I will never forget my first impression of the Sonoran desert, “I’ve never experienced anything like this!” Br. Guy, in his usual quick witted fashion retorted, “No, you haven’t experienced anything like this because there is no other place in the world like this.” Many times I have spoken of entering “a new world” when I travel to a foreign land for the first time. When it came to the desert of Arizona, this “new world” sentiment took on a new depth of meaning – And I loved it!
My sabbatical has been rich with “new world” experiences. The program offered by the Redemptorists is in desert spirituality in the contemplative tradition. With my head, I re-entered the world of the Desert Fathers with the guidance of Thomas Merton – A world I know rather well. In my my heart, however, I truly entered a new world of trying to live my faith less in my head and more at the core of who I am. A central theme for me to take from sabbatical is this: How does the world that is my flesh and bone connect with the world that is the Sonoran desert?
After 10 weeks, my prayer has become very physical, meaning paying close attention to both the movements of God in my prayer and the warning signs that the physical waters of my body were getting dry. Am I inserting wry humor at this point? Partially. I am also making a point of one of the greatest gifts this sabbatical has given to me – Prayer is a lot easier when you are well hydrated… or better put, my physical health is intimately and inseparably tied to my spiritual health.
This insight shouldn’t be terribly shocking to the Christian. We often speak of total participation in the celebration of the Eucharist in which every aspect of who we are is brought to prayer. We speak of this odd co-mingling of two different worlds, The Earthly Liturgy and the Heavenly Liturgy, happening simultaneously. This is all well and good and should be at the tip of every Christian’s worshiping tongue.
I thought I understood total participation in the liturgy before sabbatical, but when I began to pay closer attention to every fiber of my being in my personal prayer and then brought that to the liturgy, I began to see the liturgy anew. No longer was it something that I simply attended to kneel down, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!!! (A little American football humor for those who know the cheer). Rather, the idea of participation in liturgy was made new as I deepened the question I shared with you about connectedness between the world and my being in prayer, “How does the creation that I am participate in both the created world I am a part of and the re-created world slowly unfolding that is God’s Kingdom?”
Again, nothing new to the old noggin on my shoulders. However, when we begin to be aware of how our bodies are connecting us to liturgy, this awareness can help us have a “new world” experience of faith. The comingling of the earthly and heavenly liturgies becomes a little less abstract and more concrete. It also gave me new appreciation for Pope Francis’ writings on Integral Ecology and his reflection on St. Francis of Assisi.
I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Francis (of Assisi) helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (Laudato Si’ 10-11)
New worlds. It’s an interesting phrase when you think about it. I remember the first time I saw images of Io, Jupiter’s little tortured moon. This floating sulfur volcano is constantly turning itself inside out. It is constantly active.
Even though I didn’t literally visit this “new world,” the fascination I felt studying Io for the first time made me question something I never questioned before, “What does it mean for something to be ‘alive?’” Before this, I always thought of “alive” in organic terms: Plants, Animals, Humans, etc. I started to realize the “Bio-centric” bias I was imposing on the term “alive” and that my concept of life was not making room for Io. “This little moon IS alive with activity!” I remember that realization from my college self as if it were yesterday. That’s one of the things I love about astronomy – It constantly pushes me to question that which I presumed was in no need of being questioned. In other words, it helps me grow!
The funny thing about finding news worlds is that they are never really new. They have always been there and hopefully will be with us through our lifetime. Whether it being my sabbatical move from head to heart in prayer or my fascination with supposedly “lifeless” worlds like Io, they always help me better understand who I am as an expression of God’s love. Its a lesson that sabbatical, faith, and science teaches us: The more we can connect ourselves with the world of wonders we live in, the more we discover the wonder of who we are.
I am in the midst of packing to enter a new world. No, I am not getting a new assignment. I am happily returning to my duties as pastor of Saint Olaf Parish in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The new world I speak of is the Covid-19 world. Our sabbatical group has been discussing what should be a simple question, but is getting very complicated for some of us, “How do we get home?” I must admit, the joy I feel of returning to family, friends, and a parish I love is colored with the unknown journey ahead into a disease we still don’t understand. We are in the midst of a new world. It is a world that makes us attuned to our bodies in new ways. It is a world that is constantly active and needs to be vigilantly observed. It is a world that brings us to the hard reality of life and death, survival and living. In many ways, I am going from one sabbatical journey to another. My first sabbatical was filled with beauty and self-awareness. What will this new sabbatical journey bring?
The hard answer – I don’t know. However, it will be my honor to share what that journey will be with you. Stay safe. Stay calm. Be vigilant. Be at peace.