There are times when life reveals itself to you in a manner unforeseen, one that reminds forcibly of the preciousness of its gift. Last evening I set out from New York on Aer Lingus, heading toward Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland. That holy place and its Benedictine community have a particular place in what I might call my spiritual history since I spent the summer of 2005 there in a season of prayer and discernment that will remain important for the rest of my life. Right now I am entering into a time of transition again (still?), and that is a story for another time quite soon. But suffice it to say that it is a moment when I was looking forward eagerly to see Glenstal again.
Instead the late afternoon and evening into the early morning were spent in hours of increasing anxiety and uncertainty. A scant 20 minutes out of NY the pilot announced to us that there were indications of a problem with the left jet engine in this 2-engine Boeing 757-200 and so we would be making an unscheduled landing in Boston. We flew slowly, or so it seemed, landing finally at Logan. For the next almost 6 hours, engineers tried and failed with fixes on that engine which, it was confirmed early, did indeed have a problem. Twice after repair efforts the engine was tested. Twice it failed the test. After the second of these, the pilot opined to us for the first time that we likely would not be continuing further last night. Then another hour or more elapsed, during which I expected the next announcement to be organizational, and concerned with where we would be staying and how we would get there. Instead, the Captain suddenly announced that he had been assured that all was now well with the recalcitrant engine and that we would be taking off now. Within a short time wer were taxiing toward the runway.
There the engines roared and we began rolling at ever-increasing speed along the tarmac, the sound familiar to all who who have ever flown. Several hundred yards into takeoff, without warning the whine of revving engines went silent and we rolled to a stop in the middle of the runway. Now I love the gift of silence, in prayer, in deep conversation, in most places that it can be found in this noisy world. But I have rarely heard a silence like that in this Boeing as it came to a halt there at Logan. After some time the pilot’s by-now familiar voice spoke for one last time: “Ladies and gentlemen, that obviously didn’t work. The same problem manifested itself again. We are not flying further tonight.”
As one who must guard against a tendency to hyperbole at moments (billions of moments!), let me say this soberly. It was clear then and since that the pilot had reached the clear, cautious, and caring conclusion that there was at least a chance that the engine in question would not be able to carry us safely across to Ireland. And so it was prudent to stop. For my part, I will ever be grateful to him for that decision, for his wisdom, and for the training and experience that led him to act as he did.
The rest of the story is filled with waiting for bags and buses and hotel check-ins, along with five hours of fitful sleep, a decision not to go further today, and the work of saving the intent of retreat at this time.
As always, graces abound. I met a wonderful brother and sister, just over to New York to celebrate his 70th birthday. Their humanity, revealed in hours of conversation, is a lasting gift. Perhaps above all, this experience provides one of those threshold moments that offer the chance to renew everything, just by opening oneself to what is. Today, coming to dear friends in Arlington Massachusetts, sharing a simple of cup of coffee and taking a long walk on a spectacular autumn afternoon – each passing instant was suffused by a profound, gentle sense that if it were to be presented in words would sound something like the very simple phrase, “I am so happy to be here.” Just that. No more. It might even be shortened to “I am so happy.”
Tomorrow the hoped-for retreat begins a day late and an ocean apart from where I intended. I get the sense that someone else is in charge here. On Sunday I preached about trusting, especially when the situation is dire. The Sunday’s readings provided the only time in the 3-year lectionary cycle that the Book of the prophet Habakkuk appears. The conclusion of his prophecy, not read in church this Sunday, provides fitting words for these days in my one life:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.”
[Habakkuk 3:17-19, NRSV]
Photo by John McGinty, October 3 2016 at Great Arlington Meadows, MA