Sunday, September 9, 2012

September 9th, 2012 - Constance & Her Companions

In 1878 the yellow fever returned to the city of Memphis, Tennessee, and by
the time the plague had receded, thousands of residents had died, including
Constance, the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary, three other members of
the community, Sisters Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, and two Episcopal priests,
Charles Carroll Parsons and Louis Sandford Schuyler, all of whom had stayed
in Memphis to minister to the stricken when as many as 20,000 residents with
the means to do so had fled the city.

Indeed, Sisters Constance and Thecla had been away from town, on retreat in
Peekskill, New York, when the fever struck.  Upon receipt of the news, they
made immediate arrangements to return, despite the obvious danger involved.

Canterbury House's former music director, UM Professor Stephen Rush, once
asked the students in his class, "What would you be willing to die for?"
His hypothetical question was a means of prompting them to identify their
deepest passion.  I expect to ask the Canterburians the same question this
coming Sunday.  It's a challenging question for any one of us, and
especially for 18-22 year-olds who have been raised in safety and privilege.

Constance was only 33 when she and Thecla determined to return to Memphis on
the last venture of their lives.  While I do not claim to know what was in
her mind, I imagine that the question of her own death may have entered
little into her considerations.  She saw a duty and she responded.  The
hypothetical "ultimate question" is one we can truly answer only after we
find ourselves in the genuine ultimate situation.  Perhaps it is only in the
extreme circumstance that self-sacrificial devotion becomes the logical and
obvious response.  Human beings have a surprising capacity for this, and
they need not be saints nor even Christians to do so.  Annie Cook, the
keeper of a Memphis brothel, turned her house into a hospital, nursed the
sick, and died along with many other heroes of the town.

Was death, then, the victor in Memphis in 1878?  John Donne would not have
thought so:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

-Rev. Reid Hamilton

Prelude - "Moonship Journey", Sun Ra
Processional - "Ain'a That Good News", Spiritual
Psalm Tone - "Shelter Tone", Ps. 25, Stephen Rush
Gospel Hymn - "Now The Green Blade Riseth"
Prayer Response - "Bendigo Al Senor", Taize
Offertory - "Salamu Maria"
Sanctus - Franz Schubert
Communion Hymn - "Breathe In The Spirit" Stephen Rush
Closing Hymn - "Sign Me Up", Spiritual
Postlude - "The Good Life", Ornette Coleman

Music Director's note: We've celebrated Constance & her Companions for the last nine years at Canterbury House, and typically we focus on the darker side of the their story. This year, Reid and I decided to emphasize the experience of running headfirst into an experience from which you may not return, but which you cannot turn away from. To me, Steve Rush's question "What would you be willing to die for?" implies this sort of inevitability: if you're willing to die for something, turning away from it is not even an option. It simply doesn't occur to you. So prepare yourself for the moonship journey ... journey on the moonship...

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