The drive from Salt Lake City to the little resort town of Moab takes you through big-sky vistas of red buttes spreading out for mile upon mile and soaring into surprising shapes, some narrow and blunt, some broad and sloped, all of them standing like stubborn soldiers in a war against time. Like everything else that takes the form of being, of course, they are losing that war, but so slowly as to win our admiration.
Snow-capped mountains line the distant horizon; they are impassive and imperial and glamorous, like celebrities or gods shining against the bright blue sky. I flatter myself by imagining them watching me as I drive across this enormous landscape, but of course they have bigger things on their minds. They converse with the sun, and whisper to the moon; they gossip about the Himalayas. I am nothing to them, just one of a thousand unremarkable ants making its way across their back yards.
If a mountain ever did deign to observe my progress, what would it see? A sadly unremarkable specimen: a middle-aged human sporting a week-old beard that has been overrun by grey hair. The man is hunched over the wheel of a mini-van filled with camping supplies; he pulls into a gas station and gets out to stretch. The mountain would observe a little paunch that the man takes pains to conceal by tucking his shirt in just so; he would observe a face wincing in pain as the man stretches his lower back.
If the mountain got to know him better, it would learn that he is a priest of a pitiably anthrocentric religion (“Everyone knows God is a mountain,” it would sniff).
This particular priest is, this very day, launching his first real sabbatical in 20 years of ordained ministry. I will be away from my parish for four and a half months, splitting my time between formal studies, conferences, and over 9 weeks of pure down time, beginning with this solo 2 1/2 week camping trip to Southeastern Utah.
I wanted to begin my sabbatical with silence, and prayer, and talking to the mountains, and listening to the earth.
While I’m in the desert I will be asking a lot of questions. I've made an inventory of them - and am happy to note that none of them have to do with my marriage. This is the only thing in my life that I have never questioned. My wife of 26 years is as beautiful as she is quick-witted and open-hearted. She is a psychologist who works with extremely difficult people; somehow she bears this exhausting work with grace and good humor. She is a wonder to me.
I will be away from her for most of this sabbatical time. I miss her already. She will join me for a month in New Zealand at the end of the sabbatical – a place we have both always wanted to visit. We can hardly believe our good fortune.
The air is warm on this mid-April day. Ponderosa pines and red bluffs make this look for all the world like a Western movie set. I turn on the air-conditioning in my minivan and fret about increasing my carbon footprint. I also feel guilty about the fact that as I drive I am simultaneously listening to my iPod and charging my Kindle and checking my Blackberry for a signal. I am embarrassed by all this but not enough to have left them behind. I plan on a gradual withdrawal.
This is what sabbatical is for, I think – to loose the bonds of our ordinary habits. I am eager to see what rises to the surface when the waters are more still. I dreamed last night of ominous panthers and friendly hounds. The night before I dreamed I was a god who could not decide what form to take. I briefly became a plump and complacent man, then said, no, not that. I then became glorious and strong, an Apollo, and I wondered, “How long can this last?”
Before I set off for my camp in the desert, I stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast at Mt. Peale, Utah and inadvertently left my laundry behind. After 4 days in the desert I returned to pick it up. The hostess said, “You look like you’ve been reborn!” I said, “Not quite yet, but I’m making progress.”
I’ve been praying for Spirit to keep showing up. Please join me in that prayer.