Friday, July 6, 2018

The Bishop Comes to Tallahassee

I'm trying to remember a sermon I heard on Sunday, January 15, 1978.

It was given by Bishop Frank Stanley Cerveny at Florida State University's Chapel of the Resurrection which was also called Episcopal University Center at Ruge Hall, or just Ruge Hall for short, or Ruge (pronounced "ROO ghee") for even shorter
Ruge Hall at the Chapel of the Resurrection, etc.
We loved when Bishop Frank ("Just call me Frank") visited. 

He delivered his brief sermons with the rich baritone of a cheerful Alan Rickman, his wit creating a verbal beat, a breath, a space before his next fresh and comforting commentary. 

He could connect with deft fluidity his knowledge of Scripture, its strange journey, the transformations and translations it weathered on its long winding road toward canonization, to some everyday incident that, when seen clearly, became an epiphany of holiness.

For all Bishop Frank's eloquence, charm and erudition -- he was never inclined to mention his resume littered with Ivy League degrees  -- he addressed us as "Dear Friends," and his eyes validated that intimacy and helped us see him as one of us, another sheep in the flock -- though in a procession, he held the shepherd's crook -- or "crozier," as I eventually learned. 
Inside the Chapel

In anticipation of the bishop's visit, our priest, Father Ross 
("Just call me Ross") Jones, asked for volunteers to beautify the grounds on the Saturday preceding his arrival.

As a grad student and teaching assistant, I spent my weekends grading freshman comp essays, reading Victorian novels and the poetry of Blake, and writing research papers. 

I couldn't spare a second, for God's sake, but on that Saturday, I worked in Ruge's yard. It was my home. 

Sure, it was a mere gesture, less than a widow's mite, but it felt like a "giving back" to a Body that had given me my first intimation of something beyond us.

"Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

It was that kind of anticipation: The advent of Bishop Frank, advent with a lowercase "a," his arrival being a dim analog of Christ himself, to borrow a Coleridge trope.

The human brain is free to go wherever it pleases when its bearer is raking leaves, pruning dying twigs and branches, pulling weeds, applying fresh mulch, all of that, and mine busied itself with replaying and scrutinizing many of my earlier encounters with Christianity. 
Bishop Frank, exactly how I don't remember him

Sort of like studying game film.  

No need to catalog those here. Anyone with the time to scroll through the Memoir posts on Starknotes.net will find a surfeit of cris de coeur battu. Several of those entries will probably also include pretentious French phrases, such as cris de coeur battu.

In short, as a child entering the Lord's House, I was assaulted with lacerations honed by rigid legalism, stubborn literalism, Thou Shalt Nots, epic catalogs of Hell's torments, high-volume, long-winded rants passing for sermons, justifications for moderate racism -- more than enough tommyrot for Jesus to turn his lovely dark eyes to the Father, shake his head and say, "Dad, what a pack of nut jobs! I know you love them, but I don't think they're helping. Verily, verily, I say unto you: They're thinning Our ranks!"

The Being who knew how to create coffee beans and Saturn could in no way favor such childish but cherished ignorance and superstition.

Recalling that dungeon with its floor of burning coals (I mean the church, not hell), further enhanced Ruge's sweetness and light. As a child, I would pray on Sunday morning that I didn't have to go to church. As a 28-year old, I offered up prayers of gratitude for finding a way station for what I hoped would be a lifelong spiritual quest.

In one of Ross's sermons, I remember hearing, "You don't need to check your brains at the door of this church."

I remember Ross saying, "When we find ourselves stranded on the roadside, we don't expect our Lord to rescue us, but to sit with us and keep us company while we wait for help."

And he said, "He weeps for us in our suffering." 

The Episcopal God was a pretty unobtrusive and decent guy, and I didn't feel that he was staring at me constantly, and he seemed to have created Bishop Frank and Father Ross in His image, maybe even Her image. Neither Frank nor Ross would get too worked up over that gender change.

But I cannot remember the Bishop's sermon on January 15, 1978.

I do remember working alone on the east side of Ruge that Saturday afternoon. As was and is my wont, I drifted away from my brothers and sisters. And I soon found myself in the back of Ruge, a mostly unkempt bit of real estate I'd never seen before. I think it was somewhat shaded by large oaks.

Lots of leaves and twigs and branches back there. I did some raking, put the smaller branches in a pile and tossed a larger one -- maybe four feet long -- off to the side where an invisible boundary separated Ruge's property from the Chi Omega house's. 

Shortly after that -- I intended to come back and remove the branch later -- I heard Ross call us together for lunch in the Ruge kitchen. Having conducted a brief inspection, he decided we had sufficiently spruced up the grounds for Bishop Frank. 

Once we had gathered inside, Ross asked the Lord's blessing with an impromptu prayer taken neither from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer nor the revised one that became official that very year, and we broke bread together.

The next day, January 15, 1978, when my family and I approached Ruge Hall, the street was closed, the block was littered with police cars, TV crews, photographers, but no bishop as far as I could see. 

We had to park far up the road and walk back to Ruge where we immediately heard "what we know so far." Overnight a man had broken into the Chi Omega house and killed two young women, with the fate of two other victims still uncertain.

Over time we learned that the man, with the savagery only humans possess, bludgeoned one of the women with a piece of oak firewood, strangled one with a silk stocking.

He bit and chewed and ripped. He broke bones and knocked out teeth. He fractured skulls and jaws. They were battered beyond recognition.

My God. The parents. They had little girls who grew up and went off to college.

And I can't remember the sermon that day. 

I would have remembered "Everything happens for a reason" or "The Lord works in mysterious ways" or "Bad things happen so we appreciate good things better" or "Those girls are in a better place now," because I would have suffered heart failure from rage.

What was okay to say on Sunday, January 15, 1978?

We vulgarize and trivialize the Creator of the Universe anytime we label it with our language. But on that Sunday?  

And what words can describe the thing that attacked those women or what he did to them?

There was nothing to say that Sunday, January 15, 1978. 

I pray that Bishop Frank led us in silence, turned the floor over to the Creator of the Universe.

The parents could not talk that morning. Their daughters could not talk. 

So I will make a memory: I sat quietly in Ruge and shared the shock of all who were a part of our church that day and a part of Florida State University and of Tallahassee, and worst of all, I shared the shock and terror of being human.

And we were quiet, all of us, and we waited for Love Itself and no one else to soothe our battered hearts.