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The Feast of Constance & Her Companions | By the Rev. Scott Lee

2 Esdras 42-48 | Psalm116:1-8 | 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 | John 12:24-28

The snares of death encompassed me;

the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD:

“O LORD, I pray, save my life!”

Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;

our God is merciful. The LORD protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,

my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. [1]

Those are words from the Psalm we recited just moments ago. I wonder if you hear the irony. In the version of the Bible I was using in preparation for this sermon, this Psalm has a title supplied by the editor. Not a title that is actually part of the words of Scripture, mind you, but a title well-intentioned to describe the subject of the Psalm. That supplied title is “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Illness.” This Psalm is used frequently on the occasion of the commemoration and celebration of the life of a martyr. Do you hear the irony? Martyrs do not recover in the midst of their martyrdom. The irony of the words of this Psalm has long bothered me. For years I have stumbled not only at the words we have recited today, but also at a line from that Psalm that we did not hear. It comes just a little further on in the text of the entire Psalm where we read,

"Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones" [2], and in the King James translation "Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of his saints." [3]

Long, long ago now, when I first heard, really heard, those words read in commemoration of a martyr, I remember thinking questioningly, “Precious in sight of the LORD is the death of his saints?” But not so precious that the LORD would spare them?. The stories of the lives of the martyrs call us to face square-on the mystery and meaning of death... The story of The Martyrs of Memphis, Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances, and Father Charles Parsons and Father Louis Schuyler, is well known to this community, but it bears re-telling: In August 1878, yellow fever invaded the city of Memphis, Tennessee, for the third time in ten years. By the month’s end, the disease had become epidemic and a quarantine was ordered. While more than 25,000 citizens had fled in terror, nearly 20,000 more remained to face the pestilence. As cases multiplied, the death toll averaged 200 people per day. When the worst was over, ninety percent of the people who remained had contracted the fever and more than 5,000 people had died. [4] Among the dead were Sister Constance, Sister Thecla, Sister Ruth and Sister Frances of The Community of St. Mary, and Father Parsons, and Father Schuyler, Episcopal clergymen. What is less known is that when this outbreak that would prove so fatal occurred, Sisters Constance and Thecla were safely traveling to New York. Learning of the plight of the people of Memphis, they returned to serve the sick, the dying and the many children who had been left without parents. It is easy to romanticize the noble deaths of valiant people. Let us not do that.

From an article in Memphis Magazine, we hear: By [the time of the return arrival of Constance and Thecla] on August 20th, the disease was out of control, sweeping through the densely populated sections of the city . . . Constance wrote in her journal about her arrival: “A strange and sad Sunday. Sister Thecla found three unknown persons insensible and without attendants on High Street.”[5] By this time, the city government and board of health ceased to exist; yellow fever cut the police force from 41 to 7; it was survival of the fittest for the thousands who stayed behind. Constance and her sisters set up a soup kitchen and began 24-hour visits to families hit by the fever. The Citizens Relief Organization asked the sisters to open the Canfield Asylum outside of town as a refuge for children orphaned by the disease. When Constance, a few days later, attempted to take children there she met an angry mob, terrified that the nuns were bringing the infection into their neighborhood. Constance faced them down: “Sirs, is it possible you would have us refuse to these children the very protection you have obtained for your own? We do not propose to make a hospital of the asylum.” The men let her pass. Within four days, Constance and her sisters placed more than 50 orphans there. [6]

And, in the words of Sister Constance: “Yesterday I found two young girls,” Sister Constance recorded in her diary that summer, “who had spent two days in a two-room cottage, with the unburied bodies of their parents.” The nuns took the “fever orphans” with them, bathed their clothes and their bodies in a carbolic acid solution, lit pine tar and showered them in smoke. “One grows perfectly hardened to these things,” Constance concluded. There can be no romanticizing. And there is no divine rescue for these martyrs as is talked about in the psalm. Writer Elizabeth Apple attended St. Mary’s School in Memphis from kindergarten until her high school graduation in 2014. She is an author of the Web Magazine The Angry Southerner.” As that title indicates, her writing is provocative, challenging and bold. Writing about the Martyrs of Memphis who were the forerunners of the nuns who were her school teachers she says: They didn’t tell us the story of Constance and her companions until middle school. The truth about the fever is too terrible — that it works like Ebola or dengue, eliciting bleeding from the nose, mouth, and eyes; that the urine goes dark; that the stomach bleeds. In Spanish the virus is [called] vómito negro, black vomit. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones [7] Continuing Elizabeth Apple’s article: A sacrifice like Constance’s demands a paradoxically high and low theological anthropology. To give yourself like she did, you have to believe that the bread you can offer two “fever orphans” cowering in the corner before their dead parents is enough. You have to believe you can save them. But you also have to believe that the short-term care you will provide these orphans outweighs the beauty, grace, favor, fertility, and creativity of your future. In short, you have to believe you’re good enough to die. Constance was 33. [8] “You have to believe you’re good enough to die,” she says.

More than that, I would say, you have to believe that neither the martyrs’ heroic, noble deaths nor the apparently meaningless deaths of victims of Memphis’s Yellow Fever epidemics, or of The Black Death, or of COVID, or of the countless wars and shootings and the infinite catalogue of the shocks that flesh is heir too – none of these are meaningless. The word “martyr”, of course, means “witness.” Martyrs are witnesses to the rest of us that death is not the final victor. But witness means more than that. A witness in the judicial sense is someone who testifies to what they believe to be the truth. They say to each of us who will die, however we may die, “All appearance to the contrary, your death is not meaningless. It matters. We stake our lives on our certainty of this truth.” They say to us, in fact, without any implication of paradox, “Yes. Yes, precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” [9] Precious, valuable, cherished, important because, as it says in our burial rite, “[we] see in death – most especially in the deaths of God’s faithful ones – the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by [God’s] call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” [10] That kind of faith can seem, to me – and I imagine for you as well – a very tall order. A hope for things as yet unseen we would like to hold onto as truth. The Martyrs – the Martyrs of Memphis – and the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before them and who have come since – surround us with their examples of just such faith and their witness to its truth. What is more, they hover around us, ever near – Sister Constance, Sister Thecla, Sister Ruth and Sister Frances, Father Parsons, and Father Schuyler – they hover near this place at this very hour, surrounding us not only with their witness, but with their prayer for our peace and fulfillment in this life, and in the age which will surely come, “the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and the glorious company of the saints in light.” [11]

[1]Psalm 116:3–8 (NRSV)

[2] Psalm 116:15 (NRSV)

[3] Psalm 116:15 (KJV)

[4] Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018, p. 465 [5]

[6] Ibid [7] Psalm 116:15 (NRSV)

[9] Psalm 116:15 (NRSV)

[10] BCP, page 493

[11] BCP, page 465

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