“Humor is the universal solvent of the abrasive elements of life.”
Former Senator Alan Simpson speaking of President Bush “41”
“Humor is the universal solvent of the abrasive elements of life.”
Former Senator Alan Simpson speaking of President Bush “41”
Saint John of the Cross
Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand, and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York. It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day. I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest. I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction. Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness. These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety. This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined. No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.
I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman. While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since. I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.
It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West. Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating. The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.
Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet. First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that. Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them. DON’T DO IT. Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS. If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT. We are called to love all equally for his sake. There is not greater law than this.
The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.
“All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. – Carl Jung
For the last couple of days I have been rearranging the 2000 volumes in my library. Going through the shelves, taking one and putting it with its companions as to subject or concern is a kind homecoming among old and beloved friends. Some are much older than my 67 years. Another arrived this afternoon in the mail. Upon entering my new digs, people often question, “Have you read all these books?” “No, I say, explaining the collection are the guidebooks for my exploration of what it means to be human. There are few mathematics or accounting books, but many history, psychology, literature and religious studies. These members of my intellectual tribe travel on together. We set out on the journey almost 4 decades ago in Albertville, Alabama. There were many fewer then. Now we have moved into a office building, resting after five moves these past 36 years. I open one, reading my notes written in pencil (I have never been confident enough to write in ink) that are the marginalia of my life. Notes made in the margins. Scribbles marking my place in a book and the thought in my head.
I looked a for a particular title and after a time my eye spied it, my hand reached and my eye remembered the cover. It is a modest volume, 9 by 5 inches and only an half inch thick. It’s title, “A Letter To A Man In The fire” by the late Reynolds Price. It’s subtitle are the two questions a young medical student asked Reynolds (who survived cancer though paraplegic). Jim Fox asked, “Does God exist and Does He Care?” What a question? Mr. Price then wrote Jim a letter of 86 pages honestly speaking to those questions with the kind of honestly a cancer survivor owes a cancer patient. He spoke of faith, not the easy recitation of empty platitudes or even the unthinking repetition of ancient holy writ. No, he struggled to say that he did believe that God does exist and that somehow in the mix of chance and circumstance where the innocent are afflicted and the rain falls on the just and the unjust. He then says the things that has resonated in my soul ever since the day I first read this letter. Now, let me stop. I know its unfair. But please believe me that I have a good reason. We shall here again, please be patient with me.
I moved to Mississippi in 1989 to take up the rectorate of The Chapel of the Cross in Madison. The Chapel was an ancient (1848) Gothic revival treasure that by the late 20th century was filling with the new suburbs of Jackson. I took up and took to my task at hand. In those first days the community numbered around 125 souls. We had the elegant church, a five room sharecropper house served as as everything else save too rundown single-wide trailers that served as educational space. The place began to grow. Over the next decade the place grew rapidly. I imagined it was like driving a bus with no brakes. Careening down the road and every time I risked a glanced over my shoulder the bus was longer and packed to the gunnels with more people. By the end of the decade the community was nigh 900. I celebrated Eucharist 4 times on Sundays, taught, opened and closed. This went on for years until I was almost used up. In 1998 I was rescued. The Vestry instructed me to find a priest for the team. So I did. The Reverend Doctor David Christian come onboard and we moved to 6 masses on Sundays: 7:30, 8:45, 11:00 & 5:00. The middle two were doubled: a mass in the church and one in the parish hall (now named for David). He and I waited until the two processions were ready to move. Then and only then did we decide which one of would go to which service.
David went to seminary from a medical practice. He, his wife and two kids moved from Jackson MS to the General Seminary of the Episcopal in New York City. He after his first academic year he did Clinical Pastoral Education at a city hospital, working as a chaplain, learning the ropes of institutional ministry and learning about himself in the work of a priest. That hospital routinely gave each person who came on staff in any capacity a physical. David’s physical revealed that he had a very serious non-symptomatic cancer in one lung. The only thing to do was remove one entire lung. They did that very thing leaving David with one lung and a very tenuous diagnosis. To everyone’s amazement. David lived, finished his last two years of seminary and returned to Mississippi. He told me once that he believed that he survived because he was so thrilled and happy with what he was doing that it pumped his immune system. I don’t doubt it. Upon returning to Mississippi, David was assigned to the parish in Bovina, MS. Only behind the Magnolia Curtain would a town be named for the genera of medium to large-sized ungulates!
I was delighted to have such a gifted fellow as a colleague and so we were off to the races. Honestly, I don’t recall how long we lived in Eden together. I do remember that David was cancer free for at least a decade and even was cleared to buy life insurance. But one day he went into town for his routine physical. There was cancer in his remaining lung! Gobsmacked out of denial the parish and greater community sank into depression. Introverted by nature, my friend David turned deep inside to process this news. Reluctant to intrude his contemplation, I resisted giving him, A Letter to A Man in the Fire, though that was my first thought. A few days passed.
A knock at my office door, “Come in.” It was David. “Sit,” I invited.” He continued to stand in the door. “On my way to my doctor’s appointment I stopped by Lemuria (the world-class book store in Jackson) and having a little continuing education money left, bought a book.” From behind his back he produced a thin beige volume, “A Letter to a Man in the Fire.” “Would you believe that I have a copy of that book for you, synchronism, huh?” “At least,” he said, “I was afraid to read it for several days.” “Now you have, I asked?” Nodding, he opened the book and begin to read, framed in the door.
My bred-in-the-bone conviction about you is that you’re bound toward a goodness you can’t avoid and that the amount of calendar time which lies between you and that destination is literally meaningless to God, though surely of the greatest importance to you.
That was the very passage I wanted to show him. He closed the book, looked at me, saying nothing. Our gazes met for a few seconds. He closed the door and went down the hall.
We never spoke of the book again. He soldiered on. So did I. I was not wise enough to realize that while the cancer diagnosis predicted that David would not die an old man, it also marked the beginning of the end of my work in that place. Used up, I sank into a deep depression and in 2001 was hospitalized for eleven weeks. I resigned by years end.
The end of the story did not come immediately. David continued his ministry at the Chapel. Chemotherapy staved off the killing blow but prevented him prospering. He spent a long of time meditating, praying in his office behind a closed door.
I moved to Memphis, TN as interim rector for Saint John’s Parish in 2002. At mid-year in 2003, I was called to become the sixth Rector the Parish and continued in that job until February first of this year. I was not there when the end came.
In early Summer of 2005 after celebrating the early Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross, he retired to his office for quite a long time. Then he phoned his beloved wife, Frances, and asked her to come for him. They drove to the hospital and he died a day or two later.
The books on my shelves are my old friends. There are stories in pencil on many of their margins. They traveled with me as they instructed me for my work on the journey. One day they will go with someone else, but for now, we continue our work together.
I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell,
August 5, 2018
One hundred years ago today, the last Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II and his family were murdered. A century ago tomorrow Grand Duchess Elizabeth, the Empress’s sister was martyred. Thus began the blood century of two world wars and a bloody cold war.
|HIH Elizabeth Feodorovna||Grand Duchess of Russia, Martyr|
4 February, 1905, at the moment when the Grand Duchess was leaving for her workshops, she was alarmed by the sound of an exploding bomb nearby. Hurrying toward the place, she saw a soldier stretching his military overcoat over the maimed body of her husband. The soldier tried to hide the horrible sight from the eyes of the unfortunate wife.
The Grand Duchess dropped to her knees, on the street, put her arms out to embrace the torn remains of her husband. From that time on, the Grand Duchess refused the food she was accustomed to, and milk, vegetable and bread became her daily nourishment, even before she took the vows.
The lofty spirit with which she took the tragedy astounded everyone: she had the moral strength even to visit in prison her husband’s assassin, Kaliaev, hoping to soften his heart, with her Christian forgiveness. “Who are you?” he asked upon meeting her. “I am his widow,” she replied, “why did you kill him?” “I did not want to kill you,” he said. “I saw him several times before when I had the bomb with me, but you were with him and I could not bring myself to touch him.” “You did not understand that by killing him you were killing me,” she said. Then she began to talk of the horror of his crime before God. The Gospel was in her hands and she begged the criminal to read it and left it in his cell. Leaving the prison, the Grand Duchess said: “My attempt was unsuccessful, but, who knows, perhaps at the last minute he will understand his sin and repent.”The murder of Grand Duke Serge Alexksandrovich brought about a change in the soul of his wife and caused her to withdraw from her former social life. The shock and horror she had experienced left a wound in her heart which healed only when she lifted her eyes to see that which is above this world.
From then on, she devoted her life to the organization of a community in which spiritual service to God would be united with caring for the poor. She moved from the palace to a building she bought in Ordinka where she reserved herself three modest rooms. She called this community the convent Saints Martha and Mary, intending it to be as the home of Lazarus visited so often by Jesus Christ. The members of the convent were invited to unite the high aims of Mary (listening to the words of life), and the service of Martha (as if they were taking care of Christ), since he was present in his brethren, the poor.
The convent quickly developed, and attracted many nuns from the upper classes as well as from common people. Life within the convent was that of a monastery. Outside, the sisters’ consisted in helping the sick, hospitalized in the convent or in their homes, giving material and spiritual help to the poor, and taking care of the orphans and deserted children so many of whom used to perish in the big cities.
A house for young women, workers, and students was organized to give inexpensive or rent-free lodging to them. There were free hospitals, ambulatory, schools for the Red Cross nurses, free kitchens, and during the war, hospitals for the badly wounded. Sisters of Saints Martha and Mary visited the houses of the poor and sick, took care of the children, did the housework, and brought peace and happiness wherever they went.
Many tiresome duties were performed by the Sister Superior of the holy Convent, the Grand Duchess. Innumerable business transactions, consideration of many requests and petitions from every corner of Russia, and other cares, filled her day, sometimes bringing her to a state of complete exhaustion. Nevertheless she often spent the night at the bedsides of critically sick people, or some other church popular among the people for it’s feast day, or she would make a pilgrimage to a Moscow monastery. Her soul was stronger than her body. The only rest she got was during the pilgrimage to the holy places of Russia, but the crowds deprived her of peace and solitude.
They revered her for her sovereign standing, her goodness and charity, and enthusiastically expressed their affection turning her trips into triumphant processions. She tried to hide her weariness and appeared before people with a smiling face. Withdrawing from almost everything earthly, she shone with that inner light which comes from the soul, expressing love and tenderness. No one could have been more considerate in giving pleasure and comfort to others – according to each one’s spiritual needs.It is difficult to estimate the amount of money she spent on charity. Her own personal expenses were insignificant. She lived in three small rooms, white and clean, separated from the hospital by the house chapel. They were simply furnished, with wicker chairs, icons on the walls. She slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, or a hard pillow; but after long hours of work she would fall asleep instantly. Often her sleep lasted only three to four hours a day. At midnight she would get up to pray, after which she made a round of the hospital. When the condition of a patient worried her, she would sit at his bedside until dawn trying to ease his sufferings. Intuitive and tactful, she always found the right words of comfort, and the sick testified that her mere presence affected them favorably and relieved their sufferings.
From the very beginning of the war, the Grand Duchess had devoted herself unreservedly to the service of caring for the sick and wounded soldiers, whom she visited in Moscow hospitals and at the battle front.
The Dowager Empress Marie, the Empress Alexandra and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth divided among themselves the work of nursing the wounded according to the front lines: the German front, the Austrian front, and the Turkish front, the latter, although smaller in size of operations, was just as intense in fighting. They were able to draw all kinds of people into their organization, men of high and low ranks, officials, clerks, government workers and a whole hierarchy of women. The Red Cross on a white uniform was seen on everyone who could spare any time from housework in order to serve the great cause of war and victory. There was no sacrifice too great – money was given freely and personal life was not important in the time of war.
The Grand Duchess met the revolutionary storm with remarkable calmness and self-control. She continued to live in the convent nursing the sick in her hospital, where she also fed the poor. There was no change in the routine of her life except that her prayers became even more fervent. She was always composed and completely resigned to the will of God.
The Communists, after seizing the power during the October revolution in 1917, to everyone’s surpass, allowed the Grand Duchess and all the members of her convent complete freedom; even rendered material support in the way of food supplies. It made it more difficult to bear the sudden blow when, on Holy Pascah (after Agape Vespers) the communists ordered her to leave Moscow and join the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. She asked for two hours to make the necessary preparations for the long journey but they were denied. She left with two novices, Sister Barbara, and Sister Katherine, escorted by a convoy of Latvian Guards.
Her future suffering could have been avoided if she had heeded the words of the Swedish Cabinet Minister who came to Moscow at the request of the German Emperor offering to help her leave the country. She answered him that he was right, that horrible times lay ahead, but she wanted to share the fate of her country and its people. Her decision was of course her own death sentence.
The Grand Duchess was told by the communists that in the South she would be working as a Red Cross nurse. They gave her a private compartment on the train and offered all the comfort. She was happy at the prospective meeting with her sister, the Empress Alexandra, and ready to serve the people at the new place. Arriving at Ekaterinburg, the Grand Duchess was forbidden contact with the Tsar’s family. Sister Barbara succeeded in getting near the house of the imprisoned and seeing (through a crack in the fence) only the Emperor Tsar Nicholas II, in the garden or at a window.
The Grand Duchess was temporarily placed in the convent where she was warmly greeted by all the sisters. She especially appreciated the fact that she was permitted to attend all church services.
In the spring of 1918, soon after the arrival of the Emperor’s from Perm and lodged in a dirty town inn: Grand Duke Serge Mikhailovich with his attendant R. Remez, three brothers, Grand Dukes John, Constantine, and George Constantinovich, and young Count Vladimir Paely, just twenty years old. They were placed in one room, badly treated, and kept half-starved: But they were allowed sometimes, to leave the inn which gave them a chance to meet people and even visit old acquaintances.
At the end of May, all the above mentioned and Grand Duchess Elizabeth were transported to Alopaevsk near Keaterinburg, and lodged in a school house on the edge of town. Although guarded, the Grand Duchess was permitted to go to church, work in the vegetable garden, with her own hands she weeded the vegetables and arranged the flower beds: she also painted and prayed. Lunches and dinners were served to her in her room: the rest ate together.
At times the Grand Duchess was able to send words of encouragement and consolation to the sisters of her convent in Moscow, who deeply mourned her absence.
There was some contact with the population, as among the possessions of the Grand Duchess there was a handmade towel of plain peasant linen embroidered with flowers and the inscription: “Dear Mother Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, do not refuse to accept in the ancient Russian custom the bread and salt from the loyal servants of the Tsar and the Motherland. Peasants of the Nievo-Alopaevsk district, Verkhotursk county”
Such were the conditions of their life until the fatal night of 18 July. On that night they were suddenly taken to a place 12 miles from Alopaevsk, where all were atrociously murdered. It happened in the Verkhoutsk tract of a mine called “Nizhnaya Selimskaya”.
Only Grand Duke Sergey Mikhailovich was shot: the rest were blindfolded and thrown into the mine alive, (According to medical reports, only Grand Duke Sergey Mikhaelovich was shot. All the others were thrown alive into the mine and death had followed them hemorrhage, as a result of contusions.”) after which the murderers threw into the mine some hand grenades and some junk. The mine was about 200 feet deep, but the corpses of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Grand Duke John Constantinovich were found on a ledge only 50 feet from the top. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth had remained alive for a long time. Near the mine, one could hear hymns – some say from hymns from the Vesper service,and these hymns continued through the following day. A peasant driving by on his cart heard the singing. In fright, he drove hurriedly to the camp of the White Army not very distant from there and told them about it. They reproached him for not giving any help, at least by throwing a piece of bread into the mine. When the White Army was able to reach the spot they removed the bodies of the murdered. Investigation showed that the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, herself mortally wounded, had dressed the wounds of Grand Duke John. Near her body were two unexploded hand grenades, on her chest an icon of Jesus Christ. The holy martyr had sung hymns for herself and for others, funeral hymns, hymns giving thanks or glorifying God, until the hymns of God’s kingdom had sounded her. Thus the holy martyr’s crown of thorns was placed on her head for her to join the saints.
The Grand Duke John Constantinovich always loved the church singing and was regent of the church choir of the Pavlovsk Palace, and continued to sing in a church choir during his exile in Perm.
Young Count Vladimir Paley, the son of the Grand Duke Paul Alekssandrovich, was a talented poet. A number of his verses, which were heard by friends in Ekaterinburg, were written about his exile, where, in his words, “all dear to the heart was so painfully distant, and the enemies so painfully close.”By the order of Admiral Kochack, the head of the Siberian White Army, the body of the Grand Duchess and all who were murdered with her were solemnly buried in Alopaev Cathedral (November 1,1918. Later,when the White Army had to retreat under pressure from the Reds, the bodies were taken to Irkutsk (July 1919) and later to China (February 28, 1920).
At a point near the Chinese border the communists were able to attach the convoy. They had time to throw out the coffin of the Grand Duke John, but some Chinese soldiers arrived in time to stop the sacrilege. On 3 April, the bodies were buried at the church of St. Seraphim of Sarov at the cemetery of the Russian mission in Peking. Later, the body of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and that of sister Barbara, through the care of Princess Victoria, were taken to Palestine. There, on December 15, 1920 they were solemnly met in Jerusalem by the representatives of the English government, by the Greek and Russian clergy, and by innumerable Russian immigrants and local residents.
The Grand Duchess Elizabeth was buried in the church of St. Mary Magdalene of Gethsemane, the church built in memory of the Dowager Empress Maria (wife of the Emperor Tsar Alexander II) by her august children. The Grand Duchess had been present with her husband at its consecration in 1888, and they say, she loved the church so much that she expressed a desire to spend the last days of her life near it.
“Like a beautiful apparition, she passed through this world, leaving behind her a radiant trail,” wrote her biographer, His Emminence Metropolitan Anastassy. “Together with the other sufferers for the motherland she is at the same time the atonement of former Russia, and the foundation of the Russia to come, which will be built on the remains of the new holy martyrs. Such images have lasting significance: their predestination is eternal memory on earth and in heaven. Not in vain had the voice of the people of Russia proclaimed her a saint while she was yet alive. As if to reward her for her glorious deeds on earth, and especially for her love for Holy Russia, her martyred remains (which according to eyewitnesses were found in the mine untouched by decay) were destined to rest near the very place of the sufferings and holy Resurrection of the Savior.”
Source: “THE NEW MARTYRS OF RUSSIA”, by Archpriest Michael Polsky, Montreal, Canada., 1972., pp. 124-32.)
Holy St. Elizabeth,
Pray Unto God,
In the late 1970’s I attended a Symposium at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. It was titled, From Under Our Rubble, in response to a series of essays by Russian thinkers, From Under the Rubble, edited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. My wife and a friend, Mark Vaughn attended as the house-guests of Father Henry Parker, the Chaplain of Berea. It was a glittering assembly of thinkers. Dr. Elton Trueblood, weighty friend of the Quakers was chaplain. The Right Reverend Stephen Neill, architect of the Church of South India preached. The Rev. Father Ramzi Malek O.P. led prayer and taught of the soul. His brother, Charles Malek, was once President of the United Nations General Assembly. One of the leaders of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., whose name I cannot recall, spoke on ministry. These stand out in my memory. These men and women caught my imagination as speakers, I knew Elton and Henry as friends. Over forty years later, I cannot calculate the influence they exerted on my Christian development. I am grateful, simply grateful. Mark and I have remained friends of soul all these decades and I am grateful beyond measure for his counsel and companionship on the way.
About thirty years ago, I came across my first copy of From Under the Rubble in an antique mall in Birmingham AL. I have had several copies since, usually they become gifts for others. Among first rate essays, one of them has shaped me for the journey. It is Repentance and Self-limitation in the Life of Nations by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It was here that I first encountered the notion of “self-limitation.” I rather like Rabbi Friedman’s term “self-regulation” better, but nevertheless, it was there that I began the contemplation that discovered Tzimtzum in mystical Judaism.
“After repentance, and once we renounce the use of force, self-limitation comes into its own as the most natural principle to live by. Repentance creates the atmosphere for self-limitation.” A page later he writes, “After the Western Idea of unlimited freedom, after the Marxist concept of freedom as acceptance of the yoke of necessity — here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-restriction! Restriction of the self for the sake of others.”
There you have it. I have never been the same since that day.
As the author points out, “once understood and adopted, this principle diverts us – as individuals, in all forms of association, societies and nations – from outward to inward development, thereby giving us greater spiritual depth.
I came across this painting on the internet this afternoon and its title prompted my detour through the 1970’s. Memories are powerful, especially when they serve to keep us humble. The day will come when people will scrap the graffiti of tribal war paint from the faces of our common humanity and discover again the face of the Son of God, hidden as always among us.
Until that day, I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell ©
Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi. It was almost seventeen years since last I stood in that ancient place, built by slaves of bricks made from the very ground on which it sits. Fr. Ben Robertson, present Rector of the parish, was very kind to invite me “home” again.
Indeed it was home to me from All Saints Day, 1989 until midnight of New Years Eve 2001. It was a rich time. I learned many things as the congregation grew from 125 or so to the mid-800s in a decade. Of course in that time, I received more credit and blame than I deserved (is it not always so?). When people remarked on the growth, I learned to reply, “I can’t make people come here, but I can keep them from staying,” (that too is always true).
So many people I loved in Mannsdale have departed to greater life. As I reverenced the altar the other night, trough the clear glass of the altar windows the tombs of the dead were framed by magnolia leaves. Some, I had said the words over their mortal remains, Chapel members having dug the grave as they continue to dig them even today. Sitting through the night with the dead is a rare privilege we can give each other. Keeping the establishment open all night does not appear on the business plans of the funeral industry.
I struggled to find the right words. Finally, I settled on a series of meditations from Easter Week 2016, ending with the last three paragraphs from my sermon on Easter Day 2015. Please find it embedded below.
I suffered burnout in 2000 and 2001, culminated by an eleven week stay at Menninger Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. I recovered but realized late in 2001 that I could no longer sustain the kind of workload that required at least twelve her days on numerous days per week. So, I stepped down. Later in Memphis, I found that I had Type 2 Bi-polar disease and through the support of Marilyn, Doctors and my staff at Saint John’s, I have come to a good place with that disease. It is, by the way, the most under diagnosed disease of American adults.
“You can’t go home again,” as Thomas Wolf declares. You can, however, “go through home again,” as I have learned about the various “homes” of my life. It was healing to go through The Holy Ground of the Chapel of the Cross last Sunday. God bless you all who welcomed me home and saw me off back home to Memphis. I love you all.
I live in hope, in spite of the facts.
John W. Sewell+