Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sabbatical Phase II - Ways in the Wilderness

The facade of Notre Dame

One of the beautiful wood carvings in Notre Dame, but notice the dust!
We left Florida on Friday, September 18, a day later than we were supposed to (see previous entry) and headed for New York where, on Saturday, I was officiating at the blessing of a marriage for our nephew.   All went well and we enjoyed seeing many family members whom we had not seen in years.

We departed Newark Airport for Tel Aviv (via Paris) on Sunday evening at 7:10 PM.  The flight was uneventful (although there were some moments of pretty strong turbulence) and we arrived in Paris at about 9:30 AM.   As our next flight, from Paris to Tel Aviv, was not scheduled to depart until 6:45 PM, we decided to go into Paris by rail, which takes less than an hour.

We headed for the area around Notre Dame and had breakfast at an outdoor cafe not far from the Cathedral.  We discovered a lovely little park with a memorial to the Jewish children of France, 11,000 of them, who had been rounded up by the Nazis and killed in the extermination camps. After this, we went into the Cathedral and spent considerable time walking around it, then stayed for the noonday Mass.  The Cathedral is extraordinary in every way and we especially appreciated the efforts made to assure that it is a living church and doesn't simply devolve into a museum for tourists.   There were priests on duty in glass enclosed areas for confession and counsel and people were taking advantage of this ministry.  It must be said, however, that the Cathedral is dusty and dirty and in much need of restoration and repair. Walls with lovely frescoes are noticeably peeling.  Still, it is captivating.

After this, we found a small creperie and had crepes for lunch.  Voila!  Then back to the airport for our night time flight to Tel Aviv.

With Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock behind us

Again, our flight was uneventful, but we were pretty tired and both slept.  We arrived in Tel Aviv and passed through immigration and customs without any trouble,  We were met by Ehmet who was a driver sent to us from St. George's College who drove us the 40 minutes to the College.   We passed through the door and were met by their nighttime security person who gave us our keys and showed us to our rooms.  They are simple, sparsely furnished, like a college dorm room - 2 twin beds, two desks, two chairs, 4 lamps, 2 wardrobes, with a small individual bathroom.  We were grateful to be here and found our way to bed pretty quickly.  

Tuesday was pretty much a free day.   We went into the Old City and then decided we wanted to do something different.   We headed to the Israeli Museum only to find that it is closed until 4 PM on Tuesdays.  We ended up going back to the College and napping.  We needed that more than anything anyway.

On Tuesday evening we met the rest of the people participating in the course.   There are about 30 of us total.  There is a course director who will be delivering the lectures throughout our time.  There are two monks, Brother Curtis and Brother David, from the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA (Yes, we Episcopalians do have monks).  They will lead our prayer lives during the next 14 days and will also offer meditations throughout.  There are a couple of other staff members.  Other than that, the group is mostly American, though there is a strong contingent of clergy from England participating.  There are also a number of lay people; some clergy spouses, some not.

As I write, it is Wednesday night and we leave early in the morning for the Judean Desert and then we are heading for the Negev Desert where we will be spending the night in Bedouin style tents.

This morning we had our introductory lecture, delivered by The Rev. Dr. Andrew Mayes who is the Course Director and has expertise in Desert Spirituality.

He introduced us to four key themes of desert spirituality that we will be developing over the course of the next two weeks.  Each has a Greek term that comes from the early desert fathers. They are:

Hesychias - quietude, stilling one's self from the external noise without and the internal noise within

Anachoresis -  withdrawal from the demands and distractions of the everyday world to create space for what should be embraced

Eremia - solitude, aloneness, detachment

Askesis - discipline - like the athlete attempting to trim excess weight.

In most of the tradition of the desert fathers, this kind of withdrawal and separation was not merely or primarily for the sake of the self - a form of narcissistic navel gazing. It was about withdrawing from the clamor and noise of the world so that one could be more open to God and God's voice; so that one could listen and obey.  Ultimately, this kind of withdrawal is for the sake of the community.  This is, largely, what my sabbatical is about.

Behind us, the Judean Wilderness where we are headed tomorrow

Basil the Great, one of whose leters Dr. Mayes used for his lecture today, was suspicious of those who were hermits for hermits sake.  Understanding that Christian mission and ministry is always for the sake of others, Basil asked, "If I am alone, whose feet will I wash?"   The reference is, of course, to Christ's example of servant leadership at the Last Supper, when he washed the disciples' feet and commanded them to do the same and to love one another.  Tomorrow we go into the wilderness.  I wonder what I will hear?  I wonder who I will hear?   Will it be the voice of God?  That is my prayer and my deep hope and yearning.

Blessings and peace.

Susan's Unfortunate Encounter with a Brown Reculse Spider

Toward the end of our last trip to Yellowstone, which took place on Saturday, September 11, we decided to read Evening Prayer and a chapter from Thomas Keating at a picnic table by Otter Creek, which was a lovely setting (see picture).  It was a beautiful day.  A large raven kept coming near to us and "hacking" as if he (or she) was trying to cough something up.   In hindsight, Susan feels it was a conspiracy and that the raven was trying to distract her while a brown recluse spider bit her!  She never felt anything, which we later discovered is pretty typical of brown recluse spider bites.  On the way home, she complained that her finger was itching and that it felt something like a mosquito bite.  We didn't think much more of it.

On Sunday we went to church and to breakfast afterwards and walked around Cody for a little.  We went back to the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center and Susan complained about her finger and showed it to me.  There was a small blue/black growth (see picture).  I said to her, "Let's go, we're going to the Emergency Room."   We had seen the hospital several times in passing and as it is adjacent to the Buffalo Bill Cody Historic Center, we had no difficulty finding it.

There was no one in the waiting room and they took Susan right in, but not before we noticed a large United States map on the wall with orange labels all over it indicating where in the country people had come from when they found themselves in this ER. Of course, because Cody is a major entrance point for Yellowstone they get people from around the country.  They also see a wide variety of problems.  Around the border of the map was space to indicate the specific emergency that had brought people in.  Hand-written entries indicated various wounds and injuries  (e.g. bicycle accident, sprained ankle SPIDER BITE!) The intake person saw us looking at the map and said, "That's right, you're now a statistic!"

Susan was quickly seen by a triage nurse and it wasn't long before the ER doctor on duty came in.  He was very kind, and also quite thorough.  He told us that 99% of people who come in believing they have a brown recluse spider bite actually have contracted a staph infection.  In looking at Susan's wound, he felt she was among the 1% that actually had been bitten by a brown recluse spider.   We were asked if we had brought the spider with us.  Of course we hadn't; Susan didn't even know when she had been bitten.  Without the spider, there is no way to definitively determine that it actually was a brown recluse spider.  We later discovered (thanks to my favorite on-line source Wikipedia) that a brown recluse's venom is more toxic than a rattlesnakes, but the effects of the bite are not as severe (though still very serious) because the amount of venom delivered in the bite is much less.

He gave her antibiotics and told her she had to see her own physician at home.  He also told us that she would likely be referred to a hand surgeon who would at some point probably need to cut out the infected skin once the toxin stoppped spreading.  The venom actully kills tissue.  We were told to watch the would for growth.

The next day, Monday, we got on our flight in the morning and headed back to Florida, arriving late in the evening.   Susan called en route and made an appointment with our physician in Florida.  In the meantime, the wound was growing and looking increasingly inflamed.

On Tuesday morning, she went for her appointment.   They had not seen anything like this before.  They took a culture and sent her immediately to Dr. Angelo Incorvaia in Boynton Beach who is a hand surgeon.  He was just terrific.   He was not convinced it was a brown recluse spider bite and thought it looked like staph.   When I showed him the photo I had taken, he then said that it may be a brown recluse spider bite.  He also took a culture.

We explained to him that we were scheduled to leave for New York on Thursday (2 days from then) and that we were headed first to New York and then overseas including Israel, Egypt and Jordan.   We had particular concerns about conditions in Egypt.  "What would you do if this were your wife?" I asked him.  "I'd put her on IVs with antibiotics," he answered without hesitation.   That was what we did.

Susan went to an Infectious Disease Office at the corner of Congress and Golf Road right away and got hooked up for IVs.   She did the same on Thursday morning at 8:00 AM and saw Dr. Incorvaia again after that appointment.   We were supposed to fly to New York on Thursday, but we missed our flight, in part because this had thrown us a curve ball and we still had things to get done. It worked out for the best though, as she got additional antibiotics by IV on Friday morning before we did actually leave.

Susan was instructed to soak her finger in Epsom salts and hydrogen peroxide three times a day and she was put on a course of oral antibiotics.  As I write this, it is Wednesday, September 22 and we are in Jerusalem.  The wound is healing and she is doing as she was instructed.  Hopefully, the spider bite, which did turn out to become a MRSA staph infection, will heal.  We are watching it very carefully. Now all Susan has to do is stay away from scorpions while we're in the desert!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Phase I - Cody, Wyoming and Yellowstone – Reflections 3

As I write, Susan and I are on an Air France jet heading for Paris en route to Tel Aviv. We will be met in Tel Aviv by the driver from St. George’s College who will take us to the College in Jerusalem where we will begin our course Ways in the Wilderness on September 22. The flight seemed a good time to share some additional thought and reflections on our Wyoming experience.

Exactly a week ago, we were in Cody. On Sunday morning we worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church where the Rev. Mary Caucutt is the Rector. It is one of the bigger churches in the Diocese of Wyoming. The Sunday we were there was their ministry kick-off Sunday, so we felt very connected with our St. Paul’s family as that same Sunday (the 15th) was the St. Paul’s Ministry Fair. We hope and trust that went well. It is also the tradition at Christ Church, Cody to have an “instructed Eucharist” on that Sunday, which means that there are pauses throughout the service when an appointed person (in this instance and assisting priest) explains each particular part of the service and explains its meaning in the service. We have had instructed Eucharists at St. Paul’s, but it’s been awhile, and this made me think it was time for another. I suspect it will be one of the things we put on the calendar when we get back, perhaps for Lent. Our visit was delightful and the church community in Cody vibrant

Throughout the service I was overwhelmed by an inner sense of my deep thankfulness for the week Susan and I had in Wyoming. I have shared some of that with you.
We took our longest excursion into Yellowstone on Saturday, our last day in the Park, when we went to Mammouth Hot Springs which is in the north end of the park. Yellowstone’s North entrance is actually on the Wyoming and Montana border. Major attractions in that part of the park are the Upper and Lower Terraces which are hot springs and travertines formed by Calcite and other minerals (see picture). I really wanted to see these as I had visited the incredible Terraces in Pamukkale in Turkey. I wanted to see how the two compared (actually, although in every other way Yellowstone is stupendous, the terraces were not as impressive as in Pammaukele). Still, they were worth seeing and the entire drive to them spectacular.

Our Saturday drive from the Eastern entrance was exceptionally beautiful, and especially when we went through the higher elevations. There had been a pretty significant snowfall which had, in fact, closed the East Entrance Road for a while on Thursday. Because of the snowfall, we stayed in Cody on both Thursday and Friday where we spent many hours in the wonderful Buffalo Bill Historic Center (see which is really five museums rolled into one. Separate wings include a fabulous collection of American Western Art including a number of original Remingtons; a museum of Natural History which focuses on the particular natural history of that part of the country; a wing dedicated to the history of the Native Americans of the Plains; a wing dedicated to Buffalo Bill Cody and his amazing story; and lastly a wing devoted to the history of firearms.

On that Thursday, we also went to the Visitors Center at the Buffalo Bill Dam which was, at one time the highest arch dam in the United States. We got to stand on the dam and here the amazing story of its building in unbelievable conditions.

Susan and I also hiked up the Ridge Trail behind the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center. It was pretty windy, but it did allow us a good hike and a view of hills and mountains that took our breath away. We read some of Thomas Keating on that hill and then took some silent time.

As this sabbatical takes shape around the themes of wilderness and solitude, it strikes me that the Wyoming experience will be distinct for underscoring the magnificence of God’s creation. When we get to Jerusalem and begin that phase with the Ways in the Wilderness course, nature will certainly be a significant component, but there will be more attention to the biblical and early monastic experiences.

In Yellowstone and Cody it was Creation writ large that struck me and captured my heart and imagination. That scale of awesome wonder calls forth a deep humility. It is something I will continue to celebrate and ponder. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it well, “the world is charged with the glory of God.” On our way out of the Park that last Saturday we to see a Grizzly Bear, a Moose and her baby and an American bald Eagle in flight. It was a wondrous finish!

In my next installment, I'll tell you about Susan's unfortunate run-in with a Brown Recluse Spider!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Farewell Cody and Yellowstone!

It's 6:00 AM and we are preparing to leave our quarters at Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center and head to the airport for the long trek home. We have a 5 hour layover in Denver. We are taking advantage of this and let Heather Daniell, who lives in the Denver area and who had been our Administrative Assistant at St. Paul's a couple of years ago, know we would be stuck at the airport for some time. She is going to meet us and we will visit and have lunch together.

This past week has been extraordinary. We made 3 trips to Yellowstone. It is a 50 minute drive to the East Gate, and then another 40 minute drive or so to Fishing Bridge and the Grand Loop which is a figure-eight road that takes one around to the the different parts of this incredible park. I had said to some before I left that I was, in many ways, looking forward to visiting Yellowstone as much, and perhaps more, than any other part of the sabbatical journey. I was not disappointed. It is an experience of a lifetime and certainly, has set the stage for the rest of our "wilderness" experiences.

In my Bible Studies and in sermons, I have often stated that in the Bible, the wilderness is a place of holy encounter. It is, and it has certainly been for us here in Cody, and most especially in Yellowstone.

I've got to go; we need to get to the airport, but I will pick up the narrative of this week in my next entry. At the top of this entry are some of the beautiful pictures we took at Yellowstone on our second day in the park.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sabbatical Journal - Cody, Wyoming - Wednesday, September 8

Susan and I arrived safely at the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center in Cody, Wyoming on Labor Day, Monday, September 6 after a long, but uneventful travel day. During our travel we spoke several times of what a wonderful Kick-off/Send-off Sunday it had been at St. Paul's. A huge thank you to all who volunteered and made it a great day!

We flew from West Palm Beach to Dallas, from Dallas to Denver and from Denver to Cody. The Cody airport is the smallest airport we have ever arrived in and we have arrived in some pretty small one's before! The airport is only 3 miles from the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center. We got here at about 5 PM Cody time (Mountain Time) and were cordially welcomed by Jay and Connie Moody who are the Directors. We are staying in the West House which has 6 bedrooms; a comfortable living room; full kitchen and an especially beautiful back porch and garden area that is peaceful and overlooks the surrounding hills and mountains. No one else is here and we have it all to ourselves which is an unanticipated blessing, giving us real space and quiet time. Jay was especially helpful in letting us know where to eat and shop.

After dumping our bags we went to downtown Cody to go to the Rib and Chop Restaurant. There was quite a crowd, the last fling of the summer we guess, and we had to wait about 45 minutes for a table, so we walked around for a awhile, exhausting the downtown in that time (the population of Cody, is about 8,600 people!) After dinner, we shopped at the local Albertsons (they did not close their stores here) and bought coffee, tea and breakfast items. By the time we got back to the center, we were pretty tired and went to bed, but not before taking notice of the star-filled sky; something we don't really get to see in our part of Florida.

We woke up early on Tuesday, about 6 AM (8 AM Florida time) and had a very leisurely morning. We have decided to read Morning Prayer together each morning and did so outside where it was sunny and cool. There is a bubbling fountain and some beautiful flora, fauna, and sage brush in that outside area and it has the feel of a Japanese garden (see picture). Wyoming combines the wilderness of the desert with evergreens and sage. It is quite striking. We also began reading Thomas Keating's Open Heart, Open Mind out-loud. One of our goals in this sabbatical time is to work on being more open to the contemplative side of prayer and life and in this phase of our sabbatical journey I thought Keating would be a great place to get us started.

About 10 AM we headed out and following a quick stop at the local Walmart for a couple of things, we headed for Yellowstone National Park, the East entrance of which is 49 miles from the retreat center. The drive was spectacular! Much of the drive was through the Soshone National Forest. The vistas were incredible and each time we came around a bend, there was a view fit for a postcard or painting.

When we got to the gate of Yellowstone, I was surprised to discover how emotionally overwhelming it was to be there and to realize how blessed we were to have this opportunity. Yellowstone is such a core part of our American identity and I had heard about it all my life. To be there was extraordinarily special and I found myself speechless and just let Susan drive us in as I looked and took it all in. It is holy ground and a place where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin indeed. It was a stunningly beautiful day, and it was not especially crowded.

The highlight of the day was visiting Old Faithful and walking around the other geysers nearby. Seeing them, and realizing how thin the earth's crust is in this place is both an awesome and humbling thing.

We saw herds of bison and even got stopped in traffic so that bison could cross the road. The bison was bigger than our rental car. We stopped and said Evening Prayer by Yellowstone Lake. As a part of this, I decided to read the Creation story from Genesis. At the mention of God creating every "swarming thing" a swarm of mosquitoes began to harass Susan -- God's sense of humor she decided, and so we retreated to car and finished Evening Prayer there. The drive back to Cody was exceedingly beautiful as the "evening shadows lengthened and the day was hushed" and we were both most grateful for the gift of this incredible opportunity. We returned to Cody, ate at a local Italian restaurant Jay had told us about, went back to our quarters and said Compline. Before we went to bed, we stood outside in the garden and looked up at the night sky filled with stars. As God said, "It is good!" It is very good.