Saturday Grace

Something opens our wings. Something makes boredom and hurt disappear. Someone fills the cup in front of us; we taste only sacredness.—Rumi

The summer of 2000 I complete a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, a required component in the preparation for ministry. I spend several weeks at Maine Medical Center with eight other participants, a supervisor, and the man assigned as my CPE mentor, Eckart Horn. My colleagues agree out of all the mentors, I have totally lucked out with a contemporary version Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German mystic, philosopher and theologian.

Though a unit of CPE can be spread over nine months, the condensed summer version intensifies the learning curve of hospital chaplaincy, self-reflection, group work, and applied theological reflection because it happens so fast in an environment of acuity. Interacting with people as they endure pain, stress, uncertainty, and mortality summons us to reckon with our own.

I spend much of my time with a non-verbal seven-year-old named John on the pediatric unit. His quietude appeals far more than knocking on doors to offer a poem or prayer to adults wary of another intrusion. The last week of CPE, I am in young John’s room, comforting him while a nurse’s aide cleans his soiled bed. He sits on my lap, clinging to me, his face nestling against my chest. My colleague Calvin, who has come in search of me, bears witness to a tenderness I treasure. “How fortunate,” he says, “that you are female and could cradle a boy like that. As a gay man, I couldn’t get away with it.” The assumption he could pose a threat riles me. Ironically, all the years wishing I could shed my femaleness, I finally recognize its advantage.

My weekend on call, my colleague Mark—already a kindred spirit— invites me to stay with his family since I live forty-five minutes away and call requires us to be no more than twenty minutes from the hospital. He lives in a stone house overlooking the ocean. Mark and his wife, Jeanette, and their daughters welcome me so graciously I will the pager not to go off so I won’t lose a moment in paradise.

Once a week I stroll a few blocks to Eckart’s to sit in his book-lined study—the cup of sacredness filling as we converse. Eckart’s priestly light permeates my self-doubt, illuminating the gifts tucked deep inside my shy, reluctant-to-disturb, nascent chaplaincy.  At the end of the program, my colleagues choose me to speak at our graduation. Wings open, we fledge.

In the ensuing years, my cup refills as I officiate at the weddings of Mark and Jeanette’s two eldest daughters. Eckart and his wife Molly ask me to dedicate their second child. Calvin completes the ordination process required of Episcopal priests and meets his partner, Dan, a pediatrician. The next year they invite me to their ceremony of union.  At the time, same-sex marriage is not legal in Maine nor has the Episcopal Church USA voted to allow priests to bless same-sex unions but two brave clergy preside over the ceremony anyway. A few years later, Dan and Calvin adopt a son, then a daughter.

Days before Thanksgiving, 2010, Calvin emails: Call me. The urgency uncharacteristic, I phone immediately. In his most pastoral voice he tells me Eckart died that morning at age 49, slumped over at breakfast with his children. Molly, his Unitarian wife, asks me to speak at the service. In a wave of Episcopal priests donning white albs, I bob in my black robe, a Jewish Unitarian Universalist reading from the gospel of Mary Oliver. I bite my lip at the sight of Molly, children in tow, treading, treading, treading in that churning sea of grief.

December 2012, Molly sends a holiday card with two last names in the return address. Inside a photo card introduces me to Jeff and his four children, arrayed in front of a hearth with Molly and her four. “He proposed at Thanksgiving” she writes. “We met at the Center for Grieving Children.”

A week before their July 6th wedding, I email Calvin to inquire if he will be around that day or the next in hopes I can squeeze in a visit en route to or from Molly and Jeff’s wedding. “Can’t meet with you,” he replies, “but you could go to two weddings on the 6th. Dan and I are getting married at 10:00 am.”

Calvin and Dan process down the center aisle of Trinity Episcopal Church, carrying their two children. The bishop of Maine donning a rainbow stole extolls the deeply celebratory nature of this ceremony. Tears stream down Dan’s face as the bishop blesses their legal matrimony. The gathered community erupts with applause.

Afterwards, I give a quick hug to Dan and Calvin then tell the bishop, whom I last saw when he presided at Eckart’s funeral, that I am on my way to Molly’s wedding. He asks that I convey his blessings. En route, I stop at Mark’s and he drives us to Molly’s family homestead, the site of  the baby dedication years ago and today’s nuptials. As Jeff and Molly exchange vows a breeze stirs the ninety-degree air. Joy alights in the rustling leaves.

I turn to Mark who understands without my saying, the gift of seeing Molly in wedding white, the maw of grief slackened since the raw November chill of funereal black. I conjure the memorial photo of Eckart in his black jeans and clerical shirt, wide-brimmed felt hat atop his mane of long hair, grinning as the snow dapples him outside his church. Today in the summer heat as his beloveds weave a new family without him, his broad smile holds the ever-changing shape of grace.

After the wedding, Mark and I return to his house where I spend the night, joyfully mingling among friends and family young and old who gather for dinner and fireworks. As the mosquito-laden darkness enfolds us, we huddle to behold—and be held in—the present moment, mouths agape with the taste of sacredness in that exploding, shimmering, vanishing light.