Eight years ago, on sabbatical leave from my work as a pastor, I journeyed with my friend Terry to the Nada Hermitage in Crestone, CO, on the high desert plains nestled in Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I had planned to stay for a week, but, on the third day, I got word that my dad was in a hospital near Atlanta, dying from recurrent cancer. I made a long trip by Greyhound Bus and plane in an attempt to get to his bedside before he died.
When the plane from Denver landed in Dallas, I turned on my cell phone while “de-planing” and listened to a voicemail which told me my father was dead. Alone in Dallas and facing a tight connection, I jogged through the airport wiping tears from my eyes, juggling my backpack, and trying to let the news soak in.
Last summer, on my father’s birthday (July 14), I went to Duke Hospital for tests and procedures that set in motion the stem cell transplant process for treatment of the cancer with which I had been diagnosed earlier in the year. On July 24, I got back my previously-harvested stem cells which were intended to help me recover from high-dose chemotherapy. The transplant team called that day a “second birthday”—a new beginning. Ironically, it was also the anniversary of my father’s death.
I had dreamed of coming back to Nada, and my friend Terry has helped to make it happen. This pilgrimage is full of opportunities to deal more directly with grief, loss, illness, endings, and beginnings.
This time is not my dad who has cancer. I do.
I am coming to terms with the ending of 38 years of pastoral ministry.
I am looking forward to new and renewed ways to answer God’s calling to me as a person and as a minister.
I am trying to open myself more vulnerably to the flow of love and delight—to hope and joy.
Nada is, for me, the perfect place to do this hard and holy work. It’s a monastic community steeped in Carmelite spirituality, committed to generous hospitality, and respectful of the renewing necessity of solitude and silence.
The desert pushes me to face-off with demons of despair and condemnation and to receive the ministry the angels of hope and mercy. The “Blood of Christ” Mountains are stark, majestic, and rugged. There is a healing energy in this landscape.
When I was here before, I stayed in the “Gandhi” Hermitage. I have learned so much about the non-violent teachings of Jesus by studying the life and writings of, among others, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. They helped me to hear the Sermon on the Mount.
Non-violence is the way strong and active love works for justice and peace in our world. As the struggle for equality, dignity, and freedom for all people continues (Supreme Court decisions change laws and extend rights, but they do not change hearts and transform fears), I need the reminder that love must be tenacious, resilient, and creative.
This time, I am housed in the “Therese” Hermitage, named for Therese of Lisieux, who lived her brief and quietly compelling life at the end of the 19th Century; she died, at age 24, in 1897, after spending nine years in a small convent. She discovered the heart of her vocation while meditating on 1 Corinthians:
I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places . . . in a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out, "O Jesus, my Love . . . [My} vocation--at last I have found it--my vocation is love.
Therese’s message made its way to my heart. Whatever the work I do, my vocation is love, rooted in God’s unconditional and delighted love for everyone.
The mountains ring this valley. There are places from which, wherever I turn, I see their towering peaks. They remind me that I, and all of us, are surrounded by the grandeur and beauty of God’s vast love.