A sabbatial experience
On sabbatical here in Berkeley since the end of August 2015 I have been drawn into a journey of discovery – both personal and cosmic. The road travelled has taken me out into the beautiful drought-stricken California countryside but also into the inner pathways of my own soul. Here I have met some of my fears, prejudices and longings….as we, sabbaticants, respond to the invitation to rest, to allow ourselves to be renewed, to be at peace with the Divine, ourselves and the rest of Creation.
One of the first things that happened on arriving here in Berkeley was that I needed new glasses. It seems a fitting metaphor for what was happening to me: I was being invited to look at reality with fresh eyes. The classes on the New Cosmology blew my mind, challenging me to see not only the cosmos in a new light – but also God, myself, our tiny world, original sin, heaven and hell, my sexuality, the afterlife… in a world where everything is connected. I felt challenged to look for a new way of praying, a new way of speaking about the Divine(because it DOES make quite a difference whether we imagine God as some kind of mediaeval monarch ruling over celestial domes – or the pulsating Life-force present at the heart of everyday life, a continuous becoming- in -Love, revealed anew at the Big Bang.
As a preparation for Easter we headed South during Holy Week to Santa Cruz, to a retreat house run by the Holy Names Sisters.(One of the Sisters was a good friend of Brendan Jordan RIP).The place is situated on the Pacific ocean. On arrival I wasted no time and I took off for the beach. There a very distraught lady approached me: " I have lost my dog's collar. His name is Paisley…and my son's telephone number is on it. If you find it please telephone him. Paisley can't be going around without his collar." I smiled at this wonderfully tanned woman and went off to walk the beach casually looking for Paisley's collar… But then I began to think: "What if the poor dog is happy to be out of his collar, to be able to run free….?" And I thought how this spoke to my own situation. I has stepped out of my former role, few people had my telephone number while I was here in California, more than 5,000 miles from the UK, and it felt wonderful to be able to let go of my past responsibilities….and just BE!
In the past I have tried not to get too involved and while on the GC, especially, I kept my opinions on a range of issues to myself. I sometimes felt like a spectator at a football match. During those days at the ocean I had become fascinated by the surfers who played on the water in front of the retreat house. They all had wet suits and so could cope with the cold water of the Pacific. I would have loved to jump in and swim in this water – but saw no one doing this. Then, on the third day of the retreat, as I was getting up from a session of Centring prayer on the second floor, I looked out and saw a woman and her dog – neither were wearing wet suits – running into the ocean. That was the signal! I quickly got my swimming gear and headed for the beach. The woman had disappeared but it did not matter; she had offered me the inspiration I needed to take the plunge. The water was freezing and the waves were strong but how I loved throwing myself into that ocean and allowing it to twist and turn me in its powerful pull…Somehow I was on the football pitch, no longer a spectator….
Back at Berkeley I opted to go to the Afro-American church for Maundy Thursday. Little did I know that this liturgy was no place for spectators….The dynamic Irish priest there announced that EVERYONE would have their feet washed and that everyone would wash someone's feet. It would take time but so be it. As I moved bare-footed towards the sanctuary I got into conversation with a group of young people, a new religious grouping in the Church offering young people an experience of Christian living in community. Would I come and visit them in San Francisco and share on foreign mission? When my turn came to have my feet washed I was a little anxious and wiggled my toes in the basin(so the lady washer told me afterwards!). Instead she looked at me, signalling that I should relax…and not only washed my feet but massaged my toes as well! I had never celebrated His command to do what He had done quite like this.
On Easter Monday we headed for the Tenderloin, an area of San Francisco where many homeless persons are to be found. We were to spend the day with them in an immersion experience organised for us by a wonderful woman, Mary Ann Finch, who runs the Care through Touch Institute which she founded in 1989. Having learned massage therapy and become interested in Embodied Spirituality in 1990 she travelled throughout India offering massage therapy in leprosaria and street clinics. Leaving India she committed herself to Mother Theresa's challenge to her: "Go home and do there what you have done here – TOUCH the poorest of the poor with your CARE". And this is what she has been doing on the streets of San Francisco ever since. Herself and her group of trained volunteers go out into the streets of the Tenderloin and offer massage to homeless persons. This is her "bridge to the world of the poor."
I have to admit to being quite anxious as we set out on Easter Monday morning for the Tenderloin. Our first stop was a visit to St Boniface's church. Entering the building I was hit by the pungent smell of unwashed bodies! All the benches, except for a few in front, were covered with homeless persons, women and men, snoring and sleeping….(Many hostels for homeless persons demand that all guests leave at 8am each day. The difficulty is where to spend the rest of the day, especially when it is wet or cold outside). St Boniface's throws open its doors to offer warmth and security and a place to sleep and rest for at least 7 hours each day. Talking to one of the SAT participants, a Redemptorist from Malaysia who was with me on the day, I was struck by his comment. "When I left the church", he said, "I bowed to Jesus present in the tabernacle. But I then turned and bowed to the same Jesus present in those sleeping homeless persons in the church pews."
In the afternoon I spent some hours walking with Gerry(not his real name) through this dodgy area of San Francisco. He had graduated from Santa Clara university, gotten a good job at AT&T, had been married with two children – and then lost all through an addiction to alcohol. After 6 years on the streets he was slowly getting himself together again – with the help of Mary Ann and others. "What was most difficult for you, Gerry, when you were on the streets?" I asked him. His answer surprised me."Finding a rest room(W.C.)", was his reply. Cafes and restaurants only allow you in if you buy something. "The other thing that nearly broke me" he said, "is that once you hit the streets you have no friends. No body- not even your family – wants to know you". I noticed that many of the homeless persons I met that day had dogs. While eating lunch at St Anthony's soup kitchen one of my fellow diners, a homeless woman in her thirties, explained: "We go for dogs because we need the company. It's lonely being on your own all day with no one to talk to…."
On returning home from the Tenderloin on Monday night I had plenty to think about. Gratitude was something that quickly came to the surface…I gave thanks for the fact that I had a toilet I could go to, a shower to wash in, food and drink on the table at St Albert's, over 60 people in the same building as myself that I could talk to and touch, share stories with and smile at…..
I have heard much during this sabbatical about how we live in a world where everything is connected. In the past I have been often embarrassed as I walk past a homeless person begging, whether here in California or in Glasgow or Dublin, or on the way to shop at Sainsbury's in Maidenhead. Well, I am determined never again to pass a homeless person in the street without looking him or her in the eye and saying something to them, acknowledging the presence in them of the Suffering and Risen One…..
I have read some good books on this sabbatical, had some brilliant teachers deliver stimulating lectures and workshops, seen the Grand Canyon and watched whales off Monterey…but what stays with me at this point in time is what California herself has offered me by way of wisdom – a wisdom that came out of washing feet, of taking the plunge in the Pacific and walking with Suffering and Risen One on the streets of the Tenderloin. It was not quite what I expected but I am getting a little better at opening myself to this new kind of wisdom – and immensely grateful for the opportunity of being alive part of the stardust from which we all came.
Bernard Fox mhm