What are you doing here …
There was an old lady who worked in a church. Yes, I know that is not how the rhyme goes, but there really was a lady, of many decades age it appeared to me, in a very plain dress who was skuttling about St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford late on a Saturday afternoon.
St. Mary Magdalen is where I chose to participate in Evening Prayer and Eucharist on a hot, muggy Saturday afternoon. Just outside St. Mary Magdalen is placed a tower in commemoration of the Oxford Martyrs (Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer d. 1555, 1556). It is also the “high church” of Oxford and home to the Tractarian Movement. I my estimation that does not overcome martyring folk, but it’s not nothin’ either.
The aforementioned lady was in and out of the chapel tending candles and setting out vessels. With broom and dustpan, she was also sweeping a staircase that led who-knows-where. I could not tell if she was a sexton, a sacristan, or just what. She spoke not a word, initially, but kept straight to her work. She was aware that I was there, as we were the only two in the nave and chapel for quite a while, but for a long time she did not acknowledge my presence.
At some point I went into the chapel to pray and to anticipate Evening Prayer and the Eucharist to follow. As she passed by from doing some task, I thanked her for her work. She replied that it was her pleasure; then changed her response. “No, it is an honor.” I thanked her again.
It came time for Evening Prayer, and just before she brought me a small 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and she had opened it to the Psalm for the day. It was Ps 104. One of my favorites. She took time to note that she was not sure how I was accustomed to going it where I came from, but here the Psalm and the canticles were read responsively – I was to speak the even number verses. The two of us, along with four or five others who had popped in just before the posted service time, sat for a bit. I wondered if we were waiting on a priest. Then from the back row she stood, and with the confidence that comes from praying the office for a very long time she lead us.
It was not solemn Office. There was no music. No incense. There was a storm with thunder, lightening, rain, and hail outside.
What are you doing here …
Receiving the simple gift of a little lady of many years … and of the church … and being reminded of the beautiful witness and ministry of folk.
******** The Sabbatical Diary is published with gratitude and appreciation to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan for granting me sabbatical time and funding, and to the Graduate Theological Foundation, Oxford Foundation Fellowship, which made access to Oxford University for reading and research possible.