Strength for the Journey

Apr 3 / Jeff Savage
"I am not an early bird or a night owl. I am some form of permanently exhausted pigeon." - Erliss, The Monkey Whisperer.

When I first encountered this image of a "permanently exhausted pigeon," I laughed in recognition. The resonance vibrating within was undeniable. In the thick of a full and demanding season, I had been pressing out on the borders of my days, rising early and staying up late. My friend Erliss had prompted me to admit it: I was exhausted. In a bird-brained attempt to attend to everything-everywhere-all-at-once, I had exchanged the joy of a full life and enlivening vocation for a season of desolation. In identifying this, I was now invited to explore a reorientation to my capacity and call.

I wonder, my dear companion, do you recognize something in yourself in my self-revelation? Periodic, if not permanent, exhaustion is part of the human experience, and we are human. So, if the pigeon in me evokes a smile and a nod to some form of the pigeon in you, there is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures about Elijah, the prophet, that invites reflection (1 Kings 18 and 19).

The story begins with the prophet presiding over an exceedingly triumphant day. Any exhilaration that may have followed was quickly squashed when a mighty woman threatened Elijah with death. Upon receiving word of her intentions, Elijah immediately fled in fear. Specifically, he ran. Fast and far. Eventually, deeply ensconced in a distant wilderness, he fell to the ground beside a lone broom tree. In his desolation, Elijah asked that he might die. And then he slept.

In time, a divine messenger awakened Elijah and, pointing to a jug of water and a cake of fresh-baked bread, invited him to "get up and eat." Following more sleep, the messenger returned, and the scene was repeated. Then, on the strength gained in that space, Elijah journeyed into an encounter with God that provided direction for the way forward.

The photograph depicts this wilderness encounter between the exhausted prophet and his gracious host. (I discovered the original image inside the Carmelite Chapel on Mount Carmel in Northern Israel.) I invite you, now, to slow down and linger over this image. If you will, I offer a meditative practice of sacred seeing inspired by Clare of Assisi. Sitting quietly, with the image before you, journey for the next several minutes through these movements:

Gaze: In a relaxed way, begin to notice where your attention is drawn. Rest your eyes on what you see and invite stillness. If your eyes and thoughts are drawn elsewhere, gently bring them back to the image as the focus of your prayer.

Consider: Engage your imagination. Involve your mind. Welcome curiosity. What is before you? Does something draw you? Do you notice any resistance? Do you sense something of the Spirit in or through it? Can you name what you are feeling?

Contemplate: Settle now into the mystery. Release all but Presence. Rather than being active in your observation or trying to identify new insights, simply be attentive to what you have already noticed or felt. Be present to God as God is present to you.

Imitate: We encounter the Spirit's Presence most genuinely when we integrate Divine truth into our being and doing. Engaging art in prayer invites transformation. Do you sense an invitation or call emerging? If so, how might it give shape to the way forward?

As I sit with the image in this "acknowledge the pigeon" moment, Elijah's unfolding journey reminds me of a familiar and recurring pattern of ascent, desolation, and direction (or re-direction). I invite you to notice the movements:

 Ascent. First, there is a challenge, a faceoff, and a victory of Biblical proportions, for "the hand of the Lord was on Elijah" (1 Kings 18:46). Oh, the exhilaration of success!

Desolation. In a heartbeat, a threat triggers fear, and fear quickens flight. Exhaustion devolves into despair, as Elijah "asked that he might die" (1 Kings 19:4). In this desolate space, hospitality is extended, and strength to go on is received.

Direction. In a mountain cave, Elijah encounters Presence and grapples with a question: "What are you doing here?" (1 Kings 19:9-21). By his answer, we discover that Elijah is stuck. Yet, in the sheer silence of that place, God gives - and Elijah receives - Direction. The way forward.

Birds of a feather, consider how this story speaks into our present season. Focus, in particular, on that space in the middle, where Elijah, depleted, receives strength for the way forward. He went, you see, on the strength of that food to his encounter with God. I highlight two aspects of this threshold space:

Elijah's Disciplines: He prays, sleeps, eats, and repeats. That is all. Sometimes, this – and simply this -- is exactly what is needed, "Otherwise the journey will be too much" (1 Kings 19:7).

The Messenger's Hospitality helped Elijah cross the threshold of divine encounter. Such hospitality is a gift you and I offer others. It is also, let us be reminded, a gift we do well to receive. How do we preempt the pigeon of exhaustion? By regularly flying to a compassionate, welcoming space in which we can slow down, breathe, reflect, and receive soul sustenance so that we can continue in our unfolding life with God.

Elijah's journey offers a way forward for us in any season of life. It is also part of the inspiration for the upcoming Companioning Center Spiritual Formation Retreat that Janet and I are hosting at Tilikum Retreat Center in Newberg, Oregon, on April 14-17, 2023. We would be so delighted to offer you the gift of a hospitable space for rest and renewal. After all, we're in this together! Please click here for details and registration for this beautiful oasis for community and belonging.

Holding You With Compassion, Jeff

Jeff Savage
Jeff Savage is a spiritual director, retreat guide, and couples facilitator shaped by over 30 years of pastoral ministry and contemplative practice. He also serves as a spiritual director and faculty advisor for Portland Seminary. After the brutal wildfires, Jeff and his wife, Janet, are rebuilding their vision for retreat space for reflection, rest, and renewal at their home above the McKenzie River at Vida, Oregon. In each expression of his calling, Jeff finds abundant joy in holding space for folks to pay attention to their life in God. The values that center him in his vocation include hopeful trust, hospitality, attentiveness, and integrity. Jeff finds balance in tending the garden, photography, wandering, and being Pop Pop to four grandchildren (photos supplied on request).