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June 10, 2006
"What do you reckon that is, "Adelynrood"? Cornish? Adelyn?"

"Maybe," Q said as our train passed New London. "Rood, though -- that's Anglo-Saxon. Maybe Adelynrood was somebody's estate over there, and the retreat house here is named for it." That made some sense. 19th century Episcopalians were pretty Anglophilic.

But it was nothing like that. Adelyn was a young woman. Adelynrood is "Adelyn's Cross." She was chronically ill, bedridden for years -- from the symptoms, it sounds to me like tuberculosis of the hip -- and her friends gathered around her to help her pray. Not just for herself, not even primarily for herself: Adelyn wanted to pray for the world. She lies on her couch for a photograph: her hair is neat, her dress is elegant, but her eyes look into the camera, and they are filled with pain. Adelyn is a crucifix lying down.

They were lively, Adelyn's girlfriends -- one of them especially, Emily Malbone Morgan. Her visits used to exhaust Adelyn, and her nurse would scold and scold after one of them -- but they also delighted her beyond any of the other pleasures in her difficult life. Emily was what my grandmother would have called "a caution."

"I did not understand about religious societies," Emily said years later, "and they did not interest me. My leading characteristic at the time was undeviating and hilarious high spirits; but dear Adelyn wanted such a society, and I loved Adelyn."

And so, out of love for the friend who would not live to grow old with her, Emily founded a society for prayer and social justice. She was wealthy, and a mighty change agent: the small circle of Adelyn's friends widened to include people who had ever met her and never would, and soon there were several houses to which the women who worked in the mills could bring their exhausted selves for some rest. Today the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross numbers more than 700 souls and has chapters worldwide. We are in their rambling 1914 house in Byfield, Massachusetts -- all dark wood and plenty of windows. Two of the early Companions learned how to design houses just so they could design this one. They must have been cautions, too.

The 19th century produced a number of remarkable women like Emily. Many of them did not marry -- not too many people then thought a woman could have it all. Maybe they didn't feel their lack of a husband as a sorrow at all -- some of them might have preferred the company of one another. Maybe Emily was like that.

Her parents didn't always know how to take her. "When I was a little girl a lady was looking over my mother's collection of old china and she turned to me and asked pleasantly if when I grew up I was going to collect china? 'No,' I said, 'when I grow up I'm going to collect people.'"

Oh, dear, her mother must have said to herself, mortified. But that's what she did. Rich people and poor people. Tired people and sorrowful people. People in need of prayer and people in need of shelter, money, food, joy. Emily collected them all, filled her life and as many of her friends lives as she could fill with the love of them. "She always reminds me of a great river," a friend of hers said once, "flowing steadily and swiftly, bringing vital refreshment to every country through which it flows."

Emily herself saw her own remarkable life simply: "My greatest desire has always been to make tired people rested and happy."

She continues to succeed in that desire. One by one the retreatants come in from the highway, from the train, from the airport -- it has been a long trip. They walk through the door at Adelynrood and immediately look younger. "I feel like I'm home when I'm here," one of them tells me. "The walls are prayer-soaked." The daily routine is prayer: in the morning we gather for the Canticle of the Sun -- some of the early Companions loved the Franciscan way of looking at the world, and many still do. At noon, a time of intercession: prayer for the world, for individuals in it, for justice and peace. And all day, the gardens, visible from every room in the house.

On the wall in one room is a glass case containing parts of a tea service, the thinnest of bone china, delicate and lovely. Adelyn's mother gave it to her for her tea table. It was a mother's gift of hope for things that were not to be: hope for Adelyn as a young matron, as the mistress of her own house someday, as a wife, as a young mother herself, Adelyn pouring tea for visitors, Adelyn passing the tea service along to her own daughter. None of these things came to pass.

You look at the delicate china in its glass case. You think of the teas, the elaborate Victorian dinners, all the hostess things that Adelyn did not live to do. And you hear the quiet footsteps of people in the garden, the quiet turning of pages as people read in the old wicker chairs, you hear the grace they sing before every meal, the women's voiced blending in the familiar tune. You are sorry that Adelyn did not have a long life. Sorry for her terrible pain. Sorry for all the hopes that were not to be.

But you are in awe of the blessing her love became. In awe of the outward turning of her love. In awe of the love of her energetic friend, who cheerfully moved mountains that as many as possible might know that love.

There is love, and there is love. It is not all alike. Some marry and some do not. All human love is generative, though: it all produces something besides itself, or it is not love. Now, as at the beginning, human love gardens the world.
To see Adelynrood, visit

To read more about Adelyn and her friend Emily Malbone Morgan, visit
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