It was something of a schizophrenic experience, these last couple of days. I was at St. Mary's Retreat Center in Sewannee, TN, a large meeting place on the grounds of the Convent of the Community of St. Mary, one of the ten remaining convents of Episcopal nuns in the United States.
There are eight nuns left at St. Mary's, and four of them recent transplants--the last remnants of an Episcopal convent and order, the Episcopal Sisters of Charity, which had known the West Virginia mountains as home. Each morning at seven they gather for Mass, at noon for prayer, at five for Evening Plainsong and at seven for Compline. It is sad, in a way, to see these women, all of them older and two of them much older, gathering in a small semi-circle around the Altar to pray, and especially because there no novices among them or any on the horizon. In another way it is thrilling, and humbling, to know that these have given themselves to this place, this life, this prayer and particular service.
The convent chapel is lovely if small, and worshipers look out over the Altar to see the bluff and valleys of the Tennessee hills. On the two mornings I was there I was invited to share Holy Eucharist and breakfast. The hospitality of the Host is also evidenced in these hostesses. Monday was the feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist. Tuesday was the lesser feast of Philander Chase. I had never heard of the latter, but will never forget, I think, that he was the fifteenth of fifteen children, a missionary to the Oneida and Mohawk and, later, an Episcopal bishop.
There is a small cemetery near the entrance to the retreat center, where the dead far outnumber the convent's quick, and I could not help but think that those who come here to live know they have come here also to die, that each of them will lie in that very and very sacred place when the last breath they any of them have for prayer will have passed their lips and wafted like incense toward heaven. Nuns, convents, part-time prayers like me may come adn go, but prayer remains for ever, and the life of prayer will finally claim us all.
I found myself at St. Mary's not only for prayer, however. I was also on hand for a kind of homiletical retreat with eight Baptist pastors, all of them men, from Nashville. They had come to consider their Advent preaching, most of them still struggling to make sense of the lectionary, the worth and rhythm of the Christian year, or if not that, exactly, then at least how to preach the lectionary in their Baptist congregations back home. At the invitation of my old Greek teacher, in the company of a couple of old friends, I was there as a resource for their discussion--God help them and me--but the irony was delicious. I was moving back and forth between two worlds I have inhabited for parts of my life, two ways of thinking and believing that I understand only a little, and both of them my heritage in a way (I was raised Baptist; I am now Methodist, heir to the English reformation).
I have never felt completely at ease nor yet completely un-home in either. I fumble through the Book of Common Prayer (and, more regularly and nearer to home, the Benedictine liturgies at Belmont Abbey) and stumble at the often-unintended parochialism of Baptist life. I love preaching revivals and shudder at the often uncritical veneration of Mary.
It is the story of my life, this narrative of being between ports, and sometimes in a storm. This week there was no storm, only lots of rain, but these last two days I sailed back and forth, trekked as it were back and forth from cathedral to camp meeting, from the Sacrament of bread and wine to the distinctly southern sacramental of preaching.
My friend Bill has been pastor of his semi-rural Baptist congregation for 27 years, more than half his life. How monastic is that? I have been in my current appointment for three months; how itinerant is that?
The word of God, and the challenge of preaching it; the prayers of the people, and the challenge of perpetuating it; the giving of oneself to the life of prayer and the life of proclamation...they are the same challenge, I guess, so whether man or woman, young or old, Episcopalian or Baptist (or even Methodist), living or dead, Christ is and will be all in all, the once and final integration we need for all our various multiple personalities and professions.