Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cookies From Mother

So there I was yesterday morning, on a beautiful crisp day, in a car with Robert and Adam, headed to New Jersey for an ordination, this time the ordination to the priesthood of Sister Eleanor Francis of the Community of St John Baptist in Mendham, NJ. I've written here before of an ordination in New Jersey a good many years ago - one of the first ordinations of a woman to the priesthood, and of all of the emotions that were part of that occasion for me. Now, a long time afterwards, in another era, in another packed church, there I was, reflecting on the years that have gone by.

The service was really glorious; the music was splendid, the congregation more than enthusiastic - indeed somewhat raucous at points - the sermon was tender and moving, and the bishop has a natural talent for inspiring enthusiasm. And more than coincidentally, a lot of the people who filled the Convent Church were priests who happened to be women. I was just a few miles from that other church of years ago, and I had a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings, not just about yesterday's occasion, but about all the years that have passed and of my gratitude for the women priests who have been part of my journey.

The sense of import surrounding this occasion of an ordination was as fresh yesterday as it has ever been for me. There were two points in the service that were particularly notable for me. The first was at the beginning when the group of people presenting the candidate for ordination stood before the bishop and said: "...on behalf of the clergy and people of the Diocese of Newark, we present to you Sister Eleanor Francis Reynolds to be ordained a priest in Christ's holy catholic Church". The second point was just before the ordination itself, when the bishop turned to the congregation and asked: "Is it your will that Sister Eleanor Francis be ordained a priest?", and the congregation responded (actually they shouted): "It is!" Which caused the bishop to make an aside by saying: "There isn't much doubt about that, is there?"

At both of these points I had a shiver up and down my spine. And this time that shiver had not a shred of doubt or hesitation in it. It was a response to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a sense of the depth of this moment.

There was obviously a tremendous affection for Sr Eleanor Francis and for her community in that room, and it was expressed in the participation in the service, in the singing, in the wonderful chaos of the exchange of the Peace, and in the moments of drumming and dancing with which the service closed. It really was a glorious day and a magnificent celebration, and it was a great privilege to be there.

And there's a lot of history behind the special feelings there are for a Holy Cross monk to be participating in the ordination of a Sister of St John Baptist, because that community helped to give birth to the Order of the Holy Cross. At the very start of our community, in the early 1880's, the Community of St John Baptist shared with us in the ministry at Holy Cross Church in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And it was from that Church and that ministry that we got our name: people would see the early members of the Order on the streets in their habits and say: "Oh, those are the Holy Cross fathers", and the name and the dedication stuck and became our own.

The CSJB community nurtured us and supported us and encouraged us all through those difficult first years. And when our Founder, Fr Huntington, came to the time when he made his vows as the first member of our community, he did it in the chapel of the Sisters of St John Baptist on 17th Street at Stuyvesant Square.

It's hard to even enter the chapel of the sisters in Mendham without feeling surrounded by those days. The seven lamps that hang before their altar are from the old Holy Cross Church in Manhattan, and they have the cross from the Church in their Lady Chapel. The altar before which Sr Eleanor Francis was ordained yesterday is the same altar which our Founder knelt before to make his vows as the first monk of an American monastic community in the Episcopal Church.

The St John Baptist community even gave us the cross that we wear. As the story survives, on the day of his profession, Fr Huntington was waiting in the sacristy for the service to begin when the Mother Superior of CSJB, making sure he was all ready for the liturgy, said to him: "Where is your cross?" And he said: "What cross?" And she replied: "You can't be professed in the Religious Life without a cross!" And she turned to a closet and took out one of the black wooden crosses that the novices of CSJB wear to this day. And since then the identifying mark of professed monks of the Order of the Holy Cross has been that same black wooden cross. I've always thought it was a great symbol that the sign of our profession is the novice cross of another community. This life is really about giving ourselves away.

So here we are, 125 years later, in a time when the relationship between Holy Cross and the Community of St John Baptist is particularly rich. We really are good friends. The sisters come here for retreats, and we have supplied confessors and spiritual directors for them in recent years. We visit with each other on important occasions, and continue our relationship of mutual support. And, for Holy Cross, the relationship is always full of the years that have gone by since Fr Huntington made his vows in the presence of those sisters and started the remarkable journey that has been that of OHC.

At the reception after the ordination yesterday Adam and I were standing with one of the sisters and we reflected a little on all this, and he said: "Coming here is really sort of like coming home to mother." And she, without a hitch, turned to the serving table next to us and took up a plate and said: "And here are the cookies."

I have no doubt at all that we are going to be partners in this mysterious life for a long time to come.

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