The Lady with the Lamp

Today is the feast day designated in our church for Florence Nightingale: today my dear friend passed away after suffering a massive stroke yesterday.

Virginia and me, Pentecost 2016

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.

14 Replies to “The Lady with the Lamp”

  1. Lisa:

    This is such a beautiful tribute to Virgnia, a woman of deep faith and a saint for our times. I know you will miss her deeply. She was such a mentor for us all. The gift she gave me was to be true to myself. She will always be loved and she will always love her children. Take care dear one Patty

  2. When we went to church at St Albans in Bolivar Mo. We had the delight, the pleasure of listening to Mother Virginia, the way she spoke, the way she preached was just like what I would imagine an Angel or a Saint would sound like. Her voice so calm and Angelic would make me just want to hear her more. May Mother Virginia rest in peace, because you are a Saint and an Angel.

  3. Lisa, I don’t think we’ve ever met, but what you’ve written is, in my mind, perfect for my sister Virginia. Not having the words at this time to write a tribute as wonderful as yours, I will share this on facebook, and hope you don’t mind. I am thankful that things happened as they did with her passing, that neither the corona virus nor her myeloma took their unbearable toll on her. Thank you. Mary Dabney

    1. Dear Mary, I have heard much about you from Virginia and I know that she loved her family very much. I don’t mind you sharing. And yes, it did occur to me that a long-drawn-out illness would have been much harder on her and on us. Love to you! L.

  4. Thank you, Lisa. How I will miss the sound of that “thin, idiosyncratic voice.” This morning, I awoke singing, “All My Fresh Springs,” and today, at a live-streamed Mass, I felt assured of Virginia’s presence in the communion of saints at the Sanctus. Now I’m crying. You’ve written a fitting tribute to a saint.

    1. Thank you, Ray. I know her ministry in Memphis was extremely powerful, judging from the number of special people I have met there who were empowered by her. <3

  5. Oh Lisa,
    You have exposed the true light of Virginia and given the rest of us the words to keep the memories in our hearts and minds. Thank you for your written words that help us all to heal the sliver of sadness and glory by knowing Virginia.

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