(Image of Emily Malbone Morgan from the Holy Women, Holy Men blog)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, February 26, 2012)
Readings for the feast day of Emily Malbone Morgan, February 26:
When I first started learning more about Emily Malbone Morgan, my first stop is almost always the Episcopal Church publication "Holy Women, Holy Men." At first, she didn't seem all that attractive an alternative to the "regular" Daily Office readings. In my mind was this image more like the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, but with an American twist--some never-married moneyed do-gooder from one of the old, fine families of New England who went about flinging philanthropy all over the place, to the point she had even bought her way onto our Calendar of Saints. Honestly, I didn't want to be interested in her. It was only until I stumbled on another biography of her in Project Canterbury that I began to have an open mind.
What I discovered is that, although she is still a little obscured by history to me, there are parts of her life that might have more to do with 21st century realities of life than I thought. Her parents, were, indeed, from the more moneyed families of New England--but one wonders if the marriage of her parents was more about that than it was about their personalities complementing each other. Her mother was described as "otherworldly;" her father, a man of mercurial, volcanic temper outbursts--and it appears Emily's mother set out to "reform" her husband. Any of us who have lived under the shadow of alcoholism, drug abuse, or a family member with a personality disorder can perceive some recognizable patterns there. Emily and at least two of her siblings gravitated to the "helping professions"--she had a clergyman brother and a physician brother, and she devoted her life to philanthropy and prayer, creating Girls' Clubs and the Companions of the Holy Cross. Her dearest companion, Adelyn Howard had a "fatal hip disease" (which sounds a lot like chronic osteomyelitis to me, not so uncommon in the pre-antibiotic era.)
Our Gospel reading is the story of Mary and Martha, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to see that Emily Malbone Morgan was a woman with both streaks of Martha and Mary in her--and possibly constantly had to juggle the two roles in her own life. She saw visions. She was deeply committed to the value of intercessory prayer, and her companion Adelyn--an invalid who understood her own power as a dynamo of prayer even in her fragile condition--was key in Emily's understanding of these matters. Yet she was firmly a woman doing good works in the world, and used her wealth to discover places of holy wonder throughout the world. Emily shunned her own ability to provide creature comforts for herself at times, and was known to sleep on floors and in cupboards in her younger days. She chose the least attractive spot in her home, Adelynrood, for herself.
Suddenly, I began to see her life in a different light. At first, I couldn't see anything this woman had to offer me, because of the money. I grew up more or less running three steps ahead of poverty. But as I begin to read her family story (or should I say "hear" it?) I began to see who she was in the light of family dysfunction, and how many of us live lifestyles "below our means" at times, when we start to hear the call of living in Christ, and how many of us end up in the pull of the "helping professions" like the pull of a magnet. I thought of a key player in my own life in terms of learning to serve others with love--my late friend Ben, who had muscular dystrophy. I spend a good portion of my 20somethings accompanying him and chauffeuring him various places because he could not walk or drive. I used to push his wheelchair into amazing places in the pre-handicap-accessible world of the early 1980's, even goofing up a few times and causing him a few bumps and bruises, which he stoically bore as a result of my enthusiastic over-estimations.
Perhaps this is the hidden story of Emily Malbone Morgan--that she is a lesson in how our hearts and minds can change under the influence of God's mercy and grace...which brings us back to why she has a spot on our calendar, her absolute devotion to intercessory prayer. The more we are connected to the rest of humanity, I believe, the less we feel different from the nebulous "other"--whoever "the other" might be. Gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or lifestyle all begin to be less of a barrier the moment we begin to see things in others, that are like ourselves. Praying for others, praying for all sorts of conditions of humans and humanity, praying for those we don't even know all are gentle waves that lap at the seawall of what divides us. Instead, those prayers link us like gossamer threads to people and places that are beyond our capacity for reason or recognition--but without it, we become more Dowager Countess-like ourselves--it's all beneath us.
Is it possible--just possible--that the things we believe that we have changed our hearts and minds about, have actually been answers to to prayers of others, and it was never about "us" at all?