The Big Sister I Always Wanted: Remembering Marsue

The Big Sister I Always Wanted: Remembering Marsue August 21, 2020

Every once in a while, our lives are blessed with a person who uniquely and profoundly spreads peace, love, contentment, and wisdom just by being herself. Marsue Harris was one of those people. She passed away last Saturday after several months of struggling with cancer. She was a friend, mentor, spiritual advisor, reliable source of wisdom, and the big sister I always wished for. Here are a few of my many memories.

I met Marsue almost two decades ago, at a time that—although I did not fully know it then—I had been running on spiritual fumes for a while. Knowing that Marsue was an Episcopal priest, I thought it important to tell her, a few minutes into our first conversation, that “I think that every person has a certain number of minutes that they are required to be in church during their lifetime. I used mine up a long time ago.” Don’t even think about trying to proselytize me, in other words.

Marsue would learn a great deal about my own religious history, from my evangelical and fundamentalist upbringing to finding a needed refuge in the Episcopal church in my twenties, but her response at the time to my rather rude opening line was simply a bemused smile, as if she knew something I didn’t. As if she looked right through the walls I had constructed and saw who I really was. I imagine her thinking “Oh friend, you have no idea what God is up to in your life.” As Anne Lamott, one of Marsue’s favorite writers, observes: “Sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I think Marsue enjoyed seeing that happen to me over the years. She was a loving and wise facilitator of spiritual awakening and growth for many people during her life; I am blessed that she played such an important role in mine.

In her role as a priest, Marsue was both inspiring and unique. She was one of the first generation of ordained female priests in the Episcopal church, and spent many years as a prison chaplain, first in California, then in Rhode Island. Jeanne and I followed her as self-described “Marsue groupies” as she filled the role of “interim” priest in various parishes (effective “interims” often serve for several years in one place). She was a wonderful homilist, prepared and led beautiful liturgies, but was probably most remarkable as a priest in her willingness to delegate authority and to coax sometimes-reluctant parishioners into roles that fit them beautifully.

I remember the day, almost ten years ago, when Marsue asked me if I would be willing, for the weeks of Lent, to lead an adult discussion group on Wednesday evenings, focusing on one or two of the essays that she knew I had been writing for several months after a transformational sabbatical semester. More or less reluctantly, I agreed, mostly because I was not sure what these essays were for or what to do with them. More than nine years later, the “Living Stones” group that grew from those Lenten seminars is still going strong—we have increased our usual once-a-month after the morning service seminars to twice monthly on Zoom since the Covid-19 shutdown in March. I also trace the beginning of this blog back to those same essays. Once again, Marsue saw something that I didn’t see myself until months or years later.

Marsue loved animals; she and her husband Robin used to bring their two Scotties along to church. The dogs would spend the service in her office, then would be released afterwards to receive the love and affection of everyone present during coffee hour downstairs. Marsue’s spiritual hero was Saint Francis, which meant that her favorite annual liturgical event, bigger than Christmas and Easter combined, was Saint Francis Sunday, “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday which always falls early in October. Dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, turtles, gerbils, stuffed animals, pictures of animals—parishioners brought them all to church and stood in line as Marsue blessed them each individually by name. Except for snakes. Marsue didn’t like snakes.

One Saint Francis Sunday several years ago, I was the scheduled lector. Jeanne and I had our three dogs with us in the first row; when the time came for me to ascend to the lectern and read the “Balaam’s ass” text from the Book of Numbers that is always the reading from the Jewish scriptures on Saint Francis day, I brought my beloved dachshund Frieda with me, holding her under my right arm like a football as I read. As I read, Frieda peered over the lectern and stared down the congregation with a look that Marsue interpreted as “Now listen up, fools!” Marsue made sure over the next several years that I was always scheduled to read on Saint Francis Sunday so that Frieda could once again be on display.

Although she was old enough to be my mother (barely), I always thought of Marsue as the wise, older sister I never had. I often said that, in my life, she was the closest thing to a spiritual advisor. After Jeanne, Marsue was the first person from whom I sought guidance and insight when faced with decisions and choices, both great and small. Once ten years or so ago, when asked to be the director of a large interdisciplinary program on my campus (at any given time, 80 faculty and 2000 students involved), I asked for a day or two to think about it. Marsue was the first person I sought advice from.

She told me that “I find it part of God’s playfulness to just put things out there for which we might be put to good use, stand back and watch how we handle what has come our way.” I remembered her insights many times during the four years I directed that program. That was how Marsue’s God rolled: playful, loving, iconoclastic, as unpredictable as the wind, both engaged and “hands off,” trusting our humanity and what, with divine inspiration, we can become and be. And there is no doubt in my mind that Marsue’s God is a woman.

A California girl, a flower child, and what older folks might call a “hippie,” Marsue was an activist for all sorts of worthy progressive causes throughout her life. I know that she tried to keep her political passions out of her sermons as much as she could, but she was not always successful. As I’ve been watching the remarkable virtual Democratic National Convention this week, I’ve frequently thought of Marsue. In one of her last emails to Jeanne and me, a week or so before she died, she wrote that she fully intended to be alive long enough to cast her vote in the upcoming November election—I sure she has been expressing her annoyance and disappointment to whomever she is hanging out with over the past few days.

As a few of us compared Marsue memories on Facebook the other day, one of her closest friends commented that Marsue had also told her that “I have to be here until November.” But, Merlyn continued, “Since she won’t be able to vote, maybe she’ll get the ear of Jeanne’s Big Bird and have more influence there,” adding that “I will miss her terribly.” So will I–I already do. But Marsue, don’t worry about November. It’s on all of us now to remember and be inspired by your wisdom, your example, and your life as we cast our votes. We’ve got your back. Enjoy your new-found rest and health, do some cooking, have a glass of wine, and catch up on your reading. I’ll be seeing you soon.

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