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A spiritual adventure in southeast, part two

Hi again from Fr. Bill Zamborsky in Ormond Beach, Florida.

Where did I end last month? O yes! I’m God’s favorite. The reason I know that I am God’s favorite is because He has blessed me in so many wonderful and amazing ways. You have the right to require explanation.

My experience of God’s love for me has always been more incarnational than mystical, more tangible than transcendent, more corporeal than spiritual. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ and the Church is the Body of Christ. These two continue the Incarnation of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s providence, God Himself in the world and it is through, with and in them that I most often experience God’s love for me. The Eucharist is a grace-filled topic for another day. For today: the Church, broken and flawed but still the beautiful and beloved Bride of Christ, and, as a priest of Jesus Christ, my Bride too.

Over and over again God manifests His love for me in the love of the people who are the Church, i.e. in your love for me. Among those who made God’s love for me real and tangible during this summer’s visit to the Diocese of Juneau were (avoiding names): the most hospitable, kindred spirit who has much more in common with me than our shared priesthood; the “cathedral ladies” who have been praying for me since I had to leave for home suddenly two years ago; the good doctor whom I met two years ago as a most compassionate stranger and met this summer as a friend (together with his delightful wife); the voice of the lady on the phone who had dropped off my prescription at the drug store and who serendipitously answered the phone two years later so that I could thank her for her act of kindness to a complete stranger; the couple who were members of the parish in Orlando, Florida where I first became a pastor; the hunting/fishing guide and his good cooking wife who shared meals, stories and a love of the wilderness with me; the gracious innkeeper and the young lady bow hunter who worked on her staff. These individuals stand out but the fact is, many people in Juneau and in the missions were really good at making God’s love for me tangible this summer. The fact that Jesus allows His Bride, the Church, to love me clearly indicates that I am God’s favorite.

Four special memories from my six weeks in Alaska this summer further demonstrate my stature as God’s favorite:

1. The weekend retreat which I presented at the Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau was a time of palpable grace for me. I have attended many retreats and presented many days, mornings or evenings of reflection but this was a first for me. I suspect that the amazing natural beauty at the shrine contributed more to the retreat than I did. Thank You, Jesus.

2. When I’m hiking in Alaska it is very natural to pray, usually just muttering about whatever strikes me as I go along, like saying, “Look at that!” and hearing a clear response, “Yes, I know; I made it.”

As I was starting a hike along Montana Creek in Juneau I mentioned to God that I had not seen a bear in all my hikes. Before I could finish my thought I was clearly interrupted with, “Well, you prayed that you wouldn’t encounter a bear.” I responded to this interruption muttering something about everyone around here seeming to have a story about an encounter with a bear, and my feeling kind of wimpy not having a bear story of my own. I then unequivocally stated, “I’d like to see a bear today – at a safe distance of course.” I went on with the hike and forgot all about it as my mind turned quickly to the beauty surrounding me.

On the return I decided to cross a footbridge to the other side of the creek. When I got close to the bridge I turned toward it and was quite surprised to see a bear about half way across the bridge, coming toward me. The bear saw me almost the same moment I saw it. I stopped in my tracks. As the wave of panic passed over me I realized that the bear had also stopped in its tracks and was looking as steadily at me as I was at it. After about 30 seconds of motionless analysis I took one deliberate step backwards whereupon the bear took a deliberate step forward. I instantly froze again thinking this might not be a good idea, whereupon the bear instantly stopped. With no other option I started slowly stepping backward along the trail. The bear matched me step for step in perfect rhythm, pausing when I paused and moving forward matching my backward steps in size and speed. The bear may have been thinking, “Dance before dinner” but I was feeling less and less threatened with each step. The bear got to the end of the bridge and turned away from me.

I saw a bear! I danced with the bear (as it were)! I was intact and unharmed! Yes, Lord, Yes!

I can be pretty dense and slow on the uptake in my relationship with God. It wasn’t until I was back in Florida planning to use the bear encounter as an illustration in a homily that I remembered my muttered prayer at the beginning of my hike. Now I don’t think it was a miracle or that God programed the bear to show up for me. But I don’t think it was pure coincidence either.

3. This summer’s experience of breathtaking beauty occurred in Yakutat. After a thirty mile drive I was crossing the Dangerous River and I looked to my left. The wind wasn’t knocked out of me like getting blindsided by a blitzing linebacker. It was more like my mind was blindsided by the sudden, overwhelming beauty to the point that it simply forgot to tell my body to breathe. And then every breath was an infusion of incredulous astonishment into my soul. Even now, the memory of the sight of the icebergs on Harlequin Lake still fills my soul with awe and an un-worded prayer of praise.

With eager anticipation I hiked to Harlequin Lake where I just paced back and forth and then sat and stared. My mother used to say it wasn’t polite to stare. Well this staring was more than polite; it was the most profound act of worship of which this lowly human being is capable. Any attempt to express the prayer in words would have confined and diminished it.

The icebergs rose from the still waters in silent majesty like white chess pieces highlighted in blue. Even when the wind rippled the water, erasing the overturned reflection of majesty, the monuments of ice remained unmoved, as steadfast and unshaken as the love of God.

4. He was sitting there drying his hair with a towel when I entered St. Francis’ Chapel in Tenakee Springs. His boat with a crew of six was passing through on their way from Sand Point to Juneau looking for fish. They had stopped to bathe at the hot springs where he saw the sign saying I was having Mass. He bathed quickly and got to the chapel moments before I did. We introduced ourselves and proceeded into Mass. I have already forgotten his name, but I will never forget him.

There were just the two of us for Mass, but in my forty plus years as a priest I don’t think I have ever shared such heartfelt participation in the sacred mysteries. His responses were a mixture of what is current, what was from ten years ago, and a smattering of Latin that slipped in every now and then.

I think his real prayer was composed of the tears of joy and wonder that he fought back from beginning to end.

After Mass he told me that in the last 20 years he had only been to Mass three times so when he saw my posting for Mass at the springs he eagerly hastened to attend. He had studied philosophy and music in college and had been a parish organist and choirmaster when he graduated. He had lived near Kodiak for more than twenty years. He loved Alaska but missed Mass with an intense longing. He shared his personal relationship with St. Padre Pio which had eased his spiritual hunger for many years. As he left in a delayed hurry to get back to his boat he told me that this simple, plain, weekday Mass would probably be the highlight for his year. There was no music for Mass until the end when two old men sang one verse of Holy God We Praise Thy Name. And did we ever!

My summer in Alaska was like a party. The people of the Diocese of Juneau were the hosts and I was their guest; the retreat at the Shrine of St. Therese was the venue; the old fisherman provided the music of a lifetime; a bear filled in as my dance partner; and the icebergs of Yakutat frosted my cake. O yes! Yes! Yes! I truly am God’s favorite.

These musings are but a dim reflection, a mere shadow of the reality which still fills my heart. Perhaps the grace of God has allowed them to awaken within you shadows that became bright with color as you recalled such experiences in your life so that you leave this pause for reading as I left my pause for Alaska, confident that you are God’s favorite.

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Love to all,
Fr. Bill

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