Sheer grace: a tribute to Ann Marsden

Editor’s Note: I attended Ann Marsden’s memorial service, and thought that I might use this space to give a first-person account of the event. But I thought better of it after hearing the many wonderful eulogies offered by her friends and family, who captured the spirit of the day far better than I ever could. So here instead is the tribute of her brother-in-law Reverend Dorsey McConnell, who is also the Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.


Photo: Dorsey McConnell

A few weeks before she died Betsy and I were visiting Annie. For the moment things were relatively good. Her pain and her nausea were sort of under control. She wanted to talk. And she had something on her mind. She asked my wife to hand her a little box by her bedside, and out of it she took something small and precious, kissed it, and placed it in my hand. It was this little pocketknife, silvery and bright with a hammered surface to make it look like roughed up tree bark, the very essence of childhood treasure from the 1950’s. I knew how much this knife meant to her, and I was nearly speechless. “Annie, it’s beautiful.” I said, finally. “Yah,” she said. “Ya like it? It’s a Camp King. It’s got two blades and a bottle opener. Grampa Jack gave it to me one summer when we were in Pipestone. He said, ‘As long as you got this with ya, you can do just about anything.’ I thought it was magic.”

I loved my sister-in-law from the day I met her, partly because she so loved my wife, and later because of how she loved my son, but also because when I was with her I felt like I was walking out into open ground where I could say just about anything, laugh about anything, be outrageous, swim way out over my head, and still find a safe way back together with her. Nearly every time I talked with Annie I found myself stumbling into that brilliant joy which we all suspect is at the core of our existence, but to which we so often can’t seem to find the door, or have misplaced the key, or from which we have gotten distracted by our tasks and worries and wounds. A few minutes with her and that door would burst open with all it’s open-hearted glory fueled by love. Sometimes that could feel like magic. But if there is a better word for that experience, for what I always received in her presence, it would be grace.


This photograph by Ann Marsden was projected on the screen behind the Reverend Dorsey McConnell as he gave his tribute.

Grace was what Annie gave to anyone who was ever in front of her lens. Annie had subjects for her photos, but never objects. She never treated people like things, and (as you can see from the slide behind me) even things in her field of view were handled with a kind of tenderness that made them seem both fragile and enduring. If you were the subject, she somehow made you unafraid to let out what was really inside you; you could be yourself in ways you couldn’t know until they happened, and when you saw them captured in an image you marveled at the truth of it, and at how little it hurt to see who you really are in the light of love. That is more than magic. That is grace.

As a minister, I always wanted to ask her directly where she thought this grace came from, but on a few occasions she volunteered the answer. It wasn’t a pat answer (no surprise here), certainly not a religious answer. She was, to put it mildly, offended and exasperated by most of American Christianity because of the countless ways we had hurt “her tribe,” though she always gave me, her brother in law the preacher, a pass. She could speak frankly, even passionately, about God. “I actually really like Jesus,” she once said to me. “It’s just Christians I can’t stand.” “I understand,” I said. “There are plenty of days when I feel the same way myself.” So, while her answer had nothing to do with religion, it had everything to do with faith. She marveled that the grace she so freely gave away had mysteriously been given to her, was in, around and through every moment of her life. She saw the evidence everywhere– not only in the extravagances of light and shadow revealed by her camera, but grace in the gift of her sobriety, grace in the steadfast love of her family and friends, grace above all in the devotion of her partner Ann, who gave the sometimes frenetic whirlwind of Annie’s soul a calm center to return to, cool shade in the heat of the day, and a secure embrace in the end where she could lay down her head and rest.

If there was one Christian image that captivated her, it was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, not an image she would have known from her Presbyterian upbringing: the crown of thorns pressed down over Christ’s wounded heart. For her it showed the beauty and the cost of true compassion. It illuminated the fierce sense of justice that burned in her heart. She was always for the underdog, the oppressed, the powerless. She would give you the shirt off her back, and frequently did. She would give you, in fact, the last glimmer of her soul if she thought it could help. Give her two days in a hospital and she would know the personal histories of most of her nurses, and would have listened helpfully to the details of their chief sorrows and joys, even in her weakness spending herself to make one more small difference in someone else’s life. That bright life is now fully spent, and we are all immeasurably richer for it.

In my own prayer I have thought that when Annie woke up in whatever you want to call whatever may lie on the other side of this life, in the eternal moment when she was born into all that glory and all that love, the first thing she noticed was the light. I wonder if she reached for her camera before she got the joke that she is the camera, now. In fact, she always was. What took those pictures was not her lens, but her soul. Even the best of those images was only an approximation, a foretaste of the grace she knew and passed on to us, and that now lifts her more and more deeply into Life. And for us who are still on this side, walking our own pilgrimage, under her now fully joyful eye, she might want one thing: that we could see ourselves and one another the way she saw us, that we might learn to trust the love that is all around us waiting to be taken and given away. It isn’t magic. It’s just grace, sheer grace, and as long as you’ve got it with you, you can do just about anything.

Many thanks to the Reverend Dorsey McConnell for his permission to reprint this tribute.