by Judith Davis
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Red-Spotted Purple Butterflies followed me for days—on the golf course across from her assisted living home in Cedar Mountain, as I drove down the road, as I walked outdoors, as I parked my car to visit her, as I looked out her window, as I enjoyed the Connestee Falls waterfalls, the Looking Glass Falls, and the waterfall in Sequoyah Woods. Sometimes butterflies would be near us when I took her for ice cream near DuPont State Forest. I always look for butterflies, not only in late summer, but in other seasons. They always represent “those I love but see no longer,” as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer says in my favorite prayer of the memorial service.
On September 1, my dear friend and sister priest, The Rev. Dr. Alison Cheek, crossed what we term the “rainbow bridge” when our animal companions die, and I think we should use that term for our beloved human companions as well. That image is a gentle bridge to a blessed and beautiful place, that farther shore where we become a part of the wholeness of the power of Love, the Great Spirit, Holy Sophia, Wisdom—and dwell forever with those we love but see no longer and with the Holy Ones of our faith tradition.
One day when I helped take Alison to an appointment, the receptionist said to me, “Someone called her Dr. Cheek. Is she a doctor?” I said, “Yes, a doctor of theology, and besides, she’s famous.” That gave the office staff something to ponder. Yes, my friend Alison was famous, and also, as we like to say, infamous. She was a pioneer, a prophet, a witness, a teacher, a pastor, a priest, a mother, but most of all, a friend, a sister priest who paved the way, along with ten other women, for many of us who became Episcopal priests.
I was not Episcopalian when “The Philadelphia Eleven” were the first women ordained priest in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974 in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia against the wishes of the corporate Episcopal Church. Many church people did not believe that women should be priests, but three brave bishops risked their own status in the Church and agreed to ordain them irregularly on that hot summer day, the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany, friends of Jesus of Nazareth. The journey for those eleven women, including Alison, was not easy. Others have written much about their journey. I am grateful for the courage and perseverance of the Philadelphia Eleven that paved the way for me to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
I met Alison Cheek in about 1996. She was a feisty, loving Australian, a wonderful pastor and priest, and a dear friend of my friends, and I am so thankful she has been a part of my life for these 23 years. My family moved to Brevard, NC in 2018 much, in part due to our sister priests of the Philadelphia Eleven, Alison Cheek and Carter Heyward, whom my spouse has known for 37 years. We realized we had a great community here and, when I retired from parish ministry, we joined them in this beautiful place where Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Red-Spotted Purple Butterflies remind us, along with our beautiful mountains, of the beauty of God’s creation, and the joy of sharing community with like-minded, long-time friends.
My life is blessed for having known Alison. Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “We are a part of all we have met,” and I am grateful for all those who have been a part of my life, especially Alison and all those I love but see no longer. In her last days, we sister Episcopal priests here in Brevard, sang her into heaven with her dear “Waltzing Matilda,” and “Dona nobis pacem,” as well as a few prayers of our hearts. The Holy Eternal Majesty, the Holy Incarnate Word, and the Holy Abiding Spirit have blessed our friend and welcomed her home as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and the Red-Spotted Purple Butterflies will always remind me as they gather around me and fill my heart with joy.
The Rev. Judith A. Davis, PhD is an Episcopal priest who retired from The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts at the end of 2017. She makes her home in Brevard, NC with her family, The Rev. Anne E. Gilson, PhD and their son Jamie Gilson. Judith is an adjunct priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Brevard.