My SAT Sabbatical Experience

by Charles Buckley, OSB
St. Gregory's Abbey, Shawnee, Oklahoma

Last spring sometime Abbot Lawrence invited me into his office, commented that I looked tired, and asked me to think about something:  “I’d like you to think about taking a sabbatical,” he said.  So I thought about it for a while – probing my energy like you probe a chipped tooth with your – and after about 20 seconds said Yes.  Many sabbatical programs surfaced by an internet search were merely places to stay, not programs as such.  An exception to that is the “School of Applied Theology” in Oakland/Berkeley, California.  I cleared my teaching schedule for the fall and headed out there in August.

I was ready for a sabbatical; the people who ran the program insisted that it was for rest and renewal, and they promoted that.  No papers, no tests, but great classes; the San Francisco area is rich in excellent faculty who presented short courses to us in a great variety of areas:  much on personal renewal and spirituality, scripture, moral theology, interfaith dialogue, an astronomer’s conception of the evolving universe followed by a student of theology from that viewpoint.  And there was a marvelously diverse group of participants in the program.  The 16 participants for the fall included priests, brothers, sisters, and one lay woman; they came from seven countries, having ministered in several others.  The program was housed at a Dominican priory; most of its members were students at the Dominican school that is part of the Graduate Theological Union; the association with the GTU is how the sabbatical program got its name. 

One of my goals in the program was to take my brain out for a walk.  Teaching mathematics, sitting on committees to formulate policies and make recommendations – the analytic side had been working very hard and very long; it was time to give my imaginative/creative side some room.  So it did.  Many of the presenters punctuated their sessions with poetry, and I got to meet for the first time the poetry of Mary Oliver.  Look her up.  One presenter spoke about dreams and some simple steps in processing them, so that let loose a torrent of dreams for me.  Every morning at breakfast, the group would ask:  what was the dream last night.  And half of them involved basketball; I didn’t figure why that was a theme.

There were structured ways for us to share our reflections on the program and many informal ways.  We spent 2-1/2 days in silent retreat in the hills east of Berkeley, and said our goodbyes to the program at a retreat house on the beach in Santa Cruz.

We took advantage of being in the San Francisco area.  We explored the glories of nature.  Most of us went on a weekend visit to the Monterey Peninsula with its aquarium, the 17 mile drive, and Big Sur, where we visited the Camaldolese monastery that sits high up overlooking the coastline; we celebrated the Eucharist with them in their elegantly simple chapel on Saturday.

Another trip was to Yosemite National park – after the summer’s forest fire there was extinguished.  The rock faces were magnificent, the sequoia groves were impressive.  Because it was fall and the area was experiencing severe drought, the waterfalls and rivers were very calm, but I found a quiet trickle of water gurgling its way between rocks that captured my attention.

And most of us went one day to the Napa Valley were SGU alumna Beth Nickel gave us a grand welcome to her Far Niente winery.  Individuals and small groups did a great number of explorations to the neighborhoods and museums in the area and to the different churches to experience the variety of expressions of the Sunday liturgy.  Some anonymous angel with some role in the San Francisco Symphony provided tickets available for many of the performances – two or four for any given night.  We simply signed up for them and were treated to marvelous music.  We had an opportunity to do a spiritual exercise reflecting on one of several works of art, and a session challenging our own creativity.

Now I don’t want you to think that this was just a three-month vacation; these adventures were indeed part of it, part of our expanding our minds and our souls.  We were urged to have a spiritual director, and that was a great experience for me.  And the ones who presented our courses challenged us to grow.

One of the presenters who moved us all greatly was Fr. Michael Fish, a member of the Camaldolese monastery at Big Sur.  He had originally been a Redemptorist from South Africa.  He beguiled us with an Old Testament view of God, the God who was bursting with love for us before creation, and so created us humans to be able to share with Him.  In fact, the whole of the Old Testament is the story of God’s trying to develop a relationship with us humans, with his own people, a relationship we so often soured.  So when Adam and Eve sinned, God was lonely.  God went into the Garden and called to Adam and Eve:  “Where are you?”

The other side of the story is that we feel as part being human.  We experience the gap, the ache, the pain.  It is this to which St. Augustine referred when he said:  Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in You.  The gap is part of any real spirituality.  But what Michael Fish was saying was the God experienced this gap, too, this separation between God and his people.  I saw a phrase in a book on the spirituality of St. John of the Cross to the end that God wants us to be part of God’s life.  And so the remedy for this separation/this gap is Jesus Christ – true God and true man.  It is through Him that we see and interact with God and God with us.  Jesus shows us how to live in the gap, how to live our humanity.  Jesus is the longing of God, searching for us, made flesh.  Every time we anesthetize the gap (eating, drinking, shopping) we anesthetize God.

And so Michael’s message, echoed by many of the other speakers, was that our call, our mandate is to become human, because God created us good and loves us fully, and so our task is to respond to this love.  One of the church fathers said that Jesus Christ became human that we might be divinized – and thus fully human in the way God intended for us.  Fr. Michael quoted Merton:  We are never simply a being that is “there” and “ready-made,” just for the asking.  From the very start we are something that can Be, a being who must win selfhood and decide what it is to be.  We must fully become what we are – a human being.

Now none of this is a denial of other ways to speak to God, ways when the reflection on who God is was done in the context of philosophical language.  But no particular view can exhaust our speaking of God and appreciating God, and the insight above gives us a way to accept the dynamic of God’s powerful love for us, and to receive God’s loving care.  It allows us to value the creation we are and to realize that we do well to take good care of ourselves as instruments of God.

And so Michael left us with some strong advice about caring for ourselves and making our spiritual search real as we return to the “real world” at the end of sabbatical:  walk every day, take a siesta, be reading a novel all the time, devote an hour to God daily, take a day off every week, have a hobby, keep intellectual and creative stimulation, live with beauty and simplicity.  Okay, he admitted that was a long list, which he might be able to carry out successfully some of the time, not having full time assignments.  But he did encourage us to find ways to keep these elements alive in our lives, so that we might maintain this active search for God.

Well, I’m back at the Abbey now, and it will be up to me – and the Spirit – to see if this sabbatical was just a pleasant interlude, or a transforming experience.