder in our culture. Jimmie Carter once said on the PBS show Speaking of Faith that fundamentalism was the creation of what he called ‘dominant males’. My wife would call them ‘male mutants”—a term, not of endearment, which includes all the men (and some women) on the planet. Those dominant males, according to Jimmie Carter, believe that what they think is what God thinks. “That’s a difficult position to argue with,” he said, in his soft, sweet accent.
It seems to me that the church, for most of history—at least from the 4th century until the Interstates—had that opinion of itself: what they believed is what God believed. Interestingly enough, the Protestant Reformation took that little caveat with them when they left the Whore of Babylon behind. Church has been based on ‘absolute Truth’—something I’ve admitted I don’t believe in—and used that cudgel to batter people into line for century after century.
There are people my age, for example, who were told by their Roman Catholic priests that simply entering a non-Roman church was a mortal sin. I ponder what the percentage of people born since 1977 who believe that there is a whit of difference between different denominations would be. One of the costs of irrelevancy is that the denominations have, for the most part, lost their ‘bite’, their ‘scent’, their particular ‘flavor’. Like politicians and Episcopal bishops, denominations, scrambling to stay ‘relevant’ gave up what made them distinct and real. I went to a Methodist wedding some years ago and watched an altar boy with gloves on, along with a red cassock and snow white surplice, come out to light the candles on the altar. When he finished, he did what we Episcopalians call a ‘profound bow’—from the waist, all the way down until he looked like the number 7. Holy moley! The Methodist Church I knew as an adolescent would have fallen to the ground if 1. there had been an altar boy; 2. he had been wearing gloves; 3. there had been candles on the altar; or 4, anyone had reverenced the ‘table’ in front of the pulpit. What has happened to Methodists? They probably drink now too.
Shortly after I came to St. John’s, I was in the church on a Saturday morning by myself. I was fussing and obsessing about something or other for the Sunday services. Today, I could never find myself alone at St. John’s on a Saturday morning. The ‘Saturday School’ for the Hispanic congregation would be there, the MEEP group (an unfortunate acronym for an adult training program the diocese runs) would be there, Knit One/Purl Two (the Prayer Shawl group) would be there, and any of a dozen or so periodic Saturday meetings and events would be going on. But back then, I could have the whole building to myself.
I had the doors locked but heard the doorbell from the parking lot. When I opened the door I was confronted with twenty or so Hispanic folks, all dressed up, with a baby in an ornate gown. Many of them were weeping, but one young man, who spoke idiomatic English, told me what their story was. They had scheduled the baby’s baptism at the huge Roman Catholic basilica on the other side of the Green and shown up on schedule. The parents had been through six weeks of baptismal training prior to the private baptism. But when the priest arrived, he asked who the god-parents were. Two women and a man raised their hands.
“Are you Roman Catholics?” he asked.
Two were, but one of the god-mothers was a member of an Evangelical Spanish-speaking church. The priest announced he would not do the baptism and turned on his heel and disappeared in the direction of the Rectory.
“We just want somewhere to pray for a while,” the young man told me. “Our hearts are broken.”
I ushered them into the sanctuary, turned on some lights and told them to take as long as they wanted. Then I went back to my fussing and obsessing for a while. Suddenly, something else occurred to me. I went back and found the young man who had been the family’s spokesperson. I asked him if they’d like for me to baptize the baby.
“When?” he asked.
“Right now,” I said.
After a short burst of Spanish among the group, he turned to me and have me the thumbs up sign. I gathered water and oil, wine and bread, lit the Pascal Candle, baptized little Maria and shared the Body and Blood with her family.
I haven’t seen them since, but, to me, that doesn’t matter. That sacrament mattered and made a difference, just don’t ask me what….
A decade or so ago, I was sitting in the nave of St. John’s being interviewed by a local reporter about some issue or another. Her skin was copy paper white, she had red hair and a smattering of freckles across her nose below her blue eyes (I have a real weakness for freckles). She was 20 something and when the interview was over she looked around the church and said to me, “This is different from Jewish, right?”
So, two generations ago—maybe even one—Colleen would have been worrying about the plight of her immortal soul, having spent an hour in a non-Roman church talking to an Episcopal ‘priest’. But all she wanted to know was whether Episcopalians were different from Jews.
I asked her about her family. Her oh-so-Irish father had married at 16 and divorced at 19. When he married Colleen’s mother it had to be by a justice of the peace. His family disowned him and his church excommunicated him (part of the death throes of the church’s relevancy). So, understandably, he was a tad pissed off about things. So Colleen and her brother, Sean (for goodness sake!) had never darkened the door of a church—except when she came to interview me.
Obviously, she’d never been baptized. I asked her if she’d like to be.
“What would it matter?” she asked. “What would it mean?”
I told her I truly believed it would both matter and mean something, I just wasn’t sure what.
After I showed her the astonishing baptismal font with some terribly interesting iconography carved into it’s marble (a pelican piercing her breast to feed her young on her blood and a stag and evergreen tree along with an Agnus Dei and a descending dove) she was interested in the symbol and myth of it all.
“When would we do it?” she asked.
“I’d prefer a Sunday morning,” I told her, “but most any time would work for me—but we need witnesses….”
She left really considering the possibility, but when I didn’t hear from her for a while I called the newspaper and discovered she had taken and job in Arizona and moved there. Oh those Interstate highways….
Which brings us, inexorably, to marriages. This subject has gotten horribly complicated by the longing and demand of gay and lesbian couples to be ‘married’ in the church, just like real people. (That’s the point, isn’t it, that the church doesn’t take GLBT folks seriously, like they’re ‘real’? The church tends to extend, for the most part, a modicum of hospitality to the GLBT community—oh, let’s be honest here, to the GL community—the church no more knows what to extend to bi-sexual and transgendered folks than the church would know what to do with a woodchuck who got elected bishop. Though the wood chuck could chuck wood, what on earth would the BT folks of the GLBT community do? Horrors!) But I’ll save that conversation for later. What I want to write about now is heterosexual marriage and how the church has made itself irrelevant to that particular institution…which isn’t doing so well on the relevancy scale itself!
When I was a young priest and feeling relevant, I had a multitude of thoughts about “Christian marriage”. I felt that “Christian marriage” was reserved for people who had proved both their “Christian” commitment and their heart-felt desire to wrap their marriage in Christianity in a way that would guard and protect them until death did them part. Or something like that was what I thought. Since then, since admitting that Christianity is irrelevant, at least so far as the church of Christ is concerned, I’ve moved to a different place about “marrying people”.
That’s what they usually say—mostly the bride though the groom seems to make first contact more often than in the past—they say: “will you ‘marry us’.” And the first time I meet with a couple I assure them that I will NOT be ‘marrying them’. So far as I can see, the church doesn’t ‘marry’ people. If the church did, indeed, ‘marry people’ they wouldn’t need a marriage license from the courthouse. Additionally, so far as I can see, the state doesn’t ‘marry’ people either—the state provides a license for marriage that, once signed by a functionary and processed in the courthouse, provides them with certain specific legal rights. What actually happens, it seems to me, in a marriage is that two people ‘marry’ each other. And by the time they’re sitting in the library of St. John’s talking to me, they’re already, in my mind, ‘married’.
“Nobody,” I tell those, usually nervous couples—nervous because they think the church is going to try to batter them in some way—“wakes up one morning and decides to go see an Episcopal priest about ‘getting’ married.” Long before that happens, I tell them, they have made some decisions and some promises to each other—hopefully not right after especially good sex or a round of bar hopping—that have bonded them together in a way that indicates they fully intend to spend the rest of their natural lives together. What they come to me about is exactly what the good old Book of Common Prayer says it is—‘the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage’. That implies—and I’m an old English major and understand the language’s nuances quite well—is that the “Marriage” has already occurred and what we’re going to gather to do is celebrate that reality and have me, as the representative of an irrelevant institution, “bless” it.
Then I go on to explain what I think a ‘blessing’ is. I tell them that where I come from, when the family is gathered around the dinner table full of entirely too much food to possibly be consumed at one sitting, someone will say, “Who’d like to say the blessing?” And whatever whoever steps into that breach says is something like this: “Thank you, God, for this food and for those who prepared it and for those we share it with.” And everyone says “Amen” and digs in.
That truly is what I think I do in a marriage ceremony: I say a heart-felt “thank you” to God for the two people, their love, their commitment, their longing, their promises and vows, their dewy-eyed optimism, their ‘good intentions’, their hopes and fears and wonderings. And I ask God to guard them like the apple of his/her eye and hide them under the shadow of her/his wing. Lord knows, given the way things are these days, they need that protection. And since that’s what I do, I assume that is what the sacrament of marriage (excuse me, Episcopal Purists, “sacramental rite”!) is about. That and that only and that—thanksgiving and blessing and prayers for protection—is sacrament enough…more than enough. That’s the outward and visible act—the inward and spiritual grace part is up to God. I’m delighted to divide up the responsibility in that way.
I’m also delighted when people come to ‘get married’ at St. John’s. Again, there are two reasons. I truly believe in the objective reality of sacraments and I think anyone who wants such a reality from an otherwise irrelevant institution deserves to receive it. Inclusion is not a ‘privilege’, it’s a birthright as a child of God. And the folks who come for the sacrament are delighted that it is freely given and not tied up in a Byzantine complexity of rules and canon law and inhospitality. Many of the folks whose marriages I bless are Roman Catholics with a divorce or two in their history. Some of them have gone the long, lonely road of annulment to no fulfillment. Most of them have been insulted in one way or another by the priest who may have baptized them and told they are ‘unworthy’ in some profound way. Then they come to me and I’m delighted to see them and will bend over backwards to provide sacramental support to their relationship. It’s one of the things I do to make an irrelevant institution matter and make a difference in people’s lives.
That’s the thing that I want to leave you with at this point: being ‘irrelevant’ isn’t so bad a thing. It doesn’t mean we can’t ‘matter’ profoundly and make miraculous differences in people’s lives. In fact, being irrelevant might just make it possible for the church to play those roles. What we don’t get to do is control and manipulate people in every part of their lives. What we don’t get to do is to use the Sacraments—which belong, by the way, in my way of thinking, to God and the People of God—as forms of reward and punishment, keeping everyone in their place. The church has a remarkable and wondrous opportunity to ‘get out of the way’ between God and God’s children and contribute to both by bringing instruments of Grace into the lives of those who God loves.
I always ask people who come to St. John’s thinking I’ll “marry” them and then learn what I will truly do—I ask them why they chose to call me. I tell them there is no wrong answer because I know they expect the church to ask trick questions and then assault them when they answer incorrectly. A perfectly good answer is this: “it’s a pretty place”. That answer works for me because St. John’s is a remarkably pretty place and a place such a holy moment should happen in. But the answer I like most is that they attended a wedding at St. John’s in the past and their friends who got married told them that St. John’s was a place of Grace and Hospitality. That’s the answer this old irrelevancy likes to hear.
(A closing shot: one of those crippled couples—beaten up by the Roman Catholic church and denied the sacrament of marriage—had their celebration and blessing at St. John’s about 12 years ago. I expect about 1/3 of that kind of couple to hang around in some way and about 1/3 to come back for the sacrament of baptism and about 1/3 never to be heard from again. I’ll take those odds. The wife lost her job at a RC school for being married in an Episcopal Church after a divorce. God help us! This couple disappeared for several years and then—true to my accounting—came back to have Wyatt baptized. Then they disappeared again. But the husband came back—God know why (well, of course, God knows why…)—and started playing guitar for the 8 a.m. service. He’s served on the vestry and his wife and son came more and more.
Evangelism is a long-range enterprise for an irrelevant institution. We must be this: Inclusive, Open, Hospitable and Patient.
All things, they tell me, come to those who wait—even the church. Michael Spencer’s Ordination Sermon
I am reminded of the wisdom of two women I know and love.
The first piece of wisdom, Michael, is from someone you know and love as well, our colleague here at St. John’s, Malinda Johnson. Malinda once told me Ordinations are like weddings and the Ordinand is like the fretting bride.
Well, Michael, the fretting is over. I, for one, am delighted this day has finally arrived so you can quit fretting and enjoy it!
The next piece of womanly wisdom is from my grandmother, Lina Manona Sadler Jones, who you do not yet know and love but who might just look you up in the Kingdom. Grandmaw Jones once told me, “don’t get above your raisin’.”
Now, lest you think she meant not to get above a dried grape—what she meant was “don’t get above the way you were raised”. Don’t get too full of yourself. Good advice for anyone. Especially good advice for you, Michael, on this day.
So, I always get suspicious when the lectionary leaves out large chunks of the text.
For example today: Numbers 11. 16-17 and 24-25.
“Hold on, a minute”, I say to myself, “why don’t they want me to hear verses 18-23—that’s a nice slice of scripture. What’s the problem there? And what comes after verse 25? Why did they stop there?”
So, of course, I go tearing into my Bible….”Genesis, Exodus, that one that makes people homophobic…ah, here it is: Numbers…”
Ok, let me tell you about what got left out and what we stop before we get to.
Numbers 11 is actually—seriously—my favorite passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a stitch, this chapter, because everyone is whining about something. The Hebrew Children are whining that there’s no meat to eat, just that crummy manna and Moses is whining because he’s got all these whining people in the wilderness and he’s doing the best he can and he really is working too hard and needs some time off….
So Yahweh decides the best thing to do is to shut everybody up so they can trudge on toward the Promised Land. God tells Moses to chose 70 elders and they’ll do a “spirit-ectomy” on Moses and spread the spirit out a bit so he can have a day off once in a while. But then, God says, “Oh, yeal, about those folks who want some meat….You go tell them they’ll get their meat. They’ll get meat like they never imagined. You’ll get meat until (Verse 20, quoted) “it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you….”
Well, that’s not a pretty picture. I’m guessing having meat come out of your nose is rather unpleasant and off-putting.
Anyway, Moses, not quite done whining himself, asks Yahweh how that is possible. “Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?”
And Yahweh answers (this is verse 23—one that was left out) “Is the Lord’s power limited?
Pinch me if I’m wrong, but if there is a verse of scripture Michael should hear on this day it might just be that one.
“Michael, is the Lord’s power limited?
That’s a sentiment a person about to get hands laid all over him and prayers solemnly intoned in his name might need to reckon with.
“Michael, is the Lord’s power limited?” Can God make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Can God take the brokenness and emptiness and profound longings you feel—that we all feel—and do something new and wondrous and life-giving with them? Is Life ultimately more powerful than Death and Hope finally able to wrestle down Fear?
This is the kind of stuff you should be struggling with today. This is what you should be worrying about.
So, why couldn’t we have gone on a few more verses? Listen:
Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among the registered but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua, son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”
So Joshua is going to put an end to this nonsense of people who didn’t follow the rules and go through the ordination process correctly daring to “prophesy” in the camp!
But thank God for Moses—who has decided to quit whining and tell the Truth. Moses says, truthfully, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Don’t get above your rasin’, Michael. There are prophets out in the camp that will humble you for all your learning and for the richness of this ritual. They will teach you much more than seminary professors and bishops and other priests—like me—will ever teach you.
Listen to them well.
Eldad and Medad have the council you should seek, the support you should long for, the wisdom you should covet.
In fact, it seems to me at least, you are the cousin of Eldad and Medad. While some of us priests spend our ministry parading around the tent, the temple, the church…playing dress up…you actually live out your ministry in the “camp”, among those longing for meat instead of manna, those young minds and hearts struggling with becoming real.
Prophesy in the Camp, my dear friend. Prophesy in the Camp.
Then there is the reading from Corinthians: Paul’s sage advice to the church in Corinth was this: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.”
The path to wisdom is through foolishness. The path to wholeness is through brokenness. The path to strength is through weakness. The path to wonder is through confusion. The path to maturity is through being child-like. The way to the “profound” is through playfulness. Life in abundance, is all an exercise in irony, it seems to me. I would contend, Michael, that an almost superhuman sense of the ironic would be a valuable thing to carry into priesthood—along with a thorough-going conviction that “becoming a fool” is what might just lead you to wisdom and Truth. And a sense of humor the size of Montana and a sense of the absurd the size of Canada might help as well.
Michael, you are a good, good man. A good man. And it is my privilege to know you and work with you and most of all, to love you.
And you will be a fine and wonderful priest. Just don’t get above your raisin’ and don’t take yourself too seriously or let anyone take you too seriously. As long as you’re around me and Ms. Johnson there beside you, you needn’t worry about that.
You are about to be ordained into an irrelevant office in a church that is by-in-large irrelevant. That, if nothing else, should keep you humble.
I want to tell you a story: a hot air balloonist set off one fine May day, just outside of London. But a sudden squall off the English Channel carried him for almost an hour north in rain and wind. When the balloon deflated, it became entangled in a tree right beside a country Anglican church. The balloonist looked down and saw the parish priest walking from the church over to the vicarage.
“Father,” he called, ready with his cell phone to call friends to come and get him, “can you tell me where I am?”
The priest looked up and said, “yes, my son, you’re stuck in a tree.”
The balloonist muttered to himself: “that’s just like a priest, what a priest says may be TRUE but it is seldom helpful”.
The church is irrelevant because it has given up “seeking Truth” and settled for merely “being helpful”. So seek “Truth”, Michael—and notice that I say “Truth”, not “THE Truth”, because Truth can show up in ways too mysterious and wondrous and foolish to ever stop moving and evolving. Seek Truth, Michael, ponder it in your heart, study it with your mind and speak it with your lips.
God’s speed and Traveling blessings. I love you—we all love you—you are a good, good man and will be a fine, fine priest. No kidding. That’s Truth….
2. Some People (iii) and a dog....
Luke, a dog
Luke was a beautiful Golden Retriever with the deepest, loveliest brown eyes ever. He was Michael's dog before he was Jo-Ann's dog. Michael was Jo-Ann's son and had lost both legs while still a young man. Luke was a trained companion dog who was Mike's legs. But he was more than that. Once, while asleep, an IV in Mike's arm slipped out and he began to bleed. When the blood was pooling on the floor, Luke started barking and pulling at him and woke him up. I don't know how long it would take to bleed to death from an open IV vein, but Mike was not healthy and I think he could have. After Mike stopped the bleeding, he must have washed the blood off Luke's fur and thanked God for such a brown-eyed angel of mercy.
Luke came to church with Mike and when Mike had his final illness, someone with enough sense to break rules that need to be broken let Luke be in Intensive Care with Mike. Mike's missing legs made room for Luke to lay where Mike's leg's should have been had life been kinder to him. And he laid there until Mike died. The medical personnel who initially had been horrified by a dog's presence in ICU melted when they looked into Luke's eyes. “I'm just laying here where I'm supposed to be,” he eyes said, “next to my human.”Anyone would have melted. So the nurses and orderlies took turns taking Luke out when he needed to go out. Luke could go to the bathroom on command. Would that we could train young children to do that....
After Mike died, the companion dog people were about to take him back when Jo-Ann, who was most of the time in a wheel-chair herself, convinced them to let her keep him and be a therapy dog. She took him to the hospital where Mike died and to nursing homes around the area. I saw him do it. It came naturally to him. He was never assertive, always patient, always waiting for the human to make the first move. And he was as gentle as a spring breeze, as sweet as the smell of honeysuckle, as healing as magic chicken soup. I can't imagine how many people Luke touched in those years with Jo-Ann. But I know he touched me profoundly.
Jo-Ann always came to the adult forum on Sundays. When she and Luke got to the church library, she let him come and greet me, putting his short leash in his mouth so he could guide himself. He'd come and give me a nuzzle and a lick (though he was also interested in rolling on his back on the rug in the library!) That greeting and lick was always one of the highlights of my week.
When I was in seminary, I had a course in 'creating liturgy'. Since I came into the church via a 'house church', I wanted to replicate that experience for my class. We met in our apartment in Alexandria and Robert Estill, the professor, was the celebrant. My dog Finney was standing next to Bob as we stood around the table. Bob broke the bread I'd baked and passed it around. But before he passed it, he broke a piece off and gave it to our Puli. Finney didn't leave Bob's side until he left for the evening.
I asked him about giving communion to a dog and he told me a story from his first parish church. They used home-baked bread, like we did that night, and since the loaf was always more than the little congregation could consume, Bob would take it to the back door and throw it on the grass for the birds. After a while, the birds would start gathering half way through the Eucharist and sing as they waited to be fed. Bob told me it was a wonderful addition to the music of the little church.
However, one day the bishop visited and was horrified when he saw Bob feed the consecrated loaf to the birds. The bishop forbade him from ever doing it. As someone once described me, Bob was 'reluctantly obedient' and stopped feeding the birds.
“They kept coming for weeks, months,” he told me. “Long after the bread was withheld from them, they kept singing for us. But finally, half-a-year later, they stopped showing up to sing the communion hymn.”
I think that's a metaphor for how the church misses the point of 'being the church'. We let rules and regulations and canon law and dogma come between the sacraments and those who long for them. I've known people that happened to—they were turned away, rejected, shut out by the church and the church lost them, finally.
So, when Luke came to the communion rail with Jo-Ann, I always gave him a wafer or a hunk of bread if we were using home-baked that Sunday. Since I was seldom the only one administering the bread, I kept an eye out if someone else was giving communion on Luke's side of the rail. If they passed him by, I'd rush over with several wafers or an especially big hunk of bread for him. I didn't want him to feel left out. (I always gave him communion with my left hand in case anyone objected to dog mouth. But I drew the line at the cup!)
One seminarian who worked with me was horrified at first. She even took it to her field work support group but most everyone thought it was decent and in good order. I'm sure there were people who found fault with it, but I never asked permission. It was simply right.
After all, Luke was as good a Christian as any dog could be—bringing joy and healing and comfort to so many. He actually was a better 'Christian' in his works of charity than most people. He'd earned his place at the Table.
The kids of the parish adored Luke. They would flock around him at the peace in ways that most dogs would have reacted negatively to. But not Luke—ever humble, ever hospitable, he took whatever the kids dished out with equanimity and generosity and doggy Love. One of the kids was moderately autistic but the parish had made a deal with his parents to treat him like any other kid. I don't think Luke did 'treat him like any other kid'. I think Luke, so used to being around the frail and helpless and confused, treated Twyla with special gentleness and love. Twyla grew better and better, more interactive, more social. I'd give Luke a lot of the credit.
At the General Convention in 2009, a resolution was passed authorizing the Liturgical Committee to prepare services for the death of an animal companion. Several people at St. John's were really excited about that. It spurred the creation of a Book of Animal Remembrances along with a statue of St. Francis that was placed in the collumbarium are in the back of the sanctuary. Dave, one of the guys who helps out around the parish, installed the statue. “Stations of the Cross and now a statue,” he said, “are we going back to Rome?”
“Wait 'til you see the racks of votive candles I've ordered,” I told him.
He laughed and shook his head. “Least we could make some money on that....If people didn't steal it.”
My Grandmother Jones, God bless her soul, used to divide the world into “church people” and those who weren't. She'd always say things like, “those boys I saw you with yesterday, they aren't 'church people' are they?” And she referred to a family down the mountain from where she lived by saying, “they're poor and not too clean, but at least they're 'church people'.”
I tend to divide the world into 'dog people'--those who love dogs—and those who don't. I like to be around 'dog people'. And besides, there is that oddity that 'Dog' is 'God' spelled backward. Luke could make a dog person out of almost anyone. He'd look at them, lower his head and wag his tail a bit. Those eyes, I've told you, make anyone besides a dogmatic hater of dogs just melt.
I heard part of a local PBS radio show the other day that was wrestling with the question: 'do dogs have souls?' The whole concept of eternity is a little vague to me—but if there are no dogs in the Kingdom it won't nearly be as blessed and happy as it's been cracked up to be. I personally am holding out for a heaven where every dog I've ever had as a companion will come frolicking across the streets of gold to great me at the Pearly Gates. “Where've you been?” they'll be barking.
Just before I retired, someone said in the Adult Forum, “What's Luke going to do without Jim?”
Jo-Ann shook her head and frowned. “He'll be looking for him everywhere....”
Good Lord, I thought, I feel bad enough about leaving all the people, how am I supposed to cope with leaving Lukie?
But he didn't have long to look after me. Luke, who'd had trouble standing and moving around for a month of so, was diagnosed as having untreatable cancer. So, a week or so after I left, Luke died in Jo-Ann's arms, as was only right.
(In the past year or so I've known ten or so people, in and out of the parish, who have lost dogs. Somehow, it seems to me, the initial pain we feel when a pet dies is deeper and sharper than when a person we love dies. But it is a cleaner cut because when a beloved animal dies, their aren't mixed emotions on our part. There is no 'unfinished business' with a dog. There is no lingering resentment or words that needed to be said that are left unspoken. The relationship with a dog is so clear, so uncomplicated, so immediate and in the moment that our pain is 'in the moment' as well. But it is so acute. With a person, we almost always the question of how much they really loved us. With a dog such wondering is vain and pointless. Dogs love us as much as they possibly can...and then a little more.)
When Jo-Ann called about Luke, I told her—after we cried together—that she had to ask the Senior Warden if I could come do the service since retired priests are supposed to make themselves scarce from their former parish.
Of course he agreed. He called me to let me know it was alright. “Besides,” he said, “Luke wouldn't want it any other way....” All Senior Wardens should be 'dog people'.
We interred Luke's ashes out in the Close, as near to Mike's resting place as we could estimate. We did that first and then went in the church for hymns, a power point slide show a talented woman had put together about Luke. Then Jo-Ann spoke and made everyone cry. There were about 200 people there, a good number of them brought their dogs and the dogs didn't make a sound during the whole thing.
At the reception people in the parish provided, a man came up to me and introduced himself as the Intensive Care Physician that had made it possible for Luke to be in the room with Michael. I told him I considered him a medical saint. He told me there was no way around it--”I looked into those sweet brown eyes and just melted,” he said.
I told him I knew...I knew....
The strange and wondrous Mrs. Baggs
When I arrived at St. Paul's in New Haven, the search committee had briefed me in great detail about most things. But they hadn't mentioned the pilgrimage I would have to make to visit Mrs. Baggs.
Mrs. Baggs was the last 'rich person' in the parish. Like many city churches, St. Paul's had been founded by the wealthy. Standing on the steps of the church, it was possible to see the property of Trinity Church on the Green, three blocks away. St. Paul's had been founded as a 'chapel of ease' for the wealthy who lived in the Wooster Square area. Back in the day, the Episcopal Church was the church of the privileged and well-born. That was true when St. John's was founded 275 years ago in Waterbury—the names on the plaques around the building were the names of streets and buildings as well. It was like that to a lesser degree at St. Paul's in New Haven. Over the years and the migration out of the city by the well-to-do, the rich folks who built grand edifices to their own distinguished importance either moved away or died off. Mrs. Baggs was the last of her kind.
I was never sure where the Baggs money came from, but it was 'old money' indeed, going back to the early days of the city. Manufacturing of some kind was involved as well as importing and other ways of making lots of money. Gun running to the Tories wouldn't surprise me—but what do I know. But I'm just being bitter about what I was asked to do and that I agreed.
The deal was this—Mrs. Baggs and her two daughters, both unmarried and living together in the house next to the old family home—didn't pledge to the support of the parish even though they were the richest three members ('old money' has a way of spreading out over generations). The two daughters did come to church on occasion, but they were quiet shy and left after receiving communion. But the three of them had a deal with the parish. At the end of the year the Rector would call on Mrs. Baggs and she would write a check for the annual deficit. Not a bad deal if you weren't the one to go, hat in hand, to ask for the money. It was all worked out—I was to slide a piece of paper across to Mrs. Baggs at the end of our visit and she would have her housekeeper bring her a check, make it out for the amount, and then Mrs. Baggs would sign it. Very civilized in some ways.
Over my 30+ years of parish ministry, I have encountered this phenomena over and over again in different guises. People are remarkably generous when they know exactly where their money is going. But very few folks feel comfortable pledging to the parish budget to the extent they are able. A few are comfortable with that and 'do' give to the extent they are able. And those folks usually object to fund raising projects. They are quite clear that if everyone simply gave what they could give, there would be no need for bake sales. And they are right—that's the frustrating thing about dealing with people who truly tithe: they're 'walking the walk' and have no patience with those who merely 'talk the talk'. That tiny minority of folks are dogmatic about pledging and very generous. The generosity of most folks, however, is tied to 'tell me what I'm paying for and I'll pay it' thinking. Because they are generous to a fault themselves, they have no patience with those who tithe, give proportionately. Why is anyone surprised that Stewardship is so difficult?
So I arranged my visit to Mrs. Baggs—much against my better judgment—with her housekeeper and showed up at the appointed time. She welcomed me into a rather modest home, considering the Baggs' fortune. Usually, it seems to me in my limited understanding, that 'old money' is seldom ostentatious. It is the newly rich who lust after square footage and 'obviously' expensive things. I'm sure the furniture I passed, led by Mrs. Grant, the middle-aged, very patient, black housekeeper, was mostly antique and quite valuable, but it didn't scream out “Money!”
Mrs. Baggs was waiting on a little room that was most likely an office at some point in time. There were two easy chairs, a fireplace not burning, a table between the chairs and not much else in the room besides a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The painting was in oil and I wondered if it were from Lincoln's time. She was a tall woman for someone her age, with piercing blue eyes, thick white hair pulled back and dressed in black slacks and a white blouse and inexplicable Keds red tennis shoes.
Doris, Mrs. Baggs housekeeper, brought us Ritz crackers with slices of Velveta cheese and some extremely dry, extremely cheap sherry. I knew the sherry was cheap because the price tag hadn't been removed but it took a sip to tell me it was really bad. I wondered if one of the richest people in the city didn't want to waste the good stuff on the Rector. Doris must have read my mind.
“This is Mrs. Baggs favorite snack,” she said, “she insists on it for guests.”
Mrs. Baggs asked about my education and when she found out I had an MTS from Harvard, she pursed her face.
“All the Baggs men were Yale men,” she said, “but I suppose Harvard isn't bad if you can't get into Yale.” She made no comment at all about West Virginia University or Virginia Seminary. Which I guess actually was a comment of sorts.
Then she asked about a couple of people at the church. One she called a gossip and the other an asshole. I almost gagged on my bad sherry when she said 'asshole' but decided people who have lived to great ages deserve to speak their mind. She told me of her admiration of my predecessor, who had been elected bishop. I imagined he was more at ease asking for money than I was and nodded in agreement with her praise of him.
The weather, which was mild for late November came up and she asked me if I knew her daughters. I told her I did and commented that they didn't stay around long enough on Sundays to have a real conversation with.
“They're not much for talking,” she said, “Beth and Ruth are very interior people.”
I nodded some more, wondering when the slide the piece of paper with a figure on it across the table. To pass the time I commented on the painting of Lincoln.
“You must admire President Lincoln,” I said.
She went on a while about Lincoln's attributes and accomplishments. Then she leaned forward and, in a whisper, said, “They killed him you know....”
I was nodding. I did remember that President Lincoln has been assassinated.
“It was John Wil....” I began.
She shook her head vigorously and touched my hand. “No, no,” she said, “that Booth rumor was a cover-up. It was the Jerry's who killed him.” She sat back, smiling and looking pleased.
“The Jer...Jerry's....You mean the German's killed him?” I asked, astonished.
She nodded. “A dozen of them,” she said, “all came running into the box seat and filled him with holes.”
I was nodding like a madman, trying to keep up.
She motioned for me to lean toward her and whispered in my ear, “I was there, you know....”
“When...when the Germans killed Lincoln? You were there?”
She smiled again. She had a lovely, old-lady smile,
“Mr. Lincoln, himself, invited me to the theater that night,” she told me. “That Mary Todd wasn't pleased. If you ask me, she was in on it.”
I took a deep breath and a large slug of bad sherry. “Mrs. Lincoln was part of the plot to kill her husband?”
Mrs. Baggs nodded and then said, “she was a German herself, you know.”
About that time, Doris reappeared.
“We don't want to tire Mrs. Baggs too much,” she said softly, “I think you should leave.”
My head still spinning from the German plot to kill Lincoln, I started to rise. Doris cleared her throat loudly.
“I think you have something I must see,” she said.
She waited until I understood and found the piece of paper with a figure on it in my pocket. Doris took it from me and said, “just say your goodbyes.”
I shook hands with Mrs. Baggs and kissed her cheek. Her skin was surprising soft for someone in their 80's. Doris came back with a check she had filled out and a pen.
“Put your name here, darlin',” she said to Mrs. Baggs, pointing to where to sign.
On the way out, Doris gave me the check. It was for several thousand dollars more than my note had said. She saw my reaction and said, “don't worry, the girls know about this and approve.”
“Mrs. Baggs...,” I started and then didn't know what to say.
“I was listening from the hallway,” Doris said, “and when you got started on Lincoln, I knew it was time I came in.”
“The Lincoln thing....” I began.
She smiled and helped me on with my winter coat. “No one understands it. The girls certainly don't.” She laughed softly, “once Mrs. Baggs told me she was there when the President made me free. That's how she said it: 'Doris, I was there when he signed the proclamation that made you free'. I swear I think she thinks she was....”
“So what will...,” I started.
“Happen to her?” Doris was faster than me. “Oh, until her body goes, I'll be here. The girls like me and I actually love Mrs. Baggs. She's a load of laughter.”
At the door she touched my arm. “Come back and see her please. But not like this, have someone call me with the total each year. Just come and visit and have some bad wine with her.”
“And talk about Lincoln?” I asked.
She laughed, “most likely,” she said and shut the door behind me.
I was astonished by the strange and wondrous Mrs. Baggs, by Doris calling two women at least in their 50's 'the girls', and by Doris herself. Mrs. Baggs was in good hands.
After I left St. Paul's, there was a need for a lot of repair to the building. The Baggs family was, I was told, extremely generous.
But by then, I knew Doris wrote the checks.
Remitha may be the most remarkable parishioner I've ever served...and one of a handful of the most remarkable people ever in my life.
She had a story (doesn't everyone) that made her remarkable enough. But how she chose to live out her life, post story, was astonishing.
Physically, she was unimposing. Five foot six or so and thin with a coffee Au let skin coloring. Her hair was turning the least bit gray when I came to St. James in Charleston but I don't know how old she was. Age wasn't something you tended to note about Remitha. She was most likely in her sixties back then, but there would have been no way to tell. She had more energy that any two people and moved rapidly.
It was her movement that gave her past away. She moved with a grace and economy of motion uncommon and rare. She moved like a dancer—which is what she was. Remitha had danced with Cab Calloway during the last years of the Harlem Renaissance. She knew all the notables of that remarkable artistic time and place. The only thing she ever did to let on that she could have been famous is refer to the figures of the Renaissance by first name. When Rimitha said “Duke”, she didn't mean 'Snider'.
But when her parents were having health problems, Remitha left New York and came back to Institute, West Virginia to watch out for them. She had a married sister but since Remitha was single, it was her duty to care for parents. Both her parents were associated some way or another with West Virginia State College. She stayed with them until they both died and then, too old to take up her career again, stayed in Institute as a teacher. She had just retired when I arrived. To keep herself busy, she took on the care of other elderly folks. There were dozens of them that she looked out for—doing shopping, taking them to the doctors, bringing them food, just spending time.
Remitha could be irritable from time to time, though not nearly as much as someone who spent many hours a week with needy and demanding elders had ever right to be. Oh, she was never anything but patient and kind to the people she ministered to (and it was a real 'ministry') but she would come by my office every week or so, flop down on a chair gracefully (Remitha could actually make a 'flop' look 'graceful'!) and give me a litany of the woes of 'her folks'. But as soon as she got started complaining, she would begin to see the humor of the old people's eccentricities and we'd end up almost whooping in laughter. After a while, she sigh and smile, 'well thanks for listening' she would say and head back out to do dear, kind things for her folks.
“They drive me crazy,” she would say from time to time, “but being crazy keeps me going....”
Due to some strange demographic blip, the largest single group at St. James was teenage girls—only three teens who were boys, but over a dozen teenage girls. This was long before the curse of smart phones fell upon the land, but most of those girls could find something inane to do anyway. Remitha thought them lazy and spoiled.
“Look at them,” she said one day, “do-less, junk-food addicts and turning fleshy. Someone should do something.”
I remained a deacon for nearly a year, doing deacon's masses (which are like sacramental take-out blessed by a priest at another church) and with the help of Father Dodge. But my ordination had been scheduled—the first ordination at St. James in the church's 90+ year history. It was a Saturday and the next day I'd celebrate my first real Eucharist. Remitha came by one day a few months before my ordination and caught me at the church.
“What do you think about liturgical dance?” she asked me.
“I like it,” I said, “if it's done well.”
“Oh, it will be well done,” she told me, “you can trust me on that....”
Before I could ask what she meant, she was headed toward the door. “I've got Miss Bessie's two sisters in the car. I've got to get back before they get into mischief.”
Before I knew it, all those teenage girls were showing up after school at the church and Remitha was teaching them to dance. Some of them were reluctant, but Remitha had gone to their parents first. It didn't take much convincing to have the parents ordering the girls to do whatever Remitha told them to do. And Remitha could still dance—she'd had ballet for years before Harlem. The girl could really dance!
So, the St. James dancers came into being. She had them sewing their own costumes—simple, full colorful skirts to wear below black leotard tops with a scarf matching each skirt for their heads. They danced in bare feet. Some of them were naturals and some tried Remitha's patience. But they all learned to dance. My first mass as a priest was their debut. They used the whole church—all three aisles and the front. They performed four numbers all to Duke Ellington's “Sacred Concert”. Remitha danced with them—some times doing things they couldn't yet do, but often just as one of the ensemble. Her grave and graceful demeanor gave the girls more confidence and they ended up being better than even Remitha had imagined. It was most definitely 'done well'.
At the reception following the first Dance Eucharist at St. James, Remitha received the praise and deflected it to the girls. They had grown to love her though she was very strict with them and demanding of their bodies. They worked hard and when anything went wrong in rehearsals Remitha would first look sternly at them and then burst into her infectious laughter. Sometimes at the end of a rehearsal they were be exhausted, strewn around the church on their backs laughing with joy and amazement at themselves.
After that first service, Remitha gathered the girls in my office for a moment. I was with them. She smiled broadly at them. “The Duke would have been proud of you,” is all she said. They knew that was the highest of praise.
They went on for several years, dancing at St. James to a widening repertoire of music: Benstein's “Mass”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and most lovely of all, old Negro Spirituals. Their reputation spread and they would often dance at other churches or at Diocesan Conventions or, because it was part of Remitha's passion, nursing homes.
“When do we get to see you again?” I asked her one day before a trip to Huntington to dance at the largest parish in the diocese.
“Lord these girls run me ragged,” she said, shaking her head. “I sometimes wonder if it's worth it....”
I started to tell her that of course it was worth it when she went on, “but these girls ARE worth it....”
Remitha wasn't satisfied simply to do her 'good work'--she drug me into it at every possible moment. I sometimes believed she double booked trips for her folks on purpose so I'd have to drive people places and drive them home. She also was very active in working with the retarded and crippled. (I know neither term is politically correct today but it was the 1970's and that's what we called the 'mentally and physically challenged' in those days.) She would drag me off to help her do exercises at group homes and special schools. It was impossible for her to imagine that the 'challenged' population couldn't do more if you only asked them to. So we would do calisthenics and run races and do silly dances with folks all over the county. Her network was seemingly limitless and everyone who knew her fell under her spell. But then, it's hard not to love someone who treats you like you are more capable and smarter than you think you are and is constantly reminding you how proud she is of you.
It was the same for me, but with an ironic bite to it.
Once after church she told me, “You certainly are a great preacher.” I walked around coffee hour about a foot off the ground. Just before she went home she came over and whispered, “...for a white man.” I could hear her laughing all the way out the front door.
Something she taught me that every priest needs to learn is simply how to be with people different from you or someway impaired or old or dying. That's a lesson for us all, but especially for a priest. It seems to me that most of my long ministry has been spent with a large number of those folks. Since I was always in urban settings, Remitha's teaching was acutely important. And I love her for it.
Another teaching was that the world is, in the end, a tad bizarre and usually inscrutable. Weird, odd and strange things happen all the time. Remitha taught me that bemusement and pondering were two tools of Life's trade. She'd shake her head often and say, “God works in mischievous ways....”
A few years after leaving Charleston, I was in West Virginia for a while, visiting relatives. My friend John had called me when Remitha went into the nursing home. She had developed rapidly progressing Alzheimer's Disease. It took her quickly, almost before she knew what was happening. She went in rapid succession from not remembering where she put her car keys (as we all do sometimes) to finding them and wondering what on earth they were, those oddly shaped metal things. I drove a couple of hours to visit her. It was a homey place, not the institution I expected. The Director had known Remitha before she got ill and treated her with the respect Remitha deserved. I went into her room. She had fallen and was tranquilized but awake. The first thing I noticed was the ironic, mischievous, good humored spark that had always been in her eyes had gone out. She seemed so frightened about something—perhaps the fear of staring into the world and seeing nothing that made sense. When I touched her, she jumped a little and turned her head away.
The Director was still with me. “She does that with everyone,” she told me, softening the blow of the rejection I felt so acutely.
I sat with Remitha for 45 minutes and helped feed her some apple sauce which she ate reluctantly and staring at me without recognition.
I talked to her about our times together but those times seemed so long ago when I saw her like that. I couldn't stay any longer because it hurt too much.
I stopped at the Director's office on the way out.
“Did she say anything?” she asked me. I told her no and she shook her head sadly, “she's pretty much quit talking. And Lord she was a talker in her day....”
I admitted Remitha could really talk and started to apologize for not staying longer.
That same sad head shake. “Don't apologize,” the Director said, “it's just too hard, I know it is....”
Remitha's sister let me know when Remitha died. She told me how proud Remitha had been of me and what a good priest she always said I was. I thanked her for calling and was sad. But I realized the woman I loved had died a year or two before her wondrous, expansive heart stopped beating.
I've 'supervised' (so to speak) 20 people preparing for ordination in the Episcopal Church. All of them, except the first and last one, are now priests. Dana (who became a well-known novelist), the first seminarian I worked with, was ordained a Deacon in the church, but then, as a protest of sorts because of her fierce commitment to social justice, refused to become a priest. The last one, Frank, is still in the process and will be ordained in a year or so, I pray. He will be a wonderful priest, though he has run into some difficulty—a side effect of the ordination process that badly needs fixing. But don't let me get started on that....
Eighteen priests, a deacon and a priest in waiting, have worked with me over the years. I've gotten to preach at a half-dozen ordinations and have followed the lives of many of them to this day. Thinking about that is similar to thinking about the hundreds of funerals, weddings and baptisms I've been a part of in my 35 years as a priest. It is something that I have only started to ponder since retiring some nine months ago at 63. What a privilege and honor it has been to touch so many people in some way during my being a priest. And, in the case of the seminarians, having touched second-hand all the people they have touched in their ordained ministry. It takes my breath away and humbles me mightily.
I've always sought to be a 'boss' in a counter-cultural way. I've tried to surround myself with people smarter and more talented than I am and then give them their head to do what they do. The only agreement I've had, at least for the last 25 years, with people who work 'for' me, is this: They can have the applause for their accomplishments and I will take any grief for when things go wrong. The buck has always stopped with me. I am constitutionally and genetically designed to be able to accept criticism gracefully and, in many cases, use it to make things better. I have somehow developed the ability to 'roll with the punches' and not take them personally. I wish I could take credit for that stand, but the truth is, it is just the way I am. (One caveat, this ability does not extend to my immediate family—like most everyone, I imagine, my daughter or son or wife can cut me to the quick with a critical word.) And, it seems to me at any rate, that's the way it should be. The person in charge should take the blunt of any attack and let their employees 'shine' when things go well. And, it also appears to me, that strategy results in lots more 'shining' than 'whining'. Just me talkin....
The metaphor I've used over the years with people who, technically, at any rate, “work for me” is that of Crabbing Buddies.
Here's how that goes: over 35 years ago, I learned how to catch blue crab in little inlets of North Carolina. There is simply no way to explain how to do it in words, it is fraught with too many quirks and nooks an crannies. The only way to learn to crab is to put your feet in the water and learn from someone who knows how to do it. Crabbing involves a lot of variables.
In the first place, there is the bait. I recommend chicken backs, either ones you get from the butcher or carve out of a chicken yourself. The first thing you do is tie some twine around the chicken back and lay it out on a banister in the sun for a day or two. You need to get it really rotting. You tie it with twine first because you won't want to touch it with your fingers after the morbidity sets in. When the chicken is ripe, you slide a sinker down the twine and tie it off about three inches above the stinky chicken. Do two or more backs at a time, especially if you're being someone's crabbing buddy. Everyone needs bait.
You need a net on a pole about four feet long and a cooler or two full of ice covering at least two six packs of beer—I'd recommend three six packs. You can always run to the convenience store to get more. It depends on how many people are expecting a meal from your crabbing. Six crabs barely feed a person. Eight each is better. And you get to drink a beer only when you catch a crab. I recommend cans rather than bottles since you don't want to be bothered with a bottle opener. Then put the bait on top of the ice and either walk or drive to an inlet. You need to get there as the tide it turning. The crabs float with the tide and you want them moving. I've always thought that the tide turning to high is better than the tide turning to low. But the point is, have the tide turning.
You need to wear old sneakers since you'll never want to wear them again. You need sun block at the maximum strength allowed by law and a hat that shields your face from the sun. Also, the brim of the hat lets you look into the water to seek the crabs. Sun glasses too, the ones that cut glare so you can actually peer into the water about a foot.
You throw the rotten chicken out as far as your line allows...four feet of line would be enough in most cases. Then you hold the twine and try to distinguish between the pull of the tide and the bite of a crab. There is no way to know the difference without doing it for an hour or so and feeling foolish pulling in the twine when it is just water moving the bait. Eventually, through trial and error, you begin to get the sense in your fingers of what is tide and what is crab.
When you have that sense and feel a crab feeding, you have to start pulling in, slowly enough to let the creature keep eating and fast enough to get it into water shallow enough to net it. It is more poetry than prose, more intuition than knowledge, more 'touch' than 'knowing'. It takes a while to get your finger tips to react in a consistent and accurate way to the feel of a crab feeding. But once you get it, you know it always. Much like the 'balance' of riding a bicycle. Once you find it, you have it. You never forget how to ride a bike or how to know it is a crab on your line.
Patience is then required. You have to keep the tension, which isn't difficult since crabs are ferocious feeders. But if you pull in too fast or lean too far over the water so the crab's stilted eyes see your shadow, then the crab will back away. If that happens, you wait. They are greedy creatures and might just come back to the food if you are patient enough.
There is a whole other set of skills needed to net the crab you've tempted in far enough to see. They move backwards, mostly, so you have to come from far behind them because once the net hits the water they are in 'escape mode' and coming straight down will give you a net full of rotten chicken. Again, it is a matter of 'touch' and instinct, not knowledge and knowing. So, the only way to learn to do this—to crab successfully, is to be calf deep in water with someone who already knows how. And you have to be willing to be sun-burned, in spite of all your precautions, and have your ankles bitten by baby shrimp—yes, Virginia, shrimp can bite—and have three things...patience, patience and patience...and three skills...intuition, balance and 'touch'. That and only that will fill the coolers with crab as the beer is pulled from beneath the ice (always bring a bag for the cans, be environmentally responsible, after all). And, when you put a new blue crab into the cooler and dig down for a beer, remember this, people smarter and more skilled than you have been pinched by a crab claw. Just part of the learning....
So that is how I supervised all those wondrous people. I invited them into the water with me. I showed them, initially, how to do certain things and then I invited them to throw the chicken out, feel for the crab bite, learn to pull it in—not too fast, not to slow—take the net and see if they could do it. Always, I asked them to bring emotional sun block, intellectual sun-glasses and some old clothes. And I also told them what was best for shrimp bits—witchhazel and then baking powder.
Lots of work, sunburn, sweat and too many beers. But the feast is worth it. Nothing like boiled blue crab, poured out on the Charlotte Observer with corn from a road side stand, boiled shrimp from the same stand, lots of butter and beer or really cold white wine. Nothing like that at all.
Parish ministry can be that fulfilling, that wonderful that tasty. It really can be, if you're willing to ruin your sneakers and tend to the shrimp bites—metaphorical, of course. I never imagined I was “supervising” these remarkable young people. I was just trying to keep up. It's like the story of a man riding his horse through a town as fast as he could. “Those are my soldiers up ahead,” he said. “I am their leader and must catch up.”
Some of my relationships remain over time. I got a call years ago when Bern and I owned a house on Oak Island, NC. The gentleman introduced himself as Casper Higgenbottom, or something as unlikely. He told me he was a Fire Marshall serving Brunswick County. He asked if I were the owner of a house on Dolphin Lane. I told him I was, beginning to feel a bit uneasy.
“Well, Mr. Bradley, the damage can be repaired,” he said.
“Damage?” I said, my heart sinking, “what damage?”
“A gas line exploded near your house and scorched the who east wall,” he told me, “but there is good news....”
“What could be good about that?” I asked, sorrowing.
“Well the burn marks look like a profile of our blessed Lord Jesus,” he said, “and several people are interested in buying the property from you or you could use it as a tourist attraction. Lots of Christians in this area....”
After a long pause, I said, “who is this really?”
It was K., one of the first seminarians that worked with me in New Haven. He was in a church in North Carolina and was going to rent a house during July on Topsail Island and wondered if we'd be down that month. We saw K. and his family that summer and a couple of summers afterward until he got a job in another diocese.
B. was a young man from the upper Mid-West who worked with me and K. It is always exciting to have more than one seminarian around. It creates a usually friendly competition and they have someone to complain about me with! Plus, many hands make light work and I have found over the years that seminarians accomplish a great deal of parish ministry in their 10-12 hours a week during the academic year. Besides, one of the joys of having seminarians around is that they see with 'fresh eyes' and usually have bold and innovative theologies. It always kept me on my toes to engage seminarians in conversation about 'what they would do' if they were me and about the 'theological context' of practically anything. Many priests, it seems to me, get bogged down in the 'doing' of ministry and don't attend to staying reflective theologically. That's impossible with seminarians around.
B. was a talented man. More serious and less skeptical than K. They balanced each other well and did a great deal of good work at St. Paul's. St. Paul's was known as, perhaps, 'the most liberal parish in the diocese'. I'm not sure it was, but it was a haven for political and theological liberals. The parish itself did good outreach but, except for one of two activists, most of the dedicated liberals who came there wanted rest from their labors. They were doing the progressive work of God in their lives in many different settings. St. Paul's was a haven for them. A place to take a deep breath and be cared for just as they cared for those they served as teachers, social workers, labor union leaders, medical practitioners and workers in the vineyard of the world's pain and injustice. I've always fretted over the “gas station” image of a parish church—a place to get 'filled up' for the week ahead, for real life. But it is clear to me, looking back, that people who live in 'the real world' need refreshment and nurturing. All churches should seek to do that. Some parishes need to make it a primary ministry.
Anyway, back to B. I preached at his wedding down in Pennsylvania. His bride's parish was in a tony, upper-class suburban community. Her family's Rector did the service and I did the sermon. He was one of what I've always called 'catalog priests'--the kind if you saw their picture flipping through a catalog you would say, “oh, let's get that one!” Tall and intellectual and kind and a charming kind of shy—he was (he was, I thought, talking with him and B. in the back yard of the Rectory because the bride's limo had been delayed by an accident on the Interstate) destined for bigger things. So call me a minor prophet—the priest was later Bishop of Chicago and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church!
So B. was ordained—I was one of his presentors—and he took a job in Connecticut so I would see him at clergy gatherings. Once, a couple of years later, I called him up to get his help on some issue or another—probably having to do with gay folks in some way—and there was a long pause after I told him what I wanted.
“B,” I said. “Are you there?”
“Jim,” he responded, “I'm just not as liberal as you are on these issues....”
I came to find out over the next few years that B and I were on opposite sides of most issues that came before the church. It was truly a revelation to me. For one thing, I must not have listened very well to him in our many conversations. He never hid his opinions, so far as I could remember, but my 'blind side' is that I always think of myself as the 'norm'...from which there is no deviation. This had bitten me many times over the years, thinking whoever I'm talking with must be in agreement with my obviously correct and passionately held opinions. Over and again I've been shown the untruth in my belief, but I continue to make the assumption that everyone supports what I support. Someone once told me when I gave them my “I'm the Norm” explanation that it was curiously naïve of me and not a little charming. Charming or not, I always feel like an idiot. B's final lesson to me was that you don't have to agree with someone to love them and to work with them. That's a lesson I wish I could learn more thoroughly. It's also a lesson that Orthodox Christians and Progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, even Democrats and Republicans could learn, much to the benefit of all.
W was a seminarian for two years at St. John's. I got in trouble with the bishop (not the same one) during her ordination sermon. At the very beginning, instead of the usual “In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I said, “In the Name of Yahweh, Jesus and Sophia”. I think I may have told this story earlier, but I'm not sure I said that it was a woman, I am told, who objected and told the bishop, who inhibited me from saying such a thing.
W was a slightly more mature woman, not straight from college to seminary. She was from the spiritual tradition of the Society of Friends when she got bit by the Liturgy bug and became an Episcopalian. I'm not sure we Anglicans understand how powerful the liturgical practice can be to people of a certain makeup. I just read a review the other d a book called The Accidental Anglican which, apparently, chronicles the journey of a fundamentalist Christian to the Episcopal Church. It was the Liturgy that got him, though our theology still is problematic. The message to all us Episcopalians is clear--”it's the Liturgy, stupid!”
Anyhow, W, who was a candidate from Connecticut, a member of the Cathedral congregation in Hartford, was having problems getting through the ordination process. (Don't get me started on that...I've warned you....) She was a good preacher, a superb pastor, an accomplished teacher and liturgist, plus she had a 'support group' who loved her and were devoted to her. Most seminarians didn't trouble much with their support group—which they selected and led—but W was deeply committed to learning all she could from lay folks (much better teachers in priest-craft than priests or seminary professors, by the way) and made the most of her group. They even had a name for themselves—'The W Pack'--and taught her much more than I ever could have about how to be a priest.
The complaint of the committee blocking her ordination was that she didn't have a full-blown “Anglican Spirituality”, which, as far as I can remember, had something to do with her admitting she didn't say Morning and Evening Prayer from the Prayer Book each day. Well, that ticked me off no end. Against W's wishes, I demanded a meeting with the bishop and the committee. It was a painful time. They were somehow, it seems to me, suspicious of a Quaker/Episcopalian. Hell, I'm a Pilgrim Holiness/Methodist/ Episcopalian. What could be more suspect that that. What frustrated me was that I knew her best of all and knew what a priest she would be and how badly the church needed priests like her and no one would listen to me.
(I've taken an informal poll of priests I've known, asking them if they were not an Episcopalian, what would they be. Over half have said 'a Quaker”. The two forms of piety seem to complete each other—the deep silence and lovely liturgy seem meant for each other. And you couldn't find a more sane way of making decisions. When the whole gay inclusion question came into the forefront, the Quakers, as I understand it, adjourned their national convention and spent the year in discernment and prayer. At the end of the year they simply accepted GLBT folks as fully part of the Society. Episcopalians have been fighting and splitting over the question for well over a decade. I can't imagine why the Episcopal Church shouldn't be more than delighted to have Friends come to join us, bringing their spirituality with them.)
So, in spite of my intervention (or, perhaps, because of it} her ordination was delayed for a year. Alas and alack. It seemed to snap something in her. I don't know, I just may be imagining that, but she hasn't had the success in the church I thought she would and which she richly deserved. The Process somehow 'broke' her. Literally, since she had no job for the year she had to wait for ordination...and, more profoundly, emotionally and spiritually in some way. It was one of the many cases I've seen where the church as “Institution” overruled the church as “Community” and did damage.
But she soldiers on to this day. I hear from her from time to time and she is still committed to her ministry, her priesthood, as much 'in spite of' the church as 'for it'. God bless her. God bless them all. They deserve it. Really. Good people, trust me on this—good people.
Little M was a gift to me. She grew up and will spend her priesthood in churches that are suburban, mostly affluent and traditional. And, when she was in seminary, a commuter student after her children were almost grown, she made a defining choice to come to St. John's, a funky, profoundly diverse, urban parish. She needed to experience it, that's what she told me when I interviewed her. Such a place would not be her fate or her passion, but she truly believed she should experience it and learn from it. And she did, just as I learned from her.
M is almost terminally 'perky', still is in her role as a Rector of a suburban parish outside the See-city of Hartford. She is 'feisty', I would say. A priest friend of her asked me, early on in M's time at St. John's, “how's it going with M?”
Being inappropriate in most ways, I mistakenly said, “we'll crack her open yet...”
Well, her friend told her what I said and so much of the year she spend with us 'in the City', M was trying to resist being 'cracked open'. I didn't really mean it in a negative way. I merely meant, and should have said, “we'll give her an experience she won't forget.”
She was another of the seminarians I presented for ordination in a Fairfield County parish that reeked of money and influence. The kind of place I feel a little too hill-billy and tongue-tied to be in comfortably. For her ordination, I gave her, as is my tradition, something that was mine. I gave her a large print of Christ/Sophia. It depicts a beautiful, dusky skinned woman, wrapped in a red garment with long black hair and a nose ring, holding a wooden carving of the Earth Goddess. It is an edgy kind of icon, full of paradox and challenges. St. Paul called Jesus “the Wisdom of God”, or, in Greek, “the Sophia of God.” Sophia has been associated over the centuries, with both the second and third persons of the Trinity. So, that's what I gave her, 'little M', the proper suburban woman, always well groomed and dressed by Talbots.
A few years later, I called her because I wanted to borrow the print for a retreat I was leading. She told me to come down and get it. I suspected she would have to go get it in her attic, but when I arrived, the picture was hanging prominently on the wall of her office in this well-heeled parish. I was surprised and told her so.
“I put it here so people will ask about it,” she told me. “And they do. Many find it troubling, but that's not a bad thing. Being 'troubled' teaches us something.”
She smiled at my look of surprise.
“Then I tell them about St. John's and the life and ministry of a place so different from this,” she told me. “That too teaches us something.”
Just as B taught me you don't have to agree about issues to be loving and kind and accepting of each other, 'little M' taught me what I already knew and often forgot, which made it a doubly special teaching.
'Folks are just folks' in the end.
We live in different cultures, different contexts, but in the end, 'folks are just folks' and we theologically trained people should know that, really know it, appreciate it and ponder it and figure out how to make it work.
'Little M', I believe, has figured all that out. She spends her life and ministry in a context and culture I've never known, and in that space, she creates the Truth that 'folks are just folks' for the folks she ministers to.
God bless her, like all the others.
E was the first person I 'supervised'. She was a seminarian from West Virginia who, at the end of her second year of study, was required to spend the summer working somewhere in West Virginia. Since she wanted to minister 'on the margins', coming to an African-American parish in an overwhelmingly white diocese made sense. She also wanted to be near Charleston both because her spiritual mentor—the Rector of St. John's, the big church downtown—was there but also because of her passionately felt need to do advocacy work. E is the only person I ever worked with that made me feel 'conservative'! Her theology was expansive, liberationist and activist. She went far further into social action than I ever did, though many would consider me a model of 'the activist priest' from Paul Simon's Me and Julio, down by the School Yard. E's particular zeal was for saving the mountains from the greed of the coal industry.
There had always been strip mines, though the massive scale of mountain top removal of today would have never been imagined. E grew up, as I did, in McDowell County, a part of the world sitting on the largest bituminous coal deposits in the U.S.
(The Rector of St. John's, amazed by E's brilliance, devotion and passion, once said to me, “Jim, can you believe someone like E actually comes from McDowell County?” It was one of those 'what good can come from Nazareth?' statements people who didn't grow up in Appalachia often made. I wanted to shake him and say, “who do you think we are down there, some lesser species of humankind?” Instead, I nodded. “Amazing,” I replied. There's really no point trying to convince people that places like McDowell County are really like all the other rural places around the country. Coal miners are seen as somehow constitutionally inferior—witness the way companies like Massey Energy kill them for their sport...or rather, their profits....)
E and I grew up quite close to each other, in fact. Our parents knew each other. My father had worked in the mines before WWII and E's father was a mine boss of some kind. We both had seen with our own eyes the wanton destruction of some of the most beautiful places on earth. People who find out I'm from West Virginia will often tell me about driving through it on the way to someplace else. And they always comment on the beauty—and the emptiness—of the state. (West Virginia is the size of all of New England, excluding Maine, and has less than 1.5 million citizens. It is a very large, mostly empty place.) And, it is jarringly beautiful. It was a remarkable and humbling privilege to grow up surrounded by the mountains that reached down to the core of life of the planet and up to the vast expanses above. There is something holy about mountains (not a surprise to almost all Faiths since holy places are often on mountain tops).
Strip mining, as it was called in my youth, and what is called 'surface mining' today, abuses, ignores, desecrates all that is subsumed it the Holiness of Mountains. Now, as an old retired guy, I finally resonate with E's outrage and passion and anger. I finally get what drove her, motivated her and consumed her, body and soul.
Here was E's Achilles's heal when I knew her—she was in mortal battle with not only the 'only' real industry of West Virginia but with many of the leaders of the Diocese. I remember being at a Diocesan Convention Banquet and seeing E outside, picketing the event because several coal owners would be there. Her mentor and I talked to her and tried to convince her to come in and eat with the sinners, but she was adamant and disappointed at us for going inside.
“Do you think we should stay outside with her?” I remember asking K, her mentor.
“Let's see what's on the menu,” he said, “then we'll decide.”
E and K were both to the left of me which meant they were on the left wing so far over they might just fall off. But E's purity was not ours. We ate with sinners as she stood outside and protested. “How far to go?” is always the question for those who seek social justice. I think perhaps K and I were missing E's point. Perhaps there is no such thing as 'going to far' in issues of justice. I wrestle with that Angel and ponder the possibility that E tried to teach me what I did not learn.
When there was a movement to keep her from being ordained to the priesthood, K and I pulled in whatever chips we had and got her approved. And E refused the ritual! It mattered not what her two Defenders risked and bargained away in her behalf. She had a shining, diamond hard and rainbow pure 'cause'. She would not be ordained into a chuch that harbored and supported those who destroyed mountains. After all these years, I'm not sure, but she might have been right. Or, at least Righteous, which is what we are all called to be.
(“Righteousness”, by the way, is not a measure of moral purity in any sense. Abraham was 'reckoned righteous' by God, not by virtue of his 'virtue', but because he entered into a 'relationship' with God. Being Righteous is to be in a 'right relationship' with God. It is a term of 'relationship' not behavior. So many Christians have that so, so wrong. When you are 'in relationship' with someone, even God, then you know each others quirks and faults and brokenness, yet you Love each other. Am I making any sense here? I worship a God of 'relationship', not a God of Law and Judgment. I pray you do as well. And I really believe, with the perspective of decades, that E had a 'relationship' with the God who created the mountains that I did not have and will never have., She was “righteous' in that sense instead of the way we saw her and judged her—a radical with an agenda. E held the hand of the Creator and knew the Wonder of God's ways. I really believe that. Righteousness never leads to good endings, but knowing you will be abandoned by even your closest friends while you hold the hand of the Almighty...well, I know why she stayed away from that banquet that night and refused ordination to the priesthood when it was an open offer to her. Sometimes you meet people who walk backwards and speak gibberish and yet are, in the end, Righteous. Sometimes that happens. It just does. Notice that and ponder it.)
E, if recently found out, now participates in the church in and around Charleston. She's also become a author of historic novels, a couple of which I've read. She even teaches at West Virginia State. It's comforting to know she's there, involved I'm sure in making life unpleasant for the coal companies—especially after the horrifying accident of last year. The problem is, as noble as people like E are, the ones they seek to advocate for—the miners and their families—depend on the coal companies for their livelihood. It's a difficult thing to speak up for those who don't want to be spoken up for, fearing loss of their jobs. But if anyone is up to that kind of quandry, it is E....God bless her....
That's enough for now. I'll return to the seminarians later and tell you a bit more about some of them and the gifts they gave me. Just reflecting on them, remembering them and pondering all that they taught me has brought me that complex and ironic emotion that merges together pride, gratefulness and humility. Not a bad emotion to hang around with for a while.
13. God around the Edges
I DRIVE HOME
I drive home through pain, through suffering,
through death itself.
I drive home through Cat-scans and blood tests
and X-rays and Pet-scans (whatever they are)
and through consultations of surgeons and oncologists
and even more exotic flora with medical degrees.
I drive home through hospitals and houses
and the wondrous work of hospice nurses
and the confusion of dozens more educated than me.
Dressed in green scrubs and Transfiguration white coats,
they discuss the life or death of people I love.
And they hate, more than anything, to lose the hand
to the greatest Poker Player ever, the one with all the chips.
And, here’s the joke, they always lose in the end—
the River Card turns it all bad and Death wins.
So, while they consult and add artificial poison
to the Poison of Death—shots and pills and IV’s
of poison—I drive home and stop in vacant rooms
and wondrous houses full of memories
and dispense my meager, medieval medicine
of bread and wine and oil.
Sometimes I think…sometimes I think…
I should not drive home at all
since I stop in hospitals and houses to bring my pitiful offering
to those one step, one banana peel beneath their foot,
from meeting the Lover of Souls.
I do not hate Death. I hate dying, but not Death.
But it is often too much for me, stopping on the way home
to press the wafer into their quaking hands;
to lift the tiny, pewter cup of bad port wine to their trembling lips;
and to smear their foreheads with fragrant oil
while mumbling much rehearsed words and wishing them
whole and well and eternal.
I believe in God only around the edges.
But when I drive home, visiting the dying,
I’m the best they’ll get of all that.
And when they hold my hand with tears in their eyes
and thank me so profoundly, so solemnly, with such sweet terror
in their voices, then I know.
Driving home and stopping there is what I’m meant to do.
A little bread, a little wine and some sweet smelling oil
may be—if not enough—just what was missing.
I’m driving home, driving home, stopping to touch the hand of Death.
Perhaps that is all I can do.
I tell myself that, driving home, blinded by pain and tears,
having been with Holy Ones.
Poetry, it has always seemed to me (aging English Major that I am) speaks in code and un-conceals truth with a lyrical ruthlessness. I had written the line above that goes: “I believe in God only around the edges” , and read that line several times before I realized being in “poem mode” had stripped away decades of self-deceit and un-concealed an abiding and profound Truth about me. I believe in God only around the edges. What a stunning realization to a man of 60 who has been an Episcopal Priest for some 32 years! What a dose of cold water poured over my head. Prior to my third or fourth reading of that line, which my subconscious wrote, I would have said, without fear of contradiction: “I believe in God.” But now I know that is a lie. Now I know I only believe in God around the edges.
Since the edgy God I believe in is a master of irony, just today a dear friend asked me if I’d read the article about how Mother Teresa (God Bless Her) was haunted with severe doubts about the existence and reality of God throughout her life of doing God’s work. The article, my friend told me, promising to get it to me, was written by one of the recent group of authors who have challenged “faith” to the point of finding it the root of all problems in our suffering, darkling world. “Just an example,” she told me, “of how ‘religious people’ are all frauds and fakes and worse than that.”
Irony piled on irony—I had emailed the poem “Driving Home” to my friend the night before she saw the article. And now, Mother Teresa, the combination of Martin Luther King, Hildegard of Bingham and Gandhi, had doubts! Who better, I commented, given all she saw and worked with every day to have serious considerations about a God of compassion, love and mercy? Who better to believe in God only around the edges than Mother Teresa? Who better to doubt?
Here’s what I know: I don’t believe in God ‘head-on’, rushing inexorably into my life, running the Universe like the manager of a Target store, slaying the unrighteous and guarding the faithful. I don’t believe (whatever “believe” means) in the blood-thirsty and vengeful Almighty of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I don’t believe, except around the edges, in the God of the Nicene Creed—a collection of random dogma if there ever was one. And—this is the killer, the one to get me de-frocked after all these years—I don’t believe in the petulant God who decided the Creation and human beings he/she/it ‘spoke’ into being in Genesis and destroyed in the Great Flood were so despicable and un-holy that the only thing that would make them somehow ‘fit’ to be in the Kingdom was if he sent his child to be brutally murdered in their place.
I don’t believe in the Doctrine of the Atonement, in other words. It is offensive to me and reveals a childish and impetuous Deity. “Hey, you ‘chose’ these people as your own! Put up with them, for your sake!” (I’m reminded on the little poem by Ogdon Nash: “How odd of God/to choose the Jews.”) But since you chose them, don’t change dance partners half-way through the party. And for all that is sacred in heaven and earth, don’t demand the blood of Yourself—Your son—to correct the problems! Get over it and move on—there might be a design flaw in those created “in Your own image” and “just a little lower than the angels” but that’s Your fault not theirs. The God of the Old Testament reminds me of automobile manufacturers in our own day who are so loathe to admit they made a design error and re-call cars as if it were the fault of those who bought them. That God also reminds me of the Chinese folks who have—in a remarkably short period of time—be found to have poisoned animal food, children’s toys and clothing. Just today they admitted their fault but covered the bet by saying it was a result of a change in regulations rather than the poison that they felt was ‘legal’ when they put it in food, painted toys with it and dipped clothing in it. At least there is this: a few of the Chinese managers have committed suicide to prove their commitment to ‘honor’. Yahweh just kept killing off the enemies of the Hebrews, destroying the world with water and deciding to have the authorities crucify the second-person of the Trinity because of manufacturing mistakes. Hey, put poison in dog food, lead in toy paint and formaldehyde in baby clothing and someone will get hurt. Perhaps the God of A/I/J should have taken a little responsibility for making Free Will part of the factory package….
So, I believe in God around the edges. Here’s a metaphor for that (don’t blame me that all metaphors ultimately fail after making their point). Did you ever have a bee—or worse, a wasp—show up in the front seat of your car when you’re driving 75 mph in the third lane of an Interstate? There you are, straining your fine motor skills to the limit by driving a lethal weapon faster than it should be driven, and suddenly there is a bee buzzing around your hands on the steering wheel. There are several options. Crash into the divider and kill yourself rather than get stung. Slam on the brakes and cause a five car pile up, damaging lives other than your own, instead of getting stung. Swerve across two lanes of heavy traffic to the break-down lane and if you don’t kill yourself or somebody else, stop the car, open all the doors and run around your car screaming like a banshee, avoiding being hit by a twelve wheeler bearing down on you. Open your windows and hope the little beast goes out. Start slapping at it with a road map, careening madly across crowded lanes of traffic in front of people who, truth be known, shouldn’t be allowed to drive to begin with. Or, keep your speed up, hoping for an interchange in a dozen miles or so that you can carefully cross the other lanes and pull off at a Shell Station to deal with the bee.
If (as I hope you will) you choose the last option—(using the Free Will Yahweh shouldn’t have handed out so lavishly if He/She was going to regret it later), you will have, before then, felt—whether true or not—the little insect, make it a wasp instead of a bee since bees are so fuzzy and loveable and wasps are the spawn of Satan, walking up your leg with six sticky little feet toward your thigh. I forgot to tell you it was summer and you had on shorts as you drove like a crazy person down an Interstate with a wasp in the car.
Ok, that’s a metaphor for how God most often shows up to me—just when I don’t have the time or attention to give; just when I’m distracted by vital things; just when I’m too busy to be disturbed.
It’s like the story of the young monk and the wise old monastic. The younger monk asks, “Brother, you have taught me to always be ready to receive the Lord when he arrives in strange guises. But I am sometimes too distracted or busy with my work and prayer and study and am not hospitable to the stranger.”
The old monk smiled and nodded his head. “That’s alright, my brother. Often when I see the Lord coming at an inopportune time, I say to him, in my annoyance, ‘Jesus Christ, is it you again!?’ Our Lord is always ready to be welcomed—even when we are not feeling like we can….”
A few months before I retired, I was at a meeting in St. John’s library at 3 p.m. Four of us were discussing a brochure we are creating to raise money for capital improvements. I will take the opportunity to whine a bit since Friday is what was occasionally referred to as “my day off” and there I was sitting around a table, annoyed and out of sorts. No one but the four of us were in the building, it being an August Friday afternoon, but the last person in had not locked the door to the Parish House so I heard it open. What a pain—not only am I spending my day off talking about raising money—now I have to go see who just walked into the building.
It was a young woman named Rachel who was in tears and obviously distressed. I told her I was a priest (who knows if she believed me!) and asked her what she needed.
“My friend is dying,” she told me, between sobs, “and I just wanted to light a candle and pray for him.”
I told her we didn’t have candles to light but I would be glad to let her into the church to pray. I did that small kindness and minor hospitality and then went back to my meeting.
Half-an-hour later I sensed her in the hallway and left the meeting again. Her friend has a rare form of cancer—he’s 33 and a new dad and is dying in spite of all the resources and miracles of Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We sat for a while in the hallway and she suddenly asked me, “Can I be baptized?”
I thought she meant at that moment and, though I would have roused the witnesses from the library and done it then, she meant in the near future. She’d not been baptized as a child—in fact she’d been to more funerals and weddings that Sunday services in her lifetime. But it had haunted her—like a wasp climbing up your leg at 75 mph—that she’d never done it.
I told her what I truly believe: that God loves her just as much in that moment as God will love her after her baptism but that I believe baptism has a profound objective reality and that I would be honored, blessed, humbled and proud to talk more with her about it and baptize her whenever she was ready.
She hugged me awkwardly and, tear drenched, went on her way.
We finished the meeting about the brochure—so vital to the future and enhancement of the mission and ministry of St. John’s, I really mean that—and yet, driving home, I was left wondering if the God I believe in around the edges had brought me to that oh-so-important meeting to meet Rachel, longing for baptism.
OK, right off the bat, I have to admit that I had doubts if I’d ever see her again. Maybe she’ll feel embarrassed by how open and needful she had been with me. Maybe her friend will die and she’ll be too angry with God to want to be baptized. Maybe her friend will live and she’ll think coming to pray for him and talking to a graying, over-weight priest who didn’t want to be there…wasn’t supposed to be there, was enough. Maybe she’ll come back and we’ll talk about God and baptism and the water and oil will proclaim the awesome and unfathomable truth that Rachel is a beloved child of God and she’ll teach church school or be a Lay Eucharistic Minister or Senior Warden one day. Who knows? Maybe God knows—the God I believe in and love around the edges. But I know this: any God that thinks Rachel needs water and oil to be His/Her child is inside the edges I believe in and love.
Here’s where my wasp in the car metaphor fails. I simply left my oh-so-important meeting and spent time with Rachel. I didn’t kill the wasp or get it out of the car or pull over to the side of the road. I just knew the little sticky feet—six of them—on my thigh meant I needed to react to the moment and deal with the person God sent to be with me when I wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s all I know. I don’t know the rest.
If you asked me to describe my spirituality—which I hope you’d never think of asking me…ask me about the weather, the Yankees and Red Sox, the Bush administration, the price of gas, my twin (not identical) grandbabies, how I’m feeling, the brochure we’re developing to raise mega-bucks for St. John’s, whether I saw The Closer episode on Monday or have read the last of the Harry Potter books (yes and yes, by the way) and I’ll be happy to engage you in conversation—however, I pray you won’t ask me to ‘describe my spirituality’.
But if you did, I would pause long enough to let you be distracted and walk away before telling you, “I’m a contemplative.”
I am a ‘contemplative’ spiritually. Though I am often and always involved in social action issues, I am not a ‘social activist’ in my spirituality. I wouldn’t even know how to be that. I believe in prayer the way I believe in God—“around the edges”. I’m perfectly happy to pray the prayers of the Eucharist of the community. That’s what I get paid for, in large measure, after all. And I participate in ‘intercessory’ prayer and prayers for healing and more often than I remember pray prayers of thanksgiving and prayers giving Glory to my edgy God. All of that I do without apology. And, I must admit, though I think it is meet and right to do so, I’m not certain in any significant way about what those prayers mean or do.
Prayer to me is not asking or inviting or thanking or hoping or wishing or intoning. I don’t object to any of that—but if you asked me how I pray—when I do…I would tell you I am a contemplative. Here’s what the prayer I truly believe in consists of: sitting in a chair and shutting the hell up. And that doesn’t mean I believe if you just ‘sit there’ and ‘listen’ God will come over your FM receiver with lots and lots of news. In fact, I believe mostly in prayer that makes no sense and has no immediately discernable result. What I believe in about prayer is this: Prayer is waiting.
I sit by the beds of people dying from horrific diseases and my prayer by those bedsides is not that they get better or be healed or die. My prayer is simply that I’m waiting by the bedside. Waiting only. Just Waiting. That—waiting—and nothing more.
That might be an insight into what a ‘contemplative’ is and what the nature of believing in God ‘around the edges’ is all about. I could never believe in a God who was guided by what I call “Gallup Poll Prayers”. I could never believe in a God who was tallying up the number and sincerity of prayers before deciding, as the Creator of the Universe, what to do about Aunt Elsie’s cancer. I participate in “prayer chains” and am honored, humbled to do so. But if you put a gun to my head I’d say that the God I believe in and love isn’t keeping count of how many prayers come in before deciding to let Aunt Elsie live or die. To start down that road turns prayer into some form of competitive sport and if you only pray hard enough and well enough and avoid getting penalized for insincerity or too little love then the One who spread the heavens and created the stars will say: “well, lots of prayers on that one—let them live….”
Please don’t hear this as a discouragement for prayers of intercession. They ‘work’; I know they do. It’s just that they don’t necessarily ‘work’ (from my point of view) in the way you and I want them to ‘work’.
(I was once sitting in Malcolm's back yard on Capitol Hill in DC with Malcolm and his daughter Rachel, aged 5. Rachel came over to where we were sitting and said to her father, “Daddy, can we go get some ice cream?”
“Not just now, Rachel,” he told her kindly. Let me talk with Jim and then we'll go.”
She wandered off to play but was back in about two minutes. “Daddy, she said, “can we go get ice cream now?”
“No, Rachel,” he said, a little less kindly, but kindly none-the-less, “I told you we would go after I talk with Jim.”
Again, she wandered off and was back in about 60 seconds this time.
“Daddy,” she said, “can we go get ice cream now?”
Malcolm pulled her onto his lap and said, very seriously, “Rachel, I've answered this question twice already. Why do you keep asking me?”
She touched his face and said, “Daddy, it hasn't been the answer I was looking for....”
He melted and the three of us went to get ice cream.
Lots of people see prayer like that. If you only ask enough or 'in the right way', God will give you the answer you're looking for. The parable of the 'inopportune neighbor' in the Gospels seems to support that notion. Annoy God long enough and often enough and God will grant your wish.
I'd call that 'wishful thinking' or 'persistence' but not prayer.)
I often tell people in deep distress about something in their life or the life of one they love to read the Psalms aloud. And I tell them to skip the mushy ones like everyone’s favorite—the 23rd in the King James Version—and concentrate on the ones that are totally pissed off at and mystified by God’s deafness. It seems to me that prayers raging at God are good for the soul and most likely, unless I’m totally crazy, good for God. Do I think ‘God answers prayers’? Of course I do. I just don’t think the ‘answer’ is necessarily the one we prayed for and expected. If you only believe in God around the edges, it seems to me, you develop a highly sophisticated trust in what God does since the God you believe in is the God of mercy, love, inclusion, forgiveness, compassion, joy and life. Those are the ‘edges’ of God. What exists inside the edges is a God of judgment, vengeance, favoritism, psychological imbalance, destruction and almost endless pain.
You take your choice and get the God you get….
So, I’d describe myself as a ‘contemplative’ spiritually. That definition would be like shock and awe among both my friends and those who don’t like
me very much—and both, interestingly enough, for the same reasons. I am considered, by most people who know me as “a crazy, off-the-wall, out of control Left-Wing nut”. Which is, by the way, one of the ways I would define myself, if you asked me: I’ve been known to say that I’m so ‘liberal’ I sometimes scare myself.
But nobody deserves just one ‘description’. Since I get at least two, I describe my self as a “contemplative” as well as a “left-wing nut”. One way I would not describe myself—though many who know me would use that description—is as ‘an activist’. I used to be an activist. I used to frequent demonstrations and protests for all the right causes. I used to show up in court to support my comrades who had been arrested. And I’ll ‘talk the activist talk’ as much as you can stand to hear it. I minister to activists all the time. But my commitment to being a parish priest took me off the ‘front lines’ and into a supportive role. I’m not proud of that retreat, but it is a retreat I’ve made.
I got an email recently about two books that are “Monastic Values for Everyday Life”. The first book is called “Simplicity” and the second “Hospitality”. I can get them both, according to the email, for “$40 USD plus shipping.”
There were two quotes, one from each book, included in the email. I want to share them with you, though they are lengthy. The underlined portions are what I want to write some more about, contemplative that I am.
“The expression ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ means to find things of value and separate them from things of no value. The contemplative life calls us to discern between that which is true and good and that which is meaningless and distracting. It is a life of ever deepening relationship with God, a life of value and purpose and in vertical alignment with what is real, eternal and sustaining.” Simplicity praxis book.
“Hospitality is an important aspect of contemplative spirituality, as it gives a concrete shape to the meeting of God in silence and prayer. To love the invisible God one must love the visible neighbor. And, as a logical extension, there is a call to respect all that God has created, showing a stewardship toward what has been freely given by God for the earthy journey toward heaven.” Hospitality praxis book.
I learned my contemplative spirituality from Fr. Basil Pennington who believed we must have a holy respect for “ALL that God has created”. Fr. Basil refused to “discern between that which is true and good and that which is meaningless and distracting”. He considered the ‘distractions’ to prayer as a gift from God. He never suggested obliterating or separating them out from anything else. “The distractions”, Fr. Basil would say, “are part of your prayer.”
The two quotes in the email are contradictory. Never mind that I agree with Walt Whitman—“Do I contradict myself?/Very well, I contradict myself./I am large./I contain multitudes.”—I still find a profound problem in ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ in the spiritual life. I agree, however, that in the spiritual life ‘there is a call to respect all that God has created’. So, either everything—every f---ing thing—is meaningful; or, none of it is. Once we start to pick and choose about the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’ we have let loose upon the earth an unholy code that will divide God’s creation against itself. I—as a contemplative—just can’t accept the uncontrolled self-righteousness that would grant me. There are enough people on the planet who are dividing the “wheat from the chaff”. I choose, with the God I believe in around the edges help, not to be one of them.
A dear friend of mine, once my lay assistant, considers himself a Buddhist Christian—or a Christian Buddhist—I can’t remember which. I remember overhearing a conversation between him and a member of our parish over a decade ago. Stephen (not his real name) had just returned from his vacation, which had been a 30 day Buddhist retreat. He was telling Carl (not his real name either) about the experience. When Stephen had worn Carl out with the details of the meditation and vegetarianism and physical work of the retreat, Carl asked, not unexpectedly, “Tell my Stephen, are you a Christian?”
And Stephen, God and Buddha bless him, gave the finest and most complete answer I’ve ever heard to that presumptive question.
“At least,” Stephen said.
When you “believe in God around the edges” you can be ‘at least’ a Christian. ‘At least a Christian’ is a proper definition for believing in God around the edges—at least for me.
Another metaphor for how God shows up for me is this: I am pouring the water of baptism over some so-cute-you-could-eat-them baby, who is smiling and cooing and enjoying the whole thing. And then, as I say “Holy Spirit”, the baby either farts or has a massive, almost instantaneous bowel movement, filling up her/his diaper within his/her little satin baptismal get-up with what can be defined as lots of things, but let’s say ‘poo’.
I’m convinced whoever wrote the thing about ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ and the ‘meaningful from the distracting’ would categorize baby ‘poo’ in the latter of both those distinctions. But I’m not sure. I know you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “SHIT HAPPENS”. Well, it does, of that I am convinced.
Either the shit that happens is part of the whole thing—a piece of the party, a wondrous gift once you get by or begin to enjoy the smell and the mess and the dry cleaning bill for the satin baptismal outfit—or, it’s not. I’m a fundamentalist about this—‘either IT ALL means something or NOTHING DOES’. I really trust that either every moment/distraction/shit/wonder of life can either reveal or un-conceal God or, as a friend of mine says: “Life is just one damned thing after another.”
Would that we could siphon out the bad and reflect only on the good. Would that we could distinguish between the clean and unclean. Would that we could gather all the wheat into one place and consign the chaff to outer darkness. Wouldn’t that just be the cat’s pajamas?
Well—aside from having no idea what ‘cat’s pajamas’ means—being able to divide God’s beloved creation into the “good” and the “bad”, the “saved” and “damned”, the “light” and the “darkness” would make me worship the God within the edges. I have no patience for that God—boisterous and demanding and ultimately Self-Serving…the God that I fear many worship and cling to and even ‘vote for’ when they vote in elections. I have no patience with the God that demands warfare and drinks blood and condemns those who do not give obeisance to eternal fires and boils and running pus and suffering beyond all imagining.
I offer two more metaphors (for now) about God and how God shows up for me. First: I am in a room with someone I care for, even love, who has been a part of my life, and they are dying. They are surrounded by family and maybe even friends. I am expected to say something ‘profound’ and ‘meaningful’, but I have no words. I take a chair near the bed—they almost always find me a chair near the bed—and simply sit. Breathing is labored, strange fluids flow through plastic tubes into their arms and ports and other places. Machines register numbers in green figures on screens. People in scrubs and white jackets move in and out. The only sounds are those of medical devices and the soft wings of angels. I pray words I have prayed before, mumbling them through my pain and my tears—which are nothing, nothing at all compared to the pain and tears of the others by the bed. I use the only tools I have—prayer, oil, bread and wine—and then I sit down and wait. Something in the sacraments brings an initial healing, some temporary peace to the others by the bed. And the God I only believe in around the edges is inexplicably present. Something soft, something tearful, something wondrous.
And we wait. All we can do is wait and weep. Something Holy is near.
Imagine the God that would include such intimacy, such anguish, such sweet patience, such waiting. That is the God I worship and love around the edges.
I remember going to see Morgan and Emma—my twin (but not identical) granddaughter at age 10 months or so. I remember the moment they saw me come in. Morgan laughs as soon as she sees me (she would probably laugh if Satan walked in…she’s just ready to laugh). Emma is suspicious, withdrawn, not ready to embrace the stranger. They are almost a year old and they are the product of DNA from the British Isles, from Italy and Hungary, from China. They are, in a real sense, ‘the world’. (Their roles: laughing and shy, have changed over the years several times and now I have a third grand-daughters, Tegan. We see them more than before I retired and their first sight of me is always the same—surprise, shock and then delight.
And I love them—unconditionally, without strings attached, absolutely, finally and eternally. I almost weep to simply see them—blood of my blood, bone of my bone, children who would not exist if I had never existed…so beautiful, so full of life, so wondrous and magic. I bite my lips to hold back sobs of joy as I move toward them—knowing they may accept or reject my embrace, my wonderment, my unquestionable adoration and devotion to them. I would gladly forfeit my life for them—in a heart-beat, without hesitation, gladly.
(An aside about the power of DNA: our house in Charleston had a back porch with a wrought iron railing. The garage was underneath that porch, so it was at least 10 feet above the driveway. I came home one evening in the autumn when Josh was just past one year old. I parked, as I did in good weather just inside the drive way gate. Josh and Bern were on the back porch and when he saw me he got so excited it stepped between the rails into open space....In that moment, I finally understood Jesus' teaching about 'there is no greater love than this, to lay down your life for another....” I would have gladly, without hesitation had taken that fall for him....Bern, God love her, grabbed his shirt, so he was dangling, held only by his shirt, 9 feet above the concrete. I ran beneath him and caught him when she let go. He thought it was great fun and wanted to do it again. We stretched chicken wire over the railings the next day and treated him as an even more special, my precious being than he was for a week or so at least.)
Back to my grand-daughters: they know me only “around the edges”. They do not realize or have the capacity to know the secrets of my heart, the betrayals of my life—the distractions and the crap—or the love that nearly makes me explode into white light. They cannot yet ‘name’ me fully—though they have a name for me, a name to call me by, a name to ask for intercession, a name to demand attention and presence and relationship. But back ten years ago, before Tegan was born, and before my daughter's 8 month old, Eleanor Reed McCarthy was even dreamed of--it was only Me—just as I am—and Morgan crawls toward me, laughing and Emma walks (she who walks first) toward me, suspicious but trusting. And I feel their tiny bodies against mine. I lift them in the air. I speak to them in non-sense syllables and escape from the bonds of time as I hold them near.
Imagine the God that could grant me such wonder and love and peace. Imagine the God that could create, out of nothing but DNA and sperm and eggs Cathy and Mimi carried from birth, ready to bloom, such creatures. Imagine such a God and I will tell you this: THAT IS THE GOD I BELIEVE IN AROUND THE EDGES.
The God I believe in, around the edges, is the God of Life and Death and everything in between and everything after and all that there is—the God of the Shit and the Glory, the God of the Wonder and the Pain, the God of the Anguish and the Joy, the God of the Hopefulness and the Loss, the God of the sterile hospital rooms and the rooms of homes and promise,
Around the Edges I give That God my life, my heart, my soul….
I believe in the Edges of God.
Truly, that is my limit on the whole question of Creed.
I don't believe in God storming out of the clouds
and smiting me to smithereens if I am bad.
I don't believe in a God who would wake me up,
pin me to my bed and give me bleeding sores
on my palms and the top of my feet,
much less my side.
(Explain that to your general practitioner!)
I don't believe in a God who would instruct me
to slay infidels or displace peaceful people
so I can have a Motherland.
I don't believe in a God that has nothing better to do
besides visit bedrooms around the globe
uncovering (literally) illicit love.
I don't believe in a God who frets
about who wins the next election.
I don't believe in a God who believes in 'abomination'.
I believe in the edges of God--
the soft parts, the tender pieces--
the feathers and the fur of God.
I do believe in the ears of God,
which stick out—cartoon like—on the edges of God's Being.
I, myself, listen and listen
and then listen some more
for the Still, Small Voice.
I believe in God's nose—pronounced and distinctively
Jewish in my belief--
I smell trouble from time to time
and imagine God sniffs it out too.
The toenails and finger nails of God--
there is some protein I can hold onto,
if only tentatively.
Hair, there's something to believe in as well.
God's hair—full, luxurious, without need of jell or conditioner,
filling up the Temple, heaven, the whole universe!
I can believe in God's hair.
God's edges shine and blink and relect color.
God's edges are like the little brook,
flowing out of the woods beyond the tire swing,
in what used to be my grandmother's land.
God's edges are like the voices of old friends,
old lovers, people long gone but not forgotten.
God's edges are not sharp or angled.
The edges of God are well worn by practice
and prayer and forgotten possibilities
about to be remembered.
God's edges are the wrists of someone
you don't quite recall but can't ever remove from your heart.
God's edges are rimmed and circled
with bracelets of paradox and happenstance
and accidents with meaning.
God is edged with sunshine,
over-ripe, fallen apples, crushed beneath your feet
and the bees hovering around them.
God's edges hold storm clouds too--
the Storm of the Century coming fast,
tsunamis and tornadoes, spinning out of control.
Blood from God's hands—now there's an edge of God
to ponder, reach for, then snatch your hand away.
God bleeding is an astonishing thought.
God bleeding can help my unbelief.
And most, most of all,
the edges of God are God's tears.
Tears of frustration, longing, loss, deep pain,
profound joy, wonder and astonishment--
tears that heal and relieve and comfort...
and disturb the Cosmos.
That's what I believe in: