This would embarrass her, you see. So, you can read it instead. This was composed last winter, but I still feel the same way. You just have to wade through some musings about waves for the first couple of paragraphs:
Surfers know something about Valentine’s Day or, as it is known around our house, The Feast of St. Valentine. Valentine was an irregular saint, to be sure, dropped from the Roman martyrology for reasons that still seem unclear, but then I’ve never really understood the politics of canonization. But for all of the candy hearts and increasingly expensive greeting cards, there is something that happens in his octave that is the portent for all good things to come. Namely, in mid-February, the shape of the waves begins to change.
There will be many who will dispute this, but those would be people who limit their understanding of nature to the sciences of meteorology or physics or astronomy. Some of us still use the ancient art, so liminal as to be pre-verbal, of rud a bheithsa dúchas agat to understand tides and gravity. We so often watch the waves, are so often immersed in them, observant of their nature and their potential for transport, that, in a crude translation from the Celtic above, “their nature is in our blood”. We know that the waves have changed and that winter’s power is diminishing and, even if we should suffer still more snow and ice, it will be of shorter lease and far less strength. In short, we’re through the worst of it.
That’s the first, and least important, thing that I note on this day. The second is that it’s my wife’s birthday. While I’ve always been thankful that it falls on a memorable date, so that I don’t become like a grotesque situation comedy husband who forgets his wife’s birthday, I am particularly pleased that it is an event that carries far more importance and relativity than what may be expressed in an abstract Valentine. While I am the one socially bound to offer her a gift, today I also recognize a gift that I receive from her. Not only is her love as constant as that of the Almighty’s, but I have come to particularly appreciate the grace she displays when she fulfills the duties of her call to ordained ministry. There are times when I cannot fathom how she does it.
We were just married when Jenni became the first woman hired by a tony parish in Connecticut; later, upon the departure of the rector, she became the acting rector of the parish. Again, this was a first for the congregation and one that was not well received by all of them. In the 1980’s, there were still too many who believed that ordained ministry was not something for women. Those who held this prejudice were of both genders, I might add. Thus, every decision she made, every action in which she engaged, was strongly scrutinized. Despite that, she prevailed in ensuring that the parish prospered, the giving increased, a new assistant was hired [one who would later be a candidate for bishop], a lovely and appropriate memorial garden was built, a complicated wedding arranged by the more-complicated Martha Stewart was celebrated, and the burial office was read both for a U.S. congressman and for the teenage son of the senior warden, tragically killed in a terrible auto accident. The scrutiny relaxed after these events, especially since they were all squeezed into twelve months. Clearly, she could do the job.
She was then called to be the rector of a parish in the Berkshires. Again, the first ordained woman ever to celebrate the Eucharist and, again, the subject of scrutiny. A few people left the church upon hearing the news of a female rector; others came to see if they could find something, anything, about which to complain for the remainder of her tenure. The couple in the pew in front of me on her first Sunday muttered during the length of the liturgy about the inappropriateness of a woman behind the altar until, somewhere in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, I told them both, in the name of our Lord and Savior, to shut the hell up. It didn’t matter as the parish prospered, new things were done, infants and adults baptized, couples married, and the faithful bid to the reaches of the Kingdom. When Jenni suffered a brain aneurysm while in the pulpit, and the best the doctors could hope for was a partial recovery of speech and motor function, with one physician even suggesting that giving her last rites “would not be inappropriate”, the treasurer of the parish held a meeting to convince the vestry to reduce her position to part-time. As he stated, her brain damage was actually good news for the budget. While this would have reduced me to a near-murderous rage, or at least a life-long Celtic grudge, Jenni’s response was to recover fully and return to work on a full-time basis. After six months, it was as if the aneurysm had never occurred. It was coincidental, but I seem to recall the treasurer moved out of town later that year. I seem to recall helping him.
She has been in yet another parish for the past fourteen years. Again, the first woman and, well, you know the rest by now. Even after nearly thirty years of service in the Episcopal Church, there are some strains of narrow-mindedness that resist time, change, and reason. She still deals with the antics of those for whom sourness is the chief feature of their relationship with a parish. Well, history generates through people and their experiences, and some folks cannot be blamed for the simplistic provincialism that doesn’t permit them to see what is manifest in my wife’s long and eventful service in the Church. Sometimes small towns in Connecticut seem a lot like small towns in the Ozarks. Except with a country club, of course.
It is my lot as a husband to permit these petty sufferings to attract my attention, but Jenni never seems to regard them as anything other than unimportant portions of the curious responsibility to which we have been called by God. For her the job is about those who pray in strength and weakness, who fight the good fight, who keep the faith; for her it is about the infant lofted above the font, the children who work the Epiphany puppets, the couple who kneel before the altar at their nuptials, the kind and good man for whom the burial office is read. What we do is reflected in those hands that reach out, week after week, at the altar rail to receive the sacrament. Hands big and small, soft and rugged, eager to receive the promise of the Covenant. Every congregation will bear those who have been rendered sour by their inability to truly hear the Word of God, even when it is revealed again and again through the positive life of a parish. But congregations, and clergy, live by the good works of the muscular Christians who ennoble parishes and invite all to come before the altar, even those who seem the least able or willing to comprehend it.
So, on her birthday, I thank Jenni for always presenting me with examples as to how to be a good priest; one who strives in grace and truth, one who sees the good inherent in any human undertaking, who suffers fools gladly, and who locks each day in prayerful intention. I also thank her for her love, without which I would never have known the good life we enjoy, the great achievements we have experienced, or the simple, plain fun that has marked our common life and our mutual service to God.
I guess rud a bheithsa dúchas agat is not just for waves.