Companions’ Blog

O KING OF THE NATIONS

The “Great O” antiphon for December 22 is “O King (or Desire) of the Nations.”
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Jeremiah 30: 7 – 11a

Alas! that day is so great
there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob;
yet he shall be rescued from it.

On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will break the yoke from off his neck, and I will burst his bonds, and strangers shall no more make a servant of him. But they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord,
and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
and no one shall make him afraid.
For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you;

KING OF THE NATIONS and desire of our hearts – amidst all the senseless violence of life you are the cornerstone that binds us into a home for God.  God is the true desire of every heart, the ache of loneliness that plagues us all our lives, even in the most intimate loving encounters.  But how many of us human creatures realize that we are created to be so completely ‘at one’ with God, that our deep longing for love and union cannot ever be fully met outside of that at-one-ment?  And so we pray that Jesus, the cornerstone, will bind us into a home for God..  We are homes for God, each one of us, this is the single most important truth about us: inclusiveness not rejection is God’s theme song for us and God’s desire for our hearts in our relationships with each other.  There is no other criteria for a mutuality of love between the peoples of this earth other than this: we are one-ed in God by our shared humanity.  We pray to be at one – to make all nations one – to bind us together in a mutuality of love and respect: in our families, in our communities, in our churches, in the world.  All our roots are inter-tangled.  In our deepest selves we know that every struggle helps free those things we most cherish and hope for.  How many there are who have no realization of their own intrinsic loveliness of being, who do not understand the endless ache of their inner being, and who try to fill that longing through the accumulation of things, the exercise of power, the search for success or the endless quest for the ultimate ‘experience’ to make meaning of life.  In the darkness of the night – we sing “O Ruler of the Nations and true Desire of our hearts!  You are the cornerstone inviting us all into a home for God.  Come, Lord Jesus. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of humankind.
O bid our bitter conflict cease,
and be for us our Prince of Peace.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

O MORNING STAR

The “Great O” antiphon for December 21 is “O Morning Star” (or “O Dayspring”).
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Isaiah 60:1 – 3

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

MORNING STAR – O brilliant Sun of Righteousness, of Justice, that lights up the path of life.  So often in the most inauspicious of circumstances the light of grace crosses our pathway and stops with us, keeps company with us.  God of surprises.  How we all long for justice with mercy, and cry out for the hand of God to intervene in the chaos we have created for ourselves.  We beg for justice with mercy for peoples, for nations, for the poor, for families, for this and that person, for the earth itself.  How often we cry out to God – why do you let these things happen?  We want God to break forth in brilliance and make all things better – right now!  Instead, God shines in the darkness that hides our path.  Little by little we see what we should do to drive back injustice and make the systems serve the least as well as the greatest.  Lord Jesus, come and light up the darkness concealing from us the path of life.  Light up even the motes of misery and make them merry with the light of God.  Grace is freely given, and little by little, it lifts us and our world from our self-centred and sometimes violent passions, and directs our feet on the way of peace.  Yes, come, Rising Sun, light of God’s love, promise of mercy, leave us no place to hide from You in the damp and chill of selfishness.  The morning star, the dayspring – come O Rising Sun of righteousness with healing in your wings!  We are now children of light – gift givers of light for the world. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, O Dayspring from on high
and cheer us by your drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

O KEY OF DAVID

The “Great O” antiphon for December 20 is “O Key of David.”
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Isaiah 22: 20 – 23

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honour to his ancestral house.

KEY OF DAVID – the key to whatever meaning unifies our lives, the key that can open us to infinite possibilities.  The key to the prisons that confine us and to the doors that keep us safe.  The worst prisons are the invisible ones.  There is not a lot of security in the world – around us, competition for what we want, need, or feel driven to take.  Our lives are fragile and vulnerable and yet this antiphon provides a calming – you open and none can close, you close and none can open.  Within apparent chaos there is order.  Within death, new life.  The power of God is more than all the evil that we can do to one another, or to this world.  In spite of us, God will be God to us.  We can doubt it, we can blind ourselves to it, but in the end, we are images of God.  Born of God, like unto God.  Even the worst of us, a spark of the Divine.  But we are fragile and vulnerable.  All of us worship in mystery, be it God as Father, as Mother, as Scripture, as consecrated Bread and Wine, in the wonders of nature, hidden in hearts, or as the Cloud of Unknowing.  Come – let us rejoice in the small fragments that reveal the loving God in whatever manner and share with one another.  All of us are seated in darkness, but the lock in the door is turning – sweet sound!  And tomorrow He comes and we will be free!  Come, overcome us, pull us out of our inner prisons of mind and heart, break down the walls of isolation and open for us new vistas of grace.  Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.  Free us.  And after the darkness comes the dawning.  Come Lord Jesus, Ero Cras!  I shall be there tomorrow. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, O Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

O BRANCH OF JESSE

The “Great O” antiphon for December 19 is “O Branch of Jesse” (or O Root).
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Isaiah 11: 1 – 4a

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

BRANCH OF JESSE – “Now the green blade rises from the buried grain.”  We often feel like we are outside, but we are never outside of God’s love.  O branch of Jesse — the promise of salvation and hope for all peoples.  Always a faithful God confronts our faithlessness and loves us back to life.  There is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again and that the tender branch will bud and become a shoot that will not cease.  Though the root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water, it will bud, and put forth branches like a young plant (The Book of Job).  Out of the old root there is a new greening, a new birth.  Will we welcome the Word and carry it to the world, so that God might be born in our hearts and in our world also.  This tiny Branch will break down walls and barriers.  This is the first day, the first antiphon in which we add some special urgency to our daily plea of “come!”  We add the words,  “and do not delay.”  The most casual glance at the world’s leaders and the state of things today will reveal that the fullness of the Messiah’s role as a rallying point for all, before Whom all rulers shall be silent, is not just around the corner.  We affirm that by our urgency, by begging God to hurry!  O come and free us and do not make us wait. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, O Rod of Jesse’s stem
from every foe deliver them
that trust your mighty power to save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

O LORD

 

 

The “Great O” antiphon for December 18 is “O Lord.
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Exodus 3: 1 – 6:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

LORD who appeared to Moses in the burning bush — oh the blaze of the sun as it slips beneath the horizon; we are surrounded with blazing bushes — trees lit by sunset red!  How awesome!  Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground!  This is the holy ground of encounter — this world of ours.  Here in this place God has chosen to be at home.  Now, right here, in this place.  Holy ground.  And this place is wherever each day I find myself, in whatever circumstances and situations.  Burning bushes of God surround us every day in people, places, things.  They are found where we least expect them: in poverty, in the eyes of children, in suffering, in the graceful encounter of lovers, in the cry of a child, in the dry desert places and bleakness, in the dew on a spider’s web, in the smile of a tiny baby.  Truly God’s voice speaks to us in the burning bushes of the entire world. Yes, O Lord, the sacred, saving Gospel name of God, come with passion and saving love to empower us as a shalom community of faith in the work of liberation and peace. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, O come great Lord of might.
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law,
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

 

O WISDOM

O Wisdom

The Great O antiphon for December 17 is “O Wisdom.”
(See an explanation of the Great O’s in the blog post for December 16.)

From Ecclesiasticus 24: 3 – 9

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting-place;
in whose territory should I abide?
Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.”
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.

WISDOM is the Mother, gently awakening the child — each one of us  — from a natural sleep.  It is a sleep to which we lent ourselves willingly in weariness at the end of yesterday, and now, strengthened and restored, we are ready to be awakened.  Mother Wisdom gently speaks to us so that we may open our eyes to the dawn, to the light and energies of a new world.  Mother Wisdom’s voice is gentle and loving and she summons us to hope and long for truth, justice and peace.  And still there is about Wisdom a definite strength and masculine quality that exists within us to push that life out into our world.  Wisdom is called “a breath of the power of God,” “a reflection of eternal light — a mirror of the working of God” (Wisdom 7).  This tender and strong love — the compassion of our God who so loves the world — tenderly bends over it, encompasses, surrounds and enfolds it.  Yes, O Wisdom, come and teach us how to live. (Sr. Doreen McGuff)

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

O come, O Wisdom from on high
Who orders all things mightily,
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

THE GREAT O’S

O

This past Sunday, on December 10, the Sisters and Companions led an Advent Lessons and Carols service based on the “Great O’s.”  The Great O’s are a series of antiphons to the Magnificat sung at Vespers each evening from December 16 to 23. They date from at least the eighth century C.E.  So powerfully do they express our longing for the coming of God, that they are still sung by choirs, especially in cathedrals and monastic communities, in the 21st century.In this service, the Sisters sang each of the great O’s to the traditional Tone 2 plainchant, and after a meditation written by Sister Doreen McGuff, the congregation sang the corresponding verse of the well-beloved hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” by the 19th century hymn writer and monastic founder John Mason Neale, who translated it from a 12th century Latin hymn.

The seven Great O’s are:

O Wisdom
O Lord
O Branch of Jesse
O Key of David
O Morning Star
O King of the Nations
O Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a metrical paraphrase of the Great O antiphons., and It’s interesting to note that Neale placed the last, climactic Great O –  “O Emmanuel” – as the first verse of the hymn. In Sunday’s service, we sang the verses in their traditional order, beginning with “O Wisdom” (O Sapientia in Latin) and ending with the climactic “O Emmanuel.”

In the traditional form of the Great O’s there is a four-part structure which enhances the deep human longing for God, which is the central theme of Advent. For instance, here is the first of the Great O’s:

O Wisdom from the mouth of the Most High: you reign over all things to the ends of the earth;
come and teach us how to live.

The structure is:

A calling to Jesus: “O” with a particular name:
O Wisdom
Followed by an attribute:
from the mouth of the Most High: you reign over all things to the ends of the earth
Then a prayer beginning with “come”:
come and teach
Followed by the people it is interceding for:
us how to live.

Beginning tomorrow, December 17, we will be posting daily through December 23 the antiphon for that day, along with a related scripture passage, Sr. Doreen’s meditation, and the accompanying verse from “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” As you read the meditations and perhaps sing for yourself the corresponding verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”  may the longing of your heart be met with the deep peace of Christ.

Rev. Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert

Who’s Coming to Town?

Reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Advent (Mark 13.24-37) with its emphasis on “Beware, keep alert, stay awake!” brought to mind a secular song on that theme:

You better watch out, You better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice,
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
And he knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
You better watch out, You better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
I mean the big fat man with the long white beard is coming to town!

The big fat man with a long white beard we often associate with the benign creature who lives at the North Pole, drives through the sky on a sleigh pulled by 8 (or is it 9?) reindeer, who climbs down chimneys and leaves presents for children, and whose belly shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs. He also hangs out in department stores and shopping malls, where children sit on his lap, tell him their secret wishes for Christmas presents, and believe he will fulfill all their desires (dare we call them secular prayers?)

For other children though, and for many adults, Santa Claus may remind them too much of a God who threatens and judges and who does not answer their prayers for presents or even for food, housing and clothing.

And actually this song is not about a benign Santa who loves children – it’s about a judge who threatens kids (or adults) to get them to behave. “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better watch out” because Santa is coming. He’s making a list, checking it twice. He’s going to find out who has behaved and who hasn’t. And in some cultural traditions if you’ve been judged to be naughty or bad you get a piece of coal in your stocking instead of the presents you told Santa you wanted.

Unfortunately this is also the image many have of God — the judge who keeps a list of our sins and maybe of our good deeds too, and depending on which list is longer, we could end up with our names written in the book of life – or not. I do not think, however, that that is the message of Jesus.

When Jesus says in Mark’s gospel,“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” he is not talking about how many good or bad deeds we’ve done, about whether we’ve cried or pouted. He is not trying to frighten us into good behaviour like scary old Santa Claus. He’s talking about being aware, conscious, waiting for God’s work to unfold, the consummation of history. The Judaeo-Christian understanding of history is that it has an end, a goal – a time when both earth and heaven will pass away — suggesting a completely new reality that transcends all our spiritual geographies.

Advent is a time in the liturgical year when we wait with expectation and hope for that eventual consummation, even as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the first coming of Jesus into the world. As Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” We believe that history has a purpose, and it is not a meaningless cycle of repetition.

This longing for God to come among us in a totally new way is expressed powerfully in the passage from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” We long for justice, for an end to the arrogance and hunger for power and threats that surround us internationally. We long for God to come and put it right. We know we have been made for communion with God: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry O lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

So our longing and waiting for God in Advent is a desire for justice on the macro scale and divine intimacy on the personal and communal level. We desire a new relationship with God and a restoration of God’s creation – a new heaven and a new earth.Psalm80

That is a theme from the Isaiah that is echoed in Psalm 80 – “now consider, we are all your people” the psalmist cries. “Hear, O Shepherd of Israel . . . Restore us, O God of hosts.” Restore us to a loving and intimate relationship with you. Restore our disordered relationships with each other. Restore our damaged earth. We remember that God created us, God is the potter; God guides us as a shepherd; God saves us by “the light of your countenance” – just by looking at us in love.

That is why we long for spiritual intimacy, why we long for love – because we are created for love. We long to be forgiven, reconciled, accepted. And then we hear Jesus say in Mark’s gospel “Beware, keep alert  . . . “you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” But that doesn’t have to be scary. In fact the image of the fig tree that Jesus uses is a symbol of new life. We see the signs around us, just as the tender leaves on the fig tree herald the coming of summer, so the natural and political disturbances around us herald the coming of God.

But what if the coming of God is something we already experience? Perhaps staying awake and being alert also means paying attention to the appearances of God all around us – the really good and positive things in our lives – God comes in many guises.

So we long for the coming of God – the second coming of Jesus – but it’s a lot more fruitful than the coming of Santa Claus. Because we are all on God’s list – both naughty and nice. “Restore us, O God” – that’s us, not me. That’s all God’s creation, not just those in the in group who have the right interpretation of the Bible and the right theology. We are all invited into a relationship of repentance and intimacy with the God who made us and shepherds us and longs for us – not only as individuals but as nations – to come back home.

And the wonderful gift that makes that possible is God’s grace – that is a gift more beautiful than any gift from Santa. In the song, we are either on Santa’s list or not – we have either been good or bad. But in God’s song which we call the Bible, we are all invited into a loving relationship with God. “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthian church – “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So instead of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” we are invited to sing “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to you O Israel.” That is the song of Advent.

 Rev. Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, Companions Coordinator

A Musical Journey of Descent and Ascent – for the Feast of St. Leo the Great

One of my favourite pieces of music is Smetana’s “The Moldau.” Smetana uses tones to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers. He said “the composition describes the course of the Moldau, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Moldau, to the coming together of both streams into a single current. the flow of the Moldau takes us through woods and meadows, through landscaMoldau Riverpes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, past majestic rocks and proud castles, palaces and ruins. The water swirls into rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at a river.” If you were to listen to the music, you would hear in the crescendos and decrescendos each moment Smetana describes – the small rivers joining, the rapids and the majesty and grandeur of the river fading in the distance.  It is structured with highs and lows, rough patches and smooth sailing.

In today’s first reading from Philippians (2.5-11), we hear another beautiful piece of music – not so much in a tune but in the movement of our passage. Susan Eastman says, “Our passage is often referred to as “the Christ Hymn,” because it is believed that Paul is quoting a very early hymn from the worship of the church.”  If we were to re-read the passage, I think we would hear once again the crescendos and decrescendos of its message. “We hear of Christ himself taking the form of a slave, humbling himself even to the point of death by crucifixion and we also learn that if we want to become like Christ, we begin by hearing how Christ became like us, and continues to come among us.” The movement in this dramatic passage is musical, one of descent and ascent…crescendos and decrescendos – of being humbled and being exalted – and moves us from separation to unity, and from difference to likeness.  It is a movement of opposites that draw us in to a journey.

Today we remember Leo the Great. He was an effective pastor and wise teacher who served as the bishop of Rome from the year 440 until his death. Stephen Reynolds, in For All the Saints, says that “Leo’s reputation as a teacher of the faith rests first of all on the sermons he preached at Christmas, in Lent, on Easter Day and on Pentecost. He did not analyze and present formal arguments but instead took a series of contrasting images from Scripture and set them in pairs, in order to suggest the breadth of salvation through the union of opposites.”

Reynolds goes on to say that “He used this same method when he was drawn into a church-wide controversy about the person of Christ. He said: ‘God the Word assumed the form of a servant without the defilement of sin, and enriched what was human without impoverishing what was divine. For the self-emptying by which the Invisible caused himself to be visible, and by which the Creator and Lord of all things willed to be mortal, was a bowing down in compassion, not a failure of power.’ His ability to unite different scriptural images so that the faithful might pray into the mystery of salvation –  combined with his gifts as a true leader in a time of crisis – is the reason he is called Leo “the Great.”

Our passage from Philippians explains the journey of Christ and has a musical movement of emptiness, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, of humbling himself, being obedient to death, and being exalted. It isn’t a surprise to me that this beautiful hymn is our reading on this day that we remember Leo the Great because it holds the opposites that I think he would have highlighted:  of being humbled and being exalted; moving from separation to unity, and from difference to likeness as a way of inviting his listeners to pray into the mystery of salvation. 

Like Smetana’s Moldau, Leo the Great and Paul in his letter to the Philippians are so memorable because they share a journey, a journey that we have been invited into – being in the fullness of Christ by sharing in the love of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the compassion and the sympathy of Christ.  A journey that touches not just the head, but the heart as well.  Thanks be to God for inviting each of us into this musical journey and for the faithfulness of Leo the Great in sharing it.

The Rev. Karen Hatch, Rector of St. Margaret-in-the-Pines, Toronto

Never Let Me Go

When it comes to God you can always expect the unexpected. For Sister Doreen McGuff, a young impressionable self-proclaimed dreamer, the 60s was a pivotal decade for her. “I had just started university in 1960 in Vancouver,” says Sister Doreen. “It was the eve of hippies, and you were either high on LSD or Jesus Christ. But we all had a dream of peace and love.”

Sister Doreen remembers the decade fondly, though the political landscape was highly charged. She had boyfriends and was planning on becoming a teacher – but God intervened in the most unexpected way. “My dream was sparked when someone with beautiful wavy hair, incredible good looks, a flashy silver outfit and an electric guitar with swaying hips and a low voice began to sing.”

Interestingly enough, the King of Rock and Roll inspired Sister Doreen to follow the King of Kings, and she can pinpoint the exact instance. One may assume she was influenced by one of Elvis’ famous gospel songs. But it was a mainstream anthem that woke up Sister’s soul – Love me Tender. “I was especially touched by the words: love me tender love me sweet, never let me go, you have made my life complete and I love you so. I thought if only I – we – could love each other that tenderly, that tenaciously, imagine what we could do.”

The Rev. Matthew Martin and Sister Doreen McGuff enjoy the Stations of the Cross at the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, Ontario during a workshop entitled, A Day with the King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sister Doreen would have screamed along with the teeny boppers in the stands at Elvis’ concerts – she has every record. Her fandom for Elvis apparent, but for her, Elvis’ influence was so much more than sex appeal and a powerful voice. “I really feel Elvis was a great theologian,” says Sister Doreen. “This is what really turned me to my vocation. I realized listening to Elvis’ music that God walks with me all the time and that God’s love is more than we can ask or hope for. God himself is a hound dog in a loving way, always calling, sharing, leading and prodding.”

Coming to the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, Ontario in 1965 for a vacation, Sister Doreen knew by the second day she wasn’t going to be a teacher. She was going to stay. She had found her home.

Life continued, and threw her twists and turns. One of her biggest obstacles came in 1999 when she suffered a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery. It took her a full year to recover and she thought she would never escape “that grey place.” “I could only walk 100 meters in the beginning.” As she walked she would quietly sing Love Me Tender. It became her mantra. Slowly her distance and speed increased, and as it did she had an epiphany – God is beside us through our toughest times and walks at our pace, whatever that pace may be.

She lovingly refers to the Lord as “her three-mile an hour God.” “Some days, years, or circumstances in life lead you to feel very much like you are in the wilderness,” recalls Sister. “And you are never there just once, you always go back. We all experience hard times, Elvis’ life was the same. We do things we wish we hadn’t.”

In 2006, pondering scripture, Sister had a thought that inspired an Elvis workshop; tying together the music and words that dramatically converted her soul. She was getting frustrated over the things the church was fighting over and the list seemed endless. She pondered what other generations would think when they looked at hers. She felt hope needed to be rekindled. So she created and ran the workshop with much success, and in the years following was nudged to do it again, but it never felt right.

The Rev. Matthew Martin in an Elvis Tribute

Until one day, when someone “with beautiful wavy hair, incredible good looks, and a low voice began to sing.” Reverend Matthew Martin was at the Sisterhood as a postulant working through his assessments to become a priest. Everyone at the convent knew how much Sister Doreen loved Elvis and Rev. Matt just happened to be an Elvis tribute artist. Something he had been doing since the tender age of six. When someone told Rev. Matt about Sister’s affinity for the “King” he came into the convent dining room and sang Love Me Tender. And that clinched it! It still took several years, but once again the workshop came alive. This time much to Sister’s satisfaction, she had Rev. Matt in person playing Elvis rather than playing videos.

Similar to Elvis, Rev. Matt had his own struggles and was able to reflect on his past during the full day workshop. During his sermon he brought the congregation to tears as he shared his own personal story of addiction to alcohol. Rev. Matt reflected on how Elvis has worked in his life and told the story of how he was asked to do the production Blue Suede Shoes. The complication was he was in seminary. “Thanks to the Dean’s wisdom, who allowed me to do the show I truly discovered I didn’t want to entertain for a living,” said Rev. Matt. “I knew my call was to serve the church.”

Rev. Matt has found many ways to incorporate Elvis music into ministry, and it has opened many doors. “I’ve sang Love Me Tender in hospitals and retirement homes. I have been blessed with grace-given moments. I see the joy on people’s faces who are in long-term care or palliative care. It’s a powerful thing. It’s really about using our gifts for good and remaining who we are.”

Throughout the workshop, which was laced with poignant reflections and both spiritual and mainstream Elvis songs, there was plenty of toe-tapping and hand clapping. One participant fulfilled Sister Doreen’s vision for the day of a “fun and holy time,” by announcing aloud, “I’m having a good time God!”

There were also peaceful moments as people walked the labyrinth or visited the convent’s outdoor Stations of the Cross. One participant said the more she heard Rev. Matt sing, the more she found the songs moving. Many times during the event one could look across the intimate audience and see people’s eyes closed as they listened intently to the powerful words they maybe didn’t recognize in Elvis’ work before now.

The workshop’s focus was on life and how it can be unraveled and rewoven, and how faith and love can heal a broken world. “It is the context for transformation,” said Sister Doreen. “To live out our call to love one another and accept God’s delight and pleasure in us, to accept that we are loved wildly and completely, as a whole package, with all our faults and imperfections. God is human and hides in the world in you and me. This workshop is to bring people home to the heart of God where we belong, knowing that God will always love us tenderly and never let us go.”

By Amanda Jackman