Sabbatical 10

Solitude, Silence, and Snakes, in the Desert (May 4-22).
After four weeks in Asia, Kathleen and I were back home in Vancouver. It took us a week to recover from jet lag which for me was not helped by a cold I had caught on the way back. During that week, I read the beautiful Korean novel, Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin, which was on the Chapter’s bestseller list last spring. It is a hauntingly beautiful tale of an elderly woman who goes missing on a Seoul subway station and the journey of her daughter, sister, and father in their attempts to find her. Each of them reflect back on her life. The novel is written from a “second person” point of view - a unique but effective way to tell a story. It spoke to me of the generational angst of our time, as culture and tradition clash with new realities in the modern world, as well as the care of aging parents. It reminded me of my own fragility and made me mindful of my own parents, now in their 80’s. It greatly increased my anticipation of the priceless opportunity to spend some time with them in Calgary as part of the sabbatical in June.

I was struck by the stillness and the silence I felt when we came home. I felt so protected. I felt I was able to rest. For the first time in years, I noticed that I had experienced little or no insomnia for over a month. I again was overwhelmed with such gratitude to VEV and all who had helped make this rest possible.

During our first week back, I checked in with my spiritual director, Jeff Imbach, who generously offered me a Sabbath gift of free spiritual direction to prepare me for a two-week retreat I had planned in Osoyoos May 8-22. As always, he was so helpful, but he expressed concerns about me being alone so long (two full weeks) as Kathleen had to return to work while I continued my sabbatical. His concerns were well advised. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll of saying farewell to Kathleen for two weeks. We had just enjoyed such an amazing month together of joyful adventures in Korea and China. Now, to part so suddenly felt like a jolt. It didn’t seem right. We both cried. I decided to reduce my time away to 10 days, so I could spend Mother’s Day weekend with her, and then, after a tender breakfast date, I left on Monday, May 11th for Osoyoos.

Soul Surgery in the Desert
I never get tired of the drive to Osoyoos, because of the beautiful route along highway 3 through Manning Park, the Coastal Mountains, and then the dramatic shift from towering green forest-covered mountains to semi-arid desert, once travelling east beyond Princeton. After I settled into the unit at Spirit Ridge, I began a balanced regimen of reading, walking, and prayer. Under Jeff’s direction, I did no vocational reading (related to church work or being a pastor). I pulled out three Chaim Potek novels, generously lent to me by the Pontaltis, and began to immerse myself in the riveting tales of tradition clashing with progress, painfully identifying with them over and over again. I also read, Revelations of Divine Love, by Lady Julian of Norwich, a 13th century Anchoress from Norwich, England, and Heart of the World, by Hans Urs von Balthasar. I continued to miss Korea so much, so I read Korea Unmasked, an insightful commentary on Korean culture and history, from the perspective of a Korean journalist in cartoon format. It was highly informative and hilarious! I also read Escape from Camp 14, the harrowing story of an escapee, Shin Dong-hyuk, from the North Korean gulag. As far as is known, he is the only person in the world who was raised in a North Korean concentration camp, to have escaped. He now lives in Seoul.

I also resumed reading and meditating on Scripture after a one-month break, and it immediately became a gentle scalpel in the hand of the Great Physician. My first month, April, in Korea was “anesthesia before surgery.” The euphoria of non-stop encounters with people Kathleen and I loved so much in a beautiful land and culture so different from our own for a whole month, effectively helped me to stop and shut down all my “ministry systems.” As mentioned in previous blogs, I did not read Scripture or have my regular devotional prayer time for a whole month. I only did some journalling and very little reading. Yet, I felt that the whole time was “prayer.” I felt as close to God as I have ever felt before.

However, my return to Canada in May, including the ten days where I was alone in Osoyoos, felt like I went into surgery and intensive care (ICU). My time on retreat was both glorious and painful. I deeply grieved being away from Kathleen. However, being an introvert, I also enjoyed having the space to be alone, the long silences, the reading, the walks, the running, the prayer, and reflection.

Post-Surgery, Dragons and Snakes
In spite of the wonderful long hours of stillness and silence, the surgery in my soul left me vulnerable. Old wounds of anxiety and performance were stirred up in me, and I came under severe attacks in the middle of the night. I felt like I fought loud intimidating dragons of fear that I thought were long gone. Sometimes, I felt like I was having another breakdown like I suffered 27 years ago.  Attacks came about my age, that I was no longer relevant – to anyone, let alone to God. There were also attacks about my future retirement, about the debt still owed on our house, about feeling so alone and helpless, and also that my life hadn’t counted for much. I found I was comparing myself to so many others I regarded as being so much more successful than me. I saw more snakes in a shorter period of time (yes, real rattlesnakes), than I had ever seen in Osoyoos. I sometimes stopped on the walking trails and spoke to them. I was also blindsided by powerful sexual thoughts and images offering counterfeit comfort for the severe anxiety and loneliness that had hit me. All of these sought to distract me from the rest and stillness I had previously been enjoying on the sabbatical.

As I resumed reading Scripture and practicing lectio divina, deep and painful surgery occurred. I was confronted by the sheer magnitude of how broken I still was. The damage that had occurred to my soul through years of non-stop public ministry seemed evident. Living a Christian life where so much time is either spent on the platform (literally and figuratively), or preparing for and recovering from it, can be so dangerous to one’s spiritual health, appealing to one’s worst narcissism. It often kept me from being present to the moment.

However, I was comforted by my extended phone conversations and prayer times with Kathleen, as well as an incredible webcam visit with my daughter, Danielle, and all our grandkids – where I had extended quality time with each one of them. I was also comforted by the writings of Lady Julian of Norwich. My readings of her Revelations of Divine Love led me into a deep and restful repentance – something that I know will need to be an ongoing process. This repentance was from the sin of unbelief where I frequently seemed so oblivious to God’s immense delight in me. As Ignatius of Loyola wrote, “Sin is the unwillingness to trust that what God wants is our deepest happiness.”

While the first few weeks were sometimes difficult, I felt God do a deep work in me. I left Osoyoos and returned to Vancouver with a much deeper sense of God’s rest than I had ever known, and a new-found joy of how supremely delightful I was to God. This joy remains and has been a source of significant and sustaining strength for me - yet another beautiful result of Sabbath.  
Wade Pallister