Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The view from above the Close

That was the name of my contribution to the St. John's newsletter each month for 21 years--The View from Above the Close. My office, until I stopped using it, was on the second floor, above the large lawn of the Close of the Church (Episcopalians have odd names for everything--the lawn in the Close, the entryway is the Narthex, the basement is the Undercroft--on and on....)

Here's one I wrote about an ordination in California, a cousin's funeral in Richmond and a dear friend's funeral at St. John's.

The View from the Left Coast…

                   “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.”
                             --quote on the tombstone of Carl Jung

          “Why don’t you stay for a while?” Bishop William Swing of the Diocese of California asked me on the plaza outside Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, during the reception for the three priests and six deacons he had just ordained.

          “I don’t know, Bishop,” I answered, trying to be truthful, “I think I have to ease my way into being on the West Coast. I’ve been here less than 24 hours and I already feel a little anxious….”

          Bishop Swing and I have a history—it’s not “shared” history, but it is a history all the same. We are both West Virginia boys, born and raised and ordained to the priesthood in the Mountain State. When Bishop Swing and his wife were visiting Yale/Berkley Divinity School, Jennifer Hornbeck brought them to Waterbury. We walked around St. John’s and had lunch together. The West Virginia history connected the Bishop and me. Whenever I meet someone from West Virginia, we tend to know each other in a complicated way. It’s not like “being blood”, as West Virginians refer to relatives—but it’s something like that. The shared story of strangers in strange lands.

          And San Francisco was a “strange land” for me. I wasn’t ready for the brown hills of the Bay Area. I expected greenness and lushness. But it is, in the odd northern California calendar, the dry season when everything is brown. Jennifer told me that spring and summer in New England astounded her because it was so green and alive. Such color and  vitality comes only in the fall and winter in San Francisco.  Two coasts: two different worlds.

          Going to Jennifer’s ordination to the diaconate was an impulsive decision. Bishop Swing was right—flying to the West Coast on Friday and back on Sunday wasn’t a logical thing to do. On Monday morning I woke up on both Pacific Daylight Time and then, three hours later, on Eastern Daylight time! I’m too old to throw my systems into such shock in so short a time.

          But it didn’t make much more sense to ride an Amtrak train to Richmond and then back the next day for my cousin Bradley Perkins’ memorial service. And when I got back, there was Ed Jefferson’s funeral to worry about. Too much dying in too confined a space—eight, or was it nine, funerals in May? Maybe I needed to fly across the country and back for a little new life.

          Bradley Perkins was my Aunt Georgia’s son. Brad and his younger sister, Mejol, were, along with my four Pugh cousins, what passed for my older brothers and sisters as I grew up. Mejol went on vacations with my parents and me. Gayle Pugh—the only girl of the four Pugh cousins—was a baby sitter for me. All this was concentrated around my grandmother’s house up on the hill in Conklintown, West Virginia. All six cousins lived on that hill as well. At Bradley’s “celebration”—which was what his family called his memorial service—they were all there: Mejol, Gayle, Duane, Marlin and Joel. I’m not sure when we were last all in the same room together—perhaps at my father’s funeral almost 15 years ago. I was overwhelmed with memory and nostalgia. Someone—Gayle’s husband, I think, took a picture of us all together.

          Maybe I should do a View from Mamaw’s hill next month and tell you more about them. But suffice it to say, what I did not, perhaps could not, say to them—“bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

          Then there was Ed.

          “O’ Ed…o’ Ed o’….”

          I was flying over South Dakota when Ed’s death really hit me. I was looking down from 37,000 feet on a landscape that is as barren and empty as anything in this world. Somewhere to the north was Mount Rushmore, but I couldn’t see it, we were simply too high and it was simply too small. Perspective is everything. From that height, the world looks different. And it was then I realized how utterly different my life was going to be without Ed Jefferson in it. Ed was Treasurer of St. John’s when I arrived a dozen years ago. And, through hook and crook, I had convinced him (never a hard job!) to stay on year after year. I learned to respect his opinions and follow his advice. And he and I never agreed on much of anything politically or theologically. We were Ying and Yang—the two opposites that completed each other. He filled up a space in my life as large as Mount Rushmore is from the ground. And suddenly, the landscape was bleak and vacant without him.

          And, 7 miles above the earth, I grieved for him.

          And I knew, in an inexplicable way, that “bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

          Jen’s ordination was glorious. Grace Cathedral’s impeccable Gothic architecture echoed the sounds of joy and hope and wonder and new possibility. Along with her parents, three children, her friend from Tennessee and the Rector of her home church, I presented her for ordination. My anxiety at being three time zones away from what I know and understand left me for an hour or so. Vocatus Deus aderit—my fellow West Virginian, Bill Swing, called on God to be present and the Spirit swirled around Jen and me and the 1500 people in that glorious cathedral. In my own way, I prayed for my cousin, Brad, and my dear friend, Ed. And, in ways I neither understand nor profess to be able to explain, a good 3000 miles from Richmond and Waterbury, God was present. And the Spirit swirled beyond my knowing to include Brad and Ed and all those “we love but see no more.”

          Reason enough for two long rides on airplanes. Reason enough and more….

                                                          Shalom, Jim


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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.