Thursday, August 9, 2007

August 7: John Mason Neale, not a bland Anglo

"Not a bland Anglo" is not what the lectionary calls him. John Mason Neale, whose feast the Episcopal Church celebrated two days ago, sounds like just another English clergyman, and seeing his name on the calendar, some of us might think, ho hum. But as is the case for many of these modest and unprepossessing Anglos with three names, John Mason Neale deserves our attention. He certainly caught mine.

Among his singular achievements was the founding (or co-founding) of the Sisterhood of St. Margaret. I knew the Sisters of St. Margaret in Boston. Not well, but they were a fixture at urban meetings, interfaith and ecumenical gatherings, and other occasions, in their long gray habits and heavy pectoral crosses. Again, a deceptive image. These are forward-looking women. I remember when they decided to leave their old house on Louisburg Square (pronounced "Lewisburg"), some of the finest and most expensive real estate in Boston, and move, in keeping with their vocation, to Roxbury, what some would call the ghetto, in keeping with their founding "for the education and relief of women and girls." I did not realize at the time that their founder was John Mason Neale, nor that this was the purpose of their founding. I did know they have a place in Haiti and were founded in England. Their first ministry was nursing the poor in their own homes.

John Mason Neale (Daily Office bio here,) is described in the Lesser Feasts and Fasts simply as "priest." Only when one adds up the dates, writes another biographer, Sam Portaro, does one comprehend the shape of John Mason Neale's ministry. Though ordained in 1852, Neale's health was so poor he was prevented from being instituted in his first pastoral assignment. Four years letter, his health still less than robust, he was posted to the wardenship of Sackville College, where he carried on a prodigious career as a writer, translator, and compiler and found sufficient energy to found the Sisterhood of St. Margaret for the education and relief of women and girls Still, his activity was severely limited by a lifetime of ill health, and the burdens of his convictions.

An adherent of the Oxford Movement, Neale's fondness for ritual was somewhat problematic in his time. In 1847, five years after his ordination, he was (as euphemistic nomenclature so deftly puts it) "inhibited" by his bishop, denied the exercise of his liturgical and sacramental ministry. When he set about to found the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, his efforts were met with violence. The Protestant quarters of the community rose up in anger and mounted ugly protest over his attempts to be of service. His ministerial office was restored to him in 1863, only three years prior to his death at the age of forty-six. Thus, John Mason Neale conducted his incredibly prolific and powerful ministry while deprived of health and the celebration of the sacraments.

Against these realities, it is all the more surprising that he was described by contemporaries as a man of "unbounded charity." Was he a fool? Where was his anger, his righteous indignation? Why do we not see his bittersness? Few of us would have stood for the kind of treatment Neale received at the hand of the church At the very least, we would have argued with the bishop, or made a stink in the community; we would have transferred to another communion, one more amenable to our preferences. Or we would have left altogether, washing our hands of such a thankless institution and abandoning our faith completely.

But Neale continued to write and translate, giving the Anglican communion and the wider Christian community some of our sunniest and most popular hymn texts, and he gave himself unstintingly to his work with the Sisterhood of St. Margaret. Only a sincere and somewhat single-minded devotion to one's vocation can survive such severe buffeting. Small comfort that we remember John Mason Neale today; he knew no such recognition in his own time, but went to his grave at a relatively young age, spent by the burdens of disease --the disease in his own body, and the dis-ease of those who struck out against him.

If the kingdom of heaven is, as the parables suggest, invested with an integrity marked by singular devotion, then we must acknowledge that John Mason Neale achieved union with the real in life and in death. His tenacious, patient, and charitable dedication to his ministry prevailed over all else and he was never deterred from his labors. He gave us much about which to sing, and the words with which to sing it.

From Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts by Sam Portaro (Cowley Publications, 1998)

For titles of hymns translated into English by John Mason Neale, see here.

The dog is Penny, and she lives in Boston with the Sisters.


Ed said...

Only a sincere and somewhat single-minded devotion to one's vocation can survive such severe buffeting.

Indeed. What a wonderful story, despite a certain melancholy undertone. The list of hymns alone would make him worthy of veneration, let alone establishing the order. (One of my early mentors became a Sister of St. Margaret; her name was Carolyn Darr before, and, I think, Sister Mary Margaret after. You probably knew her!).

Ashley Lyn said...

Actually, she's still Carolyn, just Sister Carolyn. She's also the superior now.

Sarah SSM said...

I just happened upon your blog post while paging around in advance of the Lent Madness vote for John Mason Neale (vs. Frances Joseph-Gaudet) on March 1 (Vote JMN!). Thank you for your gracious words about us.

Ed, she did indeed take another name when she became a Sister - Sr. Michael Anne. However, when the Sisters were given the choice later on of going back to their baptismal names, she did. And in 2016, she is Assistant Superior - and still an amazing woman.