On the face of it it’s very easy, you just take three months off. But the reality is so much more complicated as you can imagine. There are a variety of things that I’m involved in that have to be put on hold or that I just have had to accept that I can’t take part in. I would have loved to play my part in the nomination to the See of Sheffield through my work on the Crown Nominations Commission, but that clashes with this sabbatical. I would have wanted to get to the final meeting of the Working Party on the Seal of the Confessional but I’ll be away by then. I wanted to be in the cathedral when Mayor Sadiq Khan joins us to talk about community cohesion, but I can’t be.
More than all of that there is so much happening at the cathedral, the ongoing, day by day stuff, the round of the opus dei and the meetings, the appointment of a Succentor, the arrival of a new Education Officer and other members of staff. We’re still working on the master plan for the Cathedral following the launch of the new vision and there is always the business of fund raising and making sure that we are in a good and sound place from which to continue the ministry and witness that has been going on from that sacred place for the last 1400 years.
There is a never a good time to take a break, to take a sabbatical and I could have made a million and one excuses why now wasn’t a good time. But now was the time, despite everything I have said. The truth is of course that all these things will go on without me, nothing is going to stop. The cathedral under the leadership of the Sub Dean and the other Residentiary Canons and the staff will continue, the national things don’t depend on me. There is an arrogance that I and I’m sure others can fall into in imagining that the ‘world turns around me’, that I am indispensable, that all things will grind to a halt if I’m not at the wheel. It just isn’t true and I’m already finding that a good lesson to learn. I have to trust and know that life can go on without me.
My last (and my first) sabbatical was in 2006 and then I went to the USA, South Africa and India. It was a great period of life and experience for me and I have found myself looking back on those experiences on many occasions since. So after ten years I can have another three months off. I know what a privilege it is and how valuable this time is. That makes me quite nervous to be honest. Am I going to make the most of it? Am I going to let the experience get deep within me? Will I allow the experiences change me?
The last month has involved a great deal of clearing the decks and the emails. It’s amazing how much rubbish I’ve shoved in the drawers of my desk and how many emails had wandered down to the bottom of my inbox! It all needed grappling with. That was a cathartic few days and standing back at the end, on my last day and looking at an organised and clear desk and an empty inbox was an amazing feeling.
Then I left my office and closed the door behind me. I’m sure I’ve left some problems behind, papered over the cracks of my inefficiency or reluctance to grasp nettles. But the day had come and I had to now embrace what sabbatical means.
Two of the most difficult decisions though were in relation to exactly what I’m doing now, social media. Talking to others I decided I would have to give the Living God blog a pause. That is something I try to do from the perspective of the Cathedral, giving voice to some of the thoughts that arise out of our life in and around the Cathedral. I made that decision. But I have also, for the past perhaps 4 years Tweeted a morning prayer. What would I do about that? I came to the very difficult decision that I had to give that a sabbatical as well. But it has become part of my own pattern of prayer and I know, because people tell me, that it helps them in their praying. So I would be abandoning something of my own prayer discipline and leaving others without those 140 characters that represented a morning prayer to God. But I made what was the toughest of all the sabbatical decisions that I have had to make.
It’s strange really what actually become the most difficult things in any series of decisions. But that was it.
The whole notion of a sabbatical is of course a response to God. As I was struggling with the idea of taking a rest I was confronted with the arrogance of knowing that God took a rest from the act of creation and was able, metaphorically, to sit back and enjoy what had been achieved and that I didn’t need to. Amazing isn’t it! We belive in an omnipotent God but within that understanding there is a recognition that even God rests. ‘I need to take a break’ sounds like weakness. Surely really strong people can keep on going. But there in Genesis God models for us that whole concept of the rest that we don’t just deserve but need.
It isn’t just scripture that prompts us to think sensibly about when to work and when to rest. The makers of the Mars bar put into our minds a phrase that has entered into the unconscious we’ve heard it said so may times
‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.’
I know that I have plenty of the first, I need some of the other two. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes a great deal of the sabbath gift that is offered to all of us.
So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest. (Hebrews 4.9-11)
Perhaps a sabbatical is a more extreme version of entering into the divine rest but it’s a reminder to me that we need to embrace what God offers, not to think that we don’t need to rest, to grab the gift of change, of space. That is what I intend to do as I travel through Canada, spend time in Jerusalem and enter the silence of Mucknall Abbey.
God of the sabbath,
may I have the courage to embrace rest
and the humility to let go.