I’m often asked what gave me the idea to do a tour of Maine’s summer Episcopal chapels. The truth is that it just came to me, the same way the idea for my blog did during Easter Sunday while sitting in church. I love to explore new-to-me places and meet new people. The theme of renewal and strengthening my relationship with God while appreciating unique places of worship in beautiful coastal Maine settings felt like it would be Episcopal Summer Camp. And in many ways, I was right!
One of the special qualities of being an Episcopalian is that we all use the Book of Common Prayer, so that when you attend a service in a new-to-you church, you will feel at home because it will be familiar. Even so, each setting and sermon takes on the personalities of the clergy and congregation. Some services are more staid than others.
At St. Ann’s outside chapel overlooking the sea in Kennebunkport we sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Morning Has Broken,” two songs I sang in summer camp as a kid. (I was surprised to learn that Cat Stevens did not write that song but it was a Christian hymn published in 1931!) Each chapel and service was comforting in its familiarity yet new and exciting as we met people from all over the country and took in all the history, architecture and artistic touches.
Another unique quality of the summer chapels is that the clergy are also visiting “from away” just like most of the summer people congregating there. The excitement of coming to Maine was often mentioned in the sermons and it was clear that it was a very special time for visitors to our state. Likewise, the people in town for a week or the whole summer seemed really happy to be at the chapels. Wayne and I were new visitors to the chapels yet we were also locals welcoming them to Maine.
Speaking of “All Are Welcome,” those of you who have been following my tour became aware of an Episcopal summer chapel that “technically” is not open to the public. Like many of you, we were shocked and disheartened, but mostly baffled as to how such a thing can be permitted in an Episcopalian Diocese. I reached out to our Bishop, Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, who was happy to chat with me about my tour and Maine’s Episcopal summer chapels. Our Bishop is a delightful conversationalist and human, and I felt comfortable enough to share openly with him about my joys and also my dismay about not being welcomed to that one chapel.
I learned that the chapels aren’t technically Episcopal churches, nor are they part of the Diocese except for St. Philips By the Sea at Fortunes Rocks; they are “Episcopal worship sites” that are not “in union” with the Diocese. Bishop Lane called this “Anglican peculiars” of being associated but not belonging. What that means is that they are private, self-sustaining organizations formed by the original summer colonies a century ago that chose to follow the Book of Common Prayer. Since then generations have maintained the chapels by becoming stewards and congregants and pay their own way. Many make generous donations to the Diocese. As for the not-so-welcoming spirit of one chapel, the Bishop put it into perspective for me: “The level of hospitality all depends upon the character of the community that gathers there.”
With that new understanding I suddenly felt an immense wave of gratitude that Wayne and I were so warmly welcomed into all the other chapels we visited. When I think about that knowledge along with how deeply personal many of the ties are to the chapels for the local communities, I felt humbled and appreciative realizing they didn’t have to welcome us but they chose to do so.
As a result of my overall experience I’ve reflected on my own welcoming spirit that can sometimes be lacking towards Maine’s summer tourists, those people who come here simply to take all of the parking spaces and add congestion to our roads! There are some days that I believe that such an absurdity is indeed indisputable fact. The reality is that we are all visitors and stewards of many things in our life; instead of seeing occupied spaces I will now think of the many wonderful people enriching our state. A more welcoming world filled with people seeking renewal and spiritual respite is a blessed one!
The Bishop and I also engaged in some bathroom talk. Specifically, many of the seasonal chapels do not have indoor plumbing which means there is a port-a-potty nestled between flowering shrubs or hidden behind the chapels. He shared a funny story about one chapel that has no bathroom options, so he, The Bishop! had to knock on a neighboring home’s door because nature was calling.
The Bishop and I agreed that the chapels are magical places where little miracles occur. I’d like to share one such miracle with you.
When I enter a room for a meeting, class, gathering, assembly or worship, I always do my best to sit in the back row to avoid having people sit behind me. Otherwise, I suffer from distracting anxiety and feel compelled to keep looking behind me. The reason? In late 1970s NYC as a child I was often surrounded by dangerous people, places and situations without protection or supervision. I was victimized more times than I care to count. I learned to be hypervigilant which became my norm. Back-room sitters often have a reputation for being disinterested and there were times I’m sure I was thrown some shade for appearing to be stand-offish for not joining those in the front when attendance didn’t fill a room. The truth is that that kind of hypervigilance is a manifestation of chronic PTSD: Always watch your back. Never let your guard down.
So when Wayne and I were talking over dinner one evening about how much we enjoyed sitting in the front row during the 8:00 a.m. service at St. Ann’s that morning, it didn’t even register until that moment. Wayne got it, looked into my eyes and was smiling. Right then it clicked for me, too.
“I…was sitting in the front row and didn’t even think anything of it. I was sitting in the front row. I WAS SITTING IN THE FRONT ROW AND DIDN’T EVEN KNOW!”
A lovely couple whose families have been attending St. Ann’s for generations had invited us to sit next to them in the front. It was a very blustery morning during that outdoor seaside service, and she shared her blanket with me under which we huddled together as we sang songs before the service. Of course I was cognizant of my location, but not once during that hour did I have any awareness other than being in the present moment. I was so immersed in The NOW: the company, sounds and scents of the sea, the service and sermon, watching smiling and peaceful looking people take communion up close from the front—I was there. There was no noise in my head stealing the joy to “keep me safe.” That was an amazing breakthrough for me!
It’s been a sublime experience, and next summer we will definitely be returning to “summer camp”!