Recently I began a year of sabbatical. Initially I was euphoric … one whole year with no responsibilities except those that are self-imposed! What a delicious luxury!
That euphoria hasn’t subsided much, but a curious guilt has begun to color it: Sabbaticals are an extravagant luxury that few can afford, the prerogative of the rich. The poor don’t get sabbaticals, for them there is no escape from the work, pressure, and responsibilities imposed by circumstance and duties of state. Beyond that, a sabbatical offers the perfect setting for a self-indulgence that can be rationalized and given a high symbolic coating.
Those issues are worth reflecting upon.
What is a sabbatical? Curiously, the term which is religious in origin and intent, is almost never used anymore in religious settings (where words like “retreat” have replaced it) and has survived for the main part in university circles. University teachers and other such professionals go on sabbatical. In church circles we no longer have much of a theology, nor practice, of sabbaticals. This is unfortunate for the concept of a sabbatical is, in the end, deeply religious.
Sabbatical comes from the word “sabbath”. God, as Genesis reports, worked for 6 days creating the world and then on the 7th day, the sabbath, rested. What is meant by that curious phrase: “God rested”?
What is meant here has not so much to do with God’s busy-ness or leisure as it has to do with the purpose of creation. The sabbath is the end of creation, the feast for which creation was made, the prefiguration of the world to come, the opportunity for us, already, to taste (every 7th hour) the final state (rest, reconciliation, and play) for which we were made. As Jewish theology has it, God set up things in such a way that already in this life, with all its pressures, tears, and tensions, every “sixtieth hour” we should taste the world to come.
Hence according to scripture, life should have a rhythm: work should be followed by play, pressured and designated time by unpressured and undesignated time. Every “sixtieth hour” we should taste a little bit of heaven – especially given that the hours in between are consumed by demands, work, and duties. Very practically, according to our religious tradition, life is supposed to have the following rhythm: you work for six days, and then spend one day on sabbatical; you work for six years and then spend on whole year on sabbatical. In the past that rhythm, at least as it pertained to having a sabbatical every 6 days was maintained through our observance of Sunday as a day of rest. Once a week, everyone went on sabbatical and this was meant to remind us that, ultimately, we were not created for work but for play, that we do not live by work alone and in the end won’t live by work at all.
Moreover, the sabbath was understood as being more than just a time of rest. It was meant too be a time or reconciliation, a time when one tried to bring oneself and everything else into sympathy with all other things. Hence it was a time to forgive debts, to let go of resentments, and generally wipe the slate clean in order to be more in harmony with everything.
Understood in this sense a sabbatical is not the prerogative of the rich but a religious duty for everyone. Without the sabbath, the sabbatical, without the rhythm of life wherein every “60th hour” we taste the end of life and are called to reconciliation, life becomes a compulsive endeavour wherein work, duty, ambition, greed, and resentments consume us. Without sabbaticals we tire, lose our capacity to pray and enjoy, and, most importantly, lose our capacity to forgive. Whenever we sense ourselves as “caught in the rat race”, we are no longer living the proper rhythm of life as Genesis lays it out.
But a further distinction needs to be made: Sabbatical means unpressured, free, time. There are 2 kinds of unpressured, free, time, just as there are 2 kinds of solitude: We can speak of unpressured time as a private, personal, restful, therapeutic space (one kind of solitude), and we can speak of unpressured time as desert conversion space (another kind of solitude). The former is advertised in tourist brochures; the latter was modeled by Christ in the desert.
A sabbatical, ideally, is a time for both of these. It’s a time to rest and play, a time when one can claim one’s own time. But it’s also a time for conversion and prayer, a time when one must confront one’s demons in the desert. This, as the testimony of Christ and the saints assures us, is often not a peaceful process. The pressures of our work and our many duties, for all their demands, cushion us from the many demons of resentment, greed, jealousy, and fear that haunt deeper recesses within us. One doesn’t need to rest long before they make themselves felt … and the restful therapeutic space becomes the desert, a battleground for opposing spirits.
With these thoughts in mind, I begin a sabbatical year, asking for prayers that it might, indeed, be a time wherein I taste that “one-sixtieth part of the world to come” and wherein I might, through some desert experience, might find myself more in a “general sympathy with all things.”