Wednesday, October 17, 2012

LEAVING OUR FAMILY AT ST. MARY’S

One of the major experiences I’ll miss when I return to Louisiana for the winter is my life as an Associate with the Anglican Sisters of St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, Tennessee. Yesterday, Victoria Sullivan and I celebrated an anniversary of four years as Associates with the Sisters. We received a lovely bouquet of dahlias grown in the Convent’s garden and two cards with handwritten sentiments recognizing our service with the Community. Sister Miriam had also gotten up at 2 a.m. to bake apple raisin bread for the occasion, a bread that she jokingly referred to as "extremely pregnant" because it had risen to a mid-section height unparalleled in her baking career. Lots of unpublishable remarks followed this reference, and the anniversary was one of those light and laughter celebrations characteristic of the Sisters’ “family events.”
During the 80’s when I attended self-improvement seminars about how to live and work as a contributing person in society, participants were told that there are three things people need to do in their daily lives -- invite others to join them in contributing to community life, make promises to the community, and acknowledge people’s efforts when they've made contributions. The Sisters of St. Mary do those three things. They invite people to become Associates and work with them, requiring each person who joins with them in worship and service to promise to live by a daily Rule. And they support and acknowledge the Associates for their work.
The Big Plus for Associates is that they join an authentic family –a family that remembers birthdays, anniversaries, the names of the Associates’ offspring and grand offspring and one that offers open discussion of problems and ongoing spiritual direction. The family of Sisters listens well, rather than pronouncing personal judgments and criticism; and they provide prayerful, unconditional love. It’s an honor for Associates to be able to worship and pray at four services every day of the week in this small gray stone chapel perched on a bluff of the Cumberland Plateau.
We share the Eucharist and breakfasts on Tuesday and Sunday mornings every week and are sometimes invited, as we have been this week, to share Sunday lunch with the Sisters in a refectory overlooking the Cumberland Valley. The Sisters love to laugh and often praise Victoria for her special ability to tell stories or make wry remarks that incite laughter. In her anniversary card, Vickie received special acknowledgement for her gift of laughter, for her wisdom, and for the time she gives to Convent projects;e.g., the Board of Directors of the Convent.
I often serve at St.Mary’s altar and preach at least once a month while we’re sojourning on The Mountain and feel at home serving as a retired deacon from another Episcopal Diocese on this small, modest altar and sharing the Gospel with a congregation of 30-40 active members.  I've also been involved in fundraising efforts on behalf of the Convent's work and for maintenance of their mother house and received acknowledgement of those efforts.
In short, we’re included and respected as members of an organization that is a well-functioning servant leader organization, one that doesn't just pay lip service to so-called “religious” ideals but provides Associates a family that is honest with, and upholds, all of its members, unlike many of the dysfunctional families in American society that tout togetherness but practice phony baloney, acts of sniping and unkindness to members of the family into which they're born.   
The idea of developing an Associates order can probably be attributed to a Sister of an early St. Mary's order named Mother Mary Maude who, in 1934, wrote the prophetic words quoted in Ten Decades of Praise by Sister Mary Hilary:
“It has been said that this age is ripe for a new manifestation in the monastic tradition…One wonders in what way it will come. Perhaps in lay organizations, pledged to the ascetic ideal, yet living and mingling in the world. If ever the world needed the salt of distinctively Christian lives it needs it now. Such lives must be based on theological virtues, built up on the moral virtues, pledged to simple and frugal living, detached from worldly standards, fired with a passion for social justice, and sustained by a dynamic energy drawn from sacramental grace and nourished by a systematic prayer life…”
The Sisters of St. Mary in the southern province are the “inheritors” of an order established by four Sisters, known as the Martyrs of Memphis or Constance and her Companions who died nursing victims of a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee in 1878. The Sewanee order also established an order of St. Mary in the Philippines, and a tiny Sister named Mary Zita was called to the convent at Sewanee after the Sisters made a mission to Sagada.
We’re fortunate to have found this authentic family in one of the world’s “thin places,” a community dedicated to "providing the salt of distinctively Christian lives,” devoted to holy work and to caring for people who may not have experienced unconditional love and acceptance by their birth families. I might mention that members of the Sisters’ family include three cats and three dogs who scurry through the halls and sometimes join us at the Eucharist.
We'll miss our wonderful Convent family, but their e-mails, letters, phone calls, and prayers always follow us to Cajun country. It's exhilarating to enjoy a relationship with the Sisters that St. Paul described in I Corinthians 13, verses 1-13.  I invite you to re-read it.

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