Halfway Reflections on a Sabbatical

I’m sitting in a low chair in the business center of a Best Western Plus (I have no idea what makes it a “Plus”– perhaps the water slide at the pool?) in Havre, Montana as I near the halfway mark of my sabbatical.  Officially it happens Saturday when I’ll be tenting in Teddy Roosevelt National Park and away from cyberspace yet again (but will be feeling much closer to outer space in this great stargazing part of the country), so I wanted to get some thoughts down now.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

To think it’s only been half of my sabbatical feels odd. I’ve been away ages it seems and visited so many places. I’ve had a week in New Mexico and then Vancouver. I’ve been in the White Mountains and the Green Mountains of Vermont. We’ve explored 8 National Parks, a National Monument and a variety of other sites, from the strange — I’m looking at you, Green Giant–to the breath-taking–everyone should spend time at the Crazy Horse Memorial. We’ve seen elk, bison, prairie dogs, moose, black bears, eagles, beaver, mountain goats, big horn sheep and more. We’ve visited waterfalls, and hiked mountains. We’ve seen old friends and visited with family. We’ve endured wind gusts pushing 40-50 miles an hour, hail, lightning, rain and the presence of smoke from wildfires at our campsites. We’ve soaked in hot springs, floated on a river, and eaten more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches than I ever though possible.

Along the way I’ve been praying and reading and writing and thinking about wilderness spirituality. My books have dirt marks in them as I’ve been reading outside in a camp chair or swinging in my hammock. Most of all I’ve been pondering on the universality of death and dying as a necessary part of the spiritual life. The poet Mary Oliver explores this in her poem “At Black River.” She describes watching the king of a pond in Florida–a gator of course–as he watches and waits. She knows that something will cause him to strike–a bird, perhaps or a fish. She’s not pleased about this, in fact she’s afraid. But then she ends:

Then I remember:

death comes before

the rolling away

of the stone.

Always. Good Friday with its death and anguish before the joy of Easter. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Jesus taught his disciples. “If you lose your life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, you’ll save it.”

Often we do not take these things seriously, or at least not when it comes to ourselves.  Who wants to lose themselves? Who wants to experience death? We think somehow we can circumnavigate the reality of Christian faith and skip over to Easter. Wilderness spirituality will have nothing to do with that.

And so I think about my own life, how I need to let go of my former self to become more fully who God calls me to be. These aren’t new ideas, but the chance to be away has given me time to delve more deeply into them.

We’ve been listening to the Chronicles of Narnia on our road trip. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treadera boy named Eustace turns into a dragon.  He’s been a monster throughout, frankly, being rude and demanding along the way. But his time as a dragon makes him realize how much he appreciates the others he’s been traveling with. He wants desperately to return to his human form, and the great lion Aslan appears and invites him to bathe. However, Aslan tells him he must undress before stepping into the inviting pool. Eustace tries to remove his skin, thinking that’s what the lion means, so he scratches off the outer layer like a snake shedding its skin. He does this three times to no avail; he’s still very much dragony. And then the lion himself comes and digs in deep with his claws–a very unpleasant experience, we’re told, but one that Eustace longed for–until the entire dragon body gets ripped away and Aslan flings Eustace into the water. He emerges as much less of a monster and more a pleasant young man.

So that’s where I’m at, as my shoulders begin to ache due to the height of this chair in relation to the table on which the computer sits. And above all I feel gratitude and love, so grateful to be given this wonderful gift and so buoyed by the deep care I’ve felt–and still feel–from the good people of St. Mark’s. I am eager for what lies ahead as well as for the time when I’ll return. A friend told me that sabbaticals will change you, and I replied that I was counting on it. I know the parish I’m so lucky to serve will be changing too. I know that new life continues to emerge.