The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Vicar’s alb

Traditional vestments for celebrating Eucharist

Traditional vestments for celebrating Eucharist

Mom’s been visiting here for the past two weeks. Her 82nd birthday is tomorrow, Bastille Day. Lots of associations crowding in for attention, but she said something tonight that bears exploring. She’s repairing an old alb of mine by sewing a button hole where there has been Velcro for the past 30 years. Now it’s too worn to be of service.

My albs, three of them, were made by the altar guild mistress of the first parish I served after being ordained deacon. She said it was her ordination gift to me. She made my amices and cincture, too. I didn’t know then how precious these vestments would become, but I was smitten with this older woman at the time. She was a tyrant in the sacristy. Typically, all lived in fear of displeasing her, but everyone regarded her as well with affection, the way we regard strict mothers and fathers, but only years after we’ve left the nest. Eyes would roll after — I’ll call her J — laid down the law once again to someone about how important it was to wear cotton gloves when handling the brass. I might have known, but didn’t, that the Episcopal Church is full of such well-intentioned women, and because it’s about God and the church, they get away with it.

J was slender and severe, a bit pinched in the mouth. Her clothes were not fine but simple, her shoes sensible. There was an ascetic air about her. She cared deeply for the church, but I have no clue about her interior life. I suspect she prayed often but found it unseemly to bray about it very much. She was an old-fashioned high-church woman.

J had that curious way of fawning over clergy while holding them in contempt. Maybe that’s not quite fair, but she gave no quarter to clergy who didn’t know their liturgical stuff, at least according to her lights. She had learned her stuff from the founding rector of our church, and of course, that became the rule for all time and eternity. There was only one way to do business with God and to clean up afterward: Father First’s way.

She fawned over me and insisted that the altar guild do likewise. They were to make sure that we priests dressed ourselves properly, arranging our amices and straightening our chasubles. Oh, so many years later, I knew a young priest, DA, who couldn’t stand for altar guild women to do these things for him. I rather appreciated the care, but DA hated it. Anyway, J was pleased with my liturgical knowledge and style, and of course, I let her mess with my vestments as I put them on, because I had attended a seminary where dressing for Mass was considered an important aspect of priesthood. (It probably is, too, because shabbily vested priests distract the faithful from prayer.) In a sense, then, I was J’s kind of priest. Then I heard that she loved to gossip about me, too. “I wish he wouldn’t wear that cassock so much,” she joked one day during a St. Cecilia’s Guild meeting called for the purpose of sewing crosses on purificators and lavabo towels. “You can’t see his legs.”

“I hear he puts out in his office,” someone said in reply. Well, that got back to me, and it was true, but I couldn’t imagine who was telling the tale. I ignored the red flag, but shouldn’t have. There are no secrets in a church, nor should there be. I might have learned then that how I lived my life was dangerous and wrong, but no one could believe that I was unfaithful to my wife. The rumor was squelched by my friends, although I’m sure that something of it continued, perhaps even after I left for another position. I honestly thought my behavior would improve upon moving away from the suburbs of a major metropolitan area. It did for awhile, but the change didn’t take, which means it was no change at all.

I still have those albs J made for me, and I’m sure she’s long gone by now. They’re the only albs I’ve ever owned, and for years they were locked away in a storage box shoved under a bed. But I’ve lately begun wearing one when I pray, a pure white garment that reminds me that I’ve been washed by the waters of baptism and that I’m now a new creation before God, hoping for heaven. I wear the cincture, too, an emblem of chastity. And so vested, barefoot and wrapped in a shawl that covers my head, I say the Office and fear hell.

J once asked whether I preferred buttons or Velcro on my albs. I said it didn’t matter, but it did. I prefer buttons. Always have. And tomorrow my mother will sew a button to the vicar’s alb. Mine.

Posted by Prodigal + to A prodigal priest at 7/13/2005 11:04:00 PM


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