Upon reflection, I was ungracious in the posts of the past few weeks regarding the help I got from my parish. I could blame it on the pain meds, exhaustion, fear, but there is no excuse. I was in need of deep hospitality, and I really received it, but I still felt alone and tired, and my words reflected that. To anyone I have hurt, please forgive me. In Christ’s love to all.
Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingham, Sept 17, 2018
From the time I chose Christianity, and the Episcopal Church in particular, I was drawn to the Medieval mystics. I spent time in monastic houses on retreat, real retreats with periods of silence, not group meetings. I read the mystical experiences of others throughout the ages until I was so saturated that I couldn’t take much more. I let it go, and spent time in alternative life style groups that fed that need more gently. At the point that I was ready to rejoin the church I had the chance for an all night vigil. The circumstances that brought it about are not relevant here except to say they weren’t brought on by any emotional or social crisis. It just was a good opportunity offered, which I took.
It was Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, and a particularly cold one, I was given the key to the small intimate parish church and instructed to make a quick tour for homeless who took refuge (there had been some dangerous encounters) so lock myself in. Which I did. At about zero dark thirty I was praying, reading bits of the BCP, and staying awake. I got up from the pew I was in, shook myself and stretched, and knelt down at the foot of the altar and recomposed myself. Then I felt a breeze behind me as if someone had passed by. I had been doing full contact armoured medieval combat arts, so I was primed and ready as my eyes snapped opened and the adrenaline pumped in. I could see the processional cross and it registered as a useful pole axe, but it was too far away to grab. I spun around. I wasn’t going to go alone, so bare hands would have to do. Nobody was there. Deep breaths. An old building settling. But by now I was fully awake. I went back down to my knees to pray. Then I felt what I can only say was a giant hand on my back and I was slammed to the ground. It wasn’t a cramp or a hallucination. And I was flooded with both such fear and such love that I couldn’t breathe. And I heard a thunderous voice, a deep male voice, from somewhere inside me or outside me as it encompassed me and said, “You are mine.” I trembled on the ground and poured out every psalm, hymn, canticle of praise I could think of knowing it was all inadequate. I worshiped. And I would have welcomed death and be absorbed into that fear and love, because I knew it wasn’t going to last, and I didn’t want it to leave. I reached up and pulled my wool scarf over my head, almost too paralyzed to move, but I needed to be covered in that Presence. Afterward it crystallized my long feeling of a call to ordination even before women were admitted. And I was never the same after that.
For the next three years I served in what was tantamount to a field ed assignment, subdeacon, chaplain, and whatever else I was called to, which in a tiny parish was almost everything. The roof fell in on me when a vicious fight erupted between the rector and vestry, and I was thrown under the bus as collateral damage. My Father in heaven hasn’t made my road easy. I went to grad school and completed an M.A. and then PhD in theology. And wandered in a long and sometimes lost pilgrimage to find my spiritual home. It took decades.
The gracious welcome I received when I finally heard the call to begin again, from the ground up was a blessing, a gift. I didn’t seek it, and in fact tried to duck it. Discernment. Healing. Releasing the walls of protection I had erected around myself after the pain and rejection, the betrayal of something so holy inside me that I tried to kick the Holy Spirit to the curb, never to look that way again. It has been a sometimes harsh but always fair redirection into Benedictine life in the mundane world, although I am not in the mundane world but almost totally in the world of the Church. I found in scripture the command for absolute obedience and submission to God. I was forced to put aside a great deal of the pride and self-sufficiency which had sustained me. And I found peace. Intermittently, for the longing is still there. God isn’t finished with me yet. And I found myself in a new 21st century Church deeply busy, and deeply involved not just in social justice, but marches, committees, business plans. And a good frosting of identity politics which I couldn’t find in Scripture or in the writings of the great theologians and mystics of the Church. All to the good, but not where my heart lies. Like my Lord and my God I have had to escape up the nearest mountain to be alone with his Father. Our Father.
I must ask that without that contemplative inner core to hear the Lord we are listening to ourselves, our pride, our will? And from that night on the floor of the chapel that was the unfolding of what I had received in baptism I have sought to hear God’s will for my life, for the many talents I have received. It isn’t always easy. Or clear.
In the Gospel for today’s Daily Reading we hear of one of those several similar incidents where Jesus is anointed by a woman. (Jn 12:1-8) In this one Judas complains because the perfumed nard was worth a year’s wages and could have been better utilized. He had a point. It was a profligate gesture. A pure waste. When Jesus reprimands him, he defends Mary with gentleness and kindness when he says that she was anointing him for his burial. Yes, she got it, and he is telling her with the intimacy of a secret shared that he knows and blesses her for it. And then he says that the poor will always be with us. Oh, how that has been used by the rich and powerful. But the words ring true. The poor will always be with us. The infirm will always be with us. The abandoned children and widows will always be with us. Total equality will never be there. The incarnate world is a tragic place, a teaching ground for the soul. He came to offer the ultimate equality before his Father in a higher place. A place bathed in supernal beauty. A beauty he permits us to have here. In the form of perfumed oil. Kindness. A good meal. A soft bed. Perhaps in those few words the Social Justice Jesus reveals to us the Savior of the World, the lover of the world. I found that in my bones long ago, and when I forgot it I got slammed to the ground in terror before the face of God. And when I strayed again, I was brought back, this time with kindness as if to say, “Yes, child, it is all right for you to love me with passion. That is how I love you.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.