When you go on sabbatical, there are two common questions that are asked before and throughout: “What are you working on?” and “Where are you travelling?” This fall semester, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a semester-long sabbatical, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked both of these. My colleagues, my family, my friends, my bosses, and even my primary care doctor have all echoed these questions as a resounding chorus: the background music of this precious time.
At the beginning of the fall, I felt pressure to respond in kind. I travelled to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Washington. I had research and writing trips planned to Massachusetts, Colorado, and Michigan. I might even go to a neighboring town for the weekend, I thought, just to “get away” to write.
I sent a book proposal to numerous presses, refined it, and revised it repeatedly. I worked on two collections, checked in on the status of pending journal articles, and penned multiple online essays.
The laundry I planned to get done piled up, still. The exercising plans went by the wayside. I worked on a grant for my university. Tomorrow, I’d tell myself, I’d relax.
In October, I began to realize how misaligned my habits and thinking were with what a sabbatical ought to accomplish. The irony of that research question I was often asked: “What are you working on?” began to hit me. On this rare time, focused on rest, all I was doing was working. Each day, I’d wake up, have coffee, and plug away on writing or planning. A sabbatical focused on rest was becoming anything but—and the cultural expectations surrounding it I realized were likewise off kilter. I should be doing something seemed the implicit message, have some completed product, or enjoy some transformative experience anywhere but my house.
At this point, I did what academics do best when lost. I read books on sabbaticals, leisure, and the sabbath. Walter Brueggemann,1 Josef Pieper,2 and Mark Buchanan3 became my friends. I drank coffee in the mornings and sat with them, rather than opening my email, as had long been my previous habit. I began to contemplate what sabbatical ought to involve, not simply in my role as an academic in general but, rather, in my role as Christian academic specifically. I was reminded that, as a Christian, my understanding and my experience of sabbatical should align with biblical principles of rest, not solely what social norms might dictate.
In Exodus 20: 8–11, the Lord commands us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, emphasizing the importance of rest not only for ourselves but also for those around us. We keep sabbath because, in doing so, we exemplify spiritual values that shape all whom we encounter, those of higher, equal, and lower social status alike. Here, it might help to recall that the “sabbath” derives from the Hebrew word shavat, or “to rest,” or “ceasing from work,” In Sabbath as Resistance, Brueggemann related that the God of Israel in the Old Testament was set in stark contrast to the god of Pharaoh. “YHWH is a Sabbath-keeping God,” he explained, a fact which “ensures that restfulness and not restlessness is at the center of life.”4 The Israelites under Pharoah’s rule worked day in and day out, unable to pause. Their worth was tied to what they could produce. Brueggemann, in describing how sabbath can be understood as a means to enact resistance, conveyed that “Sabbath becomes a decisive, concrete, visible way of opting for and aligning with the God of rest.”
Opportunities for sabbatical occur every seven years for an academic, aligning with the biblical principle of the Sabbath year, where the land is to lie fallow and debts are to be forgiven. Yet too often this gift, and our expectations of it, are misaligned from the God of rest. Ideally, the cyclical rhythm sabbatical follows, rooted in the divine order, extends beyond the individual to the broader community, emphasizing a collective commitment to rest and renewal, for everyone.
If, as humans, we are indeed image-bearers of God, then it follows that we should emulate his example of resting. As someone who considers herself a creator through her words, the Holy Spirit could not flow through what I write if I did not embrace rest as he did. During sabbatical, I learned that academia, and its norms of overwork, had become an idol for me. Soon, I observed a disturbing trend in my mentors and my contemporaries on social media, too, including those who profess to dedicate their studies to the concept of rest. Many would lament, paradoxically, that “studying and advocating for rest is hard work.” Others freely admitted to advising others to rest while struggling to make time for it themselves, maintaining that badge of honor of working too hard even as they claimed to resist the glamour overwork provides. Work, in the academic world, produces accolades. Rest, on the other hand, produces guilt and shame. It challenges the ideals of production our institutions, and our capitalist economy, celebrate. We might tell others rest is needed, but we would rarely admit to enjoying its dividends for ourselves.
In October, I cancelled all the trips I had planned for the remaining fall semester. At that point, I reclaimed my home as a sanctuary, my family as my foundational community, and my parish as a core center for spiritual nourishment. Last weekend, I spent Friday evening in Adoration, Sunday morning at Mass, and the afternoon at my parish volunteering. This was not work: it was worship. During sabbatical, my parish truly transformed into a second home, not merely in words but in the amount of time I spent there, with God and with my local community.
In a similar vein, this past week, my fourth-grade son stated that he liked “sabbatical mom,” and he has calculated how old he’ll be during the next one—sixteen—if I get to do this again in seven years. This semester, we’ve played board games and danced together more than we ever have before, finding a rhythm that I always aspired for but could never quite attain. Consequently, I’ve begun to contemplate seriously who and what I am implicitly saying “no” to as I have repeatedly in the past said “yes” to the overwork of academia. As a Christian scholar, what have I been worshipping, and what have I been modelling for my students, and for my professional and social communities?
While I took time this fall to read theologians and philosophers’ views about sabbatical, I am a nineteenth-century Americanist by trade. Thus, Emily Dickinson’s famous words on the subject have been the ones that have most reflected, and affected, my time. In poem 236, she wrote:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home.
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
My Catholic parish, although I’d like to claim it was, was not my Church prior to sabbatical: it was my university office. Dickinson may have been going against the orthodoxy of her time by finding rest outside of Church. However, I have found rest there, and, like her, I have found it in the birds I see when walking on the nature trail near my house and in the trees whose leaves I’ve witnessed turn and then fall, echoing God’s plan for renewal. Dickinson suggested one can find spiritual solace and connection within the quietude of one’s own space, transcending the structured walls of an institution. Authentic rest is found when one forms an intimate relationship with the divine, imitating his pattern, and replicating it in the simplicity of everyday living.
Yes: Dickinson’s words are those I plan to keep closest to my heart as I return to work in the spring, when the trees on my nature trail and the ones at my home, my parish, and my institution will bloom again. I may not have stories from travel afar from those research trips I never took or even a book contract, yet, following all those proposals I sent, but I do have a sense of the importance of rest to creation—creation work that includes syllabi, writing projects, committee work, and the formation of souls. In appreciating, and attempting to mirror, God’s act of rest on the seventh day, I have come to embrace the divine order of cyclical renewal, and I look forward to a new chapter rooted in the restful rhythms that echo the Creator’s design for our well-being and spiritual growth—and for the year when my son turns sixteen.
- Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
- Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Translated by Alexander Dru. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Leisure/vNOICwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=josef+pieper+leisure&printsec=frontcover
- Buchanan, Mark. The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
- Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 10.