The Right Reverend William H. Wolfrum (1926-2007)
Former Episcopal Bishop of Colorado and St. Anne's Life Trustee. Presented at the St. Anne's Board of Trustees' retreat October 1996.
The first thing I feel a need to do is get some definition of what we are talking about when we use the word “spiritual.” It’s a popular word these days and popular words often lose clarity of meaning.
While I was thinking about the task a year or two ago, I ran across an article in the Anglican Journal entitled, “What do we mean when we speak about spirituality?” The author tells a story that took place during the development of Britain’s 1944 Education Act. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was trying to create an acceptable text for parts of the bill concerned with religion, but found the word “religion” was itself rather troublesome. His assistant hit on a solution. He later said that, “The churches were in such a state at the time we thought if we used the word ‘spiritual’ they might agree to that because they didn’t know what it was. They all had very clear ideas about what religion was and they all knew they didn’t agree with anyone else’s definition.”
Spirituality is now an “in” word and “religion” isn’t. Part of that is the heritage of our American rebellion against the state churches of Europe. In a strange way being anti-religion is a part of our culture. Religion suggests things like discipline, suffering, sacrifice, and commitment. Those things aren’t popular in our culture. Spirituality, on the other hand, is popular because it suggests that which is personal and individualistic. Both popular values in our society.
My point is that spirituality is a popular but very vague word in current usage but one that we at St. Anne’s keep using, for lack of anything else, to describe something we feel makes this place very special. It is very special! I came to St. Anne’s with a rather cynical view of parochial schools. They often seemed to me to be either hypocritical or exclusive or both. At St. Anne’s I found to my delight, a loving and charming community that reflected the values I believe the Church is in the business of promoting, including but not limited to, academic excellence.
I’d like to start by trying to clear our minds of all the preconceived notions we have about both religion and spirituality and focus on the basic word "spirit.” The definitions range from “One’s relationship with God” to “sensitive awareness.” For at least this moment I’d like to focus on the idea that “spirit” is that which animates something. We talk about School Spirit, Team Spirit, Holy Spirit, and Mean Spirited. Alcoholic drinks are even referred to as “spirits.” Spirit is the thing that gives special vitality and uniqueness to life.
The spirit that has resided in St. Anne’s and that gives St. Anne’s its character emanates very specifically from Mother Irene. The Administration is well aware of that for they have worked hard to keep her presence visible. As I’ve talked about it and thought and prayed about it, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the spirit of this place is greatly influenced by the Benedictine model of Religious Community.
The Rule of St. Benedict has been the primary model of most Anglican/Episcopal Monastic life and one of several major ones in the Roman Catholic Church. I hope some of you are familiar with the writings of Kathleen Norris. One of her books is "Dakota" and the most recent is “The Cloister Walk.” I mention her because she is a Presbyterian who is a member of a Community Church in a small North Dakota community where she and her husband live and write who has become so attracted to the Benedictine Monastic life that she spends weeks at a time at Roman Catholic Benedictine Monasteries and has become an Oblate of that Order. She says the following of her early experience with Benedictine life. “The Rule surprises people who expect the ether that often wafts through books on spiritual themes, the kind of holy talk that makes me feel like a lower life form. Benedict knows that practicalities....the order and times for psalms to be read, the care of tools, the amount and type of food and drink and clothing...are all spiritual concerns. Many community ventures begun with high hopes have foundered over the question of who takes out the garbage.
Over and over the Rule calls us to be more mindful of the little things, even as it reminds us of the big picture, allowing us a glimpse of who we can be when we remember to love. Benedict insists that this remembering is hard work needing daily attention and care. He writes for grown ups, not for people with their heads in the clouds. “No one shall be excused from kitchen duty,” Benedict says, making exceptions only for the sick and those engaged in urgent business of the monastery. Today that means that the Benedictine scholar with the PhD scrubs pots and pans alongside a confrere who has an 8th grade education, the dignified abbot or prioress dishes out food and wipes refectory tables after the meal.” I am convinced that the spirit of this place that we love so much emanates from the discipline of a rule of life that encourages scholarship, community service, and true humility.
The Spirit of St. Anne's has come from a basic love of children. The love of children for their own sake. Not to make them score high on entrance exams or even to be successful by some value that we hold, but to love them in such a way that they know they are valuable and cared for. A couple of years before she died, I think it was at the Library groundbreaking, Irene commented that as long as children were going to read they ought to read something worthwhile. Our spirit comes out of an attitude of wanting to share the best we know with children. To share with them the wonderful gifts we know about. It hasn’t been based on giving them what’s good for them or what will make them successful but on sharing treasures of literature and art and science and faith. It’s a subtle difference but a crucial one.
The Spirit of this place, I am deeply convinced, comes also from a commitment to simple living. I remember some years ago when the faculty and children wanted to give Mother Irene a gift and they decided on getting her a new Nun’s Habit. That’s the uniform of the order. Someone slipped into Mother’s room while she was out and took the measurements from the extra one they found in the closet. When the gift was given it turned out to be the wrong size. Mother didn’t have an extra. The one in the closet belonged to another sister who had recently died. Mother Irene hung on to it. It might be useful to someone. Part of the spirit of this place has been simplicity of life. In a society of conspicuous and extravagant consumption there has been something attractive about a place where love and learning had a much higher value than appearances, physical comfort, and signs of affluence.
As we do our long range planning for the physical needs of St. Anne’s, we would do well to keep that in mind. It won’t be easy. I’m not at all sure that we can pull it off or even will want to. But I’m sure that we will lose some of what we are if we don’t. Part of the spirit of this place is its contrast to the world around it. Even the Episcopal Church across the street reflects the luxury many of us can afford for ourselves. We have been a school that has cherished not only diversity of culture but of economic status as well. I still remember sadly the experience of visiting a Navajo hogan near Carson’s Post, New Mexico, in the 60’s. A teenage girl was sitting in the middle of the one-room hogan doing her nails. She was home for the summer from boarding school where she had learned to look and act, and perhaps think, like an urban white teenager. The sadness was that she had become someone who wasn’t very comfortable in the world in which she would probably spend the rest of her life.
Where is the line between having the equipment to do the job we are here to do and reflecting the material luxury that separates us from much of the world around us? I don’t have any easy answers to that. Our chapel has been beautifully redecorated, but for many years I found it fascinating that we had such fondness for our funky little makeshift chapel. When I first experienced St. Anne’s, the offices, class rooms, and library were all pretty much cut from the same cloth. Over the years we determined that our children couldn’t be adequately taught in such simple surroundings except in the case of spiritual things and the contrast between Chapel and the rest of the campus grew. Are spiritual and moral values of equal importance with things that lead to good scores on entrance exams? Maybe that is a symbol of the challenge of the future of this school. The spirituality of St. Anne’s School in the past has emanated from a value system that saw no distinction between the sacred and the secular. We perhaps need to remember that much of our attractiveness has been that both the sacred and the secular have been simple and unassuming.
Mother Irene brought us another gift that was accidental. She was old. And she brought to our community a positive experience of old age. In a youth-worshipping society like ours most of our children have little daily contact with fun loving, vital, and interesting old age. I suspect that children who knew and loved her will see their own lives differently. How can we continue to offer that important gift? I guess I said what I feel about this school at Mother Irene’s funeral. Some of you were there. "In my experience Mother Irene didn’t spend a lot of time talking about spiritual experiences and discovering God’s will. She had decided what God’s will is a long time ago, and in a sense she was on automatic pilot. Whenever a person is baptized in the Episcopal Church we pray, “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen”
Forgiveness isn’t sentimental nonsense of playing like something doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is the taught and life giving activity of not holding one’s past against them and of freeing them to start anew. Irene kept us committed to more than just those children who were easy to teach and live with.
St. Anne’s has had a spirit of the real strength of gentleness. lt may be our most important gift. Mother had a toughness of purpose that made it clear to children that real strength doesn’t depend on being big, or powerful, or abusive, or affluent or of having any of the outward symbols our society thinks give us strength and power. Mother knew God as the beautiful and loving creator and she took a wonderful joy in all of God’s creation. Flowers, art, literature, and above all children. All kinds of children. She knew and treated them all as children of her God whether they knew they were or not.
Prevenient Grace has been a strong part of the ethos of this place. The conviction that it is good and important to give people love and acceptance before they earn or deserve it. That’s what God has done for us and the least we can do is go and do likewise. In a small but wonderful way that has been expressed in our custom of greeting the children as they arrive. It’s a daily expression of a spirit of love and acceptance given before they have a chance to demonstrate their unworthiness.