Stories from Sabbatical

Stories from Sabbatical

Tara and her daughter Seren on the Hill of Tara, Ireland, during sabbatical

Even as a writer, I find it hard to put the experience of sabbatical into words. In truth, it would be easy enough to tell you chronological stories of what happened, when, and where. But one of the things I experienced is that time inside of sabbatical isn’t exactly chronological.

So, let’s start with the end, then.

Discovering What I Missed

As September began, my calendar filled again with the work I love and get to do: Scripture Circles, spiritual direction, supervision, apprenticing, teaching. Some of you wondered if that experience was difficult for me, wondered if it would feel heavy or tiring. What I found was that I’d missed something other than I’d expected—I hadn’t missed the work (especially the email part of it); I missed the with-ness with God and with people. That particular quality of sacred presence that runs as a golden thread through all the activities I get to do was what I missed the most, and what energizes me each and every day.

I had missed being anam cara, and discovering that “missing” was one of the many gifts of sabbatical for me.

Sacred Space, Sacred Time

One of the activities that emerged during the three-month window was the reorganization of my home office. With much-needed help, the prayed-over and well-used space of mess and meeting became a holy sanctuary. I gave away a lot of books. I moved retreat resources to storage. I kept only the books I would read again or the unread books. If we meet over Zoom, you almost wouldn’t see any difference in my bookshelf backdrop; however, what is behind me has massively changed. In some ways, I’ve created an antilibrary, a reminder of how much I do not know. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined that term and writes about it this way:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore, professore dottore Eco, what a library you have ! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

It seems to me that this, too, is a parable of sabbatical, this reorganization of space to make more room for unknowing, while also inviting in more deeply the mysterious relationship that underpins it all—my relationship with Christ.

While reclaiming my space (I hesitate to call it an office) during my sabbatical, I realized I have more than 10 pieces of completely original art on the walls, some commissioned pieces, some not. The one on the threshold, that circumscribes the sanctuary, is an original painting depicting Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm. Around him the lines of the painting swirl and intersect. In the small quarter of the image where his body touches the water, the lines still and create reflection. This, too, is an icon of sacred time.

Don’t Die By Inches

Sabbatical began with a lot of death. Spiritual, relational, physical death happened around me and to me in various ways. There was a moment when I found myself running at full speed into those frigid waters, almost as if by holy instinct. I know what it is to let go of things reluctantly, prying my fingers off one cramped movement after another. I made a decision that if this time was to be in some measure about dying, I didn’t want to do it in slow, agonizing inches. I wanted to be plunged in quickly and completely.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stay there for a long while.

Become the ancestor of your future happiness – David Whyte

These are the words that formed and held me in the dying. The hope and reality is that whatever this journey was, whatever it now is, whatever it will be, I have said yes to becoming a good ancestor. To myself, yes. But also to the sacred future. There is a way in which entering into sabbatical is a kind of death to linear sequential time—at least in the ways you’ve known it up until that entry.

Practically speaking, that also meant a death to my dream of time away on the island of Iona, time with the community of Northumbria, and time on Holy Island. It also meant death to my expectations (one of the hardest deaths, sometimes) and to my timelines.

There’s been a lot of learning and healing unfolding from those deaths, and there is still more. But death is not something that often happens easily, which surely continues to be the case for me.

Welcome Forward

This leads me straight into the paradoxical reality into which I’m still living: my sabbatical may have ended in linear sequential time, but I haven’t left sabbatical. I’m coming to see that if you’ve really, truly entered into sabbatical time, it’s not something you ever leave.

This makes for awkward conversation, especially when the traditional greeting you offer after someone returns from a vacation or a trip or maternity leave or a hospital stay (all of which I’ve experienced) is, “Welcome back!”

There’s no such thing as “Welcome back” from sabbatical (and I still deeply appreciate the people who have said it to me because what else does one say, really?). The closest reality is “welcome forward,” which also makes for awkward greetings. (Not as awkward as the Joshua/Moses/God intersection at the Tent of Meeting in Exodus 33, but that’s a sacred story for another time.)

All of this is to say that I’ll keep having stories from sabbatical to share: here, in person, in prayer, in writing. I’m still living out of time in ways that God is teaching me about, and as hard as that is to put into words, I’m deeply, wildly, unaccountably grateful.

So, thank you. For being part of the community that made and makes this countercultural reality possible. My hope and prayer is that you, too, will one day experience what crossing over into sabbatical will bring.

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