Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NOTES ON COWS AND LINENS NOT SO FAIR


I am looking up at the long red braids and colorful stole and thinking how wonderful that The Rev. Dr. Susanna is back from Exeter. Of course, she has a blue and yellow bruise on one side of her face where a cow pushed her out of a milking stall when she wanted to exit the barn, but such are the problems of a priest writing a dissertation on small churches in the English countryside and really getting into the spirit of country life! Susanna doesn’t fit into any mold of Anglican priests, thanks be to God. When she isn’t celebrating, she ambles up the aisle at St. Mary’s to partake of Communion in her bare feet, and I always refrain from clapping for her humility and down-homeness. A professor at the School of Theology, Susanna is a former nun with a string of degrees and is working on another doctorate, but she’s a farm girl at heart – even though she didn’t have the perspicacity to get out of a cow’s way when the animal was ready to leave the barn. I don’t know whether she was preaching to, or milking, the bovine creature that pushed her out of a barn stall, but she says that a puddle of manure cushioned her fall forward and saved her from more serious injury to her face.

Susanna’s sermons are always challenging. She asks questions that give you great “take home” thoughts, and I look forward to Tuesday mornings when she steps up to the pulpit, opens the Bible, and begins her musings aloud. For her re-entry sermon, she chose to talk about William Dubose (a former theologian at Sewanee) and his passion for the Incarnation story, informing us that the people in small churches and scattered throughout the English countryside have forgotten that story. It’s the central belief of the Christian tradition, but Susanna says we’ve strayed so far from the basics in Anglican theology, we don’t remember our Christocentric roots, the belief that God is Christ. Her homily reminded me of passages in Louis Evely’s THAT MAN IS YOU in which Evely tells us that the incarnation is really the recommencing of the human life that Christ loved and “one in which he healed and cured, instructed, elevated and purified souls effectively…he wants additional human natures: people who’ll let Him start all over again. And He needs us to do that.”

On a lighter note, Susanna said that the people in the English countryside have also forgotten some of the basics about sacred altar work. In one small church where she celebrated the Eucharist, the corporal, which is supposed to be made of fine linen hemmed with the tiniest of stitches, was a paper napkin, and the purificator was a Kleenex. Humble as many small Anglican churches may be, altar linens were once held sacrosanct, particularly since they are symbols of the grave cloths wrapped around Jesus when he was placed in the tomb following the Crucifixion. Jesus wrapped in a paper napkin and Kleenex? As embracing as Susanna can be, she was taken aback by the linen substitutes. Saint Clare, companion of St. Francis of Assisi, must be turning over in her grave. She and her Poor Clare sisters, who lived in poverty, painstakingly spun flax to make fine altar linens and distributed them to churches in Italy during the 13th century.

Those who used the offensive paper napkins and Kleenex could have been more innovative; e.g., Wallis Warfield who improvised a makeshift altar and spread over it a coffee-colored tablecloth she once purchased in Budapest in preparation for her marriage to the Duke of Windsor. The famous cloth was later auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York with a list price of $8,000.

I know, I know, from the sublime to the ridiculous! However, Susanna inspires that kind of thinking. After all, she’s one whose soul goes barefoot, and she doesn’t let any of us get too puffed up about our spiritual life either.
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