Thursday, September 03, 2009

Column: From the depths of the sabbatical

In some ways my return from sabbatical leave last week was more jarring than my return to "real life" after the silence and seclusion of the Exercises last February. Not only my shoes, but everything was more structured. My time was less my own, my wardrobe was higher maintenance with more choice that I had to make...yet some how I did not want to let go of the interior sense of detachment that has been one fruit of the Exercises in my life. Can I truly be indifferent to whether it's time to write in my jeans or sit through an excruciating meeting with blisters on my feet? Pray for what you desire, advises Ignatius!

On another subject - T.S. Eliot's advice quoted below would be good for my physical chemistry students, too. You just need to dive in and try. You may not necessarily see the way clear, but you need to make the best of hints and guesses.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 3 September 2009.]

Take care to keep my sabbaths, for that is to be the token between you and me throughout the generations, to show that it is I, the Lord, who make you holy. Therefore, you must keep the sabbath as something sacred.
— Exodus 31:13b-14

Reality set in with the blisters on my feet. After spending most of the nine months of my sabbatical tucked up in my study writing a book, comfortably attired in blue jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers, I shook out my professional wardrobe last week and went to Washington, D.C., for a conference. My feet were the first to express their dismay at being returned to a more structured environment. The rest of me was quick to chime in.

My sabbatical leave is coming to an end — meetings, classes and appointments are sprouting like weeds on my calendar. Like Sunday, the seventh day we are enjoined to keep holy, a day we are given for rest and renewal, my sabbatical was a precious gift of time. As I return to the classroom on Monday, I want to hold onto this gift of time — not as mere memory of time spent — but to let a sense of sabbath time seep into my daily life.

I’ve been thinking about what the deeper meaning of Sunday might be in my life — beyond a day that I am obliged to attend Mass, or an evening in which I am scurrying around looking for what everyone needs for school the next morning. The closing prayer for Night Prayer on Sundays reminds me what we are about: “We have celebrated today the mystery of the rising of Christ to new life.”

So sabbath time is Easter time. A day that structures the rest of our days, marking the change to a new week and the change to a new life. A time to rejoice, to be astonished again at the good news of our salvation, to rekindle our desire to know God deeply and intimately. A day given by God to remind us of our relationship to Him. In his apostolic letter, Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II observes, “even in our own difficult times, the identity of this day must be protected and above all must be lived in all its depth.”

Even as each Sunday draws to a close, the final words of Night Prayer are a potent reminder to me that the Easter stance is not meant for Sunday alone, “May we … rise again refreshed and joyful, to praise you throughout another day.” Sunday is not meant to be put in the closet like a fancy outfit awaiting the next party.

In practice, what will this mean? At the end of his poem, “The Dry Salvages,” T.S. Eliot muses “These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” I am taking my hints and guesses from my sabbatical, where my days were defined not by classes and meetings, but by prayer, walks and family meals.

Papers to grade and meetings to endure may have regained a hold on my time, but perhaps I need not let them define my day. Instead I can hang the daily burdens and trials on the same scaffold that upheld the graced time away.

I go back to teaching more convinced that I don’t want to live for the weekend, but live in the weekend — in the joyful depths of sabbath time. I pray I’ll be attentive and disciplined enough to be astonished at the everyday possibilities of the resurrection.

Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ and make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our daily lives, make us attentive to your voice and alert to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening Prayer for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C.


  1. good to be home... so I can read your words. I prayed about bringing my desire for hope, joy, peace, and love into staff meetings. and other such miracles of grace.

  2. Beautiful ~ and exactly what each of us returning to a more scheduled existence needs to read today.