“And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly”

Part of being “notoriously Episcopalian” is a nerdy appreciation for the Book of Common Prayer. I have grown up with the current prayerbook, and really love the breadth of prayers it contains. I particularly love when a prayer seems to show up that I have either forgotten about or overlooked.

In this season of pandemic, one such prayer has appeared in my life. On page 461, in the Ministration to the Sick, there are four prayers listed. The final one on that page is titled “In the Morning”:

This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen.

IMG_5125This prayer first came to my attention when my bishop used it in a Zoom meeting in the early days after the decision was made to close all our parishes in our diocese. Then last week, after two and a half weeks of being under a shelter in place order, a postcard from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) arrived. It had a photo of the Monastery Tower with votive candles in the windows as a sign of hope, and the text of this prayer.

Since it seemed that this was a prayer that I needed to pay attention to in this unusual season, I decided to look into where it came from. I enjoy finding and knowing the story behind our prayers– the who, what, when, where, and why of how the prayer came to be in the prayerbook. It struck me as a modern prayer, so I guessed it would have a rather recent history.

So I consulted the Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett. This commentary simply stated that this prayer was composed by the Rev. Dr. Theodore Parker Ferris and that it was printed in Prayers for a New World (1964). So, Hatchett confirmed my guess that it was a “modern” prayer, but did not provide much information otherwise.

So, I took to Google, figuring searching such an unusual name as Theodore Ferris, should fairly easily produce information. But the Google search results were sparse—no Wikipedia article and just a handful of photos.

Embed from Getty Images

 

From An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church [1], Dr. Ferris’ entry describes him as a seminary professor and ecumenist. He was born in 1908 and received his B.A. from Harvard University in 1929 and his B.D. from General Theological Seminary in 1933. He was ordained a priest in 1934, and for four years served at Grace Church, NY, and served as a fellow and tutor at GTS. He would serve for five years as the rector of Emmanuel Church, Baltimore, and then 30 years as the 14th rector of Trinity Church, Boston. From 1943 to 1963, Ferris was an instructor in homiletics at the Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The entry notes that he was a published author, including a book on preaching, and that he was active in the ecumenical movement and an alternate delegate to the first assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948. He died in 1972.

Ferris composed a tune included in the 1940 Hymnal titled “Weymouth.” This got him an entry on Hymnary.org [2]. This entry repeated much of the same facts but added a more complete list of the books he authored. It also noted that he served as a delegate to The Episcopal Church’s General Convention six times, listed his honorary degrees, and noted that he was a bachelor when he died.

So, from this information, I began to try some different search queries.

I came across a 2018 interview with Fleming Rutledge [3] where she recalled hearing Ferris preach a three-hour Good Friday service at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenwich, CT. Rutledge noted that Ferris “was known all across the United States as one of the best preachers,” and noted that he was frequently included in Newsweek Magazine’s Ten Best Preachers in the United States. Rutledge commented that she rereads his sermons, and described him as having “a charismatic presence in the pulpit, not out of it.”

Still not satisfied with the information discovered so far, I clicked on a video taken of a 2018 presentation at Trinity Church in Boston by Thomas Brown, as of June 2019 the Bishop of Maine, talking about the life of Dr. Ferris. [4] Brown discovered Ferris by receiving a book of prayers written by Ferris. Brown reminded the gathering that Dr. Ferris was a human being who had faith, an artist, a theologian, a writer, a pastor, and a preacher.

As part of his story as a human being of faith, Dr. Ferris was a cradle Episcopalian who received the gift of faith from his parents. He was a sickly child. He was born blind in one eye, and his various illnesses caused him to be deaf in one ear. In seminary, he would again be seriously ill. He was a shy and at times awkward person, and lacked confidence. He was an accomplished pianist and composer and loved poetry. He was the first person in Boston to own a Dictaphone. He was a writer that was both deep and accessible at the same time. He was a pastor and believed that being a preacher and a pastor should not compete. While he was a great preacher, some of his students did not find him to be the best teacher. In 1952, as a delegate to General Convention, he supported the losing position of admitting of women as delegates. In 1967, Dr. Ferris wrote: “That the purpose of the Church is to continue the ministry of Christ to people, and that the Church is guided by the Spirit of God, and therefore, neither the present form of worship nor formulae of belief are final.” He is memorialized at Trinity Church as having “opened our hearts and minds to the truth and above all to the Spirit of Jesus.”

After his death, Trinity Church Boston published two volumes of his sermons. It was one of these sermons that found its way into Bible commentary and preacher’s blog. The sermon is titled “When things Don’t Go Well.” The four main points were quoted in The Preacher’s Commentary (2010) [5]:

  1. “Remember that there is nothing that can happen to you that has not happened to millions of others.”
  2. “Remind yourself that as a human being, you run the risk of this kind of thing happening.”
  3. “Remember, there are people who became great facing what you must now face.”
  4. “Say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to handle this, but I can. I know that from sources of which I am not conscious help will come, not necessarily the help I ask for, but help that I know nothing about right now will rise in me, will appear suddenly from all sorts of unexpected places.’”

After all my internet searching, I felt that I had at least a bit of a sense of the person behind these words that were now bringing me comfort. I had a glimpse of the person that could write these words of acceptance of the present moment each day, even when the future is unknown. I am thankful for Dr. Ferris’ life, and his gift to us of this prayer.


[1] Retrieved April 14, 2020, https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/ferris-theodore-parker.

[2] Retrieved April 14, 2020, https://hymnary.org/person/Ferris_TP?tab=tunes.

[3] Retrieved April 14, 2020, https://ccfw.calvin.edu/podcast/writing-for-the-ear/.

[4] Retrieved April 14, 2020, https://www.trinitychurchboston.org/blog/12-lives-forum-the-rev-thomas-brown-on-theodore-parker-ferris.

[5] Retrieved April 14, 2020, https://bit.ly/2RGL3Vo.

 

Intro music:
Umbrella Pants by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4559-umbrella-pants
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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