By Mark Michael
It was cold and damp the day the last Anglican mass was celebrated in the chapel at All Saints Convent, but the buttercups were bursting out in the meadow. The mysteries were celebrated with all the glorious solemnity the Anglo-Catholic tradition can command. Six Altar candles, black maniples and minor propers found their place alongside Coverdale’s psalms and a few deceptively challenging English hymn tunes.
It was a Requiem, which was fitting, I suppose, in more ways than one.
The mass was offered for Mother Virginia of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, as complete an embodiment of that tradition’s ideals as I have known. She was 103, sixty-nine of her years in religious life, nearly forty of them as reverend mother of her community.
Her first work in the community was as a driver, because most women back in the early forties had never learned what to do behind the wheel. Father Gus, the funeral’s preacher and celebrant, said that back when he was a teenage acolyte at the parish down the road she first began to nurture his calling to the priesthood. Father Gus doesn’t look a day over seventy-five. And she was already the mother superior back then.
Decade after decade Mother Virginia prayed: mass and six offices every day, most of them in plainsong. She cared for disabled children in the community’s home, visited the dying in its hospice, trained new nuns and reviewed dozens of blueprints.
I only met her after she had become very venerable and a little frail, but always smiling as she hobbled. My fondest memory is of the day I said my first mass, when I stopped in to see her, the visiting preacher in tow. She was in conference with the holy Bishop Parsons (retired of Springfield), then the community’s Bishop Visitor. They both dropped quickly to their knees and asked a blessing. She wrapped her ancient fingers around my hands and pressed them to her lips, the kiss of a saint. Nearly every time I saw her, she reminded me that I was still on her intercession list. Perhaps someday I will know just how much good has come of the prayers of such a righteous one.
Father Gus’s funeral sermon dwelt on the Epistle lesson, “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” (II Cor. 4:16-18).
At first glance, it seemed a sad commentary on the state of Catholic Anglicanism, “our outer nature wasting away.” In contrast to the state of things on the day when Mother Virginia made her final vows, I am one of the few who still is an Episcopalian. The dozen or so clergy in the pews serve in various jurisdictions.
The other members of Mother Virginia’s own community entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church almost a decade ago. This final Anglican mass at the convent was conducted by the kind sufferance of the Archbishop of Baltimore, under whose jurisdiction the chapel now falls. None of Mother Virginia’s sisters came forward to receive the Sacrament that had once been the bond and testament of their unity. Voices out of practice stumbled over “and with thy Spirit.”
If Mother Virginia represented an ideal, it is, perhaps, one whose day we will not see again. Her departure makes it that much harder for the rest of us.
But Father Gus had little time for coddling broken hearts. He pointed our attention instead to the glory yet to be revealed, to which every nun’s life testifies in an intensely beautiful way. For sixty-nine years, Mother Virginia had been a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, “not only with her lips, but in her life.” Her persistent joy was a foretaste of that “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen: It is a word for the church in times like these; not an evasion, but a declaration of hope.
Father Gus said that Mother Virginia had been very gracious about the decision of the rest of her community to leave the Episcopal Church. “It’s just not my time yet,” she said, surely with a bit of a smile, given that she was well into her nineties then. She understood the attraction, to be sure. But she found a complete form of the Gospel life where she had been planted, in the Church of her baptism, even as she saw it change in all sorts of ways that met her disapproval.
Her fellow sisters, to their credit, continued to grant her an honored place in their common life. Father Gus came a few times each week to administer the Sacrament to Mother Virginia. He brought a few extra consecrated hosts for other friends of the community who, like her, were still welcomed warmly even as we remained resolute in staying put. It has been an uncommon ecumenical experiment, the profound pain of church division weathered with remarkable grace and common love.
The day before Mother Virginia’s funeral, one dear friend of mine publicly announced he would be resigning his orders in the Episcopal Church to enter the Ordinariate. The day before that, I spent the better part of an hour counselling another friend contemplating the same choice. Such “partings of friends” have been the perennial experience of Anglo-Catholics like me since the mid-nineteenth century.
One army of the living God,
to his command we bow:
part of the host have crossed the flood,
and part are crossing now.
I don’t expect I’m the only one who has sung Wesley’s great hymn on the communion of saints with a subtle tear, thinking not so much of the eternal Jordan as the Tiber.
Such losses cut deep to the heart, and the kind of breaches they create are rarely mended with ease, at least not in this life. I have seen them often become the cause of great bitterness. The experience of the All Saints Sisters is precious because it is rare.
Inevitably, my friends’ transitions make me question my own commitment to Anglican faith and practice, the determination I strongly feel to keep the promises and vows I have made. Does it remain fruitful to bear patiently with a church that sometimes seems driven to jettison its richest treasures? Am I really serving the cause of unity by remaining where I am?
I think so, at least for now. It may be, in Mother Virginia’s words, that “it’s just not my time yet.” For now, though, I live in hope; my “inner nature renewed day by day” by the gifts handed down within the life of this church where God has placed me. There is no tidy resolution to the difficulties, though perhaps we have little ground to expect such things this side of the day of glory.
At the Requiem that day, I joined my prayers with those of so many other faithful Christians. We offered our common thanks for a life given over to reveal the Gospel. We affirmed our common reliance on Our Lord’s death and resurrection. We lifted our eyes together toward the East, affirming a common hope in He who will come, revealing all truth and binding up all wounds. In this life, we will likely never eat of one bread. But someday it will not be so.
Then will be fulfilled the prayer that a friend, who even then had begun serving God on the other side of the Tiber, wrote for me as an ordination gift:
May it please the one who died for the all, the searching Shepherd of the scattered sheep, that all things holy, faithful, true, and wise in the Anglican life in the gospel will have been saved through dark vandal days to be unearthed as shining gifts belonging to the many, in the sure, unfolded time to come, when the unity will shine again on the earth, Eve adorned for Adam raised, one flesh; when the Love-ordained form of Love on earth will answer with an all-symphonic song to the plea of the Sons to his Father, unceasing in the Spirit, that they may all be one.