A couple of blogs ago I used to borrow Harriet Vane’s method of detective synthesis and make corresponding lists of “Things To Be Noted” and “Things To Be Done.” It was a fun posting format, but honestly so many of the things to be noted at present would have a corresponding line item reading “Nothing to be done about it” that I have decided to dispense with the second half for this post. So, things to be noted:
1. Fencing is good for your health. I mean, obvs the thing to be done about that is keep doing it, but that’s been hard during the pandemic, plus Coach M has been stricken with a non-COVID illness (like they still have those apparently), and is on a slow mending trajectory. The weather was clement enough this week to have outdoor practice, so I showed up both times and although I was barely good for a hour’s drill the first night, by the second night actually managed to bout the other two people there. With masks and masks, of course.
2. I “attended” my friend’s funeral via Facebook yesterday, and I don’t know what exactly to note about it. On the one hand, fuck the pandemic for making the funeral for V of all people to be one where very few people can attend, no one can sing except one person with a piano accompaniment, and there’s no touching fellow mourners or public Eucharist. On the other, I’m pretty sure V doesn’t care. I bet she’s enjoying the irony! And even with all that, it still seemed a lot more Eastery than Easter was this year. Eucatastrophe doesn’t come cheap, I suppose is what I have to note about it.
3. Despite all my nursing efforts and a clean pot, caterpillars are munching my spider plant for yet another year. Honestly I don’t know what’s to be done about it, except to stick garlic cloves in the soil again, which I’ve done. Also I note that a few hummingbirds are checking out the possible action on my balcony, and there’s definitely something to be done about that, but whether I will get up the gumption to do it is another matter.
4. I…do not have the executive function even in a normal year to keep track of podcasts and actually listen to them, but I did discover a podcast doing interesting recaps of Leverage episode by episode, and since that’s firmly in the column of my comfort viewing, I am all about it. Unreserved rec.
5. Writing productivity has been, as already noted, roundly and profoundly situation-abnormal-all-you-know-what. But I did manage to sketch a scene from TLT with a dialogue throughline that I will now not have to remember on my own. Also, and I’m sure this comes as a surprise to no one, Douglas is being stubborn, so I have had to rethink certain aspects of the structure — but in a hopeful way, as it looks like Douglas is quite right. Which is also utterly unsurprising.
So, there you have it — all the news that’s fit to print for a hot August Sunday.
Today is the feast day designated in our church for Florence Nightingale: today my dear friend passed away after suffering a massive stroke yesterday.
I don’t…even know where I would start to bear proper witness to Virginia Dabney Brown’s life and ministry, let alone how I’d finish up. Over a 43-year ministry as a priest, she gave light and healing to so many people that probably the National Cathedral wouldn’t hold them all — and that’s just the people she blessed directly. This is by way of saying that although I’m writing this blog post about me, a thousand thousand equally unique and momentous tributes could be — should be, will be — written by other people.
Other than my family of origin, Virginia is the person I’ve lived the longest with under one roof. I’ve joked before that the fact she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together is possible testimony for her sainthood — but saints are, themselves, not always easy to live with. As Frederick Buechner said, “A saint is a life-giver… A saint is a human being with the same sorts of hang-ups and abysses as the rest of us, but if a saint touches your life, you become alive in a new way.”
She was, by all reports, the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal church at whose ordination no formal protest was lodged. That was in 1977. By the time I met her in late 2002, she had ministered in both church plants and large parishes, founded a religious community, and given spiritual counsel and direction to an untold number of people. The earth moved under my feet the first time I heard her preach. Never before had anyone delivered me a sermon that reached all parts of my soul — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — and with such unruffled, simple clarity. I think it was only the second time I’d set foot in that or any Episcopal church, and — already half in love with church in this mode — I saw a woman in the pulpit preaching in a thin, idiosyncratic voice the best good news I’d ever heard. And that is how I came to haunt the Rivendell Community, to be wherever that round of prayer and praise and laughter was happening at its fullest, and take vows as a member six months later.
The Rivendell Community is so named because the Lord of the Rings was Virginia’s favorite mythopoeic story. She told the story often of how Tolkien gave her unexpected spiritual sustenance when as a young woman studying physics she was horrified to find herself contributing to nuclear weapons research. Rivendell was a waypoint refuge, “the last homely house,” but in the Community “last” has come to mean “latest.” Any house Virginia was in became a Rivendell; every house a community member was in became Rivendell too.
Virginia was notorious for the best-worst puns ever made. She could make a witty joke out of a mere banana lying on a table. She could deliver a profound meditation on the spot at an instant’s notice, and make you laugh doing it. She and I played themed Scrabble in the rectory in Branson where we lived for a few years — “Lenten Scrabble” where all words played had to have something to do with Lent, or “Thomas Cranmer Scrabble” or “Mary Magdalene Scrabble” or “Inklings Scrabble” — or anything. It made Scrabble more fun, and more fun to me because Virginia always beat me by upwards of a hundred points; I think I beat her twice, and the first time I did I crowed for hours.
Virginia liked singing the Daily Office liturgy a lot more than anyone else in the Community did. Still enamored of everything to do with the church, I minded it less, so V and I found excuses to use the cantilated version of Compline — Saturday nights which were the eves of every weekly Resurrection feast, all through Eastertide, and any other excuse we wanted. About the only time I didn’t like singing in chapel with V was the year she set the Pascha Nostrum to “Sine Nomine,” a tune I abominate with a hatred I can’t account for in words. She wrote songs on her guitar, and sang others, with a voice not beautiful but pure.
One evening when we lived at the Motherhouse, which was the second Rivendell house and our retreat center at the time, V came in to the chapel for Evening Prayer from an afternoon reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It reminded her so forcibly of people she knew in the years she served in the Peace Corps in Uganda, when Idi Amin came to power, that we had to delay the start of prayers so she could wail in rage for the lost. I could only watch in concern, not knowing such a grief or a rage — then.
I got Virginia into reading Connie Willis and Dorothy Dunnett (V had wry remarks about the treatment of the d’Aubigny family in the Lymond Chronicles, as those were her ancestors); she got me into reading Charles Williams (and Walter Wink, and Evelyn Underhill, and Julian of Norwich, and…). So when I dedicated Ryswyck to her as a Companion of the Coinherence, I meant it as tribute not only for her encouragement as I wrote the book, but for my being the kind of person who could write it. I would not be even half that person without Virginia. But it’s the whole of me that grieves.
Emaciated for years by chronic illness, Virginia was a perpetual fall risk. I found myself often walking alongside V not just as a companion but as a walking stick. I couldn’t be her walking stick when she got up to celebrate the Eucharist, but I didn’t need to. Her thin frame generated a palpable presence behind the altar, her arms, no matter how weak, held in a wide, graceful orans curve, her eyes lifted up, seeing what I could not except by proxy. She spoke often of that moment in the fraction, when the bread is torn like the veil of the Holy of Holies, and how in that moment the witnesses of all the saints in death are joined to the witness of those present among the living. To her this was not metaphor but quantum fact.
She herself now is quantum fact; and I am a paltry scientist.
“When I am lifted up,” Virginia quoted John’s Gospel in sermons more than once, “I will draw all to myself,” and she would go on to explain that the passage arguably meant that Jesus would draw not just all people, or all nations, but all: every crumb, every atom, every speck of the dust of stars, everything, into the embrace of God, “so that nothing is left over,” or lost. In these days when my faith has half foundered, I think of her insight here, of her trust and assurance, of how safe it truly is to lose things into the hands of God, and I am glad I have such an advocate on the other side of the Eucharistic altar.
But still I am going to weep a little while longer.
It’s been one of those “she has a three” weeks, to be honest. 2020 in general and the pandemic in particular has tied together all the salley ropes of my alarm bells, so if you ring one, you ring them all. A church friend died suddenly; another friend has been in hospital; people I know are getting tested, getting exposed; my own health has been iffy in ways that ought to be familiar but with the backlighting of anxiety turns to a landscape of monsters.
So I did some things that Future Me would appreciate. I wrote down contact numbers and an outline of directions if I should be taken suddenly ill — “I, being of as sound mind and body as can reasonably be expected…” I bought a new sauté pan with a glass lid and used it to make Indian butter chickpeas; the kind of gift that keeps giving. Washed some dishes. Shredded some junk mail. Accepted the offer of local publication for a story. Sat on the front lawn of my building with a friend (she, socially distanced in a lawn chair) with a glass of rosé, watching the dusk fall.
A spiritual director I once had used to talk about “practicing the absence” as a photo negative to Brother Lawrence’s “practicing the presence”: strangely, it involves doing many of the same things. It was not a spirituality, nor a practice, that attracted me much. I did not have to practice a presence that was with me whether I wanted it or not, and doing tasks mindfully seemed to me to be extra makework for the ADHD brain. I preferred the kataphatic movement — the affirmation of images, the celebration of festal pleasures, the shame-less pursuit of fruition — to the apophatic. This also is Thou. My soul was not built to have lovers, and John of the Cross’s metaphor of going to one’s lover in the dark of loss was doubly alien to my sensibility.
But I think I’m in a place where I need an apophatic orientation. Neither is this Thou. Let the images crack apart like dropped tiles; let my need to care burn its last slip on a makeshift wilderness altar; let the treadle of sacred time turn on joys I don’t feel as I give it its minimal push; let it go, let it all go, fashion myself no facile hopes and cling to no impoverished pictures.
I once thought this kind of thing was as self-indulgent and over-dramatic as the lovers of the Affirmative Way were accused of being; but it is not. It’s just the offering that presents itself to be made. Best to do it by choice. Ma foi est mort; vive ma foi.
I’m sure there are some fellow pilgrims on the Via Negativa just now. I’m sure I’ll probably find them. That’s usually how these things work. Bless you, and let’s walk on.