The one subject that has taken up more of this blog than any other has been the question of vocation and finding a vocation that evokes from you - draws out, calls forth, speaks into being - who you are meant to be. It's time to finally tell you a story that reveals the direction in which my vocation has unfolded since the last time I wrote on this blog.
In November I was in New York, just before Thanksgiving. One evening I lined up with a bunch of other tourists outside the TKTS booth in Times Square, and I successfully scored two tickets to Jude Law's rendition of Hamlet. Getting tickets to a long-awaited play/concert stresses me out more than almost anything else - I inevitably imagine great heartbreak upon the news of the show being sold out - so I was very pleased to finally have the tickets in hand to see one of my favorite actors live and in person on stage for almost three hours and to have my old college friend on her way to join me for the play.
Some other friends of mine were back at Rockefeller Center, so I headed there to meet up with them. On my way back, I noticed a familiar blue and white sign hanging out above the sidewalk ahead of me - "The Episcopal Church welcomes you." My friends and I had already visited a few other churches in New York - St. Patrick's and St. Bart's - and they were some of the best stops we'd made. When I'm in tourist mode, exploring cathedrals and churches is one of my favorite things to do, so I ducked into the church for a few minutes to check it out before meeting up with my friends. It was called St. Mary the Virgin. I had come in behind the altar, so I walked around to the side of the chancel to see the nave and the altar. The nave was darkened, but the chancel was lit up to illuminate its crown - beautiful white marble steps leading up to a white marble altar. It was gorgeous.
As I stood and took it all in, I noticed for the first time the words engraved in the steps leading up to the altar.
MY SOUL DOTH MAGNIFY THE LORD
AND MY SPIRIT HATH REJOICED IN GOD MY SAVIOR
FOR HE HATH REGARDED THE LOWLINESS OF HIS HANDMAIDEN
The words of Mary. Beautiful. It was incredible to see that the words of a woman adorning those steps leading up to sacred space, ironically the very space in which few women have stood. Mary is our example in her humility, her bravery to step into shoes that surely felt too big, her confidence to stand there with arms aloft, singing a song of high praise to the Lord that rivals any other song in the sacred scriptures. Her hunch was right - many generations after her have called her blessed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."
Seeing Mary's words on the steps had a lot of meaning to me, because Mary had already served as an important figure to me throughout my own discernment. Earlier I had been gently prodded towards the Visitation, Mary's meeting with Elizabeth, as a scene that I needed to meditate upon. That gentle prodding towards the story of the Visitation had the fingerprints of the Spirit all over it, as though someone had thumbed through the Bible, opened to that passage, underlined a verse, and then pushed the book in my direction:
"Blessed is she who believed
that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
- Luke 1: 45
(This makes a dreadful sentence in English, but it is actually quite concise and beautiful in the Greek.)
I loved this verse in part because it was one of the few in the entire Bible that came with feminine pronouns in it; it felt like this verse spoke my "heart language," as those in Bible translation would say. This verse upheld and reinforced the two things that had been spoken to me by the Lord during a period of prayer while I was at Taize: "marriage" and "ordination." Elizabeth's words to Mary were words to me as well: I too would be blessed, if I believed that what had been promised would come to pass.
So there I was, really excited to see the Magnificat carved into the altar steps and trying to discreetly take pictures of them. I wasn't sure if pictures were allowed, but this was a moment I had to document for the future. Then the sexton came over to me and asked if I would like the lights turned on so that I could take pictures. (So much for being discreet.) Yes, that'd be great, I said. He went over to the wall and turned on a series of spotlights, which set the marble ablaze with white light. It was all even more beautiful than before. I stepped closer to the altar so that I could take a series of pictures of the steps, so that after this interlude was over and all I had were pictures, I would be able to see each of Mary's words clearly. I panned the camera left to right, framing a few words at a time and letting the sense of what Mary's words meant soak into me. Her marveling at how God has chosen her. Her "lowliness" paired with a quiet confidence, which fortified her against automatically deflecting the spotlight with an "oh, I couldn't, not me, how about somebody else." Her outspoken joy at God's goodness towards her.
This was kind of a big moment for me already. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. (ha, that feels like a Dan Brown cliffhanger. get ready. if you can.)
If ever in my whole life my jaw has dropped, it was when I looked up at the side of the altar and saw my name was engraved in the marble.
Now, my last name isn't Murray, but my first and second names are "Sarah Elizabeth." As I stood there, my mind occupied with the shock of the "coincidence," my ears remembered the voice of a woman singing,
"Then will I go to the altar of God
To my joy, my delight, and my strength"
Jennifer Knapp set those words from Psalm 43 to music, and they have been ringing in my ears even since the first time I heard them. They immediately come to mind whenever I am walking down the aisle of a church towards the altar. And they came to mind while I stood there in St. Mary the Virgin near Times Square and realized that God was beckoning me to the altar, saying, Ascend these steps and stand here. Tell of what I have done for you, like Mary did. Praise me before the congregation, like Mary did. Tell the world of my marvelous works. Imitate her humility and her quiet confidence. See, I am fulfilling my promises to you even now. Blessed are you who believed that fulfillment would come.
When the Lord calls you like this, it's tough to be original in how you answer. Sometimes the only response you can muster has been used before:
"I am the handmaiden of the Lord.
Let it be to me according to your word."
p.s. When I was planning my priestly ordination service, I discovered that Psalm 43 is the appointed psalm for the ordination of a priest. These sorts of divine coincidences have rippled throughout this entire process.