Rushing into the Silence: The meaning(s) of Sabbatical

… the infinitely sweet herb of mercy [is a] a soothing balm for every sorrow, and [her] consoling words restore people in body and soul.“ (Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Vitae Meritorum, 17)

Leaving out little cottage in MN behind...

Leaving out little cottage in MN behind...

We are now fully into our sabbatical in Munich, having rushed through the last months in MN – finishing chores at the house, flying to Munich, and flying to a conference in Copenhagen within 12 hours of arriving in Munich.  When Almut and I teach contemplative practice in a Cloister Seminar, we often talk about the practice of pausing at a threshold.  We did none of this.  Almut did have the presence of mind (and spirit), to stop the car before I rushed us off to the airport.  She walked back to the house, and took some pictures.  So there was indeed some looking back at the newly painted and carpentered house, ready to welcome our new renters, before we walked (or rushed, really) ahead to the airport. 

A “sabbatical” is supposed to be a time apart, a sacred time, a time of silence and waiting.  Translated from the Hebrew it might be ceasing or releasing.  It is, of course, based on God’s ceasing or resting on the 7th day after creation.  Its religious purpose varies according to different traditions, but rest is clearly one of them, as is release from burden (even beasts were not supposed to labor), and making holy those things that grow naturally (fruit that grows in the seventh year without cultivation is seen as holy in a special way).  All of these involve not just napping, but a considered attitude towards oneself, others, and the earth. 

The modern academic sabbatical takes its name from this tradition, but not its values. One must have a project in sabbatical (we have at least 5 between us).  It is a time apart, but a time to accomplish something that requires sustained attention.  We will be bringing the fruits of these projects back to Cloister Seminars next year.  But now, in the architecture of time that sabbatical provides, we need to find a way to include the sabbatical attitude of holiness as a part of our projects, to avoid being tempted into mere busyness.  Busyness can convince us that what we are doing is important, or it can at least keep us from thinking about dangerous topics like the central meaning of our lives – replacing being with frantic doing. The sabbatical attitude is a different one.  

The International Faculty House in Munich which will host us this year. 

The International Faculty House in Munich which will host us this year. 

And this attitude is precisely what was missing in our headlong rush into sabbatical.  We had too much to do, too much to “clear off the table,” before we left.  I rushed us through painting, carpentering, cleaning, organizing, boxing, schlepping, partying, even praying.  And in the first week we were so busy traveling that it was hard to see any attitude that made the time holy.  I make this confession as an encouragement to you to consider your transition times better than did I. 

But for us at least, technology, and Almut’s presence of spirit, provides us with some mercy.  It allows us to pause now, here in Munich, to look at the pictures taken in haste. To look back, to recognize where we have been, what we have done, what we are leaving – and then, to walk forward in trust and gratitude.  I am grateful for this gift of grace, that even when I fail to be in God’s presence in the moment, there is always a chance to be present now.
The Catholic theologian Enzo Bianchi, made a telling comment recently about some of the opposition to Pope Francis’ reforms: “Let’s be clear – what scandalizes them is mercy!”  Indeed.  Mercy is scandalous, but abundantly available.  Hildegard of Bingen, I have learned from Almut, speaks of God’s infinitely sweet herb of mercy for the soul and body, a medicine as important as all the remedies our scientific knowledge can apply.

I am profoundly grateful for this particular mercy: that even though we have rushed headlong into sabbatical, what has really happened – if only we can see it – is that we have been rushing headlong into God’s presence, a God who was with us in the busyness, and also mercifully, patiently, waiting for us at the other end of the world.

Some questions for you to ponder:
What is your experience with rushing through time, even though your desire is otherwise?
How do you encounter transitions? What gives you stability in time of transition?
How have you experienced mercy despite failing?

Hallowing All Saints' Day in Munich

Ordinary Transcendence