The following is an adaptation of a talk I gave many years ago.
Vincent Gowen’s home lay at the southeast end of Bainbridge Island right at the water’s edge on Port Blakely. He served as the first Vicar of the new Episcopal Mission Church built at the head of Eagle Harbor after the Second World War. As the new rector of what came to be known as St. Barnabas Church, I had offered to bring communion to Vincent who was feeling under the weather. The road to Port Blakely was very narrow, lined on both sides with tall Cedar and Fir. The tall trees, the late afternoon hour in November and the persistent gray Pacific Northwest skies required headlights to find my way to the tip of this corner of the Island. Vincent’s house was surrounded on three sides by the Puget Sound. Everything was overgrown, the house needed pain, there was an old car that appeared to have been sitting in the driveway for months, maybe years, and a dory with flaking white paint, lay hull side up in the side yard. I tried the bell which predictably did not work, so pounded on the door. A woman who introduced herself to me as Carmen, led me upstairs to the living room, informing me that Fr. Gowen would join me momentarily after he was dressed. The house smelled musty and was decorated with antiques, many of which were clearly from China. I had learned that Vincent had been a missionary there in the early ’20’s. The view from the living room windows was breathtaking. You could see all the way over to Restoration Point and the shipping lanes that lay just beyond.
After a short wait, I heard some commotion from the top of the stairs and Vincent and Carmen made their way slowly down the stairs to the living room. Carmen presented Vincent. He had prepared for communion by vesting in a cassock, surplice, stole, and academic hood all of which looked as though they had been pulled from the bottom of the hamper. Vincent held his hands out in front of him in a welcoming gesture. Vincent was blind. How could I have forgotten that. So, I thought, this is Fr. Gowen. He stared out into the space before him, unseeing. He was magnificent standing there in his wrinkled vestments, yellowed surplice, and frayed pea-green stole. Together, we celebrated mass using the old prayer book. Vincent was beautiful, I thought, and this marked the first of many visits I would have with him.
During the next several years, I had the privilege of getting to know Vincent. I visited him faily regularly for the next few years. During the first six or so months that I was rector of St Barnabas, Vincent celebrated Eucharist at five PM each Sunday for a group of some twelve people who loved him very much. He did the service from memory, unable to read the altar missal. He was assisted by a Deacon who led him by the arm around the sanctuary and read the lessons. Soon, however, the service became too much for him and he rarely left his home.
Vincent’s favorite place was a dirty and dingy room over his garage which he called his study. It had a desk and an old chair in which sat on the other side of his desk. I sat in this old easy chair with threadbare arms. The only light in the study came from the window next to the desk so the room illuminated only by the diffuse light was mostly dark. Vincent always insisted on preparing tea for us which he did quite aptly even though he could not see.The tea cups were rarely clean and the boiling water forced all kinds of surprises to the surface of the cup which did not bother Vincent and so, I decided, would not bother me. Then Vincent settled into his chair, lit his pipe, and told me stories.
After Vincent was ordained by Bishop Huntington of New York, he left for China where he lived and worked for many years. He served as a Chaplain aboard a naval destroyer during the First World War. During the Second World War, he fled China for the Philippines where he became a prisoner of the Japanese along with others in the community where he lived. While prisoner, Vincent helped to organize a school for the children of the community. He was designated the Headmaster and carried on this way throughout the war. Vincent explained that he had even written a school song which conveyed the hope they all clung to for better days to come. I’ll never forget him standing up in the dingy room above the garage , the light from the window partially illuminating one side of him while the other remained in darkness; he sang me their song. Also during his time as a POW, he studied the Classics and wrote two novels which were later published in the States.
In his 92nd year, Vincent’s body began to fail. Carmen could not adequately care for him and manage the demands of the catheter he was tethered to. He was moved to Martha and Mary’s Convalescent Home for the last weeks of his life. In my final visit with him, I asked him to pray and give me his blessing before I left. He placed his hand on my head where I sat bent over his bedside. He prayed eloquently as he always did. Lying in his bed, eyes open and staring at what only he could see, his prayer was more an exhortation. He said the time was right, more right than it had been in his lifetime, to preach change through love. People must be taught to love …that is the only way things are going to change, David …by love. A chill went through me causing the hair on my arms and back of my neck to stand. His words were not quaint but prophetic. Vincent had never spoken this way to me and I was overcome by the sensation that we were both in the presence of something greater than either of us. There was something about his words and demeanor that was terrifyingly biblical, as if I were in the presence of the prophet Jeremiah. I didn’t say anything, nor did or would he, about this sensation of something ‘bigger’ at work. Our goodbyes were formal as they always were, but filled with mutual respect. Vincent died two days later. It broke my heart, as it had been broken so many times before when the people I had come to love died.
I share Vincent’s story with you because I have found that the greatest influences on my development as a priest and more especially as a person has little to do with the things I have learned and the principles I have come to believe in, and everything to do with the people who have become part of my life. When it comes to what makes us what we are, it is less about education and more about formation. We are formed and to a lesser extent educated, sometimes against our will, by the people with whom we live and love.
Perhaps you are familiar with the little book by Margaret Craven (a pen name) called I HEARD THE OWL CALL MY NAME. It was later made into a movie which I thought was quite wonderful. In the opening scene of the movie, there is a precious exchange that takes place between the main character, Mark, and his Bishop in the sacristy of the Cathedral after Midnight Mass. Mark learns from the Bishop that he is being sent for his first assignment to a remote indigenous village in Northern British Columbia to serve as Vicar of the Anglican mission church there. Mark, who has graduated at the top of his class is speechless. WHY?!, he wonders. “Because”, his Bishop responds. “Because you are so bright, because you performed so well in seminary, because you are such a wonderful preacher and teacher… and because, Mark, you know nothing at all.” So Mark goes to the community where he lives with the Kukooweet people who teach him to become a person. He is formed through the relationships that are forged in the hard-scrapple life of this tiny village.
There was a time not too long ago when we referred to ordained ministers and priests as parsons. The word is derived from the word person. A former colleague and mentor of mine reminded me that the task of the parson was to be the person… the person in the midst of the community so that the community does not lose the meaning of and is made mindful of what it means to be a person.
So I wanted to share this story with you about Vincent who, in his old age, became the person in the community where I lived as a pastor. I wanted to share this because I think the Vincent’s of the yellowed surplices and wrinkled cassocks; the Vincent’s of the dirty tea cups, the Vincent’s of the dark rooms above the garage is where the wisdom of God has been hidden from the wise. I wanted to share this because I think it is somewhere between hard and nearly impossible to be the person in the community’s midst these days without getting yourself killed. I wanted to tell you because I believe that whenever we ask God for an answer, God always sends us a person– someone to help us separate our personhood from our persona through the revelation of this hidden wisdom which God has curiously and mysteriously granted to those we are least likely to believe possess it.