Day 11: spacious closure & closing worship

This final blog post of mine marks our last night on the Pipeline Pilgrimage.

The day has had a sense of spacious closure to it, the last day I can hold in my open palms before the ritual of tomorrow’s sending off, our final full day moving after the pattern we have built.

Our experiences today were both distinct and kin to our other days. We sang “the Farthest Field” in morning worship, and tears followed for some. We inflated a peaceful silence for the first hour of our walk. We sojourned through woods, neighborhoods, and fields, and shared thoughts on the climate movement, faith, and the beauty of our surroundings. We better learned one another’s stories.

Joyful surprises found us – a trumpet sent us off with “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and a familiar trail angel, Ellie Richardson from the MACUCC, greeted us with warm brownies. Through headstands, on swingsets, and by way searching for dragons in the clouds, we played. Our team of Great Climate Marchers comprised our sturdy backbone. First Congregation of Pelham honored us this evening with a sumptuous feast.

We engaged in our final evening of spiritual conversation, sharing our gratitude and seeking to understand how the pilgrimage has informed “what is our work to do?” We each brought a unique perspective, our own sense of personal calling.

Yet one undercurrent churned beneath what each of us had to say: in this pilgrimage, something special has come together. The Pipeline Pilgrimage will continue to stand out for me as the most memorable and empowering piece of activism I have known. This pilgrimage has been marvelous in the thickest sense of the word. Our walk has been so much more than I could have expected, and not because of any one of us, but all of us together, led by something greater than ourselves.

So we hope to share this with you during our closing worship tomorrow at Christ Church United of Dracut, beginning at one o’clock and running until three. We invite you to join us in a moment of Easter hope and transformation, knowing that this pilgrimage – like all others – will never really end, but becomes a practice of resurrection when we bring it back into the rest of our lives.

May the light continue to guide our paths, and yours.

Day 10: what prayer?

As has threaded through these blog posts and our social media presence, the hospitality on this pilgrimage has been incredible to the point of almost being overwhelming. The banks of our hearts have overflowed from the constant shower of kindnesses. We lug around an embarrassing abundance in our boxes that spill over with extra bread and apples. Trail angels appear with seltzer water and candy bars, toasted almonds and still-warm brownies. We meet Buddy, an area man slated to have the pipeline located a stone’s throw from his pillow, to discover that the Discount Oil truck that honked at us did so in welcome, specifically finding us on the road to greet us, passing us back and forth three times.

We are humbled by the gift of his witness and of herons in flight over icy rivers, of tonight’s cavernous sanctuary and of an organic camaraderie whose quality I cannot articulate. There have been few times in life when I have felt so thoroughly grateful.

And yet, our central intention in setting out on this pilgrimage was not to enjoy hospitality and welcome. Our walk is not meant as a bonding retreat for climate activists, nor as an occasion for personal spiritual revitalization. We have walked 129 miles thus far because we are moved by the bleak knowledge that the impacts of climate change are terrible beyond our imagining. As I write on this penultimate night of our pilgrimage, I wish to refocus upon this grief at loss to come.

This morning, one of our pilgrims brought fresh to our attention these impacts, the fierce images we have already seen in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy that we would prefer not to remember. Clips of bodies floating in the streets and people stranded in their apartment buildings, unbearable scenes that will become more frequent as climate change continues.

Over a week ago, one pilgrim made a comment that has lodged itself inside my memory like a splinter under skin: “I feel like I am saying goodbye to the land.” Even if this pipeline is not built, this entire region will be nearly unrecognizable by the end of the century, as bark beetles infest forests and the syrup buckets disappear, as variable heat and cold wrack ecosystems and houses alike, as the forest is cleared for industrial land use intensification to bring agricultural production to pace with climate risks.

Debbie, a pilgrim who joined our walk today, quoted a friend about seeking to “see every thing as if it were the answer to a prayer.” The approach resonated with me as a spiritual-psychological trick of sorts, a thoughtful practice to bring one towards a more faithful walk with God. I can envision the prayer answered in the presence of the homeless man with his cup for change, on the bruised feet of a pilgrim needing moleskin, even with the gas pipeline proposed a neighbor’s backyard.

But when I contemplate this with regard to the surrealistic mindwarp that is climate change, I come up dry. What prayer could be answered by this invisible existential menace around the corner, the paradox of simple and complex that shatters common sense like a brick through a window, that breeds hostility and fear where we most need unity and courage? I grasp for an answer, but I can’t begin to conceive of what it might be – what prayer could climate change’s awful reality possibly answer? We did not choose this cup, and I don’t know that it can be made palatable.

I suppose that’s where the prayer comes in.

Day 9: making a joyful silence

We’ve been joking for over a week now that we have not had quite enough suffering on the road to qualify us as proper Pilgrims. Sure, we’ve earned our fair share of blisters, but we’ve mostly enjoyed abundant hospitality from our hosts and potluck cooks, from the land and fair weather, from one another and the Spirit. We’ve had snow, but still no rain (though I may have just jinxed us). So on some level, today’s wintery conditions were a welcome challenge.

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Pilgrims shuffling cautiously along as we begin our trek. Michelle is happy enough about it.

Our day started with Shira sliding down the ice. As the group set out for the day, we brandished the ski poles from Windblown to traverse down the hill towards New Ipswich and then marched through a slushy roadside for hours. In the bite of the bitter wind, we all wore our heavy coats, and several of our pilgrims draped themselves in every layer they had brought.

Following lunch, Bruce invited us into an hour of intention and silence as we began our walk from Greenville to Milford. So we set off through the ice-caked forests of New Hampshire country roads in a contemplative mode, pausing to watch a stream, walking lost in thought, observing the swaying branches of frosted hemlocks.

Then, suddenly, Meg and Leah ran forward with our banner flapping above their heads, laughing. And, the next thing I knew, madness had broken it out within the silence. Erratic footsteps sounded on the ice and bursts of laughter ballooned and popped. Pilgrims wrapped themselves or blinded each other with the banner. Flapping our arms and charging at each another like bulls, spinning and snowboard sliding on the treaded ice, skipping with arms linked and mercilessly scooping others into our chain, we delighted in our silliness. For what must have been a full half hour, laughter echoed in the trees as we pranced and pantomimed.

Charles spoke of this moment later as, “tapping into that seven-year-old in all of us.” Bruce likened it to the jubilant “wheee!” of the streams and the pines. Our play was vital and necessary, and I doubt we would have found this space had the weather conditions been kinder to us, the going easier. Our clowning transformed the dreariness of a cold afternoon, inflating a home for absurdity in the face of winter and silence.

Maybe laughter can help us skate over the quagmire of despair, and into hopefulness. Maybe it’s just healthy not to be serious all the time.

I don’t want to risk over-interpreting this one.

But I am reflecting now on how joyous buffoonery can be a spiritual practice just as much as any solemn ritual, equally an excursion into sacred time, breaking us out of the ordinary and freeing us from our conditioning, ultimately helping us to see just a little differently.

Day 8: babies bearing witness

The presence of infants and children has been an unexpected delight, lightening our steps throughout the pilgrimage. We had a baby brigade for our walk today, two-month-old Fox and four-month-old Juniper, bundled in blankets over their home-knit gnomish duds. Now, as I begin to draft this during downtime prior to our community potluck, I see other young children accompanying their parents into the glowing pine atmosphere of the Windblown Ski Lodge.

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The baby brigade! Juniper with her mom, Hannah, and Fox with his dad, Craig.

With us, these babies are bearing witness. They bear witness to the risk of this pipeline, to the community rallying against it, to the rich hospitality boiling down like maple sap into syrup, to our desire to transform ourselves and our society towards a sane course on climate change.

Fundamental to bearing witness is the notion of testimony, as in court. And I wonder now, amidst the warm conversation here in the Lodge, what these burbling babies will say in fifty years about the decisions we made in the era of mass awareness about climate change. Will they laud our bravery and moral integrity? Or will they condemn our nearsightedness, bemoan us for forgetting that we hold the lives of billions in our collective hands?

Two days ago, a nine-month-old joined us in Greenfield. I learned over breakfast that his name was August, though August was not his birth month. And this peculiarity, alongside his vocal ministry of coos and excited squeals during morning worship, led my contemplation.

I feel drained in my arms and neck as I recall the way that his name suddenly thudded into me like a dart thrown into cork. Because we are now, as a world, in a period like the final days of August. Summer is coming to a close, and though the harvest continues for some time, we know that the fall lies ahead, and the winter beyond that.

Words uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion in the Gospel of Luke, “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

The data is in – there will be a winter with climate change, and by any realistic assessment the way will not be easy. But a coming winter does not mean we consign ourselves to hypothermia, and, besides, we today decide the severity of this winter. We could opt for a freeze on fossil fuel infrastructure and lay our obsessive consumption to fallow. We decide whether to build a strong cabin to insulate many, or a lean-to merely for ourselves. Or, perhaps, we will choose to slog knee-deep in the snowfall, addled, digging barehanded through snow banks to uncover our treasures that the intensifying blizzard will continually submerge.

The understood severity of climate changer means that there will be no endless summer. The transition from a fossil fueled, consumptive world, to a green-and-gold idyll of wind power, farmers markets, and bike lanes for all will not be seamless. This summer may come, but if it does, it will follow winter. For the sake of August, Juniper, and Fox, I hope we might store up our late summer harvest wisely.

Day 7: the real work

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

-Wendell Berry, “The Real Work”

This morning, before we began the 14 miles of New Hampshire hills that roll between Winchester and Fitzwilliam, Meg read the above poem. Wendell Berry’s words wash away our fear and lead us towards embracing our ignorance. For today, I understand the need to admit our uncertainty if we wish to seek for authentic truths, or, in the context of climate change, a real path forward, sensible and commensurate with the scale of crisis.

In the Gospels, a whole lot of folks sit at Jesus’ feet and just don’t seem to get his teachings. Even his twelve disciples ignore the way of the Kindom he has been expounding for them to argue about who gets first place. The fault is not with Jesus’ pedagogy, but with the listening skills of his audience.

Today, I am seeing how many of those keenly interested in Jesus’ words fail to understand, because they listen to their own expectations, rather than the one speaking before them. Arguably, Jesus’ death came about through a (deliberate) misunderstanding of metaphor – seeing Jesus as a violent political revolutionary, because that is precisely what people expected the messiah to be.

When our minds cling fully to whatever brand of solution we buy into, it leaves no room for us to listen. But confessing uncertainty removes our mental earwax. As I walk this pilgrimage, my body is hammered with the awareness that when we admit we lack the specifics of life after death, when we admit that we do not hold the schematics for the evacuation out of climate crisis, we hollow out the space to learn together through listening and witnessing boldly.

It’s not just about the humility of admitting that we do not know the right idea yet. It’s about realizing that sometimes, the right answer is in proclaiming that we do not know. And so I propose we celebrate the mysteries, and embrace the community that can be built through confessing our uncertainly. Because it is only when we lay false hopes in the tomb can we see the new creation born ahead.

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Jimmy shreds.

I write this blog post now by firelight from a wood stove, and the warmth of a drifting fiddle and guitar. I am trying harder to listen – to the musicians and the crackle of the logs, to my fellow pilgrims and to those locals scared about the pipeline, to the message behind the hospitality from Fitzwilliam Inn and the Jensens, and to hear the way forward on climate present through this all.

Day 6: as like bread torn apart

We have crossed a threshold. Tonight marks the halfway point of our Pilgrimage, having put six days behind us with six more ahead. This afternoon, we crossed from Massachusetts into New Hampshire, the border demarcated by an unassuming stone tablet. Searching deeper, a feeling grips us tonight that we have entered a new phase of our journey, pushed beyond a tipping point now that so many of our walkers have had to return to the patterns of regular life.

Pipeline pilgrims in two states at once!

As Meg put it this evening in a time of spontaneous contemplation, “the streams of others have had to part from ours.” Though we may have spent as few as 24 or 48 hours together, we have come to love and hold them tight in a unique community, a group built together that feels not just empowering, but also necessary for us to engage soulfully in this work. We think of Rob running for maple water through the woods and of Jacob climbing pines, of ecstatic dancing in fields and contagious yawning sessions, of ideas exchanged and hearts opened, of presences still felt.

The departure of those who have become beloved to us feels for me as like handfuls of bread torn apart from their loaf. Our wholeness has been split, breaking apart pieces of what we have crafted together, an act of disruption necessary, but more than a little crumby. At the end of our impromptu evening worship, we all joined hands, and I felt our community was making itself whole anew. With our palms soft and warm as dough, we made ourselves ready to be shaped into a new community, ready to rise fresh tomorrow morning.

We remaining pilgrims wrestle now with holding our palms open and not grasping. The absence of friends weighs on us like a millstone. Ours hearts ache for Karen and Katherine, Rob and Morgan, Jacob and Satoru, Lauren and Maple and Jess, and all the others who have travelled with us, be it for days or a few hours.

Honoring their time with us, we now put our hands to kneading a new group, as we must continue to do each coming day of this pilgrimage. And we look with gleaming anticipation to those who have left with hopes to rejoin us, to Sue and Ben, Tessa and Bruce. And this touches on what, for me, is the core of faith: not merely hoping, but fully knowing that somehow the streams of all our lives will soon be poured into the same cup again.

Our overflowing compassion for all those that have walked with us and as us. We cannot wait to see you again.

Day 5: measuring stories in footprints (extended Easter reflection)

Along this route, I keep mentioning that I have never done anything like the Pipeline Pilgrimage before. And then I remember that this is only mostly true. Almost exactly five years ago, during senior year of high school, a best friend and I walked from San Diego to Los Angeles over Easter Break.

Unlike the Pipeline Pilgrimage, my friend Eric and I did not walk because of any convictions, political or spiritual. We walked because we wanted to, because it was absurd, and because all our friends were visiting colleges over break. Our Human Geography teacher was livid when we told him about our trip. A reformed mountain man, he asked us why we didn’t just drive an hour to backpack the Southern leg of the stunning Pacific Crest Trail, rather than slog through the heart of the urban sprawl octopus that is coastal Southern California. We didn’t have a solid answer.

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Cool guys returning from a journey.

But in our walk, Eric and I learned more about the anatomy of our home turf than we had in our previous 18 years. Through the soles of our feet, we felt the asphalt exoskeleton of the Southern California megalopolis. We saw the inventedness of this paradise-on-earth in the cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs and non-native flowers, irrigated by diminishing northern snowmelt. We intimately learned the paradox of a sarcophagal superhighway alongside the infinite horizon of the Pacific, our sight focused by the toil of self-propelled motion, vulnerable without the barriers of windshields, high speeds, or convenience.

Five years ago, Eric and I took a walk, not a pilgrimage. These two journeys, both traveling on road shoulders for numerous days, through strikingly gorgeous places threatened by a dependence on fossil fuel infrastructure, are similar superficially. Yet the intentions that launched the first journey are squarely different than those driving the Pipeline Pilgrimage.

Last time, plates rattled over our families’ Easter dinners as an earthquake shook Southern California, and neither Eric or I felt the tremors, our own exhausted legs trembling on the road. This year, we walk so that we might better feel the tremors of conscience, seeking interiorize how this pipeline would validate the quakes fracking causes in the lands and communities of Appalachia.

Near the beginning of my first walk, I learned that my feet were not invulnerable to blisters. My cheetah print Converse shaped an infected black crescent across my right heel that lingered until well into my first year of college. Now, on this journey, we process the fact that our hearts are not invulnerable to the process of blister and callous, either.

Eric and I ended our journey with a trip to Venice Beach, where I chased Pacific Common Dolphins, my cousin Malcolm and I got conned out of $40, and Eric and I absentmindedly scored my uncle’s Prius a hefty parking ticket. One week from now, we will end our pilgrimage at the terminus of the pipeline, where the gas will be shipped to Nova Scotia for export, expediting climate change. On this walk, we bear more doubt as to the joys and sorrows that the end of our road will bring.

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Sojourning from Woolman Hill following Easter worship.

On my first Easter walk, Eric and I snubbed a surfer-turned-youth minister who invited us to Easter service as he ate salmon paste on Keebler crackers at a beachside table. When asked why we walked, we gave our stock answer, “for facial hair,” and then continued on our way.

This Easter, several dozen of us sat together in morning worship at Woolman Hill. Baby Jasper emotively burbled the living sounds of church, at one point singing out a clear cadence amidst his vocal stumbling. Orange ladybugs massed around small holes in the meeting house corners, moving gently across the windows and walls, worshipping alongside us by hatching or mating or celebrating life in whatever way ladybugs do in the drywall. And, in the evening, we accepted graciously the invitation to fellowship and enjoyed an abundant Passover Seder shared with us by All Souls UU in Greenfield.

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A vibrant seder at All Souls. Good food and fellowship all around.

Reflecting now, I better see how Eric and I did in fact walk purposefully. We walked because, as with the Pipeline Pilgrimage, we felt we could do no other. We needed to measure for ourselves whether the stories of Southern California that we had been raised on rang true.

Five years ago, after several days of our walk, Eric and I collapsed in a Huntington Beach motel and watched Gossip Girl, the flashing images overpowering and nonsensical. Now, we go on pilgrimage aware that much is the same of the narratives we have absorbed about climate. We walk now searching not the television flicker of false hopes, but seeking a real and constant light that appears only in our unsettled quest for it, on pilgrimage now yearning for narratives of hope on climate change that hold any real truth.

Day 4: the sinkhole

This morning, the Pipeline Pilgrimage encountered our first real challenge since hitting the road. Sue walked out to her Ford Taurus in the parking lot of UCC Conway to find that a massive sinkhole had appeared beneath her car overnight.

From a distance, the sinkhole looked bad enough – 4 feet across, directly beneath the frame, and alarmingly close to the tires. Upon standing by the edge, one saw the situation was much more treacherous. The offending hole was some eight feet deep, dropping down to the septic tank, which had been exposed by a split in the concrete casement. The ground threatened further collapse in the day’s early moisture, the earth peeling away near the front left tire, a precarious two foot mud overhang that could give way suddenly.

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Five harried minutes of dressing and lacing boots and a minute of astounded head scratching followed Sue’s call-to-action, and then the pilgrims leapt into action. A few of us proposed an attempt to drive around the hole, but the turn radius was too wide. We considered knocking on doors to find boards to bridge the hole, but given the overhang this attempt might, too, land Sue’s car in deep shit. This really left us only one other option: we had to pick up the car and move it away from the collapsed ground by hand.

So we pried our fingers beneath the tailgate of the car, and after a few minutes of grunting, straining, and “one, two, three,” managed to rotate the rear and then the front of the vehicle clear of the hole. Jay drove the car to safety, and we posted stantions around the perimeter of the collapse. Hoots, hollers, and earnest hallelujahs at our success reverberated down Whatley Street. The buzz of celebratory relief in the air was liquid thick. The whole experience seem unreal in retrospect.

Just after, as we tried to breathe out our adrenaline shakes during morning worship, Sue brought to bear the day’s early excitement as an analogy for climate change. In so many words, she spoke of a tendency to face her problems individually. Yet the situation with her car and the septic sinkhole was obviously impossible to face alone. Climate change, too, she expounded, is far too immense a problem for any one of us to take on individually. Without thoughtful coordination, even the most impassioned attempt to face climate change won’t budge our world from the risk of collapse, but it might well strain your fingers and throw out your back.

Faith can move mountains. Pilgrims under pressure can move a Ford Taurus. If we orient ourselves towards the correct hopes, and coordinate ourselves in community, we might just be able to move ourselves away from collapse, before the earth gives way fully beneath.

(Note: When several pilgrims returned to Conway to pick up their cars, the whole church parking lot had been cordoned off. A prayer from us to United Congregational Church in Conway that Easter joy might be found despite this moment of tomb.)

Day 3: walking wonder and grief

We’re well past the eleventh hour on Good Friday, the most heartbreaking day in the Christian liturgical calendar, so be warned: the tone of this post is pretty somber.

Just before setting out this morning, the day’s pilgrims each shared two or three words to bring intention towards what they would be walking with today. Responses ranged from “embracing our wonder” to “broken and crucified.”

Hillary showing us one location along the proposed NED pipeline route. Earlier, we passed spot where the pipeline would run through a Mass udubon sanctuary directly next to Nine Mountain Retreat Center.

We then set out into the mist of the gray morning, carrying the first two miles in deliberate silence, reflecting on these intentions. A distinct solemnity hung damp in the air around us. But, for me at least, it brought an earnest wish for renewed purpose. Emerging from this caesura came a spacious vitality, not so unlike the frost required for Easter lilies. And, not so unlike the stretch of Holy Week itself.

In the beginning, all I could hear was the crunch of our footsteps and the streams of snowmelt, my own breathing and subdued birdsong, the sudden burst of flapping as two wood ducks spooked and alighted from an ice-crusted lake. I tried to maintain focus upon the grief and bereavement of Good Friday, hoping to thaw the ice sheet of embarrassed restraint that keeps us from falling into our own vulnerability to confess the fearsome reality of both the crucifixion and climate change.

Yet for all my sober intent, I found myself distracted by the lightness of my heart after two days of delightful fellowship and good fortunate, of great food and beautiful scenery (and, at Nine Mountain, even a hot tub!). I found myself distracted by the awakening of the woods in Spring, intoxicated by the storybook hills unfolding along our path. It was all too good, too joyous, to see anything else.

And then, suddenly, a mechanical racket lanced through the quiet, the thudding of a Caterpillar along a dirt road, punctuated by the baring ellipses of the vehicle in reserve. The rumbling and blaring was deafening to ears adjusted to the whisperings of the landscape. And it struck me that this was a parable for my dilemma this day, and for a root cause of climate crisis, too.

We become absorbed by the immediate, by creeks, swaying branches, and friendships, as well as our blistering feet. We sink ourselves so into today that we neglect the obvious – our call to preserve what we fall in love with for future generations, even for those children alive today. Our present surroundings distract us until, like Jesus beaten and killed by the authorities, or like a boisterous Caterpillar during a period of silence, or like a world with unconstrained emissions, that which we love today loses its chance of tomorrow.

But maybe, if we are honest enough to grieve at the path we are headed down, we might just be wise enough to choose a better walk.

Day 2: a day to savor

Today was glorious. Within an hour of leaving the church in Dalton, we were outside the reach of Town, walking a country road among rolling hills of hemlock and white pine. The sense of spring was definite in the lighthearted birdsong, pleasant conversation, and our constant shedding of layers. For the first time in months, I breathed full, fresh air, and felt I was back in the land, away from the strip malls and neon signs that can seem so omnipresent.

Just before setting out, during morning Quaker worship, our host Sue Barnes, spoke from amidst the silence, “I feel so blessed to have just shared breakfast with you all on the day our Lord shared the Last Supper with his disciples.” The joy behind these words warmed me, yet the depth of her analogy cut to my heart. On this pilgrimage, we gather in sweet fellowship while we grieve an unnecessary pipeline that may well be built, threatening the lives of all those in the future. Two millennia previously, the twelve disciples gathered a final time with their friend and spiritual teacher, also blessed by the hospitality of a stranger’s table, uncertain about the future, but well aware that Jesus’ actions in the temple would not be without retribution.

Our Maundy Thursday has been wonderful, a day to savor. The sun has warmed our backs, and the conversation has flowed from faith to carbon taxes and everything in between. I learned to distinguish a yellow birch from a paper birch, and heard a lewd joke about tree species in the process.

With plenty of daylight remaining, we have been welcomed to the Nine Mountain retreat center, a beautiful spot in the woods of Plainfield. They have an obvious distaste for the Northeast Energy Direct given their table of anti-pipeline literature and buttons featuring a toad with bulging eyes and the caption, “Please keep pipelines out of my home.” The smell of roasting vegetables wafts throughout the house, colorful tapestries adorn the walls, and (my personal favorite) a hot tub awaits us outside. We are comfortable, warm, and safe, and the sounds of fellowship and live piano drift up the stairwell.

Today has been ideal in so many ways, a blessing for us all. I meditate on what we are walking for, and contemplate how we, like the disciples at the Last Supper, might rejoice in what we are given, and yet not, like the disciples that night in Jerusalem, make the grave mistake of falling asleep in the garden.