Drinking from Miriam’s Well: A Season of Rest and Refreshment

Between March 1 and May 31, 2013, our Rector Pam Werntz was away on a restorative sabbatical while Emmanuel Church engaged in refreshment and renewal activities designed to be integrated with the sabbatical. The theme of this renewal time came from reflecting on the spiritual connections between Miriam the Prophet (Moses’ sister), Miriam of Migdal (Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles), and our own call to prophetic witness.

In the Torah, Miriam, was a prophet and spiritual leader in her own right, and a creative artist: the composer and singer of the oldest song in the Bible. There is a legend of a Well of Miriam, which “gave forth water whenever a woman sang to it with the proper heartsong.” Water from Miriam’s well could heal the sick and restore hope to the broken hearted. In the wilderness, the mystical well traveled with the Hebrew people, and when they camped, it settled opposite the Tabernacle. Not only would it spring up to give refreshment, wisdom and clarity for understanding scripture, it would spill over, causing vegetation to grow, providing food to eat, sweet perfume to wear, and soft grasses for bedding for any who were too poor for a bed. After Miriam died, some said the well disappeared, though some said that it settled in Migdal, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Later, it was near there that Jesus’ ministry began in earnest, provided for by Miriam’s namesake: Miriam of Migdal or Mary Magdalene.

During the sabbatical time, both the congregation and our rector engaged in a period of refreshment and renewal, of image and pilgrimage, of rest, study, and art-making. Pam  made a pilgrimage to holy places associated with Mary Magdalene, to pray and reflect through art-making, and thereby strengthen and renew her own journey as a woman of faith and a spiritual leader. Meanwhile, we, the congregation, made our own renewal journey, accompanied by The Rev. Susan Ackley, Episcopal priest and distinguished artist, who eagerly supported us in a focused exploration of one of Emmanuel’s mission goals: deepening our connection between spirituality and the arts. As rector and congregation journeyed separately and are now reconnecting to learn from one another’s experiences, our future holds the promise of deeper wisdom and renewed clarity for all: a time spent drinking from Miriam’s Well.

Our chief rationale for engaging in this renewal program was that we know that the practices of Sabbath and Sabbatical are the ethical and moral foundations on which to build and sustain a community of faith, to engage in the mission of the Church, and to spread the Love of God. We know that periods of refreshment are essential for clergy and congregation alike. For Emmanuel Church, social justice, pastoral care, and artistic expression are inextricably linked in mission and in worship. Our ninth rector, the Rev. Al Kershaw, once said, “Art and Love alone are capable of opening us up to the Eternal that stands behind them.” To renew and refresh ourselves as a congregation, we wanted to engage in new forms of artistic expression during our rector’s sabbatical time. Both rector and congregation explored image and pilgrimage during our three month sabbatical, to bring reenergized witness to the Gospel in Boston and beyond.

Rector’s Travels

After some local travel to visit with family, teachers, and spiritual guides, Pam settled into a spiritual practice of image and pilgrimage. She painted or drew daily, exploring internal and external landscapes. By way of keeping in touch, she sent a digital “postcard” each week that appeared on the Emmanuel Church Facebook page. These are still visible in the photo feed of our Facebook page.

First, Pam traveled to the Isle of Iona in Scotland for Holy Week and Easter with her wife, Joy. They relished spending Holy Week and Easter together with no liturgical responsibilities, sitting together in a pew, singing, praying and leaning into the thin place that is Iona. A Celtic legend says that Mary Magdalene traveled to Iona at the end of her life and was buried in a cave there.

Pam also traveled to Israel, spending a week in Migdal on the Sea of Galilee, and three days at St. George’s College to walk and pray in the holy places of Jerusalem. From there, Pam traveled to Ephesus, Turkey. Eastern tradition is that Mary Magdalene went there with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and was buried there. Pam’s voice professor and friend Suzanne Ehly joined her there to serve as translator and spiritual guide.

Finally, Pam traveled to Sainte Maxime, France, where Roman Catholic legend is that Mary Magdalene was buried. Pam’s wife Joy and their three daughters, Sarah (27), Laura (25), and Grace (16) joined her there for some family time exploring the traditions and holy places associated with the community of Jesus followers.

In the coming months, Pam and the congregation are sharing stories, art, and music to communicate the insights and inspirations of the sabbatical time.

We are grateful for this renewal time and the opportunities to deepen each one’s connections to God through the expressions of art and music, for each to grow in his or her understanding of self as artist in a community of artists, and not simply as passive viewers or listeners. We believe that engaging in art and music in ways that get folks out of their comfort zones and into new spiritual practices will create renewed possibilities and insights for radical hospitality, advocacy for people on the margins, and for growing in faith and relationship with God, enabling more Emmanuelites to proclaim, with Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord!”

Congregational Enrichment

In terms of how the congregation has benefited from Pam’s sabbatical, congregational and committee meetings have yielded great ideas, centering around the arts, including commissioning new music from among the many composers and poets in our congregation; making our own spiritual journey in the steps of the early wise women of the Church; and exploring the connections between spirituality and art-making. We engaged in Bible study via improvised drama and/or visual media; making personal shrines out of personal and found materials; making and using puppets; and staging a medieval mystery play with special effects.

We called the Rev. Susan Ackley as Priest/Artist-in-Residence for the 12 weeks that Pam was away, to lead the parish into deeper connections between art and spirituality, in worship and through parish educational gatherings. Susan was present for 3 days each week, and during Holy Week. The Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew (retired), Senior Pastoral Assistant, and our Deacon, The Rev. Susanne George, provided pastoral care and support to the vestry and other lay leadership. We relied on some program support from our partner Jewish congregation, Central Reform Temple. Rabbi Howard Berman provided continuity of educational and community-building programming through our rich collaboration called Emmanuel Center. Listed below are some of the congregations activities during the sabbatical time:

  • Our friends at Central Reform Temple hosted a Miriam Seder on the second night of Passover, featuring a special Haggadah supplement written especially for the occasion by Rabbi Howard Berman.
  • The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies performed a piece  entitled “Early One Morning,” which weaves together biblical references to Mary  with elements of devotional and folk traditions to tell the story of one woman’s experience of grace and forgiveness, her transformation from angry self-hatred to discipleship, her emotional and spiritual healing, and her ultimate embrace of her own authority. Ms. Fischer-Davies developed this piece during the time of her own Lilly grant, one of the first ever given for clergy sabbaticals.
  • Internationally renowned composer and member of our congregation, John Harbison, conducted a composing seminar for four Emmanuel composers who wrote music inspired by Mary Magdalene’s Gospel proclamation, “I have seen the Lord!” These pieces will be performed by our chapel choir during various services throughout the summer.
  • Our collaboration with Lesley University’s Art Therapy Program resulted in a community art-making event after the Boston Marathon bombing. “When Words Are Not Enough” attracted more than 40 people, who created more than 60 prayer flags that we took to the memorial site in Copley Square.
  • Rabbi Berman and the Rev. Ackley helped organize and lead an interfaith service in response to the Marathon bombing.
  • The Rev. Ackley organized a performance of “The Digby Play of Mary Magdalene,” a late medieval mystery play which she translated into contemporary English. She  also designed a production with puppets and scenery (and music and machines!) that was performed on May 26 in Lindsey Chapel.