by Charles LaFond
The small sea of Virginia Bluebells near the river behind Thomas Jefferson’s home seemed like a carpet of baby-blue and pale green to me in my first year of ordained ministry with fresh, jet-black shirts, optimism and a brand-new cassock. In the midst of the bluebells was a log; solid, old, welcoming and on which I often sat with my dog Puck on my lap – a small terrier fur-ball heaving his sleeping chest big and small, big and small and no larger than a golf-ball. We would rest there and watch the eagles fly along the river and forget that they were rare. And the river, as they do in Virginia, moved slowly like an aged don with a cane. Sleepy. Dark.
Puck, my Yorkshire Terrier, and I lived on the backside of the Monticello estate in Virginia, a home Thomas Jefferson lovingly lived into its slow existence the way a mad scientist tinkers with Bunsen burners and test tubes. Through a series of God’s great playfulness-es, I was granted my heart’s desire: a mentor and a quiet place to live my first year as a priest sixteen years ago. My mentor was the “George Herbert” of the church – an aged, wise shy, kind man (imagine Yoda in a clerical shirt and improved upon by his wife – also named Virginia whose wisdom amplified his own and who would be appalled at such title. Harold declined invitations into “Bishop’s races” with a photocopied form-letter the way an athlete declines cake: kindly, with a smirk and later, a shake of his head in the privacy of his quiet, small study.
He was the best priest I have ever known – prayerful, humble, kind, honest, strong, wise, prayerful, mischievous, and singularly disinterested in anything other than caring for a small group of people as their gentle parish priest. Though from wealth, he lived simply and nobody knew. But he watched. And he wondered at what he saw. We both did.
Our parish was on the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia and so I needed a house. What God seemed to find me was a dreamy cottage on the back end of Monticello – the vast estate Thomas Jefferson held on a mountain-top and in which the famous white, domed house sat pristine in the Virginia sun on a rounded mountain-top with its yellow and blue light. Boxwood had a smell which always hinted at Christmas and things colonial dazzled pink and white powdered children in shops – all the while by hallways which were keeping their dark secrets so as not to frighten visitors. The house tours never had historical interpreters displaying cats of nine-tails.
At the end of those days, when the last of the tour-busses and thousands of cars began to flow down, out of the parking lots craftily hidden in the forests near the great colonial home of Thomas Jefferson, and as the staff – historical interpreters, curators, tram drivers and countless shop keepers selling tri-corn hats, ice-cream cones, ginger cookies, fifes, sealing wax, quill pens and parchment facsimiles of the Constitution – when they all began to clean up for the end of a day, counting their money in memory of tourists in long lines – Puck and I would begin to stir at the cottage in the woods. We would, when the coast was clear, walk our way up the hill behind Sadler Cottage, past the Jefferson graveyard with Sally there in sleepy, quiet defiance, and wander around that great house in the silence of solitude’s welcome. We would, with the permission of the staff, pick a few apples, gather a few leeks and bunch of herbs – all perfect with duck in a waiting crockpot of simmering port back home. A pear for desert.
Puck would play with butterflies, jumping at them as they dove around his head. And after the loop of white pillars on shattered-shell walkways by the domed majesty, we would return to the river and sit among the blue-bells having posited the food in the hot, steel pot along the way.
A priest of only a few months, I had no way of knowing what I would face – that not all clergy are like Harold. I had no way of imagining the jockeying for power, the diversity of greatness, goodness and competence alongside such breath-taking incompetence and evil – that I would find in the episcopacy and their staff. No way to imagine how kind and how unkind parishioners could be in such terrible extremes. Even after watching The Golden Compass or reading C.S. Lewis, Dickens, Trollope, or Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, I could not fully anticipate what power looked like in church – not until I saw it up close. God shields us sometimes, but it feels no less manipulative looking back on it. God is implicated even if forgiven.
That humble, kind, good priest taught me to just keep going. Live your life full of integrity and yes, people will do horrible things – weak, envious people will say horrible things all around you – but if you pray, and listen and love, and work and walk (lots of walking)- you will be ok. A hot bowl of duck with leaks, apples, port, garlic and cider helps immensely of you have good, steamy, crusty, dipping-bread.
Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia did not turn out the way his southern statesmen had hoped, though the white house on the hill remains a lovely artifact – even though the blood of slaves still sits silently in the cracks between the stones around that post with the steel ring on it set elegantly away from the white windows. Am I the only one who wonders what the Episcopal Church will look like in 50 years? 100 even?
In the 1770’s Monticello buzzed with activity and in a way, it still does. And then as now, nobody knew there was a tiny hut in the woods nearby with a bluebell hamlet between Sally’s grave and Puck’s. Thomas Jefferson had quite the resume as do so many clergy. But one wonders what will become of what we are building and what future generations will think of it as they write their history books. About the state. About the church. About bluebells by a river not too far from a white house on a hill.