I went on a whim.
Of course, I know Sue. And I’ve always felt a special bond with her – I’m not even sure why. She’s spent many years working in Peru and she carries that aura of – I don’t know – that special aura people get when they work with poor people, with people who know what suffering is and can still find joy in the day. It sets her apart, that ability to see things from a different world.
And it was her Jubilee celebration. Fifty years of being a nun. That’s a big deal. But that might not have been enough to get me to a church on a Sunday afternoon.
My daughter, Julia, was going to be there. That’s always a pleasure. But Julia was going to be helping babysit the kids, so it wasn’t like we’d be hanging out. And, really, I see her all the time anyhow.
No, I think I just knew. Some part of me just knew that it was going to be an experience to hold on to.
And now that I’ve started this, I don’t know how I’m going to describe it so you’ll understand. I can tell you this –
It was in the church next to Casa Latina.
|St Phillip Neri|
I couldn’t find any pictures of the inside. It’s dark, and still has pews, and the huge altar up in the front. Chairs are arranged in a large circle on the altar.
There are wall hangings by Penny Sisto . A year ago, I’d never heard of Penny Sisto – now I run into her work and her name all the time.
|Divine with Birds
You can see how beautiful
her quilts are…
But telling you that still doesn’t give you the atmosphere. Let me tell you this –
Sue is in the back of church. Her skirt is bright red and blue, with maybe some splashes of green. She greets me and hugs me. I get a program and a piece of cloth, maybe three inches wide and a couple of feet long. Mine is green with a white pattern; everyone’s is different. They invite me and the other guests to stay in the back of church and “process” in with Sue. (Do you spell that differently when it’s “process” like a procession? You should!)
There are elderly nuns arriving in small groups – no, not in habits or veils, really, nuns don’t wear those anymore. But you can just tell. A few little girls in fancy dresses are in the front, near the altar and the musicians, the girls are sitting on the steps practicing gestures for a song. The musicians have drums, maybe a keyboard. I hear a maraca.
Women from Casa Latina are bringing stacks of purple, green and blue plates and cloth napkins to the couple of long tables in the back of church, getting ready to feed us later on. A few small children are wandering around quite happily while the nearest adult keeps an eye on them.
Some folks are already seated in the chairs, arranged in a large circle on what would have been the altar area. Everyone is a little dressed up, often in colorful summery skirts and tops. In the middle of the circle are four pieces of red cloth, laid out on the floor.
And see, I can tell you all that, but I don’t know if you can feel it. There are preparations going on here, a nice mixture of excitement and calm. No one is frantic, no one seems worried, but there is work being done. Each step is taken with care. Each guest is welcomed. Each item is attended to.
And then it is time, and the guests are invited once again to come to the back of church, those who have already sat down, invited to come to the back of church for the procession. The music begins, a simple rhythm, and we walk up the aisle, waving our cloths enthusiastically, like little flags in front of us.
And then we are all seated, maybe 50 of us, in the chairs in a circle. And another group of children, with the babysitters, Julia and Fiona, settle down in the pews so they can play and move around when they need to. Then the entrance song begins.
But I can’t play it for you! It is Song at the Center, the song that is the prayer to the four directions. The chorus goes like this:
From the corners of creation to the center where we stand,
Let all things be blessed and holy, all is fashioned by your hand;
Brother Wind and Sister Water, Mother Earth and Father Sky,
Sacred plants and sacred creatures, sacred people of the land.
And I won’t do all the words here now, but it goes on to call on the East and the West, the North and the South. For each direction, there was a symbol, presented simply to each of us in the circle, gently laid on the cloth on the floor.
And I know you can’t quite feel it, the stillness. The – the significance. It was not for show, the dancers weren’t demonstrating their art, they were the carriers of the symbols. It was an ancient prayer, and it called on ancient elemental symbols. It moved us, it moved me into some deeper place, where I could connect with the earth and the water around us and in us and the sky and all of nature…
And then Sue welcomed us, first in English, then in Spanish. And read from the Bible, Ruth 1:16.
“Do not press me to leave you and to turn back from your company, for wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
And then in Spanish, because it was all carefully in Spanish and in English, so no one was left out.
I wish I could make you see the rest of it. Six little girls in fancy dresses, ribbons in their hair, and two little boys, sang their song beautifully. The smallest little boy kept inching up closer to the microphone so it picked up his voice and he could hear himself over the other children. Grinning half-shyly, he stopped when the oldest girl put her hand on his shoulder and loudly hissed at him, but in a minute he was back up there, and so cute, we all had to laugh.
We all learned a song, a prayer, with gestures, and we sang together, in English, in Spanish, and at last all together in whatever language we chose.
We joined our pieces of cloth, tied them all together in a huge circle and layed them around the symbols on the floor, in the middle of our circle. I wish you could have seen it, and of course, you know, each piece was different, unique, and yet they were all connected. Yes, just like us.
And Sue’s brother spoke, about Sue and his pride in her and his feelings, and Karina, who translated, had tears in her eyes, and of course Sue did. And I did too, and so would you have, if you’d been there.
People got to say a few words about Sue and what she meant to them, and it wasn’t – it was just simple, nobody said too much and it was all very real. I wanted to say something, I even thought about what I’d say, but I didn’t say it then.
And then, when it had been just long enough, but not long enough for people to get restless, they read the song “I Hope You Dance,” that has the lines I love:
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
I hope you dance
And I think Sue would have been satisfied if we’d continued straight to the closing music, but there was a gift for her. As an expression of love and appreciation for her, and fifty years of service, she was given a quilt. Yes, a Penny Sisto quilt.
Denny had gone up in the choir loft and hung it over the edge, so when Sue turned around she could see it. And I wish you could have seen the look on Sue’s face – surprise and shock and disbelief, and then of course appreciation.
|Madonna of New Beginnings|
And then we sang the last song, while we danced our way to the back of church, where they were setting up the feast.
And now that I’ve written this the best I could, it occurs to me that maybe I didn’t really write it for you after all. Maybe I wrote it for Sue. Because here’s what I would have said if I’d spoken up in the church that day:
“I haven’t know Sue as long as most of you, or as well as most of you have. But I’ve known her long enough, and well enough, to know I wanted to be at her jubilee celebration. I knew that her ceremony would create sacred space. That there would be community, and sharing, and an uplifting sense of joy and peace. I knew that I would be glad I came. And I wanted to be here to thank her – for being the kind of person who brings together people who make this happen.” And then, if I wasn’t too overwhelmed with feeling already, I would have put my hands together and brought them to my lips, bowed just the least bit, and said, “Namaste.”