|This is the fifth installment in our Summer Gratitude series, a collection of posts from around the diocese focused on gratitude and thankfulness. It’s our hope that these stories will be uplifting, joyful, and a reminder to us all to count our blessings and experience gratitude even in times of hardship.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
When I consider the word “gratitude”, it brings to mind how blessed I was to know my good friend and long-time mentor, Mrs. Arlene Heath. I first met Mrs. Heath in the early 1960s when she moved to Kane following the unexpected death of her husband. Her beloved Marvin was a country church Pastor. His death left Mrs. Heath and her teenaged daughter not only without husband and father, but without income. She would later explain what followed as a series of “God-incidents.” Soon after Marvin’s passing, Arlene was contacted by an old college friend about a position teaching English at the high school in Kane. She applied for the position and was hired for the next term. At the same time, she was offered the rental of a second floor apartment in the house of two elderly sisters, who lived just one block from the Kane Senior High School. That location became important for several reasons, not least of which was because Mrs. Heath did not drive, and never wanted to learn to drive, or to be encumbered by a car throughout her long life.
God had a plan for Arlene, and for those of us who came to know her. She came into my life, and the lives of my high school classmates, as our sophomore year English instructor. Throughout the 40 years or longer in which she would be my teacher, my mentor and my friend, I would learn much from her about the nature of God, of faith, trust, and gratitude. Above all Mrs. Heath taught me that there is no such thing as mere coincidence; God is always at work for and with us. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, KJV)
I have never known any person of stronger vision, faith or the will to live a Christ-like life than Arlene, and she was determined that the young people she chose to mentor would follow such an example as well. In our American Literature class she taught us to dig deeper into the writings of great thinkers including Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau. Both before and after school, some of us would gather at her home to be introduced to such diverse voices as Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, C.S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Madeleine L’Engle, and Joseph Campbell to mention only a few. This casual gathering she later developed into an in-school course in “Humanities” which has been offered to all Kane High School students ever since.
Through literature, poetry, and the arts, as well as comparative Bible study and discussion, Mrs. Heath opened a world of ideas for us, and demonstrated how God could be heard and seen and experienced across cultures and religious experiences. I believe she prepared me, and many of us whom she called her “kids,” to better transition out of small town parochial life, and into the wide world, by introducing us to what lay beyond our church school and high school classrooms. At the same time, she helped us to challenge our faith and understanding of God and Christianity. While some people considered this to be very risky business, Arlene recognized how vital it was for us to have our beliefs questioned in such a safe setting as her living room, before we were challenged about them in our college classrooms, or dorm rooms.
No matter what we faced, Arlene helped to provide a “life line” to pull us back to our spiritual and faith foundations. Summer evenings and holiday breaks throughout my college years were often spent among other students on her porch, or over hot chocolate and cookies in her living room, talking about just those challenges and ideas.
I especially appreciated the rare occasions throughout the rest of her life when I could catch her alone and she would listen patiently while I explained my latest triumph, or heart-break. In the end, she would confront me with difficult questions, asking what I had learned from my experiences, and what I was going to do about it. She left no doubt that she had expectations for me to live up to. Later she would send me kind and thoughtful notes about our conversations, often tucked into special book, or clipped to an article of interest from the Christian Science Monitor, Christianity Today, or Sojourners.
I cherish those notes, especially one she wrote to me after a tearful discussion about the end of my first, sadly failed, marriage. I was at the lowest point of my life, both psychologically and spiritually. Even then, she was tender but resolute with me, and expressed the opinion that failure and heartache were simply part of the great scheme of things; I was fortunate to have such a heartbreak while I was still very young. She trusted that I would survive, and thrive, and be able to use my experience to help other young women one day. I can humbly report that I have done that, and a bit more as well.
It is with deepest gratitude that I thank the Lord for providing the “God-incident” that brought Mrs. Arlene Heath into my life. In body, and now in spirit, she forever challenges me to be more, and to do more, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
I think of her each time we close Morning Prayer with “Glory to God whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever more. Amen“ (BCP)
(Mrs. Heath ultimately bought the house where she first rented the upstairs apartment from the elderly sisters. The money obtained from the sale established the endowment which sustains St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kane, where I am blessed to worship and from which I go out “to love and serve the Lord.”)
Becky Harris is a member of St. John’s, Kane.