The Ancient Modern
I Dream a Renovation / Joshua Alan Sturgill
In this early morning dream, I traveled back to Manhattan, Kansas—back to where I first encountered liturgical Christianity as a member of a small Episcopal campus ministry.
There was no indication in the dream of why I was there. It seems that I was traveling unexpectedly “on business” and that the trip wasn’t planned. Maybe something connected with the University. Maybe a speaking or writing engagement.
But, in any case, I decided to go back to the beautiful old house our little mission used as a church. Years ago, when we first purchased the property, I was there to help with the renovations. We painted and landscaped. We converted the living room into a chapel, and the master bedroom into an office for our chaplain, Mother Cathy.
I rented one of the upstairs rooms for a few months. Those were full, beautiful days of transition, emotion, friendship. I think that’s why, in the dream, I decided to go for a walk through the old neighborhood and to see the house again.
The dream-walk took longer than it should have. The house wasn’t far from the southwest corner of the University. But houses from other times and seasons in my life were scattered among those of Manhattan: a small brick apartment building from Grandview Heights, Ohio; a few Spanish Colonial homes from Santa Fe; the cabin of an old friend from Colorado; an Orthodox Church from San Francisco.
I walked among the architecture of my past for quite awhile. But eventually, I reached the mission house, still flanked by fraternities and sororities and a few old Victorians long since made into rentals. I had an uneasy feeling as I approached, and even from a block away, I could see that something was amiss.
The mission house was in poor condition. Peeling paint, overgrown lawn. A lonely and neglected look.
But I wasn’t the only one there to see. Two young women were standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the house. They looked familiar—and I knew in a moment they were Sara and Julie—from the old days when I was attending the mission. We surprised each other. What!? How?! So good to see you!
A small, unexpected reunion. But we had barely begun to catch up when others began to arrive—some walking, some by car. Six or eight of us: James, the other James, Scott, Christie, Alice. Just when I began to wonder about Mark—then, he was there too. It didn’t seem possible.
We were all there for different reasons. Some were visiting family, some just passing through town. But all of us had the same impulse to go back and reconnect with the place where we had been given so much joy and life and encouragement.
The conversation immediately turned to the condition of the house, and what (if anything) we might do about it.
We agreed, of course, that some kind of preservation should be done. And we were just beginning to think about possible strategies when Mark pointed to the back of the house where a woman in gardener’s clothes, shovel in hand, had just stepped into view. It was Mother Cathy.
Now, the appearance of Mother Cathy was so beautiful and startling, that it almost woke me. Sometimes, we have a choice about the flow or intensity of our dreams, often not. I remember barely waking—just enough to decide that I needed to know what Mother Cathy would say or do. I remembered that Mother Cathy had left the mission not long after I had moved away. She was given a pastorate in Iowa, I think, and her husband took a faculty position with Iowa State.
So, I pressed back into the dream.
Mother Cathy was there. Stained jeans, gardening gloves on her hands, an old floppy sun hat to shade her beaming face. She lifted the brim of the hat, and looked at each one of us with absolute tenderness and approval. We knew that she loved us, and was proud of us, and would drop her rake and shovel and spend the rest of the day letting us tell her stories of all the intervening years—our successes and failures, our adventures, our secrets.
She didn’t seem at all surprised to see us. “We need to clean up,” she said, “I have the keys. No one has lived here for years.” She was radiant with excitement. This was just the kind of thing she loved: to do something worthwhile in the company of friends.
My dream had a very strange ending. It didn’t conclude, exactly.
Mother Cathy unlocked the back door, led us inside and began to give assignments. One or two people to finish the weeding. One to sweep the front and back porches. Three to work in the basement. One or two to dust and sweep the chapel.
The house glowed unnaturally bright when we pulled back the moldy curtains and opened the windows. It appeared that the current owners had been using it for storage. There were stacks of old furniture and boxes of books everywhere. But unearthed from the chaos, we found the old chalice and paten from our services. We found several bottles of communion wine on a shelf in a closet. We found the old chair I used to sit in to write articles when I worked for the University newspaper. We found icons, a processional Cross, and one of Mother Cathy’s old bibles with our names written inside the front cover.
I say the ending was strange, because I woke while we were cleaning. Someone had just suggested that we open a bottle of the wine. Mother Cathy blessed it, and we poured it into some old mugs we found in a cupboard. The wine kept pouring; it went further than we expected. And as we were restoring the house, more people arrived: Jenny, Connor, Tim, Kale, Jerod, Andy, Meredith. We worked and we drank and we laughed.
Waking up—slowly and reluctantly—I had the fascinating sense that I was inside joy. That joy was a place. A rich and generous joy; a joy that was somewhere to be and something to do; a physical, tangible Presence.