Taking Leave

One of the realities, often lamented and much discussed, in this time of COVID 19 is the amount of time we spend on Zoom, Teams, etc. This is an especially pertinent concern for those of us who teach. And one of the things that I have found that is especially odd about it is the difficulty of taking leave from class. In a normal setting leave taking is protracted, with some people disappearing immediately, some heading out of the class after a bit, and other not leaving at all choosing to stay in the class for study time, or hoping to catch up with me, etc.

But Zoom just erases this. Taking leave is abrupt. One moment you are with someone and the next they have disappeared, sometime leaving you with a hollow feeling. I have been mulling over different ways to end mediated meetings, and decided this semester to try something a bit different with my class. We end each class with a body prayer/meditation. Basically, one of my outcomes for the class is to get the body back into theology, and so at the end of each class we focus on one body part. It might be the neck, the elbow, the skin, the spine etc. I invite my students to shut off their camera, and I walk them through a five minute meditation on a part of their body, thinking about what that body part says about who they are as people as they hold, or explore, or imagine it. I then invite them to give thanks to God, and/or their ancestors, and/or themselves for that body part. This exercise is not mandatory and people are welcome to leave for this last five minutes of class. But often everyone stays.

At the end, I shut off my camera and before my eyes are the names of my students – no faces. I imagine them still feeling the nape of their neck, or the curve of their palm, and then slowly at first and then rapidly, the names disappear and mine alone is left. It feels nice – a silent but significant leave taking. I haven’t asked them, yet, about this experience from the perspective of ending. A few have expressed deep gratitude for the meditative experience, and I am happy for that. But most recently, I have wondered about this experience in terms of bringing a class to close.

Of course, endings are so very important. We spend our lives – if we spend them wisely – in preparation for our ultimate experience of taking leave and so, of being welcomed. Leave taking is a profoundly spiritual practice and in this mediated age we are wise to ask: “How do our small farewells fare in terms of ensuring that it is well with our souls?”

Musings on a Monastery

The latter part of last week was spent at Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre. This remarkable Carmelite Monastery was built in 1894 and sits near Niagara Falls. I was there for a meeting of the Joint Anglican Lutheran Commission (JALC), a group of people tasked with monitoring the full communion partnership of the Anglican Church of Canada of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

I have been a part of this commission for some 12 years, and for many of these years our biannual meetings have taken place Mount Carmel. I have also been at this locale for other retreats. It has a bit of a feeling of a spiritual home for me. The staff here are always warm and welcoming, the food is excellent, and I generally manage a number of trips to the waterfall with each stay. Many people complain about the commercialisation of Niagara Falls, but there is something about the power of the water here that allows me to rise above the kitsch of the streets, and to be drawn into the drama of millions of litres of water racing toward the ocean, like a bird after its prey.

The group that gathers constantly changes, like the waterfall itself, I suppose. Of the 12 people in the current iteration of JALC, only 3 of them journeyed with me to this point from my beginning. I come now to the end of my time, as do many. The commission has three-year mandates, and so it will be reconstituted next fall. Some people will return. Many will not, I think. There were tears in the good-byes, and that says something about the gift it has been to be a part of this JALC.

This goodbye was a bit odd in a way, for me. I opted to stay at the Monastery another night, since I was to lead a workshop in the area the next day, and a trip back home Friday night, only to return Saturday morning seemed a waste of time and a needless emission of carbon. But as the crew left, I felt a kind of homesickness, in reverse perhaps. Sick-at-homeness, might better name it. I mentioned in my goodbye that those who have sojourned with me for these years will “haunt” the halls at Mount Carmel upon my return to this place. Indeed, even as they left, memories from this most recent meeting arrived as precisely that: memories. There is something particularly poignant about recent recollections; their sharpness is a reminder that they will fade; their proximity comes with the realization that these days have left and will not return.

Of course, JALC will return to Mount Carmel, as will I, but we will not meet together. This is the way of the world and the church, and it is the way it should be. A healthy committee needs to be renewed, and committee members need to move on to something new. I have enjoyed my time with JALC, and have been formed in important ways by my fellow commissioners, these dear friends, brothers and sisters all.