Monday, September 8, 2014

THE POWER OF SACRED SISTERS AND SPACES

Iona Sanctuary Art Gallery
Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a literary reading at Iona Art Sanctuary, an art center established by Edward Carlos here at Sewanee. Three of us read for an audience of approximately 25 people in the large gallery filled with inspirational art that sits on a hill overlooking seven acres of woods and fields. Carlos built this sanctuary to provide writers and artists with a space where they could share their art with the Sewanee community, and he invites a variety of artists to perform there, beginning with fall sessions that continue until winter descends on The Mountain.

I read several poems from my book of poetry, published last year, entitled In A Convent Garden, which contains many poems about The Sisters of St. Mary and the Convent where I worship, frequently serve as a deacon, and sometimes preach. After reading a few light poems about the Convent animals, Penny the dog and Sophie the cat, I read a more serious work entitled "The Serenade of Sister Lucy." I composed this poem before Sr. Lucy began her demise, but when I read it now that she has passed, it seems to have been predestined to become a eulogy for this remarkable woman who was an icon in the Sewanee community.

Most of the obituaries about Sr. Lucy cover her long and productive life, and my acquaintance with her spans only seven years, but I grew to know and respect her, and I was saddened by her struggles with a serious illness, particularly this past year. I first met Sr. Lucy when she was head Sister of St. Mary's. She was also shepherding the congregation at Church of the Epiphany in Sherwood, Tennessee, just down the road from the Convent. I remember being introduced, then shaking her hand and telling her I was a deacon. She stepped closer to get a better look at me (she was almost blind in her late years) and said peremptorily, "You can read the Gospel this morning." I was pressed into service on the spot, and later I learned that when Sr. Lucy requested you to participate in the work of the Church, she "suffered no slackers." 


Such was my introduction, and so I read— and Sr. Lucy preached in her relaxed, storytelling fashion, celebrated the Eucharist even above the sound of the train from Cowan huffing through in the middle of the service, a loud and long whistle included with the noise of the cars striking the rails. She was unflappable, to repeat a word often used to describe our present Presiding Episcopal Bishop Schori, and she always expected those committed to the work of the Church to develop that same quality. Here is a poem published in my book of poetry, Just Passing Through, that I wrote after my visit to Sherwood during my first year at Sewanee:

INVITATION

Sister Lucy stands at a surround altar
consecrating the elements,
while outside the blue and red panes,
the hot air of August
settles on Our Lady of the Hills
perspiring, still guarding a walled garden
where dry leaves curl up
and fall without the grace of wind.

Sister extends her hands over the chalice
and the train from Cowan tunnel
whistles three long notes,
rattling through, rails chanting:
"The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming."
Her hands drop near His cup,
pause for the sound of the whistle
to fade, and ringing rails echo:
"The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming."

Chests heave and cough in the cavernous silence,
Sister's assistant turns the page,
near blind, Sister stumbles on the words:
"we celebrate the memorial of our redemption,"
no one hearing, no words as intermediary,
the train has already brought them to the table
and they are singing to the music of the rails:
"The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming."

I once preached a sermon that included a story about Sr. Lucy's expectations of committed Christians and the remarkable effect those expectations had on people who might have been unwilling to "come forth." The story was told to me by my good friend, Anne Boykin, wife of The Rev. Elmer Boykin, now deceased. During Fr. Boykin's retirement here at Sewanee, he developed Parkinson's disease. He became unable to perform many of his clerical duties, and his wonderful booming voice, which once caused me to dub him "Jeremiah in the Pulpit," diminished to the extent that he seemed unable to read or preach the Gospel.

However, one year, Fr. Boykin and Anne decided to join one of Sr. Lucy's tours abroad, a contingency scheduled to visit Iona, a small island in the inner Hebrides on the western coast of Scotland. To most travelers on a spiritual quest, the Isle of Iona is known as "a sacred space." It seems that Sr. Lucy was asked to conduct a service in the chapel on Iona, and, in her usual manner, began tapping recruits on the shoulder and giving them their assignments. She singled out Fr. Boykin and said the same words she had said to me in Sherwood: "You can read the Gospel." As Anne Boykin knew that Fr. Boykin was usually unable to read, she put her face in her hands and lowered her head in embarrassment. But when the time came for Fr. Boykin to proclaim the Gospel, he stood, and in his former booming voice, read through the passage without fluster. Anne says that with Sr. Lucy's prodding and confidence in his ability to proclaim, Fr. Boykin made a miraculous, momentary recovery. It was perhaps the last time he read with such fervor and with faith inspired by Sr. Lucy's feet at his back, but this miracle occurred at Iona.


 I have written the poem in In A Convent Garden that became my eulogy for Sr. Lucy, which I read yesterday at the Iona Art Sanctuary. On September 27 I will serve as deacon at her funeral Requiem, and I'll remember the poetic refrain she brought forth in me at Sherwood... and which she must have heard a few weeks ago: "The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming." Today I couldn't resist writing a few words about the strong influence she had on those who often needed a little more faith and fervor to carry out God's mission... according to His will...and to the will of unflappable The Rev. Sister Lucy, CSM.  
Post a Comment