“I was sitting on the chaise waiting to go to the doctor’s office, and I dropped dead. I came to a black abyss in a vortex that was swirling. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, am I having a stroke?’ Then I was aware that my body was all contorted. I could feel electricity spewing out of my body. I thought, ‘No, something’s not happening, something has already happened. And I don’t know what it is.’ ”
The Rev. Vienna Cobb Anderson recalls that she felt cold and clammy, but she began seeing the colors of the books on the bookcase across the room. So she called her doctor to say she wouldn’t make her appointment — then called 911. Because of her ventricular fibrillation, her heart sometimes beats too fast and it can’t keep up with itself. Fortunately, her implanted defibrillator kicked in that day in June 2009, but it took two tries to bring her back. She was out for seven minutes.
Anderson has faced more than a few life-threatening experiences in her 80 years, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. Carrying her two black-and-tan Yorkies, Coco and Dodo, inside her elegantly decorated Westminster-Canterbury apartment, Anderson points to photos she has taken on her travels, images of Antarctica and Venice. Casually elegant in a pair of Toms espadrille wedges, white slim pants and a black tunic, Anderson shows off metal artwork from Haiti of Adam and Eve that now hangs in her entryway (she relocated here in February from West Avenue). Her chunky pearl necklace matches Coco’s, and a sleek black fitness band blends into her color-blocked ensemble.
“Whatever death is, it’s simply new,” she says. “I don’t worry about what it is, even if it’s nothing. I might be more cosmic dust adding to more cosmic dust. It’s this life I worry about, think about, get concerned about.”
A retired Episcopal priest of more than 30 years and a pioneer for women in the ministry, Anderson hasn’t idled or let go of her powerful optimism. In addition to serving as needed at St. James’s Episcopal Church on Franklin Street since 2001, where she sings in both choirs, preaches, and teaches, Anderson is a motivational speaker on facing illness and mortality.
Drawing on her own health experiences and her time as a hospice chaplain and priest, Anderson often speaks with people during times of grief and change, whether they are battling illnesses themselves or they are grieving for a loved one.
It is not uncommon for someone to be angry with God, who, they believe, has made them sick as a punishment. Anderson doesn’t believe that God is to blame for what ails us; rather, that God is suffering with us.
Born prematurely, she has suffered from serious illnesses all her life. In addition to her ventricular fibrillation, she has had open-heart surgery, an emergency appendectomy, developed an immune deficiency, and had a double mastectomy in 2012 after getting two different types of breast cancer — with no family history.
“I want to say, ‘s--- happens.’ It does!” she says, and laughs. “How do I explain getting cancer? It can happen to any one of us. It’s the luck of the draw. The question is not ‘Why did it happen to me?’ it’s ‘What do I do about it?’ How can I use it as a moment to learn and define where my courage lies? To dig deeper and find that I have more strength than I think I have?”
With a nontraditional name and red hair like a fox (though it’s now gone white), Anderson stood out as a child growing up in Richmond. She wasn’t the “typical St. Catherine’s girl,” she says, and was reminded of it often by teachers who tried to box her in. So she learned early on that she’d need to be a little feisty in order to claim her own persona.
Coming from a family of artists — her mother loved drama, her sister was an artist, and her grandmother was a creative needle worker — Anderson majored in drama at Yale, spent a year in England on a Fulbright grant and studied there at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon for a summer. She spent three seasons at the legendary Barter Theatre in Abingdon (a theater with alums including Patricia Neal, Gregory Peck and Ernest Borgnine), where she was named best young actress in 1957 and received her award from Ethel Merman. She acted in New York for two years, but in the ’50s, there were few roles for women who didn’t sing or dance, so she decided to pursue her other passion — theology.
Anderson grew up watching the quiet spirituality of her father’s parents. Her grandfather led daily morning and evening prayer, teaching her that the liturgy belonged to the people, not to the priest at the front of the church. Her grandmother collected newspapers during World War II and recycled them in Petersburg so she could raise money to buy linens for Retreat Hospital — not some profound act, Anderson says, but a simple, everyday labor of love.
“It wasn’t a religious upbringing in one sense,” she says, “but in another sense it was. It had a meaning in their daily living; that’s what caught my attention.”
As with acting, there were few acceptable roles for women in church at that time. Anderson taught at District of Columbia Teachers College and spent 20 years as an adjunct professor at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. She earned a doctor of ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary, and after the Episcopal Church decided in the 1970s to admit women to the clergy, Anderson was ordained in 1977 in Washington, D.C.
“It took me 14 years to do what a man could do in three,” she says. “Not because I was stupid, but because they kept changing rules to keep us out.”
Anderson served at St. Alban’s Parish, worked as a hospice chaplain at The Washington Home, then became rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in 1987, the first woman in Washington to serve as rector. According to the church’s history, she was a progressive force: “The Rev. Dr. Anderson brought with her a tremendous energy and flair for the theatrical in worship and liturgy … Most significantly, the voice of justice from the pulpit took on a new authority. Under her leadership, the gay Roman Catholic organization Dignity was offered a home at St. Margaret’s when it was forbidden to meet in Catholic churches.”
Anderson says she sought to be an agent of change from within. While at St. Margaret’s, she was inspired to write Prayers of Our Hearts in Word and Action (1991), a book of liturgies and prayers for modern congregations. She felt the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer was out of date, with no inclusive language and no prayers for families going through divorce, for the issues and choices concerning abortion, or for addiction beyond alcohol. She has since written four more books.
Randy Hollerith, rector of St. James’s, said he had been using the prayer book long before he met Anderson.
“It was very valuable to me for a long time,” he says.
In 1996, Anderson had open-heart surgery to repair a valve, and she knew she didn’t have the strength to remain as rector. That year, she returned to Richmond to serve as an associate rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where she stayed for five years.
Anderson credits her time in the theater, rather than seminary, with giving her the best training to be a priest. She is critical of clergy who simply read without actually living the words — a skill she learned from acting.
“An actor has to go into the only thing[s] you have,” she says, “which [are] your soul and your mind and your body. It’s your soul that communicates with the audience. Clergy don’t do that. In seminary, they teach you about the Bible, but it’s on an external basis. In the theater, you learn that it’s internal.
“There’s a connectedness not just between actor and audience, but with the actors onstage. There’s another dimension of spirituality, a power that’s beyond the audience and the actor, something that bridges us.”
Her occasional sermons are well loved by the St. James’s parishoners, Hollerith says.
“She’s incredibly articulate; it comes from her days on stage,” he said. “She’s very good on her feet. She’s very good at taking what could be complex issues of scripture and making them very accessible to people.”
Anderson is always creating. Whether it’s needlepoint, painting, photography, crafting jewelry, or designing banners and vestments for churches — it’s “an essential part of her being,” she says. The need for creative expression influences her theological thinking.
“She’s a renaissance woman, that’s a great phrase for her,” Hollerith says. “There’s very little she can’t do.”
For Anderson, the Scriptures are all about transformation. Her favorite phrase comes from a verse in Isaiah — “Behold, I make all things new. Do you see it?” — and she lights up when she recites it.
“‘Do you see it?’ No, we often don’t,” she says. “But I love the idea that things are being made new.”
When she was a hospice chaplain, Anderson would often make time to go to a hospital delivery ward. Welcoming new life gave her balance in dealing with death on a daily basis. She learned to be open, to be vulnerable when patients and families trusted her with their pain and sorrow. In many ways, she says, sharing the intimacy of dying was an incredible gift. Although there is pain and heartache, there is also love that has been shared, she says.
“I think that’s how you balance it — by living into it,” she says. “And when you do, there’s always a transformation of that. You never know what it’s going to be, and you can’t predict what it will be. But there’s always a transformation. To put that in theological language, to me, that’s the meaning of resurrection.”
Many times in her life, Anderson could have let illness destroy her, and there were days she moaned and groaned. But in the midst of it all, she discovered how she wanted to live. “That’s the challenge,” she says, “to find how to keep contributing to the process of life and living.”