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Personally Speaking/Keeping the Sabbath Well

After 10 years of graduate school, several years of part-time and adjunct teaching, six full years as an untenured and then, finally, a tenured professor at St. Norbert, I now find myself middle-aged, with four rapidly growing children, and in the first days of that much-anticipated, much-envied, and perhaps somewhat misunderstood academic tradition: the sabbatical.

When I turned out the lights after my last final exam mid-May, I knew that I would not be back in front of a room filled with students for 15 months. I will return with new and increased responsibilities, older and with more gray hair. Between now and then, I will turn my attention to a full-time research agenda, one that will culminate in a book on American Catholic history, in particular the role of Marian shrines in American Catholic identity-building in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Like all liminal states, this one involves feelings of displacement and insecurity alongside the excitement about new possibilities. I love teaching and I love my students. I feel torn about missing a whole year of campus life and more specifically, about missing a whole year of my particular students’ lives – the ones I know, advise and work with closely. My sophomores, who seem like they are finally really getting into the swing of things, will be preparing to graduate when I return to campus. It feels like a long time to be away.

During spring semester I taught a new course on Christian Mysticism. We covered St. Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, and Sts. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, among others. We spent alot of time talking about the concept of contemplation. Is contemplation essential to the well-lived life? At one point after watching part of the documentary film “Into Great Silence” (2005), which shows, in quiet detail, the lives of prayerful contemplation lived by a community of enclosed Carthusian monks, I asked my students how many times in the last week had they sat quietly for 15 minutes in contemplation? Not reading, not sleeping, not communicating on social media or watching TV, but just sitting quietly and alertly in contemplation? Nobody responded at first but then one woman said tentatively: “I haven’t done that in many years. In fact I’m not sure I have ever done that.” Her classmates nodded in agreement.

What followed was a discussion about the value of contemplation, the value of resting the mind; of allowing oneself to listen for the voice of God, however that voice might manifest itself, and the difficulties in doing so.

Meanwhile, in my Theological Foundations classes, we read “The Year of Living Biblically” (2008) by A.J. Jacobs. The author followed, as closely as legally possible, dietary and purity restrictions, advice and commands about clothing, sexual behavior and social and family relationships, in an attempt to understand what it would mean to live according to the Bible. In the end, one of the hardest challenges the author faced was the simple command to keep holy the Sabbath. For my students, Sundays are often spent studying or working at part-time jobs and preparing for their busy weeks. For me, they are spent in dozens of ways, few of them particularly restful. For many parents, myself included, basketball tournaments and the like often begin early on Sunday mornings, conflicting with church services or leisurely brunches. It is hard to keep the Sabbath: There isn’t much time in our lives for contemplation and perhaps not much value attached to it.

The words sabbatical and Sabbath come from the same root word meaning “seven,” and are a reference to the book of Genesis 2:2-3, where God stops and rests on the seventh day – not because God is too exhausted to continue, but because in life there must be regular built-in times to pause, to reflect, to think about what one has done and will yet do. As I pause on the brink of this seventh year in my St. Norbert career, this built-in pause in my life as a teacher, I know it won’t always be easy to keep the Sabbath. I am being given the opportunity to reflect, not idly, but with attention. A sabbatical is, above all, a chance to contemplate what one has done, and to create, out of the contemplation, something of lasting value. A sabbatical is a big responsibility – a privilege – and I plan to keep it well.

July 9, 2014