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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Saying goodbye to Vails Gate

For most of my ordained life, the entrance to the Convent of Order of St. Helena at Vails Gate has stood for me as a portal into a deeper understanding of hospitality and solitude, of deeper spirituality and prayer, and of understanding what it means to live in religious community.

The bench outside the entrance is the place of quiet expectation - either as one makes an entrance or one is returning back into the world.

The sisters and their guests often gather on the patio outside, to share meals or to catch up on stories, or to find a quiet place to sit and enjoy "God's Chapel".

This was also the site of the Annual July 4th Celebration - Sr. June Thomas on grill, Sr. Ann Prentice on desserts (except for Sr. ES who makes a mean pecan pie), and yours truly on the Bombay Sapphire Gin and Schwepps Tonic - with fresh slices of lime.

The two guest houses on the property were often used for church groups to gather. A few of the CTB (Claiming The Blessing) working retreats were held there, in our earlier days. Ms. Conroy and I would often stay here - with our beloved boxer, Bogart. Dogs were "not exactly allowed" said Sr. June Thomas, but she always made an exception for Bogart. After Bogart died, one of the first people we called was June Thomas. She must have cried for five minutes with us on the phone.

The hermitage has served as a place used by sisters as well as guests, including poets and authors. I have done some of my best writing there.

Come with me into the chapel - one of my favorite places in the Convent.

Not to worry. One of the sisters will call you when it's time for community prayer
by pulling the rope which will ring the bell.

The chapel has no organ. The sisters believe that the human voice is really the only instrument one needs to glorify God.

As good Anglicans, they have an equally high doctrine of Word and Sacrament.

I have always loved the way the light comes into the chapel and dances on the altar, the walls, the pews and the people. Even on rainy or snowy days, the light has always taught me more about prayer than anything I ever learned in seminary. It's amazing what you can learn if you stop talking.

The statue of a woman in prayer never ceases to draw me closer to the heart of prayer.

I will always treasure the days when I would come up on Friday afternoons for spiritual direction and retreat and then rejoice in the privilege it is to preside at the altar and preach.

For a season, I was able to stay through Sunday and
preside at the principal celebration of the Eucharist.

My favorite memory of this altar is the first time Sr. Ellen presided at Eucharist. It was Easter Day. She was so serious, it almost broke your heart. Ms. Conroy would have nothing to do with that. She hid an Easter Egg in the chalice.

I can still see the look on Sr. Ellen's face when she found it. As Ms. Conroy said to her, "If Jesus can trick the Devil out of death, we can trick you into joy!"

These are the views from the sacristy where I would peak out to see who was in the congregation. I don't know why I did that. The sisters always sat in the same pew. Still, it was a treat to peak out expectantly and watch my sisters gather in expectant prayer. I think some of my best sermons were given there.

This stands just outside the Chapel which faces the Monastic Enclosure.
One sister said to me about her new home in Augusta, GA,
"I just can't imagine it! Twenty-three sisters in the same Monastic Enclosure!"
She rolled her eyes and added, "Quiet is one thing. Solitude is quite another."

Whether meals were taken during The Great Silence or in boistrous celebration, the Refectory was always a place where the ministry of Hospitality continued.

The Great Vigil of Easter began well before sunrise and in the Refectory. I will never forget the Easter morning shortly after Sr. Ruth had gotten her hearing aids. In the midst of the last of the readings, Ruth gasped out loud, "I can hear the birds singing!" And, so they were. It was evidence enough that Christ had risen. He had risen, indeed!

The enclosed porch was a wonderful place where silence didn't have to be maintained. Telling jokes and laughing quietly sometimes proved to be harmful to one's rib cage!

Sr. Ellen created this icon of St. Helena, who was, of course, Emperor Constantine's mother (c. 255-c - 350). A Christian, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she identified many of the sites associated with Jesus; she also believed she had found the true cross.

In the early 1980's, the sisters began to feel the frustration of the masculine language in the psalms and began to change the language of the psalms. They understood that whatever changes they made could not be purely academic or intellectual, but must grow out of their shared prayer in community.

The result was a the Saint Helena's Psalter, published by Church Publishing in 20004. By Eastertide, 2006, they published the first inclusive/expansive Monastic Breviary which is one of my very favorite ways to pray the Divine Office. Not only have they kept the integrity of the architecture of monastic prayer, they have also expanded images of God.

As Sr. Pemberton writes, "seeing God as a mother was not a new idea; from Augustine of Hippo, through Sts. Bernard and Anselm, the maternal side of both the first and second persons of the Trinity has been invoked."

What was specifically new to the Sisters, however, was using the material from Dame Julian's writing in the form of canticles which they assigned to the season of Advent - a celebration of motherhood as we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

You can order your own St. Helena's Breviary or Psalter here.

I will close this tribute to them in grateful thanksgiving for all they have contributed to my priestly formation with their trinitarian antiphon:

Glory to God,
Source of all being,
Incarnate Word and
Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now and will be forever.


JimB said...

Thank you for the tour. What is going to become of that sacred space? Its special character comes through I hope it will survive.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Jim, the sisters tell me that "for now" it will remain as a chapel and one of the local priests will preside at Sunday Eucharist for the little community that gathered there.

The property will be sold, eventually. I can barely breathe as I write this.

Fran said...

Caminante had written about this place as well.

As I read and reread this, how I weep. I can't even begin to imagine how you feel.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I plan to visit there from time to time. I trust they will post on the OSH blog when there will be a service in the Chapel. It will have to do for now.

June Butler said...

Oh my. What a lovely place. I am so sorry for you and for the sisters. May God bless them in their move and guide their decisions in the future.

May God heal you, Elizabeth. I know you will greatly miss spending time with the sisters in that beautiful space.

Thanks so much for the picture tour.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Elizabeth, my heart is with you as you say goodbye in some ways, bit by bit, to your sacred space. I felt a little that way when my friends S.& G. moved away. We spent a lot of time on their front porch, sitting, watching, chatting and just being.

The last night on their porch was both sad and joyful. Sad that it was coming to an end and that memories would be all I had from that day on. Joyful in that I could not help but be grateful for what God's grace has given me on that porch, and that I knew there would be new sacred spaces, new joyful places for me to become enmeshed.

Tonight I'm going to sit in "my sacred space in the yard" with my chiminea, a little fire, and a bourbon...and hope you can feel me connecting with you and your sacred spaces! Let me know if you feel it!

Brian R said...

Thank you. It appears to have been a beautiful, refreshing, God inspired place. I am sure God will bless the work of the sisters wherever they are located. And the inspiration you gained there will live on in your daily service.

David@Montreal said...

What a loving, beautiful tribute to a source of great blessing.

Your photos and loving remembrance of the people & place reminds me of my deep love and gratitude for SSJE Bracebridge, when the Canadian house existed. For a decade I was deeply blessed to make an annual month-long personal retreat there each November, and the fruits of those times continue to bless my life.

Thank-you Elizabeth for sharing another sacred space with us. I hope this one fares better than the Canadian house. It was divided in three for private residences, one third of which is now a b&b, and the original monastary made with hand-hewn logs was torn down. The woods are now a housing development.
Believe it or not I still occasionally have dreams about trying to get back there.



Jane R said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Very moving, sad, and hopeful all at once. I am so grateful for the Breviary.

My friends of the Order of the Holy Cross at the Priory in Berkeley are also moving, though it is a less drastic change for the OHC monks than for the OSH, since the OHCs continue to have both the NY State and Santa Barbara places...

Hey, perhaps you'll come visit us down South! I've been meaning to visit the Augusta, GA place but have not had the time or money.

Let's keep the women of the community and all the associates in our prayers. Thank you again.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mimi - thanks so much for your prayers. Sr. Cintra says she feels that the community is being led by the Holy Spirit.

I have no doubt.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirki - I just finished a wonderful supper which was preceded by a glass of bourbon. I feel very much surrounded by your prayers.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brian R and David -

Thanks for taking my little tour. I have been shaped and formed for priesthood by these wonderful women. I don't know what will happen to the property, except that it will be sold. I often wonder what will happen to the chapel as well as the graveyard where so many of the sisters have been laid to rest.

Jane R (not related to Brian are you?) - I highly recommend both the Psalter and the Breviary. Good stuff. It will be my Advent discipline this year.

Yes, let's please keep the vocations of all of our sister and brother monastics in our prayers.

Caminante said...

Damn, here come more tears... it's hard enough leaving a place I have lived for 14+ years, where I have been privileged to serve as priest without losing a place that I have held in my heart for 23... Regardless, thank you so much for putting up photos of a place I dearly love and that likewise has been such an important part of my faith journey. I wrote my application for aspirancy in that hermitage and would go to retreat there when I could. It breaks my heart.

I also asked about the sisters who are buried outside and was told they will go with the others somehow, definitely in spirit, but perhaps also physically.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't know how to console you, my dear sister. So, let's just have a good cry together. At least we won't be alone in our sorrow, and perhaps we may one day hope together.

Peter Carey said...

I was so glad that when I was looking for a place for retreat this summer, (my first as an ordained priest), I was able to spend 4 wonderful days with the sisters at Vail's Gate ... I am so sad that this wonderful convent is closing up in this location -- a big lump is in my throat as I read your reflections and see your pictures.

Years ago, I was going through a really rough stretch personally and spiritually and I was blessed to be elected to the National Council of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and we met (at that point) twice a year at St. Helena's. It was a place of rest and rebirth for me as I recaptured some of the hope and much of the joy that I had somehow forgotten. It has been a place of radical hospitality for so many, and I can't really believe that it is heart and prayers go out to you Elizabeth, as well as to all of us who sensed a deep feeling of Home in that convent ( visitors and sisters alike). Home in the sense of "our hearts are restless until they rest in thee" kind of Home...

A sad day, indeed!

Peter M. Carey+
Here are some photos from my retreat there in July:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Peter, the monk is no longer swinging from the swing. I didn't see him at the Yard Sale Table, so I'm guessing he's going packing to Augusta with the sisters.

It's really very, very sad and yet, I'm trusting in the Holy Spirit and the sister's discernment.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the wonderful tribute. I too have a long history/relationship with this sacred place and was moved some years ago to be an Associate. My memories of my visits there are both wonderful and aweful - and I am eternally greatful for both.
Rob DeWolfe from Thailand

Caminante said...

Hi Rob... good to hear your voice from Thailand. I am leaving Saint Mary's to go to Trinity, Rutland. Should be very interesting. Best from Anne and me. Lee (another associate of OSH)

Frair John said...

I''m very sorry for your loss.
I wish I had had the opportunity to visit.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for this "goodbye" tribute. After having been on retreats there since 1982, I was heartbroken about the sisters' decision to leave Vails Gate. I've saved these photos on my computer. They're much better than anything I could have taken! They will help me remember all those God-filled moments I spent with the sisters.

Anonymous said...

I am heart broken to hear this news. I, and my colleague Sandy Schilen have been visiting the Convent of St. Helena for about 10 years. Sandy and I run two international organizations (Groots International and Huairou Commission) and often we went to St. Mary's House to heal from over work and too much stress. We would leave refreshed. We often came with my husband Zan who has Alzheimers and her father who has serious osteoprosis and can hardly walk. They loved being there. Zan and I often went tracking to find the deer, the wild turkeys, and other animals.

We also came with our dog Mugzie who was quite old ---he also was allowed by Sister June. When he at 14 years was put to sleep we buried him by St. Mary's. We are extremely grateful and deeply saddened. Jan Peterson-