Last academic year I took a break from writing my weekly column, Through Stained Glass; I had been writing more or less weekly for twenty years, and so in the twenty-first year, the column was on sabbatical, of a sort. This was, in part, a lead-in to a lengthier summer break than usual. I hoped that a combined leave and vacation offer me a chance for refreshment and spiritual renewal. I travelled to New England and visited the chaplains of some of our comparator colleges and engaged in long conversations about chaplaincy, spiritual life on campus and changing times. I read, and read, and read. I worshipped in a variety of places and forms, and engaged in wonderful conversations with colleagues in ministry. I enjoyed personal and family time.
I now start the fall refreshed and renewed after what was not technically, in university terms, a ‘sabbatical,’ but which in theological terms was most certainly a sabbatical in function, if not in form. Biblically, the sabbatical (from the Latin and Greek words based on the Hebrew idea of “Shabbat,” or Sabbath, literally to “cease” or “desist”) was a time of rest for the land occurring every seven years, when it would lie uncultivated. This was based on the assumption that the land truly did not belong to any one person to dispose of at will, but rather, belonged to God. In part, this reflects the model of the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest and abstention from work.
We all need a sabbatical from the escalating demands of life. When I was just beginning ministry almost thirty years ago, I read the memoir of one Protestant minister who had served almost his entire career in only one church; he wrote that he simply declared a personal “sabbatical” – a seven-year break, in the biblical tradition – every seven years by simply resigning from every extra committee and community involvement that had built up over the previous seven years, returning to his original work and allowing new challenges to be added over the next seven years. It is the principle, of course, not the rigid legalism that is to be observed, but it is interesting that when we do something religiously, we begin to do it with greater sincerity. I wonder how many of us, especially in professional occupations, could follow that example, giving us a break from increased demands over time and an opportunity to ‘re-invent’ ourselves every seven years by reflecting on our original tasks and goals.
Having returned to Mount Allison refreshed and renewed, I begin the year with fresh idealism and ideas – and hopes that I might create more balance and order in my life, including observing that regular Sabbath break on a weekly basis. There is something to taking a day to cease from the demands of deadlines, or consumer activity and physical work. Years ago, one of my chapel assistants worked very hard to complete her assignments for the following week by Saturday, even if it meant staying in on Saturday night to get work done. She was rewarded by having Sunday as a true day of rest and celebrate life, rather than simply meeting its obligations.
The Jewish ecologist and writer Ellen Bernstein, in her commentary on the first chapter of Genesis, notes that “the Sabbath can be an antidote to the lifestyle of escalating demands, and builds what Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel calls “a palace in time”. My summer was in such an antidote, and indeed was a “palace in time”. The opportunity now, for us all, as always, is to create such an oasis every week. Whether we practice any religion or not, the principle of pausing, to reflect, to celebrate, to find renewal, is a sound one. As another ancient biblical writer observed, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” There must be time for rest and renewal, to celebrate the goodness of life, and perhaps to watch the world, through stained glass.