Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Grace of Faith and Family

This past week, I received a very special gift in the mail. My maternal grandmother passed away last year, and so my mother and my aunt have been cleaning out her house before putting it on the market. They had been digging through endless boxes of old receipts and tax returns, news clippings, and mementos for weeks. When I opened the mailing envelope, I found a very old Book of Common Prayer, an 1892 edition. My grandmother wasn't an Episcopalian, so I knew it wasn't hers. It turned out to belong to my great-great-grandmother, Grace Ella Jewett. Her name is embossed in faded gold lettering on the lower right corner of the soft leather cover. I don't know if the book's fragile condition is simply a result of its age or a lifetime of devoted use.

Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Allegan, MI
The Jewett side of my family came to America in 1638, and settled in Rowley, Massachusetts. They were definitely not members of the established Church of England. My family were Dissenters, that is Puritans, and included several ordained ministers suitably named after Old Testament prophets. When my great-great-great grandparents moved west to Michigan in the middle of the 19th century, they were among the founders of the local Episcopal Church, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Allegan, MI. My grandmother revered my great-great-great grandmother, Constance Ashley Bingham Jewett, and when she died, requested that she buried from the church that her ancestor had founded. It was a privilege to preside from the altar to which great-great-great grandma Constance must have looked as I buried her descendant, using the Rite 1 service that must have been familiar both to her and her daughter, Grace, whose Prayer Book I now have in my hand.

The Jewett women, including my grandmother, Helen, 
and her grandmother, Grace, both seated.
There is something very grounding in the artifacts of those who have come before us. They remind us that they and we are linked in a heritage of common worship and spirituality that invites us into a mystery greater than ourselves and our own experiences. In addition to Grace's Prayer Book, I also own an ivory rosary owned by my late paternal grandmother, which is sadly missing its crucifix. I still use it on occasion, just as I opened the 1892 BCP this week to read Evening Prayer, like my great-great-grandmother must have done. As I flipped through the book, it fell open to the page that contained "The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth." This place was bookmarked by a page torn out of a King James Bible, the second chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which begins, "my son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding [,,,] Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God." In the moment, it feels as if I am being offered a word of life from the distance of four generations, perhaps that I might be nourished with a verse that might have consoled or challenged a family member I never met. We never know how the Spirit will speak to us or through us. In response, I can do no better than to read the prayer that my great-great grandmother Grace saw fit to mark for herself:
"O Almighty God, we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast been graciously pleased to preserve, through the great pain and peril of childbearing, this woman, they servant, who desireth now to offer her praises and thanksgivings unto thee. Grant, we beseech thee, most merciful Father, that she, through thy help, may both faithfully live and walk according to thy will in this life present, and also may be partaker of everlasting glory in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Many thanks, dear God, for preserving this legacy of Grace, that I too might be preserved and put to your service.

1 comment:

  1. I have my grandmother's bible--I love looking at it and seeing the passages she marked and the things she tucked into the pages. I feel a driving need to pass it on.