I have a meeting to attend at 2 this afternoon. I need to do some final tidying up on my desk and an email to send out. Then, I am truly and officially on vacation. First up is the chicken coop. We won’t actually start working on it until Friday but last night, I placed the order to receive 10 little peeps on October 24th. Most of them are brown egg layers but two will lay blue eggs and two, olive green eggs. My little heart does a happy dance thinking of the morning when the postoffice calls me at abut six am to come pick up the tiny box full of the most beauteous little fluff ball chicks…
I like planning and organizing sequences a lot. My freshman year in college, I took a course in BASIC, an old programming language from fairly early in the age of computers. What I remember loving was the flow charts we had to create as the first step in writing code. I loved the crispness and clarity they provided, the specificity of alternatives paths that opened based on yes/no decisions. That a task could be broken down to these exceedingly well-understood steps was both surprising and obvious. I still want to organize life, projects, all kinds of things, around a flowchart. And if I can put date and time and place and person in front of each step, even better.
I started out taking that approach when I finally settled on a trip to Maine next month. I have a basic timeline because I won’t be staying in a single place and had to make some reservations. Somewhere along the way, though, I realized I am a whole lot more comfortable moving through chaos than I used to be, a lot more willing to stay open to what may unfold in totally unexpected ways and places. As I made the decisions to leave most of the 12 days I’ll be in Maine blank, I turned back to a short, beautiful, book by Abraham Heschel called “The Sabbath.”
Heschel draws a distinction I find very helpful between time and space. He makes the argument that our relationship with space has a lot to do with mastery and control—we form and reform and reshape creation; most of our days are spent on those tasks. I don’t think Heschel intends to condemn those days. Certainly, I have known extraordinary joy and wonder on the occasions when I led or worked on a project where, not only were the results as good or better than I had hoped, but the relationships within the team had grown stronger because of the work we did together. Last weekend, I pulled out a recipe handwritten by mom at least 35 years ago, that took me two days to complete. At one point I had 5 bowls I was working with, moving quickly from one to the other. When I plated the dessert at my friend’s house, it felt like I had honored my mama by bringing that Charlotte Russe (the Swedish version) to celebrate two birthdays. I felt such satisfaction on her behalf. A recipe, like a flowchart, had given me a path to that moment and I was grateful.
But Heschel insists that to observing the Sabbath we must stop. Just stop. We cannot allow the next step, the next task, the next item on a to-do list, to hold us hostage. Within the bounds of 24 hours, the Sabbath allows those who observe it to sanctify time, because when we make that full stop, we allow God into our lives in a different way. The Sabbath allows us to “tend to the seeds of eternity planted in our souls,” in Heschel’s words.
Today is the second anniversary of my dad’s death. Stopping often this week to retrace our steps in those last days was probably inevitable. But repeatedly this week, it is another memory that surfaces. In 2012, my dad and I spent almost two weeks in Sweden so my dad could attend a class reunion and celebrate his 85th birthday. It was the height of summer and on our last night in Stockholm, we decided to ride the ferry that goes through the Stockholm archipelago, making many stops where people, going to spend some days in their summer homes, can disembark. We stayed on the ferry all along the route and had a lovely dinner on board. Then at about 9:30 or 10 that night, after feasting our eyes on the beauty that revealed itself all along the path through Baltic waters, we sat on a bench in the twilight of a Swedish summer night.
After a while in silence, my dad started talking. We’d just gone by the island where his parents rented a house in 1937. Already, the rumbles of war could be heard, even out there. But they were still distant enough and my dad was a young enough boy, that those were blissful days of time out of time. It was an exquisitely, heart-breaking-ly, beautiful moment of getting to know my dad as I never had before. I think I got some sense of the meaning of Sabbath as Heschel describes it, sitting on that bench with Dad. Time was sanctified.
My trip to Maine will be different because I will be alone. I have the sense that for Heschel, the Sabbath is deeply communal. My introverted self, who has been intensely engaged in my communal work as a priest, a mom, a wife, a friend, is longing for the open space and time of solitude. I will be able to follow where curiosity and wonder invite me. I have a couple of visits planned, including with my Godchild, whom I am extraordinarily proud of. I look forward to getting to know them as a young adult who has just bought a small market in a town along the coast. I will also blog a fair amount, I suspect. I won’t completely stay away from community.
But I am going to allow this part of the world I don’t know (except to understand it will remind me of Sweden with its granite cliffs facing out to the Atlantic) to tell me new stories. In the words of Parker Palmer, I am going to allow “my life to speak to me.” Sabbath begins, appropriately enough, close to sundown on a Friday, in 3 weeks, when I land in Portland, get my rental car and head out to places I’ve never been.
There is a striking scene towards the end of the movie The Way starring Martin Sheen. A dad who got that most devastating of all calls in the middle of the night, Sheen must travel to France unexpectedly. He is going to pick up the ashes of his somewhat estranged son who died in a freak storm as he started a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James). One thing leads to another, and Sheen decides do the pilgrimage, carrying his son’s ashes with him. There are beautiful, transformative moments along the path, filled to the brim with grief, self-discovery, laughter. Finally, he arrives in Santiago and heads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to participate in the daily Pilgrim’s Mass, replete with medieval majesty and mystery.
One of traditions of the Camino involves getting on your knees for the very last stretch of the journey, as you make your way from the entrance of the church to the foot of a large statue of St. James. Sheen, whose character is a hard-charging lawyer, has been reclaiming his Roman Catholic identity all along the way. In the doorway, he hesitates for a split second and then slowly, carefully, not without difficulty, goes down on his knees to end his pilgrimage as millions of other faithful people have done since the eleventh century. I found that scene very moving, always imagined I would do the same. To me, it’s yet another way in which our bodies can be vessels of grace and give witness to the agency at the heart of all faith. You choose to take those final steps on your knees not because you have to, but because you can, because it is an act of humility, because to me, this is an act of gratitude. I don’t believe a statue is endowed with any special, magical powers. Rather, it is part of the sacramentality that has been so central to my faith: what we can touch, feel, see, smell is able to serve as an outward and visible sign of an inwardly and invisible grace. Even if I never walk the Camino, I will always be able to imagine the awe I’d experience after walking from Porto to Santiago, the joy in my capacity in body, heart, and mind, to go in search of, and find a holy place.
Reflecting on the stretch of time I will have in September, I’ve wondered what a pilgrimage might look like for me in my current, bounded, set of circumstances. When I am willing to practice patience (not often), I find a new possibility usually emerges that cannot replace what had to be let go of, but has its own wonder and meaning—its own holiness.
Instead of going to Santiago, I am going to spend most of the last two weeks of the month in Maine. In the strictest sense of the word, this won’t be a pilgrimage. By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey to a shrine or sacred site. That’s not what I’m going to do; I’m not even sure I’ll make it to church at all. I am simply yearning to spend most of those days outside. I am already selecting the trails I will hike, the places where I want to sit on the edge of a cliff, looking out at the same Atlantic as I would have seen had I been on the Camino. I’ll even wave, in case Mary can see me. One day, I hope to be a straight-out tourist: go out to sea to try to see whales. The first time I went on retreat, my friend Robin told me to take a camera to look for God. It’s been advice I’ve followed ever since. I am looking forward to doing lots of photography. I also have a brand-new Moleskine to write in. And I will get to keep silence. Lots of silence. I have a couple of visits planned but I will spend most of my time alone, and I am putting a plan together to go to places where there will not be big tourist crowds. That feels like heaven.
“Lord, you give the great commission” is a well-known hymn in the Episcopal Church. When I took my General Ordination Exam, I had to write an essay about the theology of mission of the hymn. The line that guided my effort to answer that question is at the beginning of the third verse: “Lord, you make the common holy…” That line comes back to me as I consider my time in Maine. There may not be a shrine. I surely will not approach the statue of a saint on my knees to touch it as I raise a prayer at journey’s end. And. I will be on holy ground because all ground is holy and all time can be sanctified. Not the Way of Santiago, but actually, a pilgrimage nonetheless…
For months I went back and forth about my plan for September. Walking one of the routes of “Camino de Santiago,” the web of pilgrimage paths that lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, has been a dream of mine for a good 25 years. I was going to take this September to walk the Coastal Portuguese Way; my most wonderful friend M was going to walk with me. I even renamed this blog of mine in honor of that journey. Then, the Omicron wave hit. War broke out in Ukraine. My Dutch brother said, “this is not the time to travel in Europe.” The dissonance between what a pilgrimage is supposed to be, and my own anxiety was too great; in May I cancelled my trip to Portugal and Spain.
For weeks after, I sat with the disappointment. Small alternative plans were made that fell apart. Over and over, I asked myself, “why was this important, what was this all about?” Gradually, I realized this is part of a far larger ‘life project.’ In a sense, it’s a quest, about looking for something specific. A quest I’ve been on for most of my life, to find peace and acceptance of myself as flesh, and bone, and blood.
Until around my mid-twenties, my experience of myself was filled with considerable pain, physically, but even more so, in heart and mind and spirit. The realities surrounding my left hip—its malformation, all the surgeries, pins through my bone that were tightened daily for weeks to force my femur to grow (necessary torture so I could have reconstructive surgery), made pain a constant. To this day, just the thought of getting blood drawn sends my heart racing; there are so many memories of nurses digging to find a new vein for an IV in the arm of a very little girl. Makes my skin crawl.
As I moved into adolescence, this split between the reality of what it meant to be this particular body and what seemed reasonable to hope for about myself got more difficult. I began to struggle with my weight. I had to get glasses. Those hideous orthopedic shoes I’ve written about before. It’s not that there weren’t good times and privilege; absolutely there were. It’s just that, at a time when you are constantly comparing yourself, I became more and more alienated and filled with despair by a body that left me feeling isolated, that failed me as I tried to find a place in the world where I fit. For so many of those years, I lived in my head and in the books that opened worlds I could inhabit free of all that was wrong with me.
Then, the day finally came when l fell in love, madly, deeply, passionately. After a particularly wonderful day with my love, I lay in bed that night thinking, this must be what it is like to be a ballerina when she is able to be more true to dance, move more gracefully, than she ever has before. Who I had been that day, what I had been able to offer without shame or self-consciousness, was only possible in this particular body, this one and no other. I had done everything I could to leave my body in any way I could, and the only hope for a meaningful life was to find my way back to it. Love allowed me to discover there was, in fact, a way back.
I reached a different milestone the year Sherod began to work on his DMin in Chicago. We lived in Memphis at the time, and he’d be gone for 6 weeks that summer. I was determined not to be a clingy, needy wife, even if we’d never been apart for so long. I asked myself what I might do to be true to myself in the meantime. I am the granddaughter of a sailor and sea captain. I don’t know why I thought that mattered but it seemed reason enough to enroll in a 10-day sailing class by taught by women for women, on the west coast of Florida. I think the picture that follows says it all…
The next big step came with my mother’s death. For a number of reasons, I began to walk every evening. At first I went to the end of the street we lived on. I kept pushing though, so by the time Sherod and I left Fort Lauderdale, I was walking 6 or so miles every night, and had completed a walking half-marathon that was part of the Mercedes Benz Marathon in Birmingham. I got strong enough (and brave enough) to go zip-lining through the rain forest in Panamá, on a visit to see my dad.
In 2013, also took a 30 day sabbatical/silent retreat that allowed me to do magnificent hiking around Lake Tahoe. Each part of the quest helped me discover something new, usually a gift of being myself in my body, that pulled me deeper into hope and joy.
Then, shortly after I returned from my retreat in Tahoe , life as I had been carefully building it, unraveled. The details are still painful to consider but on June 20, 2014, Sherod and I began the move to Alabama. As we pulled out of Fort Lauderdale, I remember seriously wondering if I would be able to make it through this move, started feeling like I would end up crushed beyond recognition.
Sherod stayed until the movers unloaded our household goods in our new home in Lowndesboro but he still had to finish up his pastorate in Fort Lauderdale. He headed back south and then, I was on my own for almost 3 months. After Sherod left, I started getting to know the 4 acres of our small farm/homestead and realized it was up to me to make sure the garden around our house and our two pastures did not grow wild beyond all reason. All we had was a push mower and for those 12 weeks, when I wasn’t busy with my part-time job, I mowed. I mean, I mowed a lot. Most days, I cried as I went back and forth from one end of the property to the other. At night, I’d go to bed so exhausted I was asleep in less than 5 minutes; it was good, restful, renewing, sleep.
Having a body able to do the hard work of mowing through an Alabama summer gave me a way to grieve what needed to be grieved, ensured bitterness and despair did not take hold. I found myself in a healthier space than I’d ever had before, unafraid to look at what had happened, not just what others had done and said, but also my own failures. My tears were a baptism of repentance and in equal measure, of forgiveness. I was set free to find my way in a new version of life, the kind I think is meant in the Gospel of John when Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and life abundant.”
These last years have been about navigating through a world turned upside down, still looking for, and sometimes finding, pieces of myself I did not want to accept, tried to abandon, or at least ignored. I can’t imagine I’m that different from anybody else. I’m going to take that month off, come September 1, because the quest does continue. What I’ve also figured out is this time will also be about pilgrimage and sabbath. (to be continued)