Saturday, September 12, 2009

This Life And Not Another

A Sermon Preached on August 23, 2009 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Portland, Maine.

Proper 16. Year B

So this morning we come to the end of the lectionary's four-week digression from Marks's gospel into an exploration of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, a multi-faceted reflection on Jesus as the bread of life. Unlike the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John's version of the feeding of the five thousand acts as a springboard for a lengthy discourse by Jesus.

The Jesus of John says, "I am the bread of life" and "the bread of God" that "comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Jesus himself is that bread; people are to eat him. John's language gets even more graphic: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life...For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."

Obviously, the Jesus of John's gospel is speaking metaphorically--we are not here being urged to become cannibals.

The historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg suggests that "the imagery of eating and drinking connects to a central religious metaphor for our deepest human yearning: hunger, and the closely related metaphor thirst. "There are those who hunger and thirst for God, for justice, for meaning, for life" Borg writes. "For John, Jesus is the answer to that hunger: Jesus himself is the bread of life who satisfies our hunger. Eat this bread and you will never be hungry: [For Jesus says:]'I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry.'"

And yet, as John makes clear in this morning's reading, his disciples are troubled by this teaching. "This teaching is difficult" they say, "who can accept it?" The gospel narrator says that, because of this teaching, many of his disciples turned away and no longer went about with him. We may wonder about the nature of the difficulty.

The difficulty, I believe, lies in its particularity, in its concreteness if you will. That is, John is not here being vague. Jesus is like eating and drinking--a vulgar comparison. And our yearning for God is like a hunger in the belly. Week after week, the eucharist reminds us that eating and drinking--those most fundamental human acts--are revealing of God's presence in us and among us. It's that simple. Nothing esoteric here, nothing special. And that very ordinariness offends many spiritual seekers, even today.

Which is to say, the spiritual life is not about some other life; it's about this life.

It's not about some other place; it's about this place.

It's not about some special state of mind or heightened consciousness; it's about ordinary, everyday mind.

And it's not about just anyone; as Christians we would say that it's about Jesus and, because it's about Jesus, it's about you and me in all our maddening and exhilarating uniqueness.

It's about nothing special and everything special.

And we secretly wish it were different.

A Buddhist teacher of my acquaintance, Larry Rosenberg, tells the story of a research study about the most frequently used phrases in Hollywood films. The phrase that won overwhelmingly was, "Let's get outta here!" Larry suggests that this finding points to a fundamental truth about the human condition. It's the bumper sticker phenomenon--I'd rather be fishing, golfing, playing tennis...whatever. You fill in the blanks. Wherever we are couldn't possibly be the right place to be. And whoever we're with, there must be somebody out there more interesting, more caring, more beautiful. We hate it that real life is so prosaic, that the spiritual life is so challenging because so mundane. We feel gypped, like we've been sold a bill of goods, and so a lot of us self-medicate or become self-involved or just space out.

The spiritual life is about the quality of attention that we bring to bear on what's right in front of us, however mundane, however boring, however painful, or not:

This lack of affordable health care that adversely effects the lives of millions; this homeless man looking for a handout on the corner of State St. and Park Avenue; this particular hue or cast of light on a distant cloud; this dear friend and co-worker just laid off, seemingly randomly, and for no good reason; this lone birdsong in the woods on a hot, muggy late August morning; this dying person before me, whose breaths come now, but shallow and intermittent.

As a hospice chaplain, I strive to be aware of the quality of attention that I bring to bear on my patients and their families. And often, it seems, I learn from others how to do that best. This past week I sat with a woman as she kept vigil at the bedside of her dying husband. As the patient was Roman Catholic, I called for a priest to come and offer the sacrament of the sick.

For some priests, perhaps because of their diminishing numbers and the corresponding demands placed upon them, this sacrament has become rote, a mere lifeless recitation. But for others it remains vital--a means of conveying life--an outward sign of the grace to be found even in the face of death.

Father Kevin did not stand aloof at the foot of the bed but sat in a chair next to the patient's wife, holding her hand as they recited the prayers. He gently anointed the patient's forehead and hands with holy oil. He addressed the patient and his wife by name and did not neglect to mention their whole family in the prayers. In that the patient could not himself receive communion, Kevin offered it to the patient's wife on his behalf. He punctuated his speaking with silence. He wasn't in a hurry. He hugged the patient's wife before departing, offering his church for the funeral, encouraging her, saying that every Catholic was entitled to a church funeral, no matter how infrequent their attendance at Mass.

In the midst of death, every action of this gifted priest was a blessing of life and a celebration of abiding love, all through the quality of his attention.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is" writes the poet Mary Oliver, "I do know how to pay attention."

In one sense I regret telling this story, as none of us need be a priest to manifest the sacred; we may all bring blessing to bear on any and every moment through the quality of our attention and the graciousness of our lives.

We can almost catch the glimmer of sadness in his eyes, the wistfulness in his tone of voice, when Jesus asks his disciples: "Do you also wish to go away?"

Peter answered him: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."

To whom then can we go? To what other life can we appeal? The abundant life Jesus promises us is not about some hoped for heaven. It's about eternal life--this life--right now.

And the whole of the spiritual life is this moment lovingly attended to. And the next and the next and the next...


Monday, August 31, 2009

Leave Taking

Last week, snow showers were forecast for Saglek Bay with low temperatures in the thirties. Wind is always in the forecast, no matter what the season or day of the week. Gary, one of the park rangers at base camp, said the northern lights become more common from mid-August on, as the daylight fades and gives way to darkness.

As we draw nearer to autumn, I find that the magical thrall of this trip begins to fade as well. Last weekend, we brought our daughter Bekah back to college in Washington, D.C and next week Anna begins school as well. Other priorities crowd in and I find that I am giving a great deal of thought to work, mulling over a possible return to active ministry in the Episcopal Church.

And yet, and yet...our trip to the Torngat Mountains still circles round close to my heart and lives on, as I trust it always will.

The Air Inuit Twin Otter took off late from the George River. Aboard were several Inuit elders on their way to park base camp for a week of meetings with park authorities. The Torngat Mountains National Park came about as a result of a land claims agreement between the native people and Parks Canada. They now collaborate in the management of the park. The plane would drop them off at Saglek and we, in turn, would get onboard for the flight back to Kuujjiak. From Kuujjiak we would catch a flight to Montreal, then drive on home to Maine.

At the airport the wind was blowing hard down the valley. Waiting out in the open for an hour or so, we sought refuge out of the cold wherever we could. We were treated to a visit by a herd of caribou that hung-out behind an outbuilding used as a garage for service vehicles and other machinery. Two parked themselves on a ridge overlooking the mountains, standing next to a fuel storage tank reserved for search and rescue missions. With cameras in hand, we slowly approached and were surprised when they showed no interest in moving on, as if posing for a photo with the perfect backdrop of the snow covered Torngats beyond. We zoomed in for shots that excluded the fuel tank, as if the caribou were standing out in the middle of nowhere which, in fact, they were. The bear monitors accompanying us got a good look through the telescopic sights on their rifles, without firing a shot. The caribou finally moseyed on and joined others of their kind up on the hillside.

At last the plane came within view, its landing lights shining brightly in the distance as it came in off the bay for its final approach. With the runway clear of caribou, it came down and landed, dropping off the elders as we stowed our gear aboard. On the flight back to Kuujiak, we all peered through the windows, getting last looks of the mountainous landscape we had just spent a week in. We caught a brief glimpse of the North Arm where we had set-up camp.

The place of spirits. The spirit of the land and of the polar bear and of the ancient peoples who have traversed that place. Such places are rare these days, such untouched places of wilderness where the original face of creation lives on unimpeded. Such is the vision that gave birth to the spiritual impulse, these elemental forces--of wind and mountain and sea- that shaped the soul of humankind. All else that has evolved as religion seems to me mere commentary on this primordial face. We so complicate it with our doctrines and dogmas, when at base it is so simple, yet so awesome.

May we have the grace to be still enough to stand in such places and listen; listen to that which came before us all and will live on long after we have gone, that which is our essential nature and our true home.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Caribou at Saglek Bay

Monday, August 24, 2009

All Flights Cancelled

"All flights cancelled" came the word at 3:10 PM on Saturday. I was lying in the tent and commenced to take a nap, there being nothing else to do under the circumstances. We had arrived back at park base camp the afternoon before, after the queasy ride on high rolling seas aboard the Robert Bradford. Thankfully, Greg had figured the weather into our departure plans, allowing for one full day to be holed up in inclement weather. The Saglek Bay airport was nothing more than a gravel runway. Being closer to the Labrador Sea by a mile or two, it was vulnerable to the weather and to fog banks coming in from the frigid ocean waters. Word had it that the Air Inuit pilots would not come in unless the cloud ceiling was higher than 1,000 ft.

But base camp was not a bad place to hang out in. It was like an old-fashioned frontier town, it's main street with tents on either side, with a fast-flowing stream just outside the perimeter of the electric bear fence to provide fresh water. Generators supplied electricity to a large shelter tent used for meetings and social gatherings as well as to the kitchen/dining tent. There were two outhouses within the bear fence to be used when the fence was turned on (between 10 PM and 5 AM) and one outside the perimeter to be used during the day. The base camp helicopter was parked outside the fence, rows of red and black striped jet fuel barrels lined up alongside. The red maple leaf Canadian flag on one side, and the white, blue, and green flag of Nunatsiavut--the self-governing Inuit region of Labrador--depicting an inuksuk--the traditional stone cairn of the Inuit--on the other, marked the entrance to the camp.

The human population of base camp consisted of the Inuit bear monitors, kitchen staff, and several support staff, as well as the Parks Canada Rangers, several research scientists and their students, and a handful of Inuit youth and their counselors there for two weeks of camp. Peter, the helicopter pilot, was there for a two-week stint as well, to be relieved by another pilot when his time was up. Weather permitting, he would make several flights everyday, transporting the researchers to various far-flung points in the park or, as I've already noted, to check-up on hikers in the back country. In my eyes, Peter was a real rock star, piloting that machine with incredible skill and grace, over mountaintops, down valleys, landing on rocky terrain with apparent ease. Onboard the long-liner Robert Bradford, it was a three hour passage from park base camp to our camp at the head of the North Arm. By helicopter, Peter could make it in twenty minutes.

There were presentations by researchers both evenings we were at base camp. Folks would cram into the meeting tent after dinner and watch power-point presentations, enjoying the warmth cast by the gas stove in the corner. The first evening we listened to a presentation on the state of PCB contamination at what was the site of the Royal Canadian Air Force radar base at the mouth of Saglek Bay above the airstrip, operated between 1953 and 1970, and staffed largely by US Air Force personnel. The site was targeted for PCB cleanup in the 1990's. Happily, due to the cleanup and the passage of time, PCB contaminants in the environment have decreased substantially. The second evening, we heard an entertaining presentation by an ethnobotanist on the traditional uses of native plants by the Inuit of Nunavut and Nunatsiavut. As background to the lecture, several of the bear monitors, including John, were out on the land firing their rifles and adjusting their telescopic sights.

One woman researcher, studying for her PhD, was investigating the effects of climate change on native species of berries. Several others were doing research on one aspect or another of climate change. The presence of so many intense, intelligent scientists focusing their energies on the natural world was exhilarating. There was a Canadian college professor present whose area of study is eco-tourism. A young man from Bhutan, a student of eco-tourism in his own country, was also in camp. Our own group was a source of interest and fascination to many, as we were American hikers from Maine (there were no other hikers in camp), and had acquired fame by virtue of our heroic encounter with the polar bear. (Actually, the only hero in our midst that day was John; the only heroine, the bear herself.)

Sunday morning it dawned partly cloudy with blue skies, the clearing wind having come in the night. We made our farewells on the beach and again boarded the Robert Bradford, which ferried us and our gear out the bay and around to the airstrip. Immediately above the runaway there were low-hanging clouds, but the approaches were clear. The Air Inuit Twin Otter was on its way from the George River.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Dish Towels Hanging Out To Dry At Park Base Camp

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Onboard The Robert Bradford

We were picked-up in the North Arm on Friday by the long-liner Robert Bradford, owned and skippered by brothers Chesley and Joe Webb. That morning, Joe had netted a ringed seal ("natsik" in Inuktituk) and Ches' son Jared baked it in a pie onboard.

When offered some seal, I readily accepted, figuring that the opportunity might not again present itself in this life. I spooned out a hearty helping from the baking dish atop the hot cabin stove and set about the task of eating it. I was urged on by Jared, a young man of large proportions whose round red sea-faring face was all smiles as I dug into the pungent pie. "Do you like it?" he asked. "Mmmh...yeah..." I replied between mouthfuls, not altogether truthfully.

The weather had remained unsettled with occasional showers and the seas were rolling high as we slowly made our way down the fjord and back to the park base camp. The seal was--how should I say?--rather fishy and stringy. And the breaded topping or crust was soaked in dark seal grease. At some point, I vaguely sensed that I best not eat anymore. It might have had something to do with the rolling seas and a vague, though alarmingly persistent, queasiness arising in my belly.

I remembered the Bonine--"for all-day non-drowsy motion sickness relief"-- that I had tucked away in my fanny pack, having previously used it to good effect on our charter flight into the park aboard the Beechcraft King Air. I popped in two tablets of the raspberry flavored chewable pills. Then I gingerly stepped over and strategically positioned myself over the port side of the boat. Fixing my gaze on the horizon, I tasted the greasy seal meat as it rose up in my throat, now mixed with gastric juices. My head swam.

"How much further can it be?" I moaned inwardly. I was certain that I had turned a bilious shade of green. My tent-mate Josh was feeling no better and took refuge up on the deck of the cabin, with the fresh air blowing over the bow full on his face.

At long last I caught a blessed glimpse of the park base camp as we entered the long bay with calmer, sheltered waters ahead. Gary, a park ranger, warmly greeted us when we disembarked. Several of the bear monitors helped us haul our gear up to the tents. Terra firma never felt so good.

It was time for supper. In the mess tent, folks were already lining up for boiled caribou ribs.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Robert Bradford Anchored In The Bay At Park Base Camp

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Several have asked whether I was scared or apprehensive after our encounter with the polar bear on our first day in the wilderness. My answer was "no," because I had complete confidence, not in the electric bear fence, but in John, our Inuit guide and bear monitor.

That being said, we were all vigilant and got in the habit of scanning the horizon whenever we walked about. Speaking for myself, I was most watchful in attending to "nature's call." The prospect of being caught with my pants down by a black bear while doing my "business" away from camp was sufficiently unnerving so as to sharpen my senses. With my awareness thus heightened, I soon came to relish these delicious moments of solitude in a spectacular natural setting.

One incident, however, got my blood pressure and heart rate right up there. Thursday morning, the park helicopter flew down the North Arm and touched down in the grassy meadow behind our camp. Jacko, John's brother and a park ranger, bowing low under the whirling blade of the copter, jogged over and handed John a candy bar. And, oh, by the way, he said, he had seen a large male polar bear in the next bay over. Better keep your eyes open. Off went Jacko and the machine gracefully lifted off, circled round, and sped down the valley and away. Silence.

We went about the day's activities--a long hike down the valley in the rain. Back at camp, I noticed that our tent was leaking, with little pools of water collecting in one corner and out in the center between our sleeping bags. I alerted Josh, my tent mate, and we in turn spoke with Greg, our gear guy extraordinaire from Chewonki. Greg erected a second fly on poles over the existing one, and fastened the corners down tight with stakes and rocks.

Now, as an aside, Josh is a big guy. Not tall mind you, but BIG. Not fat big but muscle big. This guy garnishes his morning cereal with steel bolts. By profession, he's a fitness trainer, so it's his job to stay in shape. With telephone pole arms and tree trunk legs, he weighs in at well over two hundred pounds, heavier than me, despite my being several inches taller. On our hikes, I was gratified to be able--more or less-to keep up with the guy.

That night it continued to rain and the wind picked-up considerably, with gusts in the forties. It was dark. Wicked dark. I was slumbering away peacefully when "WHACK"--Josh's side of the tent was violently concussed by God Knows What. Josh was airborne and landed in my lap shouting: "Jesus Christ!!! What the f--- was that!!!" We later confessed that, at that moment, we both thought we were dead meat and expected that the huge clawed paw of a ravenous male polar bear was about to be thrust through the side of the tent, eviscerating us as it swept all away in its wake.

Benson called from the next tent: "Are you guys all right?" As I had had the wind knocked out of me by a guy who could have been a tackle for the New England Patriots, I caught my breath and gasped that we were O.K. "But what the f--- was that???" I yelped. It turned out to be the second fly, sprung loose from its moorings in a gust of wind, slapping hard against the tent. It was now flapping about wildly, making a racket. I also had to pee, badly. But was I going to venture forth into the black of that rainy night and run into God Knows What? No way. Bladder be damned, I was going to stay put.

The next morning, it became apparent that everyone was awakened by the ruckus in the night. The story went through many iterations throughout the day. Its most amazing feature was that a two hundred pound plus man could actually go airborne from fright. Take it from me, it's true.

Photo Credit: David Heald Tents in Camp, North Arm, Saglek Fjord

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Our camp at the head of the North Arm of Saglek Fjord was on a grassy terrace situated above a rocky beach. Behind us, to the north, a valley crisscrossed by streams headed far into the heart of the Torngat Mountains. All around us, cliffs rose abruptly out of the sea to heights of almost 3,000 feet. High above, the ridgelines extend as far as the eye can see and catch the first rays of the morning sun and warmly glow in the arctic twilight late into the evening.

One could contentedly sit for hours, gazing down the length of the North Arm or up at the cliffs rising to the ridgelines or peering deep into the valley behind. Our immediate environment of grass meadows and alder and willow thickets showed signs of long human habitation, from tent circles to cairn gravesites to food caches. In the midst of what is much of the year an inhospitable environment, there is a delightful array of wildflowers. Due to the short summer, these plants must grow, flower and produce seeds fast. We were there at the peak of this brief season.

We were fortunate to have among our number Don Hudson, President of the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, ME. Not only is Don a veteran of camping excursions far into the North, but he has his PhD in botany, with extensive study of arctic plants to boot. I made a point of watching him closely and asking lots of questions. Due to reconstructive surgery of his ankle several months ago, Don was somewhat hindered in his ability to hike extensively over considerable distances. He hobbled his "good" ankle after a day-long hike over rocky terrain, negotiating willow thickets and fording rapid-flowing streams.

Mid-week he chose to stay close to camp, venturing out with his Nikon and macro lens, exploring the beach, grassy meadows, and--under the wary distant eye of our bear monitor, John--rummaging about in the willow thickets on the lower mountainsides. For hours he crouched down low or crawled along on his belly, taking shots of wildflowers and other plants, no doubt oblivious to the passage of time.

One day, I detained him long enough to repeat for me a number of the more common species, which I jotted down in my journal--Labrador Tea (two species), one with small, narrow leaves, another broader and bushier; low-growing birches; Lapland Rosebay; bearberry willow (gone to seed); mountain cranberry; alpine billberry; river beauty; sandwort; yellow mountain-saxifrage; artic harebell, etc.. Sometimes he had difficulty remembering the common name for these plants, preferring instead the Latin names, which he reeled off with astonishing recall.

On a windy, rainy, cold afternoon he stood overlooking the North Arm and the great expanse of mountains and spontaneously, with gloved hand, pointed at every plant within sight and effortlessly named them with a dramatic voice befitting that of God at the beginning of Creation. That this scriptural allusion from the Book of Genesis occurred to him there can be no doubt--Don's father was a Methodist preacher. We stood in awe before him as he turned to every point of the compass, his voice building, his passion more and more evident with every grand declaration. Creation, indeed, was good.

On our last day in Labrador, back at the park base camp, while the rest of us went on a hike over the nearby terrain with a group of Inuit youth, Don pulled out his hardback tome of arctic flora and wrote down every plant he had seen, some eighty-five species in all. He reviewed his work on the First Air flight from Kuujjiak to Montreal, blissfully sipping on a Molson Golden Ale.

Thanks, Don, for your abiding passion and love of the natural world.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald River Beauty

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Our Inuit Friend

As firearms are not permitted in the Torngat Mountains, park officials encourage visitors to engage the services of an Inuit guide. The wisdom of such advice was made evident on our first day in the park. If John Merkuratsuk had not been with us when we encountered the starving polar bear, things could have turned out differently, to the physical detriment of not only the bear but to ourselves.

We were immeasurably enriched by John's presence among us. Not only was he our bear monitor, but he became our friend and companion. Utterly self-reliant, he was yet quick to offer help and support every step of the way. As we set up camp, John hefted heavy rocks from the beach to act as anchors to secure the tents from the almost constant winds gusting down the North Arm of Saglek Fjord. He was ever vigilant, scanning the horizon for any further threats from wildlife. When we hiked, he walked ahead of us with his rifle, or behind, if he felt the territory warranted it. He pointed out the fresh tracks of wolves and black bears and other creatures along the stream beds, judging when they had last passed by.

Even though he smoked, he kept up a quick hiking pace, nimbly and agilely negotiating the rocky terrain. He wore no high-tech gear like the rest of us. A baseball cap, a hooded sweatshirt, wind pants, boots and heavy duty rain gear sufficed. On rainy days he wore a pair of rubber waders. When we had to stop at stream crossings to take off boots and socks, or slowly step from slippery rock to slippery rock tentatively balanced on trekking poles, John forged on in his waders. Sometimes he would toss small boulders into the stream to create secure foot holds for the rest of us following behind. Back at camp, he would fetch water for cooking before any of us noticed that there was a need.

Early one morning, after a day of rain, I watched him down on the beach picking up two large driftwood boards and propping them up slant-wise between boulders. He strung a piece of old black fish netting between the boards to make a clothes line for our soaked gear. Another day, I saw him squatting down on his lime green crocs, intently studying a pile of tangled fish net and slowly and painstakingly unravelling it, hoping to reuse it to catch arctic char.

He had a wry, understated sense of humor that emerged more and more as the week went on. The second day, after a long hike, we returned to camp and found that the electric bear fence was not working. John sat down cross-legged on the ground, and with Greg Shute, re-read the instructions, trying to figure out what the problem might be. It was finally determined that the energizer was poorly grounded in the rocky soil. After considerable trial and error (by grabbing hold of the fence wire to see if we would be shocked--how else are you going to figure it out?), it was re-positioned in such a way that it worked...sort of. I asked John if he thought that the fence would actually deter a polar bear. He smiled and, as he walked away, said: "No comment."

John, reticent and private by nature, tolerated our frequently asked questions about Inuit culture and language. Steve Hyde carried 3X5 cards in his breast pocket and could often be found asking John what the word was for such-and-so, then jotting it down with his pen and tucking it away. By the end of the week, we had all learned a few words of Inuktituk. On the way back to the park base camp aboard the long-liner Robert Bradford, one of us spotted a large yellowish-white object on shore. Alerted, John held up his binoculars, gazed intently for a few moments, then yelled: "Nanuk!" The boat swiftly changed course to draw closer in to land. The huge male polar bear, estimated to weigh-in at 1,500 pounds or more, spotted us, lumbered down the shore, then stepped into the water and slowly swam away.

For the most part, John kept his own company, content to sit on the bench he had made out of a beach board balanced on two piles of rocks, gazing out the North Arm, the mountains rising up a thousand feet or more all around, his barrel-shaped coffee mug and rifle placed within reach beside him. I will always remember him this way. Although he lived with his family in Nain for much of the year, it was clear that John's true home is that vast wilderness place. He knew it intimately, respected it completely, and instinctively embodied his interdependence with it all.

Back at the park base camp the day before our departure, when he returned to his own semi-permanent tent and hung-out with the other Inuit bear monitors, I missed his close presence in a visceral way. He still looked out for us though, coming by early to make sure that we knew that breakfast was on.

Photo Credit: David Heald John Sitting on His Bench

Monday, August 10, 2009

Wildlife Encounters Are Likely

I've already shared with several of you the story of our unfortunate encounter with a starving polar bear on our first day in the Torngat Mountains National Park in northernmost Labrador. Here's the story for those of you whom I have not yet spoken with.

On our first day in the Torngat Mountains, we were ferried from the base camp of the park out to the North Arm of Saglek Fjord aboard a long-liner fishing boat. When we arrived at our destination three hours later it was approaching 10:30 PM. Although it is still twilight at that hour in the far north, we decided to remain aboard the Robert Bradford, rolling out our sleeping bags on the deck and bedding down for the night.

The next morning, after a breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared by the crew of the boat, our gear was brought ashore in a motorized launch. We set about the task of setting up the electric bear fence around the campsite. Within minutes, Ches, the Captain of the long-liner shouted from the boat: "Bear in the water!"

Out in the North Arm we could distinctly see the white head of a polar bear as the bear swam toward the boat, leaving a long wake as it paddled through the water. Perhaps having picked up the scent of frying eggs, it was intent on having a morning meal. The Captain fired a warning shot in the water to dissuade the bear from coming too close and it veered off toward the shoreline. Meanwhile, several of us had climbed aboard the launch and went out to photograph the bear, assuming that it would soon be changing course and heading back out the North Arm to the bay beyond. Instead, it continued toward the shore and emerged from the water, making its way to the beach just below our campsite situated on a grassy plateau at the top of a steep bluff.

John Merkuratsuk, our Inuit guide and bear monitor, fired warning shots at the bear's feet with his rifle, all without effect. Greg Shute, with us from the Chewonki Foundation, threw a flare down onto the beach, again in hopes of dissuading the bear from approaching further. The bear ignored these deterrents and methodically climbed the bluff into the camp. Several of us who had been in the camp, beyond the sight of the bear, had run to the edge of the grassy plateau into a low-lying stand of willow shrubs. Aware that the bear could not be persuaded to depart and was showing signs of predatory behavior, Ches shouted ashore: "Shoot the bear!"

John, ever calm and collected despite a rifle that jammed repeatedly, shot the bear. Now wounded, the bear ran from the campsite. When it was clear, John shot again. The bear collapsed thirty or forty yards beyond. John followed, got down on one knee and, taking careful aim, shot again. When he had confirmed that the bear was dead, we followed behind.

Park officials arrived within minutes, by boat and helicopter, having been radioed by Ches aboard the Robert Bradford. They assured us that, despite our having been traumatized and grief-stricken by an outcome that, moments before we could not have foreseen and certainly did not desire, we had followed the right course of action. This was the first such incident within park boundaries.

Later examination of digital photos revealed that only 18 minutes and 34 seconds had transpired between having first seen the bear in the water and its death on the plateau above the beach. A subsequent postmortem of the bear at base camp provided evidence that the bear had, in fact, been starving--its stomach was empty, with only a few tape worms found. There was no meat on its bones and its fur was falling out in hunks. Other signs suggested that she was five or six years old and had previously given birth to at least one litter of cubs.

Before she was taken aboard the Robert Bradford to be transported to base camp, we gathered around the bear in a circle, feeling the need to offer a ceremony of some kind and to mark what had just occurred. In turn, we each spoke of what was on our hearts. Steve Hyde bent down and touched the bear's head in blessing. I followed and did the same, feeling the warmth still in the bear, the life force seemingly still lingering.

In coming to the Torngat Mountains, we entered a wilderness landscape largely untouched by humans. We were aware of the risks that the terrain, remoteness, and wildlife represented. We were mere sojourners on the land, visitors passing through. I have never before had the experience of such a vast wilderness in which we humans are passing over, passing through, touching down, but never staying for long. It makes sense that the Inuit were themselves nomads, settling in for a season, then moving on, leaving only traces, and their dead in stone cairns; the land and its creatures are always predominant, no mere backdrop for human agendas and schemes.

There is no subduing this land, no domesticating it, and therein resides its sacredness. This wild terrain is a force to be reckoned with, a "place of spirits", that which we may approach, but reverently, and with suitable awe. It is the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans" of which Rudolf Otto writes in his book The Idea of the Holy--that which at once attracts and compels, as well as fills one with a sense of overwhelming mystery, even if at times a dark mystery.

The bear humbled us our first morning on the land. There is that which we cannot foresee nor adequately plan for. And my life is forever changed. It is an experience that doesn't--even now, safely back at home-- rest comfortably with me. It continues to haunt me and to have its own life. It beckons me on toward I know not what.

Photo Credit: Don Hudson The Bear Making its Way Along the Beach Toward Camp

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wag Bags

Somehow, I don't imagine that the landscape of the Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador is dotted with outhouses. One is left to one's own devices. While I'm game to try anything, I confess that I'm enamoured of outhouses. Several come to mind.

There's the outhouse on the northwest side of Mt. Katahdin at the David Pond campsite. Situated back from the shores of the pond on a rise in the Northwest Basin, from this wilderness seat one gazes across the water to the steep north wall of the basin. I can't recall if this outhouse has a door. If it does, it's a superfluous appendage, best left propped open to afford one an unobstructed view of the spectacular scenery.

Then there's the outhouse (again in Baxter State Park, this one at the Katahdin Stream campground) into the hole of which I dropped a perfectly good flashlight. Otherwise very comfortable, we were warned that black bears occasionally foraged in the belly of these outhouses and that it's best to scope out the area before taking a seat. Annoyed, I gazed into the pit, the dull yellowish glow of the flashlight still emanating from the muck and mire. I wondered how I might retrieve it. Nope, I said to myself, I don't think I'll go fishing for that one.

Ah, yes, and then there's the gerry built lobster trap rig that I set up one winter in the woods by Nat's cabin on Little Cranberry Island. We unbolted the seat from the cabin's toilet (no water in the winter) and propped it up in the hatch door of the old wooden lobster trap. Very comfortable, excepting the frigid temperatures.

Lacking outhouses in Labrador, I've been told that we will be using wag bags. Say what? I'm of the old school of camping: either you used an outhouse or you took a dump in the woods and did your best to bury your leavings. So here's some information about wag bags, the high-tech way to dispose of poop:

For anyone who enjoys spending weekends in the great outdoors, taking along a WAG bag® or two is an excellent idea. More properly known as a waste alleviation and gelling bag, the purpose of the device is to provide a sanitary way to dispose of human waste when there is not a running toilet available. Here is some information about how the WAG bag® works, and how the bags can be used in a number of travel and outdoor settings.

The WAG bag® functions with a double bag system. All the components of the WAG bag® are constructed of high quality puncture resistant materials. The outer bag has a secure zip top that creates an airtight seal when in the closed position. The inner WAG bag® contains a gelling powder that is usually referred to as Pooh Powder. This powder immediately begins to gel the waste while neutralizing the odor. The components of Pooh Powder are not toxic and are highly biodegradable. One of the advantages of using a WAG bag® containing this powder is that the decay process is accelerated, with both the bag and the waste being completely decayed in a matter of months. Perfectly hygienic, the neither the powder or the WAG bag® contains any type of perfumes, so persons with allergies can use the bags with confidence

So, how does one use these waste alleviation and gelling bags with Pooh Powder? One squats over the bag. (I can hear the chorus of protestations from my women readers about ALWAYS having to squat in the woods...) I've never been particularly proficient at squatting. There's some consolation in knowing that I've been strengthening my quads at the gym. Maybe that will help. Anyway, one imagines that no matter where one squats in the Torngat Mountains National Park, there will be a good view.

There will be no posts on Distant Temple Bell for the next week or so. I'm looking forward to posting journal entries with my own photographs when I return. Maybe there will be some nice wag-bag shots...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Intimate Alternative at the End-of-Life

A couple of folks sent me this link to an article in yesterday's New York Times about home burials--the "intimate alternative" to going the funeral home route. I was particularly interested in the woodworking of Chuck Lakin, who crafts coffins here in Maine that are utilitarian in more ways than one. I especially like his bookshelf coffin, although his coffee table and entertainment center creations are nice too. Chuck also has lots of information on his website "Last Things" about the "how to" aspect of home funerals, with links to other resources. Enjoy!

Image Source: Colby College Bookcase Coffin

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Polar Bears Are An Extreme Hazard

The title of this post comes from a Parks Canada guide to the Torngat Mountains National Park under the "Wildlife Encounters" section. (See my previous post for details about my forthcoming trip.) The pamphlet states: "Wildlife can be dangerous under certain conditions...When you register to enter the Torngat Mountains, we will show you a safety video about polar bears...We will also provide a copy of Parks Canada's Safety in Polar Bear Country pamphlet...Polar bears are true carnivores and can be a significant risk to human beings. Visitors traveling and camping in the park are in polar bear country and are at high risk of encounters."

In the "Handling an Encounter" section of the Safety in Polar Bear Country pamphlet various scenarios are reviewed, such as:

If the bear does not know you're there (do such and so)...

If the bear knows you are there and shows signs of being curious (do such and so)...

If the bear has been surprised at close range or shows signs of being agitated or threatened (do such and so)...

Here's the one I like:

If the bear shows signs of stalking or hunting you, such as:
-following you or circling you,
-approaching directly, intently and unafraid,
-returning after being scared away, or
-appears wounded, old or thin [i.e, is PISSED OFF!]


-fight back! [or, GET THE F---- OUT OF THERE!] Use any potential weapon,
group together and make loud noises.
-DO NOT RUN. [Hmmh..don't know about that one...]
-be prepared to use deterrents.

If a bear charges:

-stand your ground and be prepared to fight! [Like I'm actually going to do that?]
Bluff charges are rare. [I pray the Lord my soul to keep...]

I confess to having felt relieved when I learned that we will have an Inuit guide accompanying us on this trip (who will be carrying a firearm at all times,i.e, a deterrent.) In addition, an electric fence will be set-up around our camp at night. (What if I need to take a leak?!?)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Jack! (one day late...)

He was born to Stanley Heald and Marjorie McBride Heald on July 14, 1920 in South Weymouth, Massachusetts.

And this is why I love my father (in random order...):

He liked to eat and drink, liberally, and with great gusto.
He had a daily practice of prayer and meditation.
He was a devoted follower of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
He loved the pipe organ, especially when played by E. Power Biggs.
He was a keen observer of politics and world events.
He served on a destroyer, the USS Converse, during World War 2.
He loved to sing in church (and elsewhere).
He handed out presents to his children on Christmas Day.
He became more liberal and politically progressive as he aged.
He loved Sukie and Bekah and Anna.
He loved the outdoors.
He felt that how one behaved was more important than what one believed.
He was inept as a handyman and adept at jerry-rigging of all kinds.
He went for a long walk every day.
He was a lay leader in the Congregational Church.
He sang "Lord Jeffrey Amherst" under a bed with his best friend, Alvin Bicknell.
He fed the birds in his backyard.
He was a master carver of roast beef and other bloody red meats.
He ate half the meat in the act of carving it.
He said: "Just be yourself. You'll be fine."
He collected fine Christmas music.
He played King's College Choir, Cambridge, records.
He fried fish balls on Christmas morning.
He largely ignored my teenage excesses.
He loved Johnny Most and the Boston Celtics and took me to the Boston Garden.
He forgave my children for dumping hot chocolate on the back seat of his car.
He would fart and belch with abandon, much to the consternation of my mother.
He jumped up and went wild while watching football on TV.
He loved to drink beer and eat cheese.
He blasted Bach Toccata and Fugue on Sunday mornings.
He loved super gross-burgers--cheese, bacon, letttuce, and tomato.
He was a friend to humanity.
He was a true gentleman--a fast dying-out breed.
He was a fine vegetable gardener.
He was one of the first mediators in the state of Maine.
He carried on the family tradition of making fine shoes.
He was proud that I became an Episcopal priest.
He voted for Bill Clinton.
He wore red suspenders when he worked outdoors in winter.
He loved to build fires.
He set-off fireworks illegally.
He was a master clambake chef.
He loved my friends, especially Nat Bowditch.

He died and yet he lives on...

Image Source: DSH Photo Jack Rowing in Newagen Harbor

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Call of the Wild

My friend Steve called me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I might like to go to Labrador. For the last three years, Steve has gone to the Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador for a week of rugged and remote wilderness camping with none of the amenities. Air Inuit offers charter flights into the Park--otherwise, as the saying goes, you can't get there from here.

The only problem being that the dates of the trip corresponded exactly with my annual week-long sesshin with Boundless Way Zen. I posed the problem to Steve (who is himself a Zen priest): "For me, this trip is a pilgrimage. It is itself a means to experience that 'original mind' that we experience on retreat." The word sesshin means "to touch the heart/mind." Is not stepping out into unknown territory--a true wilderness--a kind of sesshin, with all the challenge, struggle, and moments of awakening that such entails? I was sold.

And this is what I read about the Torngats on the Parks Canada website:

From the Inuktitut word Torngait , meaning “place of spirits”, the Torngat Mountains have been home to Inuit and their predecessors for thousands of years. The spectacular wilderness of this National Park comprises 9,700 km2 of the Northern Labrador Mountains natural region. The park extends from Saglek Fjord in the south, including all islands and islets, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the provincial boundary with Quebec in the west, to the iceberg-choked waters of the Labrador Sea in the east. The mountain peaks along the border with Quebec are the highest in mainland Canada east of the Rockies, and are dotted with remnant glaciers. Polar bears hunt seals along the coast, and both the Torngat Mountains and George River caribou herds cross paths as they migrate to and from their calving grounds. Today, Inuit continue to use this area for hunting, fishing, and travelling throughout the year.

Place of spirits. That works for me.

So now I'm engaged in the task of getting organized--begging, borrowing, and stealing (actually, purchasing) what I need for the trip. Layers of clothing mostly, a few hiking accessories, and enough insect repellant to keep the mosquitoes and black flies at bay. A week from Saturday, we drive to Montreal, then fly to Kuujjiak, an Inuit community in northern Quebec and, finally, take an Air Inuit charter into Saglek Bay. When that plane takes off, we'll be quite alone--just us and the caribou, polar bears and golden eagles, among other wildlife...

Stay tuned.

Image Source: Saglek Bay and Fjord. Photographer unknown. From the album of photographs furnished to the Newfoundland Royal Commission, August 1933. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-207), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Facing Death With Dignity and Reverence

A friend emailed me a link to an article in today's New York Times Health section about a convent that promotes excellence in end-of -life care.

"A convent is a world apart, unduplicable. But the Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation in this Rochester suburb, animate many factors that studies say contribute to successful aging and a gentle death — none of which require this special setting. These include a large social network, intellectual stimulation, continued engagement in life and spiritual beliefs, as well as health care guided by the less-is-more principles of palliative and hospice care — trends that are moving from the fringes to the mainstream."

Also, in a related New York Times blog "The New Old Age: Caring and Coping" there is a fine post about the costs--both financial and physical-- of denial at the end-of-life.

Image Source: New York Times

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth of July!

Twenty-one years ago, Morning Edition launched what has become an Independence Day tradition: hosts, reporters, newscasters and commentators reading the Declaration of Independence. Click on the link above and enjoy the reading!

Declaration Of Independence

Below is the original text of the Declaration of Independence, along with contributors who performed the reading.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,
and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
— Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.
They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved;
And that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Two-hundred and thirty-three years ago Saturday, church bells rang out over Philadelphia as the Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Am Not the Person You're Looking For

In an attempt to expand the readership of my new blog "My Morbid Obsession," I've been networking with some of the big-wigs in the Civil War blogosphere. The other day I sent an email to one of the "Top 10 Civil War" bloggers, a woman who is a Ph.d candidate in military history. After telling her how much I enjoyed her posts, I asked her to review my blog. And, if she likes what she's reads, would she please make mention of it in her blog? Two days later I received this reply:

Hi David:
Unfortunately, I am not the person you're looking for...I get this quite a bit.
Suzanne *

I shot off a reply, trying to disguise how miffed I was:

Thanks for getting back. So who might be the person I'm looking for? Any thoughts?

You dork! (actually, I didn't add that last bit...)

Wow, I fumed. This big-shot blogger can't be bothered to take a minute or two out of her day to read my blog. So much for social networking. Who does she think she is, anyway? What a geek! Too self-involved, I guess. This whole Civil War blogosphere thing is a joke. What narrow-minded nerds! I guess I'm never gonna make the Big League. Maybe I'll drop "My Morbid Obsession." OMG, what a STUPID idea that blog was to begin with! Nobody reads it anyway.

And, then, after I settled down a bit, I became more philosophical. Wow! Look at you! This really pushed your button big time. What's up with that? I guess you need external validation to feel good about yourself. "I am not the person you're looking for." Well, who is? God? Some other "expert" out there who will tell you what a good job you did? How about finding validation within yourself? How about trusting what you love and going with it? Isn't that enough? Who cares what anybody else thinks. Boy, you need to slow down and meditate more. You're a lousy Zen student. What a wreck!

This morning, I got another reply:

David -
All I know is that there is another "Suzanne" -- who writes about civil wars. :)
Are you looking for that person?
I get emails quite frequently with requests etc. around that topic....
That is what I know..

OMG, I said to myself, did I just make that whole damn thing up in my head? That email never even made it to that big-wig Civil War blogosphere woman! I totally had her pegged as a selfish prig and myself as an utterly worthless human being! And I imagined the whole thing..

The stories that my mind spin out that have no basis whatsoever in REALITY are astounding. Anyone else ever experience this?

Please comment. (Maybe I'll feel better about myself...)

* For those of you who are astounded that I didn't figure out immediately that I had the wrong "Suzanne," my wife Sukie agrees with you. Add utterly "clueless" to my list of faults!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Love With A. Lincoln

Maira Kalman is an illustrator, author and designer whose last column for Op-Extra, "The Principles of Uncertainty," ran from May of 2006 to April of 2007 and has been published as a book. She has written and illustrated 12 children's books, and her artwork is featured in a recent edition of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style." She recently created a panel story for The Rosenbach Museum and Library's 21st-Century Abe Web project. Her work is shown at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan. Ms. Kalman lives in New York City and teaches graduate courses in design at the School of Visual Arts. "And the Pursuit of Happiness," about American democracy, will appear on the last Friday of each month.

Here's a favorite post from "And the Pursuit of Happiness'" entitled "In Love With A. Lincoln."

Please enjoy!

Text Source: New York Times
Image Source: Maira Kalman

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Keeping Vigil

I walked up the wooden wheelchair ramp to the back door of the one-story blue house. In the tiny kitchen the hospice nurse introduced me to the patient's wife, Eleanor. Her two step-children, Debbie and Donna, greeted me. 

The family escorted me into the living room where a hospital bed had been set up in front of the TV. Leland, a dying elderly gentleman wearing a white T-shirt, was lying in bed, unresponsive, with the clear plastic tubing of the nasal cannula draped over his ears delivering oxygen. His large gnarled carpenter's hands were folded neatly on the sheet. I had been called to come and offer prayers.

An open black leather Bible sat on the over-the-bed table. I commented on the presence of the Bible and asked if Eleanor had been reading from it. She showed me the passage from the Book of Revelation and I asked if she would like me to read it aloud. 

"See, the home of God is among
He will dwell with them as their
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with
he will wipe away every tear from their
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will
           be no more,
for the first things have passed

We gathered around the bed, held hands in prayer, and stood for a few moments in hushed silence. I opened my prayer book and read from Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd..." We said the Lord's Prayer together. Eleanor wept copiously and dabbed at her eyes with a kleenex. I took her hand to console her.

And just as I was about to bless the patient, sending him solemnly forth on his final journey, the gray tabby cat jumped unceremoniously up on the bed. 

"O, hello!" I said.

"That's Poop," the patient's wife sniffled.

"Excuse me?" I replied.

"Poop. That's the cat's name. It's his nickname."

"How do you spell that?" I asked, unsure of whether I heard her correctly.

"P-o-o-p." She slowly spelled out the cat's name.

"Oh, that's what I thought," I replied, snickering under my breath.

Gales of laughter erupted from around the bedside.

Poop settled down on the blanket between Leland's legs. The cat draped a paw over the bulge of the pillow under the covers and closed his eyes for a nap.

"He looks just like a king on his throne. He won't leave him alone. It's been like this for several days now," Eleanor said.

And so I blessed Leland and went on my way.

Poop kept silent vigil throughout the night.

The Consolation of Faith?

Ira Byock, M.D, reflects on "What is the consolation of faith in the face of death?"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dying Well

Over at My Morbid Obsession, I'm taking a look at the concept of a "Good Death" in mid-nineteenth century America and particularly how that notion was challenged by death away from home in the Civil War. The reality of the impersonality of battlefield violence and destruction up-ended the customary practice of a domestic death with family gathered at the bedside to witness the beloved's last moments. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust has noted that up until the first decade of the 20th century, fewer than 15% died away from home. Hospitals were for the indigent, not for respectable citizens.

As the power of medicine to cure grew in the second half of the 20th century, increasingly Americans were dying in the hospital. According to Ira Byock, MD, 20% of Americans die in ICUs tethered to life-sustaining quipment. 50% of us die in hospitals. 30% in long-term care facilities. Death has been subsumed within a medical model and culture and occurs largely away from home.  

The tradition of the ars moriendi--the arts of dying-- of which I spoke in my last posting at My Morbid Obsession, have been to a large extent lost. And while we are no longer a predominantly Protestant Christian culture, our spiritual lives continue to impact how we die. We are whole people. As Byock suggests, dying is not a medical occurrence but an intensely personal one, encompassing the whole person. As a culture we have become alienated from death and dying, having become entranced by the power of medicine. Without denying the many blessings of modern-day medicine, we can begin to reclaim--in our own way-- the intimate experience of dying well among loved ones so evident in the 19th Century.

Enjoy the video below by Ira Byock, MD, Palliative Care physician at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and author of many books on end-of life care. He addresses the question of why we are afraid of death.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Are You an Episcopalian?

Reading Ronald C. White, Jr.'s outstanding new biography A. Lincoln, I came across a delightful story reflective of Lincoln's amiable nature and wry sense of humor.

After the death of Lincoln's beloved son Willie in February of 1862, and as the war wore on and he worried over his military leadership, he became increasingly close to Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lincoln spent many evenings at Seward's home on Lafayette Square, conversing with his friend and warming himself by the library fire. White writes:

To the other members of Lincoln's cabinet, and many in Washington, Lincoln and Seward were an odd couple.  As the two men lounged in Sewards' library, the secretary of state would take pleasure in his Havana cigars, while Lincoln did not smoke; Seward enjoyed vintage wines and brandy, while Lincoln did not drink; Seward was known for his colorful language, whereas Lincoln almost never swore. One day, Lincoln and Seward were on their way to review troops near Arlington. Traveling in an ambulance drawn by four mules over rutted roads, the driver, losing control of his team. began to swear. As the roads became even rougher, the swearing increased. At last Lincoln spoke up. "Driver my friend, are you an Episcopalian?"

"No, Mr. President, I ain't much of anything; but if I go to church at all, I go to the Methodist Church."

"Oh, excuse me," Lincoln replied. "I thought you must be an Episcopalian for you swear just like Secretary Seward, and he's a churchwarden."

("House-clearing in Washington" Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun; June 1, 1864)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Waking Up to This Wide and Wondrous Universe

“Waking Up to This Wide and Wondrous Universe”
A sermon preached by the Rev. David S. Heald
All Saint’s Chapel, Orr’s Island, ME
June 7, 2009

Drive anywhere through the country side in Maine and you’re likely to pass any number of roadside church billboards. Gospel signage, I like to call them. Last year, I often had occasion to drive by a Baptist church in Auburn, ME. The minister there is a gospel signage overachiever. Here are some examples of his work:

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

Don’t wait for the hearse to bring you back to church.

God takes the stains out that others leave behind.

Faith in Jesus is the believer’s passport to heaven.

And here’s my favorite:

Where will you be spending eternity—smoking or non-smoking?

I recently saw a variation on that theme in an online Time magazine photo essay entitled, “John 3:16 in Pop Culture.” A North Carolina bible-belt church’s sign, without the creative flair of its Maine counterpart, says rather bluntly:

Where will you be spending eternity?
Heaven or hell?
Read John 3:16.

For those of you who don’t know it by heart, John 3:16 says:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That photo essay had several other images:

Florida Gator’s quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow, wearing the famous verse on his eye black during the NCAA championship last January.

Rollen Stewart—known as the rainbow man—who, having been born-again, became obsessed with sharing his faith, attending big-time sporting events wearing a rainbow-colored wig and carrying a sign saying John 3:16.

A cardboard coffee cup from an “In and Out” burger franchise, with the verse emblazoned on the bottom.

John 3:16 is embedded in the culture of evangelical America, especially in the South. It is the clarion call of that culture’s missionary zeal to convert souls to Jesus.

All well and good you might say, but unfortunately John 3:16 has taken on an exclusivist edge, a foreboding “you’re in or you’re out” sensibility, reflected in the “where will you be spending eternity” motif, a choice between smoking and non-smoking sections.

This biblical verse, which Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,” has become a byword, a throw-away statement, that the more secular-minded among us are inclined to give little heed to, if not ignore altogether.

Re-examining John 3:16—within its context of the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night—opens up another point of view: the way that Jesus incarnates is a universal way, inclusive of us all, Christians and non-Christians alike.

Marcus Borg, professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, in a two and half minute video on, offers a corrective to what he feels is a misreading of John 3:16. He describes that misreading as follows: that the way you get to heaven is by believing in Jesus and, in particular, believing that Jesus died for the sins of the world.

He asserts that John’s gospel means something quite different. Borg then goes on to examine the verse phrase by phrase.

First, “for God so loved the world.” It doesn’t say for God so loved Christians or God so loved the elect or God so loved the Church but God so loved the world.

Next, “that he gave his only son.” In John’s gospel this does not refer to Jesus dying on the cross but to the incarnation itself—“the word was made flesh.” That is, God so loved the world that Jesus became a part of it.

Next, “that everyone who believes in him.” The word “believe” doesn’t mean believing a set of statements about Jesus. The pre-modern meaning of the word meant “to give your heart to, to commit yourself to.”

Finally, “may not perish but may have eternal life.” In John’s gospel, eternal life doesn’t mean life after death. It means the life of the world to come, a Jewish notion. For John’s gospel, the life of the age to come is already here.

As it is said elsewhere in John, “for this is eternal life, to know God.” To know God in the present is already to participate in eternal life.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, which is to say, Nicodemus is in the dark, like the rest of us. He comes to the one who is light shining in darkness, the light of the world, the true light that enlightens every person, the one who gives light to the blind.

Nicodemus praises Jesus as the one who has come from God. But Jesus abruptly changes the subject and says that no one can see God without being born from above. Which is to say, without being born again. But still Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is a literalist; he is unable to experience life metaphorically or poetically. “How can anyone be born after having grown old,” he says, “can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus drives his point home again.

“Do not be astonished that I say to you ‘You must be born from above.’” He connects the experience of being born again with the life of the Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Nicodemus needs a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation. Isn’t this what we are all seeking, what we all need?

As a hospice chaplain, I have occasion to visit many of our patients who reside in long-term care facilities. One such patient is a retired space engineer who was instrumental in promoting a flight path that proved decisive in the success of the first lunar mission.

Now confined to a wheelchair, only able to speak haltingly and with few words, he is often agitated, frustrated by his inability to give voice to his brilliant mind. I know that he can’t be rushed; that he requires a patient, attentive listening presence.

A few weeks ago, the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Hubble Telescope to make repairs and install new optical equipment. I shared this news with my patient, knowing that he might be interested, and watched as he became visibly excited, his eyes widening. I wheeled him over to a computer and googled images of deep space made by the telescope—those mind-blowing, brilliantly colored images of an unimaginably wondrous and vast universe. He uttered exclamations of awe and delight as I downloaded one image after another—star clusters, spiral galaxies, and supernova remnants trailing through the cosmos.

For a few minutes his agitation and frustration subsided and he was attentive—awake—with every fiber of his being.

And Jesus said: “Do not be astonished that you must be born from above.”

Moments of self-forgetfulness—even in spite of our confusion or anxiety or feeling ourselves to be in the dark—come to us all, unbidden and freely given. To paraphrase Philip Simmons from his book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, the experience of God, like falling in love, is not something we choose or reason our way into; but rather, is something into which we fall, something in which we find ourselves.

To fall into God has the nature of an accident. And though we can’t choose our accidents, we can learn to make ourselves accident prone, to make ourselves available for the fall into God—into eternal life—which always comes as grace.

John’s gospel promises that we need not wait for some hoped for heaven. Eternal life is in our midst now. It is as if God was saying to us all, as to Moses before the burning bush: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

You and I are standing on holy ground.

We need only awaken and walk into this wide and wondrous universe.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Preaching Again for the First Time

It's a novel experience yet one that has the fit and feeling of a well-worn sock. Today, I'm writing a sermon for the first time in well over a year, for one of the my church's summer chapels on the coast of Maine. Tomorrow morning, I'll put on my clerical collar, my alb, and my stole and step into the pulpit or, as the case may be, stand in the aisle, and preach.

The old working habits come back. Up by 6 A.M, I brew some breakfast tea and head over to my study, pull out a lined yellow writing pad and my fountain pen, light a candle, and begin. Thumbing through this book or that piled up before me, occasionally stepping over to sit at my computer to do some quick research, I work through the morning. If I'm fortunate, as I was today, I'll have a draft to show for it. 

Back later this afternoon, and then again after supper, I'll neatly rewrite my barely legible scrawl on a dozen or so five by seven note cards. In the morning, I'll be up again at dawn, reading aloud what I had written the day before, committing some sections to memory, hoping that it all hangs together. 

And then comes the long anticipated event itself, when the magic of forgetting myself in the act of preaching may happen and the thrill of feeling connected to my hearers may occur or, on occasion, the dull dead sense of missing the mark, of finding myself talking to an empty room full of people. One never knows.

Right now, I'm thankful for the opportunity. The whole creative process--planting the seeds and then watching what comes up in my heart and mind, the physical process of writing, of searching for and finding words that will speak well, of reading those words over and over again until they descend into my body and become second nature, and finally, of uttering them before others--is a great gift.

We'll see how it goes...

(Hans Holbein the Younger Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam Writing 1523 Louvre, Paris)

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Morbid Obsession: Take Two

As threatened in my May 27 post, I have taken another leap and launched a second blog entitled: "My Morbid Obsession: Death in Antebellum America, the Civil War, and Today." As my last nine posts were more or less about death, my obsession became obvious for all to see. Heeding the call, I took the next step of designing and constructing a new blog over the weekend and then, Sunday afternoon, published my first post.

I think that "Morbid Obsession" looks very cool, with a cropped Timothy O'Sullivan photograph of the dead on the field at Gettysburg as the header. I purposefully avoided any color in the overall design, choosing to make it muted in tone, intentionally inviting a more contemplative and reflective mood.

Now that I've had fun creating "Morbid Obsession," my intention is to let it come to life (or not) on its own terms. I have no idea how often I'll post. It's an experiment. Now that I've created a space of welcome in my own heart and mind--and a virtual space on the internet--I'll watch with curiosity what arises. The same applies to Distant Temple Bell. We'll see which way the spirit moves over the next few weeks. In a month or so, I'll give you a progress report.

Meanwhile, please stay tuned. And take a moment to add comments or drop me a line. If you enjoy "Morbid Obsession," become an official follower.

(1836 Political Cartoon " A Galvanized Corpse" by H.R Robinson; Library of Congress)