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Sabbatical Update from Fr. Rob



Dear St. Paul’s Community,


As I had said to you in my letter of February 1st, I wanted to write you monthly letters giving you updates on what I’m doing with this time away. And as I’d said, I am focusing primarily on two things: 1) my own personal relationship with Jesus (and thus with everyone and everything around me), and 2) the current health, state, and needs of our world’s oceans - God’s womb of life – and what we, the Church, can do to help take better care of this magnificent planet of ours. I’ll begin by telling you about the “Rob & Jesus” part of this time away.


You may recall that from 2021 through 2023 I was guided methodically through The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in two different settings, first by a retired Jesuit priest who lives at the Campion Center in Weston, and then in a year-long course at Boston College during which I was assigned a mentor who is another Jesuit priest. (I continue to meet with both of these priests.) The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God. They are a means of opening oneself to the work of God in one’s life. I’ve long been fascinated by Ignatius, and had tried several times to work my way through The Exercises on my own, but then discovered that they were never meant to be done on one’s own; they’re meant to be done under the guidance of a companion who’s been through them repeatedly in their own lives.


So, who is Saint Ignatius? He was a Spanish Catholic priest and theologian who founded the religious order of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and became its first leader. Until the age of 26 he was a man given over to the vanities of the world. In the Spring of 1521, Ignatius (a Spaniard from Loyola), then a young chivalrous knight, was wounded in a battle against the French at Pamplona; his leg was shattered by a cannonball. His convalescence was long and complicated, and he was bedridden for a year. To pass the time while he recovered, he asked for the kind of books he enjoyed reading at the time - romances of chivalry. But the only reading available in the house where he was being cared for was a book on the lives of the saints and The Life of Jesus Christ by Ludolph of Saxony, a fourteenth-century Carthusian monk. In reading these volumes he gradually began to notice that his daydreams of romantic chivalry and the affectations of the world were leaving him empty and dissatisfied, always longing for more, whereas the spiritual reading was leaving him with a deep sense of inner peace and quiet happiness. This was the beginning of his conversion into a new life in Christ, a life he could never have previously imagined. It became increasingly clear that Jesus Christ was not just some historical figure from the past, but that he was immediately present, in the deepest depths of one’s heart and soul, as the best and most intimate friend that one could ever have. He does abide in us as we abide in him (John 15:4); all we have to do is say yes and surrender incessantly to this interior goodness (which is, of course, the on-going work of a lifetime, and a priority which can all too easily fade away and seemingly evaporate when we get caught up in our own ways and in the ways of the world).


During this time away I’ve felt inspired to try to make my way slowly and prayerfully through The Life of Jesus Christ, a four-volume set totaling over 3,250 pages. With my attention span, it’s a safe bet that I’ll never make it through this entire treasure of a work. But it is truly awesome in the way that Ludolph’s writings make the entire Bible – indeed the entire history of humankind – so clear through the eyes of God. And it certainly does make it crystal clear – yet again, in the deepest recesses of my heart and soul - that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19).


In The Exercises, and in Ludolph’s Life of Christ, and in my own personal experiences, here's what leaves me in tears again and again: In Jesus we have a friend and a companion far beyond anything I’ve ever known from another human being. Through Jesus we come to know an intimacy, a level of trust and vulnerability, and a life-giving love beyond our wildest dreams. Because of Jesus, no matter where we may be in our lives, no matter what we may have lived through or be living through, no matter what messes we may have made in our lives, everything is healed and redeemed into eternally resurrected love and goodness and newness of life. And as the old hymn says, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”


With Jesus it never has anything to do with oppressive or punitive drudgery. No, instead it always has everything to do with liberating and life-giving healing, and awe-filled gratitude, and joyful newness of life.


Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Ludolph said, “This food is so agreeable and delicious that once a loving heart has tasted it, all other practices will seem bland.”


With all of this deepening interior conversion continuing to unfold, I am also transitioning more fully into my sabbatical project, which continues to come more clearly into focus as I delve more fully into this work. The CEO of Creation Justice Ministries (CJM) has asked me to design and implement a detailed template for leading educational dive trips to National Marine Sanctuaries around the country for faith leaders, civic leaders, and interested citizens who want to dive, learn more about ocean health issues, and get involved by a variety of means. This will also include several paths to certification for those who want to scuba dive, but who aren’t yet trained and certified. We want to maximize avenues to get people involved in marine awareness and conservation, and this begins by providing ways to let people see for themselves what life is like beneath the surface of our seas. This is all based upon the Blue Theology model of providing learning and serving experiences in ocean conservation while fostering personal connections to the seas through experiential learning.


To this end, I’ll soon be going on two expeditions with Dr. Robert Sluka, the Lead Scientist for A Rocha’s Marine Conservation Program. Bob and I will go first to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and then to the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Georgia where we will dive with local marine experts so that I can learn as much as possible, as fast as possible, about the key threats to marine species, coral reefs, and overall ocean health such as pollution, bottom trawling and drag netting, rising sea water temperatures, and ocean acidification.


Why do we care about coral reefs, and why do we need protected marine sanctuaries around them? Coral reefs are called the “lungs of the planet” and the “rainforests of the sea.” Coral reefs are like big chemical factories that take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen back into it. At least half of the Earth's oxygen comes from the ocean, primarily from coral reefs. Coral reefs have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet - even more than a tropical rainforest. Occupying less than one percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs are home to more than 25 percent of all marine life, including over 4,000 species of fish. (The Northwest Hawaiian Island coral reefs, which are part of the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, support more than 7,000 species of fishes, invertebrates, plants, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals.) Coral reefs serve as a center of activity for marine life. Bottom trawling is instantaneously devastating to coral reefs. And rising sea water temperatures and ocean acidification are bleaching and killing them faster than we can imagine. Ocean temperatures are rising; that we know. But what does it matter if ocean temperatures rise by as little as 2 degrees Celsius? Well, it would be just like your body temperature rising by 2 degrees Celsius. Think about it: 2 degrees Celsius = 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. For our human body, that would be like our normal body temperature of 98.6 rising by 3.6 degrees, leaving us with a fever of 102.2; over a period of time, that would be fatal. And once the coral reefs are gone, we’ve lost perhaps the single most important ingredient to the health of our oceans, our planet, and to all of humanity. So yes, we most certainly do need protected marine sanctuaries, and we do need to take much better care of our oceans.


My hope – our hope – in all of this is to help as many people as possible see this for themselves.


After my trips with Bob and his colleagues, I will then work closer to home in places like the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range off the New England coast, about 80 miles off the coast of Cape Ann, which is home to a great diversity of life.


I’m also pondering the feasibility of an invitation I’ve received to go to northern California to dive in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the area around the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary with a group of people including a fellow Episcopal priest who was a marine biologist before receiving her call to ordained ministry and who has written some stunning pieces on the intersection of science and faith. This will depend largely upon my ability to find funding to help cover some of the cost of this trip.


And by the end of my sabbatical, I hope to develop some kind of “Ocean-Smart Church” presentation for parishes in our Diocese (or any group) covering such topics as: What I’ve learned from my sabbatical experiences that I want to communicate as widely as possible? What should people know about the ocean, and how our actions affect ocean health (and thus our own health)? What do Christian theology and ethics have to say about our care of God’s oceans? And how can congregations such as ours be engaged in helpful and measurable ways?


We’ve been enjoying the conferences and trainings I mentioned in my last letter, and we look forward to attending the Boston Sea Rovers 2024 International Ocean Symposium, March 15-17, and the Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training in New York City, April 12-14. And I’m grateful for the many things I’ve been learning through my work with the fine people at Oceana.


I continue to think of you, and pray for you, and miss you daily. I really look forward to seeing you all again on June 1st!


Thank you for this amazing gift. I am so very grateful!

Many Blessings,

Rob+

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