I finished my sabbatical on the July 4th weekend, and my mother passed away on July 7. She had encouraged me to pursue each planned endeavor as a "life-altering time," and her passing certainly put the stamp on this being a new chapter. Sitting and breathing with her on her last afternoon was a privilege, and I am grateful. All of it feels like a whole cloth, if you know what I mean. Some of you have heard my reflections about the three-month "Healing Landscapes" experience, but this is my first attempt to put it them in writing.
The Healing Landscapes theme plunged me into wilderness adventure, photography, disciplined meditation, and reading. I spent a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani in silent retreat, with a formal meditation practice of four hours a day. A Center for Courage and Renewal Retreat at Lake Hickory, North Carolina, was a great small group experience of listening, leading from within, and editing the self out of our responses to others. There were good times of family recreation in Brown County, Indiana, and the mountains of North Carolina, and a renewal of my annual canoe trip with friends in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. During the middle time of the sabbatical - designated as reading days - I spent much time going to Mom's nursing home and feeding her. Day by day, this became another form of contemplation, on the order of letting your life be your practice.
In the final three weeks - June running into July - I drove across the country to New Mexico, seeing cherished relatives along the way. The Ghost Ranch provided a stunningly beautiful venue for another week-long silent meditation retreat, following much the same format as Gethsemani. Those of you who know me will note that in the whole week, surrounded by hundreds of campers, workshoppers, and tourists, I spoke to only five people. When that week was done, Debbie flew out to meet me for vacation time in Taos, New Mexico and good family visits in Texas.
1) I have never really rested as an adult. My life has been all action and energy, and it is time to hit the reset button. A new pace, and more delegation, will be healthier for both me, my family and the church.
2) I have a greater appreciation for the power of spiritual practices to connect us to others, the natural world, and the Spirit breathing in us. We are not merely observers of the world around us, but rather we are "in the picture" with everything and everyone. This perspective tends to loosen or dissolve one's attachment to self.
3) Cut off from television for long periods of time, and focusing on person-to-person interactions, I grew very weary of our social-political spitting matches which are fueled by television and social media. As T.S. Eliot said, "Teach us to care, and not to care."
4) I only went to a regular church service once in three months - the Sanctuary de Chimayo in New Mexico. My observation as a temporary outsider is that the American Church (everybody) is in atrial fibrillation - much fluttering about to little effect. What is needed? Calm focus on our mission.
5) Personally and professionally, I am returning with a renewed focus on my role as a religious teacher and leader - with a connected vow to be less of the church errand boy. The long stretches of road were accompanied by a lot of good music, and Jackson Browne's "For a Dancer" emerged as a fitting theme:
Just do the steps that you've been shown
by everyone you've ever known
until the dance becomes your very own.
No matter how close to yours
another's steps have grown,
in the end there is one dance you'll do alone.
6) One of the best books I read during this time was The Practice of the Wild, by Gary Snyder. It is a very wide-ranging essay on earth, spirit, life, death and everything in between and it has a surprise ending. Table grace! Snyder concludes, "Saying some sort of grace is never inappropriate and speeches and announcements can be tacked on...It is the plain, ordinary little thing to do that connects us to all of our ancestors." Yes. I return with gratitude and excitement. Of course, the church basement still leaks. On my parents' 35th wedding anniversary, my sister and my family took them to Chicago where they met and married. We found the little church on the south side where my dad had been the church janitor, and where their wedding took place in 1952. Though it was late afternoon, we tried knocking on the door. A middle-aged African-American man, who turned out to be the pastor, opened it. Without any introduction, my father asked, "Does the basement still leak?" At that, both he and the pastor broke into raucous laughter.