Hi Everyone! It has been a long time since I posted something on my blog page, although Kathy and I have posted frequently on Facebook about my sabbatical travels, which have encompassed the Holy Land, New Zealand, New York City and Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, from where I just returned last Friday. A three-day silent retreat with spiritual direction was just what I needed to ground myself in God after a busy time of travel and ready myself once more for parish ministry. I know it’s a trite thing to say (and to write!), but these three months have flown by, which speaks to how full the days have been for both Kathy and me.
I am extraordinarily grateful to all of you for allowing me this time away to refresh my spirit and experience even more of God’s good creation. I have flown thousands of miles, driven long distances (on both sides of the road!) and also walked a good bunch of miles — particularly in the Holy Land —during which I have seen gorgeous sights and met many wonderful people. It truly has been a grace-filled three months.
So, how can I sum up this experience? I can say unequivocally that I achieved the goals I established for my sabbatical. I had always wanted to go to the Holy Land, and to that end I embarked on a 10-day pilgrimage entitled “Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus” just a day after my final pre-sabbatical Sunday at Messiah, on April 28. A cynical, older priest friend of mine chided me about the title of my pilgrimage, asking how could I possibly think I was walking in Jesus’ footsteps when the land in which Jesus had ministered had changed so radically over 2,000 years? I think he misses the point. I was content simply to BE in the places where we know Jesus was — Jerusalem, Capernaum, Nazareth, the Judean wilderness, and the Jordan River, among other locales. Whether I was treading exactly the same ground as Jesus did was not important to me. The fact that I was surely in the general area of where he had lived, ministered and died was sufficient. I will tell you more about my particular experiences on pilgrimage in person, so as not to drag this blog on too long...
Another goal was to spend quality time with my family and friends in New Zealand, many of whom I hadn’t seen for quite a while. In particular, some of the most recent trips Kathy and I took to New Zealand were largely taken up with helping to care for my elderly parents, both of whom died while we were visiting on vacation in February 2015 and 2016, respectively. To be able to spend over a month visiting with my brothers and sisters without the pressure of needing to pack and move on to another place every couple of days was a great blessing. In addition, I caught up with priest friends whom I had met during my time at seminary in Auckland, NZ, in 2003-2005, and had the opportunity to talk with them and others at some length about their ministries. Not surprisingly, it turned out we had a lot in common. Kathy and I also met with the Bishop of Auckland, the Rt. Rev. Ross Bay, whom I had also met during my seminary days when he was Vicar of a prominent parish in the city. Below are photos of the beautiful sanctuary of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell, Auckland, and a photo of the recently completed new chapel featuring an outdoor cross, which can just be seen through the rear windows. To the right, in contrast, is a shot of the front of the Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch, in the South Island, which was extensively damaged in the earthquake of February, 2011. Plans are ongoing to rebuild the cathedral and it is hoped that initial work will begin early next year.
Third, I wanted to see parts of my home country that I had only visited briefly many years ago and to experience again the beautiful array of mountains, lakes, rivers and forests that are a hallmark of the southern part of the South Island, where “The Lord of the Rings” was filmed. To this end Kathy ,and I spent five days in the tourist city of Queenstown, which is like Aspen on a lake. Queenstown is framed by a range of mountains aptly called The Remarkables, and the waters of Lake Wakatipu that surround it are a striking aqua color. Leaving Queenstown, we drove 300 miles north to the city of Christchurch, passing through what the locals, with considerable understatement, call “High Country”, featuring breathtaking views at almost every turn in the road. Like many other famous geographical landmarks (think Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, etc.), this part of New Zealand seems to be imbued with spiritual power, as if the land itself was bursting with what the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins termed “God’s Grandeur.” I will never forget what I saw on that drive north to Christchurch, nor will I forget the scenic flight and cruise we took to Milford Sound, which was truly the experience of a lifetime. The photos below show the runway at Milford with the famous Mitre Peak in the background, a view of the alps from our seven-seater plane, and views of the ocean cliffs in the Sound, some of which rise to 300 feet above sea level. We enjoyed a two-hour cruise up the Sound to the Tasman Sea and back.
In closing, along with the magnificent scenery of New Zealand, the strikingly varied geography of the Holy Land and the heartfelt reunions we experienced with family members and friends, what stands out for me most about the last three months is simply the memorable conversations we had with people along the way — with restaurant servers, hotel clerks and housekeeping staff, airline employees, Uber drivers and so many others. Without becoming too mystical about it, I understand more than ever before how we are all one people in God’s eyes, purposefully created to be in communion with each other. In some of these conversations we quickly made intimate connections with people who would have remained strangers to us if we had not been thrown together through our roles as travelers and pilgrims and their roles as people who were there to help us on our way.
In chapter 24 of his gospel, Luke describes an encounter between two forlorn disciples and the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus inquires of his fellow travelers, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along? (Luke 24:17, NRSV). This question prompts a conversation that leads to a shared meal and the revelation that the disciples’ master, who they thought was gone from them forever, was in fact sitting at table with them. Taking the time to talk with others along the way, to understand where they have come from, where they are going and what their hopes and dreams are, similarly can lead to an encounter with Christ in our midst. Of all the experiences I had during my sabbatical, this is perhaps the most powerful learning.
Blessings to you all. See you on Sunday!
PS: Many more photos from our trip can be viewed on Kathy and my Facebook pages, if you are interested. Also, I will put together a slide presentation for a talk at church some time in the fall.