My time as priest in Sitka, Alaska 

By Fr. Bill Zamborsky
(Editor’s note: a shorter version of this reflection appeared in the August 2014 issue of the Southeast Alaska Catholic newspaper.)

Here I am, Lord, I come to do Your will:

Fr Bill Zamborsky and fish
Fr. Bill Zamborsky and a salmon caught near Sitka, Alaska.

‘Here’ was Cleveland, Ohio and I thought it always would be.  I was the third of eight children, and my parents taught me to love the outdoors, and to live in and by our Catholic faith. By the 4th grade, ‘priest’ was on my list of things I wanted to be when I grew up. I left home to enter the seminary for ninth grade, and was very much drawn to religious work in the remote mountain areas of our country. Eventually I applied for, but was unfortunately not accepted, by the college seminary of my choice. If I was to be a priest, ‘here’ could no longer be Cleveland, Ohio.

After months of tormented prayer and advice from people I trusted, I made a commitment to the Diocese of Orlando, Florida and was sent to a seminary in Indiana. In due time, I was ordained. ‘Here’ was the Diocese of Orlando, Florida.

The Bride of Christ:

Daily life as a parish priest has been the field in which Christ has consistently sown the graces of his love for me. These graces have brought me to the full understanding of the Church as his bride, his beloved for whom he gave himself on the cross and to whom he gives himself in the Eucharist. The daily graces of priestly life have drawn me ever deeper into the amazing mystery of my relationship with Christ and with the people who are the Church. The love of the Church for me is joy itself and a call/challenge to love her more deeply, more selflessly, more like Christ.

This desire to love Christ and his Church more and better led me to a sabbatical.  I came to realize that the many things I did to make my love for Christ and his Church real in daily life had become distractions from or substitutes for the love I wanted to give.  I realized that I needed time away from all the ‘doings’ so that I could reconnect with the loving.  The remote mountain areas of our country continued to draw my heart with their amazing beauty and untamed wilderness.

For about 7 years I planned and prepared for a three month sabbatical in a remote, mission area in Alaska. I intended it to be a time of quiet and solitude, just me and Jesus, with very little interaction with others — a ‘honeymoon’ to renew the joy of our love for each other. As an avid but basically inept bow-hunter, I also wanted to hunt moose while I wandered about the wilderness, so I planned to do this in the fall. (The fact that I wanted to chase a moose with a bow and arrow in bear country probably does not indicate rational, coherent thinking on my part.) But, God suddenly changed my plans (He does this a lot, and without consulting me). My spiritual director agreed that several factors indicated God’s plan for my sabbatical was considerably different from the plans I had been formulating (the nerve; he is supposed to be on my side!). It would not be “a remote, mission area,” but Sitka — wherever that was. It would not be a time for “just me and Jesus” but would include the Church, his Bride and mine, our beloved. It would not be in the fall but in the spring, and my active participation in the wilderness would not be hunting for moose, but fishing for salmon.

I accepted these changes but, even though I know God’s plans for me are always better than mine, it took a few days of pouting before I could let go of my own plan and really get excited about following God’s plan. The ‘here’ where I would come to do the will of the Lord for my sabbatical was St. Gregory of Nazianzen Parish in Sitka, Alaska.

Leaving the ‘Lower 48’:

On April 21, 2014, I entrusted the people of my parish in Ormond Beach, Florida to the care of God’s grace working through a good priest and parish staff. Six of God’s precious children, my three year old godson among them, took me to the airport in Orlando, Florida. Their mom also went as she had to do the driving. I boarded the plane with heaviness in my heart at leaving the people I love for three months, but with an eagerness to go forth into whatever adventure God had planned for me.

With clear skies all the way, the flight from Seattle to Juneau was spectacular, and it was during this flight that a sense of heart-stopping awe took up residence in my soul and remained for the next three months. The mountains and coastline I saw from the plane were breathtakingly beautiful.

Even now remembering the beauty and power of the mountains takes my breath away and produces a funny feeling in my stomach; at the time it also brought tears to my eyes and an un-worded prayer into my soul of thanksgiving for God’s spectacular work of creation.

As we landed in Sitka there were mountains to the right and to the left, and they were close – it seemed like I could reach out and touch them. The town of Sitka looked beautiful and inviting from all angles as we circled for the landing.  A deep breath of the 39 degree air was the pinch I needed to let me know that I was awake, this was real, and I was really here. ‘Here’ was Sitka, Alaska, and it would be for the next three months.  Thank You, Lord. ‘Here’ was finally one of the remote mountain areas of our country — Alaska. It exceeded everything I had ever imagined. And the best was yet to come.

3,600 Miles Away and Still Home:

As I settled into the rectory at St. Gregory’s, I felt like I was settling into my home. Here I was, in Sitka, Alaska feeling like I’m in the middle of a fairytale, and yet I felt like I was unpacking my bags at home. In a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at church, he pointed out to me that I was indeed at home – not in the building which was the rectory, but in the heart of the Church no less real and present in Sitka, Alaska than in Ormond Beach, Florida. This inspired insight was reinforced repeatedly during my stay in Sitka and is one of the gifts I have brought back with me to Florida to be savored for the rest of my earthly life.

The ‘Honeymoon’ with Jesus (or Believe It or Not God Really is Smarter than Me):

In three months’ time there was never a moment when I wasn’t moved by the amazing beauty in which I lived. But this was supposed to be special time for me to be with Jesus – ‘Mary-time’ sitting at the feet of Jesus as distinct from the ‘Martha-time’ of much to do for Jesus which consumed most of my daily life as a priest. It didn’t take long for me to see the wisdom of God’s plan for my sabbatical.

My relationship with Jesus has always been light on the mystical and heavy on the incarnational. I believe this is his doing, to which I am supposed to respond with acceptance and openness. Over and over again Jesus has drawn me into his loving presence in the Eucharist and in the Church.

It came as no surprise to me that I recognized his presence in the Blessed Sacrament the moment I walked into St. Gregory’s church. But for some reason I was surprised to recognize so clearly his presence in St. Gregory’s Church, the people of God, who are that parish.

Long before I left Florida, I was introduced to this Alaskan incarnation of Christ in the persons of two bishops of Juneau, a secretary at the chancery, and a retired priest living in the parish where I would soon live (the beauty of God takes so many varied and wonderful forms). But the full awareness came to me from its most common source – the children. They had different faces, and shapes, and smiles, but they really were no different from the precious children in Florida.

It took a very short time for Jesus to bless the priestly commitment of my love for the Church in Sitka with bonds of connection and affection. Jesus’ incarnation in the people who are the Catholic Church in Sitka became the fulcrum of God’s love for me, raising me “high and lifted up” to sit in his presence, experiencing a three month ‘Mary-time’ of just enjoying being in his presence. There can be no greater renewal for a Catholic priest. Thank you, Jesus, and all who are his body – the Church – in Sitka.

Thus Jesus drew me to himself not in the mysticism of solitude that had been my sabbatical plan, but in his bodily incarnation in the Eucharist and in the Church, the same twofold incarnation which had been the heart of my priesthood for nearly forty years and would continue to be the heart of my priesthood when I returned to Florida.

With nothing added to this, my sabbatical according to God’s plan would have exceeded anything dreamed or imagined in the mind of this priest, but God was not finished: “His favors are not exhausted His mercies are not spent so great is His love for us.” There were other delights like great fishing with great people, a great variety of beautiful flowers, solo hiking in the rugged mountains, and chamber music concerts at the Sitka Summer Music Festival.  But the punctuation for my three month sabbatical blindsided me like a defensive linebacker sacking a quarterback from behind.

The Power in Untamed Beauty of the last Frontier

Due to the gracious accommodation of the retired priest in Sitka, I was able to spend a few days on the state ferry traveling the Inside Passage. It was while in Skagway that the raw, untamed power of the Alaskan mountains confronted me with my own mortality.

In Skagway, I took a hike to the Devil’s Punchbowl, via Lower and Upper Dewey Lake, a hike that stretched me far beyond my comfort zone — actually all the way through and far beyond my discomfort zone. It was the most difficult hike I have ever experienced, but those who returning on the trail said it was spectacular and worth the effort.  Not getting started until noon, I had nearly given up on making it all the way to the Devil’s Punchbowl, as I was exhausted and had not met a single returning hiker who had gone to that third level. Finally one hiker told me I was close to Upper Dewey Lake and that he had made it to the Devil’s Punchbowl (he was fit and appeared to be in the mid 20ies), and not only was the view spectacular but also that section was an easier hike. When I got to Upper Dewey Lake it was indeed absolutely magnificent. After a short break for food and water, I weighed all the factors — time, energy, food and water – and I decided to press on.

The 1.25 mile trip to Devil’s Punchbowl was not steep and not nearly as demanding as the previous leg of the hike so I was making very good time and felt confident. However, the trail became rocky and steep, and I began to lose confidence in my decision to continue.

When I finally reached the Devil’s Punchbowl, it was the most awesome and spectacular view I have ever experienced. As late as it was, I spent about 20 minutes enjoying the amazing scenery and happy in my decision to hike to the top.

As I headed back, I knew I had to hurry but was not overly concerned. I became a bit more concerned when climbing down was slower, and far more dangerous, than climbing up. I got back to Upper Dewey Lake about 45 minutes after my calculated absolute latest time, but figured I would still have minimal visibility until just after 11:00 p.m.; I had a small flashlight with me and still thought I’d make it back by about 9:30. About an hour after starting the descent from Upper Dewey Lake, I knew I was in trouble.

I was going much slower than I had anticipated and my legs were exhausted and giving out. I fell about a dozen times as I hobbled down the mountain, fortunately never falling over an edge (thanks to my guardian angel). I was beginning to think it would be safer to lay down and sleep until sunrise, although I suspected that an awareness of bears would have prevented much sleep. Finally, on one fall I realized that I was not going to make it without some help, and I informed God of that reality.

Through all this I had been talking to God, keeping him posted and letting him know that he might have to intervene at some point. For some reason I was never in fear for my safety. I spoke to God about the doubtful wisdom of having made the third leg of the hike, but I clearly never regretted having done so. I had a strong sense that both the lack of fear about the my present danger and the clarity about no regrets was God’s contribution to our conversation.

Laying on the ground after informing God that his help was no longer optional, I saw a small tree limb and thought I could use it for the help I needed. Picking up the tree limb, I was able to stand up and put my full weight on it, and it held firm. I was moving again, slowly, and was confident I would make it down – eventually.

As I was hobbling along I realized that I really needed water. I didn’t know if it was safe to drink from the falling mountain stream close to the trail, but was caring less and less about that as I got more thirsty. By this time it was quite dark and venturing over to bend down into the stream to get water was not without danger. Finally the stream came close enough to the trail that I could safely reach it, and I drank a bottle of cold water which refreshed me, and made a significant improvement in my legs. An hour later I finally got to Lower Dewey Lake and was confident that all would be well, even though by then I was seeing only by the soft glow of the sky and by the occasional light of my small flashlight.

The untamed power of nature had quite literally struck me down, but that same untamed nature provided me the help, from the wood of a tree, and the renewed vitality, from flowing waters, which I needed in order to live in the beauty of that power.  Saved by the wood and the water – has a familiar ring to it doesn’t it?

I meet a hiker on his way up the trail to camp. He was concerned about me, and phoned the police — I’m sure I was quite a sight — but at that point I was confident in being safe.

About an hour later I saw the lights from the docks shining through the trees, and I knew the trailhead was close, although I was off the main trail. I saw a light coming slowly toward me through the bushes, and had a notion that someone was looking for me. So, I turned my flashlight on so as to be easily noticed. It turned out to be a policeman who was indeed looking for me.

The hiker I had met had mistakenly told the police that I was without a flashlight.  The policeman explained that it was because he thought I had no flashlight that he came up the trail looking for me. He also said that when he saw my flashlight he was just about to head back and call for a search and rescue team. I was wonderfully blessed to have God’s presence to me made incarnate in the person of that police officer.

When I told the officer that I had made it all the way to the Devil’s Punchbowl he was noticeably surprised at both the lack of fear and the clarity of no regret which had been with me as I spoke to God during the hike.

Back in my room at 1:15 a.m., I emptied my backpack and sat down to finally read the trail map. My body was weary, but I’m sure there was a hint of a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye. Had I read the trail map before I left, I would not likely have taken that hike as it was both the longest (11 miles total) and the most difficult of the day hikes in the area. To this day I am glad that I did the hike, not for the sense of accomplishment it still gives me, but for the clear punctuation that it gave to my whole sabbatical – all according to God’s plan.

Back to the Place I Never Left:

On July 23, my 66th birthday, six of God’s precious children took me to the airport in Sitka, Alaska. Their mom also went as she had to do the driving. I boarded the plane with heaviness in my heart at leaving the people I love, but with an eagerness to go forth into the continuing adventure of God’s plan for me as his priest. It was during this flight that I realized that a sense of heart-stopping awe had taken up permanent residence in my soul.

The flight to Orlando was unbelievably spectacular.  Before me were the people I love and who love me, the Church which is the Body of Christ.  Behind me were the people I love and who love me, the Church which is the Bride of Christ.

May I forever remember the beauty and power of Jesus’ love for us made incarnate in your love for me, and mine for you. May it continue to take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes, and an un-worded prayer of thanksgiving into my soul (and yours). Thanks.  I mean really thanks!

The ‘here’ where I come to do the will of the Lord is, and always will be, where the Church is. “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”