The Last Time

View of the Mediterranean from the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation

The last time I went to Israel, the world was evidently ending. It was near to the end of 1999, and people were feeling frantic about the arrival of Y2K and start of the second millennium in the common era. Either all our interactive computer systems were predicted to fail all at once, resulting in mass chaos and global destruction, or we were going to witness the cataclysmic second coming of the Christ. The former was a largely secular concern, so I heard people in Jerusalem, mostly Christians and Muslims, speculating far more about the latter. 

People had competing notions about which direction Jesus would come from and which gate he would use to enter the holy city. I had a Palestinian cab driver who was certain that he knew the answers to both those questions and who had little patience for quarreling about the basic premise with me. I somehow remained far less credulous than everyone else. My overweight backpack was bursting at the seams because I inevitably packed for every possible contingency. But there was one I would not allow, namely the arrival of the apocalypse.

Jews keep a different calendar than Gentiles do; it is the same one they have kept for several millennia now. This year in Jewish time, for instance, is 5782, not 2022. So the Jewish Israelis seemed less concerned than others in the country about the impending end of the world. They had already marked 2000 many years earlier. While the Hebrew Scriptures, like the the Christian Testament, hold out apocalyptic visions, Jews have been watching the world not end for longer than their Christian and Muslim siblings have.

At the Israel Museum, an entire exhibit hall is dedicated to the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls that were first discovered in Qumran in 1947, the same year that the United Nations adopted its resolution about the creation of an Israeli state. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are liturgical materials from the Essenes, and among the prayers and hymns is a prayer for the End of Days. The days of the Essenes ended before they could mark that momentous occasion, although their sacred literature was somehow not lost in the sands of time.

The Essenes were a mystical sect of Jews who dwelled in desert from the 2nd Century BCE until the 1st Century CE. They lived in Judea when Jesus was wandering it with his disciples. They believed that humans had immortal and imperishable souls, souls that could outlast the world itself. I remember one of my seminary professors asking us what sort of world we students believed we inhabited; if it was corrupted, conflictual, and cruel, this professor suggested, it would appear a cosmic kindness if it were simply to end. In a sense, apocalyptic literature held out a strange hope to its readers. 

Today, globally, we are witnessing the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Some have suggested that we use the term climate collapse instead, and indeed, it seems we are teetering on the brink of that. At the congregation I used to serve, the Social Action Council asked if we should try rank ordering our priorities. To the obvious annoyance of one long-time council member, I quickly suggested that we put environmental concerns at the top of the list. “Everyone thinks that their causes are the most important,” this member told me, although I had not thought of this previously as my particular cause, just as a pressing issue none of us could ignore any longer. She seemed to think the matter was open to debate. “The planet people are right,” I replied. “In the absence of a planet, all of our causes are lost.” 

The last time I went to Israel, I travelled solo. This summer, I went as part of a Protestant clergy leadership tour led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston. Places look different, I discovered, when they are beheld with communal eyes. In the time were were traveling together, Boston seemed very far away to me. But a ministerial colleague back home told me that by late July, Boston was getting as hot as Haifa. This has been a summer of heat wave after heat wave, and not just in New England. 

At the end of our final day in Israel, just before we left for the airport in Tel Aviv, we visited the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation, established in honor of the late Isreali prime minister Shimon Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and whose memory remains a blessing to the country he helped found. He always believed in the human capacity to solve our most stubborn, seemingly intractable problems, primarily by actively expanding our imaginations. “Optimists and pessimists die the same way,” Peres famously said in one interview. “They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.” Who wouldn’t prefer that? As we confront climate collapse, we may need to stay optimistic about the possibility of dramatic and systematic change in order to stay alive.

The contemporary center that bears his name was completed in 2009; it boasts a beautiful view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. What we clergy-tourists saw from there was blue sky and wide horizon. There is a motto sculpted in in metal letters that gleam under the strong sun: DREAM BIG. In his 2017 book, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, Peres writes: “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.” When the Peres Center showcases innovation, it includes social and ethical reforms as well as scientific and technological advances. We need reforms and advances alike these days, and fairly immediately, to slow the sequencing of future climate disasters. We have a world full of wonders — past and present and future — to preserve.

As you may recall, the world did not in fact end at the close of 1999 or at the start of 2000. Thankfully, computer programmers fixed all those Y2K bugs in time. My cab driver lost the bet he would have gladly made with me, were I a betting woman, and miscalculated the timing of the apocalypse. Obviously, he was not the first to do so. Even the Essenes were not the first to so, and they arrived fairly early on the scene. My guess is that people have been forecasting the end of the world probably since the beginning of time. I honestly do not know if the timeline of humanity has a terminus nearby that it is rapidly approaching. I certainly hope not. None of us wants to see that pulling in to view, not even those most ardently predicting it will. We humans have been wrong so many time before; I find that fact in and of itself inspiring.

The Keys to 33

Although we would be staying at a renewal center in the middle of the desert, those of us who enrolled at the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction were advised to pack our laptop computers, since we had some assignments to complete there. After I unpacked my computer in my small single room, No. 33 in the St Gerard building, I diligently tried to log on to one of the available WiFi network, but without any success. The last thing I wanted was any technical difficulties. I have always taken my schoolwork seriously.

Hesychia is a Greek term often translated as silence, tranquility, or stillness. For millennia now, various monastics have sought hesychia in community, starting with the Desert Elders, the so-called Mothers and Fathers, Ammas and Abbas, who began settling in Egypt together at the start of the third century. They lived alone in tiny residences, some built, some found, that were called cells. While they lived individually, they did not exist independently — they formed intimate relationships with their fellow spiritual sojourners, each seeking to be a friend of God.

The view from No. 33

There was a total of 13 of us enrolled in the Winter 2022 term as at Hesychia, a little enough group where we could make easily one another’s acquaintance. After only a couple of days, we could recognize each other’s voice on the walkway outside our doors or through the thin walls. I queried my fellow students about their success logging on to the WiFi network; they gave me mixed reports. Near the end of the first week, after I had tried every IT trick suggested to me, I took my computer to the renewal center office in utter frustration, finding myself behind in my email and limited in the sort of Internet research I hoped to do. As befitted her job title, the business manager in the office was all business. “What room are you in again?” she asked me. 

“I’m in 33,” I replied.

“Oh, that explains it. You won’t get WiFi in that room,” she declared. “It never works there.” She reached for a set of keys to another room and slid them across the counter to me. When I was ready, she told me, I could move my things to the new room. 

Because I didn’t recognize the number on the keychain, I first had to find No. 25 on a campus map. It was on the distant side of the center, behind the hermitages. I walking in that direction and found it was the last door in the building. It opened to an isolated suite; outdoors was a private sitting area. It was obviously an upgrade to my student accommodations and it simply would not do. I made sure to lock the door behind me. 

The Desert Elders had a guiding dictum: “Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” They had a habit of offering up odd words of wisdom. What they meant in this instance was that any one of us can learn from our personal circumstance if we can simply sit still with them long enough. In one of her more famous sayings, Amma Syncletica took the notion even further. She said that a monastic who changed places was no different than a bird who abandoned her nest. The eggs laid there could not stay warm and the new life that had been incubating could not hatch. There would be no chicks to nurture, no chirps to hear. Continuity was a virtue in its own right, one to be cultivated with sincere intention. If we would accept and observe any given situation, the Ammas and Abbas suggested, then we might stay eminently teachable. 

When people ask me what sort of work I do as a spiritual director, I explain that I join with people who want to direct fuller attention to the spiritual dimension of their lives. This requires that director and directee alike develop an increased capacity for stilling and centering and noticing. At the renewal center this winter, I soon recognized that my cell was teaching me one of the most crucial lessons I would learn as a student. No. 33 was showing me that I didn’t need WiFi for those weeks I was in the desert, after all. While I was tempted to optimize my time in residence, what I actually needed to do was attend to a long neglected practice of acceptance. I could choose to accept a certain limitation and finitude and particularity. 

So I dropped that extra set of keys back at the office, thanking the business manager for her ingenious problem-solving on my behalf. As silly as it sounded, I explained, I could not be that far from thin walls and chatty walkways and the other students settled into their cells, with and without WiFi. Back in No. 33 St. Gerard, I folded my laptop shut. I opened up a book I had borrowed from the renewal center library instead. It did not contain a single hyperlink, I realized, considerably relieved. I could not click on anything. 

In her poem “The Desert Has Many Teachings”, Jane Hirshfield translates the writing of the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg with these words: “In the desert, turn toward emptiness… and your being will quiet… kindle Love’s fire with the twigs of a simple life.” Gather the twigs very nearby and you will be able to warm yourself in the nest where you find yourself perched. Study the desert teachings dotting the earthly landscape, mystics and monastics tell us. The school never closes; its classrooms are always in session. Its lessons are precious — and also portable.

When I returned home and began unpacking my bags, I discovered that I still had the keys to No. 33 with me. Clearly, I had not been ready to leave my cell just yet. I emailed the renewal canter office with my apologies and assured them I would return those keys in the mail as soon as the local post office opened. Then I surprised myself by asking if I could please stay in No. 33 again for the Spring 2022 term. I got a reply the next day saying that No. 33 was “already reserved” for me. Even out of school, a great distance away from the desert, I was learning.