Sabbaticals have a life of their own, meaning that as much as we like to think of them as intellectually organized searches, our passions and interests draw our eyes to a particular color in a large jewel that captivates us to behold it longer and longer. If you take the leisure to look at the literary and artistic jewels of theology, “the study of God,” go where your soul’s enthusiasms take you. Because I wanted to take some graduate courses on my sabbatical, and I was late applying, I ended up with two history courses not of my choosing but which opened my eyes to new realities, particularly a course on Catholic-Episcopal ecumenical ventures prior to Vatican II that sparked in me an interest in interfaith experience, Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel that “they all may be one.”
Theology is a family of subsets. When you are choosing the kinds of books and other material you would like to pursue, you can do so in the fashion of someone entering a seminary or a master’s program in a major Catholic University. St. Vincent de Paul’s regional seminary has a rich, almost overwhelming curriculum [scroll down to page 52] for seminarians from Florida and South Georgia. If nothing else, viewing a curriculum gives an idea of the large number of choices in the study of theology, choices you might not know you had, such as medical ethics, philosophy, pastoral counseling, sacraments of initiation, etc. When safety permits, visit a Catholic graduate school if you are lucky enough to live near one, just to sniff it out for independent studies, libraries, lectures and other events open to the public, etc.
On the other hand, sometimes you just come upon a theology book from any specific subject and you jump right in, like a kid in the bakery snatching the cupcake with the most frosting. A good text in theology [or any other discipline, for that matter] will be so well footnoted with a rich bibliography that you can organically spin off into other related texts that grab your fancy. If you start your sabbatical with Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas, for example, your curiosity may take you backward into later medieval times and how the Church fell into disarray, or forward toward the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the reform Council of Trent.
I would suggest that early in the sabbatical you do go out of your way to touch base with the New Testament, particularly the four Gospels. Vatican II’s primary agenda was a refocusing upon Christ as the full expression of the God who loves us. Every bit of theology written and taught today is impacted by intensive Scripture scholarship. A good measure of your Gospel acumen is your handle on why the four Gospels are different, and what aspect of Christ’s message is emphasized in each Gospel. If you have no experience in college level scripture study, an introduction such as Paulist Press’s Invitation to the Gospels  can be very useful and dependable, or for the more ambitious, Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.  On the other hand, diving directly into an excellent text and commentary of your favorite Gospel might be more intriguing and get you off on a good start. I used Francis Moloney’s The Gospel of Mark  in the Café Blog a few years ago; the narrative was intriguing scholarship, but he did not include the Gospel text itself. When buying a Scripture book, check to see that the full text is included with the commentary; otherwise, you’ll need your bible on your other knee, which can be cumbersome.
So, let’s hit the mall with the touch of a mouse, so to speak, to do a little window shopping. Our first stop is Paulist Press, a primary apostolate of the Paulist Fathers. The Paulists were founded by Father Isaac Hecker in the mid 1800’s and devoted themselves to preaching and publishing in the name of Catholic evangelization. To serve the entire Church, Paulist offers a wide range of publications and products. The Paulist Biblical Commentary is a new reference gem. This is a good publisher to subscribe to its printed catalogue, which I have here next to me. The quarterly catalog via snail-mail offers a better view of Paulist’s best resources. Paulist offers “The Catholic Biblical School Program,” an extended study guide to the full Bible over several years, and reasonably priced.
Moving along, we come to Liturgical Press, known from its founding in 1920 as the ‘Collegeville Press.” LP began as a monastery in Minnesota and became one of the first institutions in the United States to study reform of the liturgy; consequently, its publications focus on Liturgy, Scripture, and Parish Life. To find its publications this link proceeds to the book section. LP continues to this day with imaginative energy in scholarship. Its Wisdom Commentary series on books of the Bible draws from feminist theology and experience.
Continuing along, Catholic University of America Press, my alma mater, publishes some of the most advanced theological works available in English. If you think you know everything, browsing its spring catalogue will bring you back to earth. In my years there, I was more frequently found in the Rathskeller than with these volumes of advanced erudition. However, I may purchase one new offering in this spring’s catalogue, A Guide to Formation Advising for Seminarians [p. 12]. I would like to see how today’s seminarians are counseled and evaluated compared to my seminary experiences of a half-century ago. [Simple answer: we weren't.]
Returning home and looking at the books on my desk at this moment, they were published by a wide variety of other universities and firms, including Yale University Press, Eerdmans, Orbis, and W.W. Norton, to cite several. Some of the best treatments of things Catholic have come from outside the world of Catholic publishing; I have included some secular samples including Eerdmans’s and Norton as examples. Yale's Divinity School is world famous. Nearly all publishers mentioned in today’s post will send you free updates on books in your field[s] of interest that are just going on the market--even if you don't buy, you can stay connected to trends in religious academia.
I admit that the price of books can be problematic. There are a few things you can do to reduce the price. When I receive a notice for a book that I need for the Café posts or my own interests, I check with Amazon to see how the publisher’s price compares with Amazon’s. Usually, Jeff Bezos has it for a few dollars cheaper and Amazon Prime can usually overnight the purchase. Often, though not always, a sought after book comes in multiple formats, too. I prefer paperback because, among other things, I mark up books I use. Kindle is often cheaper than hardcover or paperback. Amazon also networks with many small local bookstores who can sell the same book, used, at considerable savings. This is particularly true with older texts. That said, I do have qualms of conscience about buying from "big box" bookstores rather than Catholic publishers directly.
Just one man’s opinion, but if you are reading a text of particular helpfulness to yourself and/or your work, you might do better with hardcover or paperback. It is probably a book you will refer to down the road, and you may want to mark it up and make notes. In doing the Café blog, I learned quickly that it is easier to retrieve a book quote from a shelf than to try to find it in my Kindle app.
Feel free to contact me with any questions. The next post will be in the book review stream; the next sabbatical post will be around Wednesday or Thursday.
What I am laying out here is a blueprint, a utopian one at that, for anyone who finds themselves in home restraint due to the Corona virus or any other reason. I fully understand that you have other pressing concerns in your life, so take from these posts what would help you maintain your sabbatical as best you are able. If I can personally assist anyone, feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Given what I have seen over years of counseling, many professionals cannot do their best work or take adequate care of themselves in every sense because “too many things get in the way,” a softer way of saying “I believe I am not in control of my own life.” I have a code I use for my own private session notes, CTC, or living from “crisis to crisis.” CTC is a prime factor in failing to pray, exercise, prepare healthy meals, and maintain healthy relationships. A sabbatical provides the leisure to chart each of these factors into regular rituals of daily living.
I have long believed that successful people have a passion for their field, and this is no less true in Catholic life and ministry. Moreover, passion for union of God is the ultimate motivator of life. Theology is literally the study of God, or as others have put it, “faith seeking understanding.” Our own kiddie catechisms of years ago described our purpose on earth as knowing, loving, and serving God in this life, and living with Him in the next. A sabbatical is down time for personal scrutiny, determining who we are and what we are doing. Never be embarrassed to admit that your idealism in search of God has flagged, that one’s religious life has gone to the dogs, that ministry and catechesis have become repetitive duties for a surviving paycheck.
If this is what you discover in the early days of your sabbatical meditations, do not be afraid. There is a lot of talk about people leaving the Church and abandoning the sacraments, and probably losing heart in God. But the onus always seems to fall on the departing. What about our Church as a whole? We are a divided Church, a sinful Church, in many respects. Division is never a thing of beauty, and certainly not an object of admiration. Despite the public labors of a most unusual pope, there is dissatisfaction with him because he does not do everything “by the book.” Currently, at least in the United States, the institutional Church preoccupation has been getting the “correct answers” out to the remaining faithful. I actually saw a blog post from a catechist asking how to explain to a little boy the difference between “love” and “lust” as he prepares for his first confession in second grade.
Yes, it may be that you’ve lost the love you once cherished, but I would wager that the object of your love is much obscured in the traditional places we have been taught to look. “Knowing, loving, and serving God.” We who are or have been married can easily apply knowing, loving, and serving with our spouses. It is a curious thing that the word “knowing” as applied to God is a synonym for sexual encounter in the Bible. Think to the early stages of a wholesome love affair—every aspect so consuming. But sustaining this love requires constant togetherness. Kenny Rogers, the popular singer who died this weekend, admitted to an interviewer that his four marriages all failed because he put business first.
Catechetics makes the same mistakes. Just yesterday I came upon a post on a religious education site: “Favorite tips and tricks for teaching children the procedure for First Reconciliation. We do practice Reconciliation twice, have them put the parts of reconciliation in order, watch the Brother Francis "Forgiven" video but every year Father tells me the kids don't know what they were doing.” What we have here is a sacrament of anxiety, not healing. Business before beauty.
Because God is “totally other,” all talk of God is analogy, or as Webster puts it, “a comparison of two otherwise unlike things based on resemblance of a particular aspect.” The historical Jesus himself is the only perfect theological statement: “Phillip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.” By implication Jesus, himself human, is defining the divine presence in each of us, putting us in that restless place where nothing makes us perfectly happy except communion with the God who made us and loves us. Good theology is the language of loving effort.
The study of theology brings wisdom to its serious students. I am grateful to the publication Lay Witness for this quote: “Plato once remarked that if wisdom were visible, the whole world would fall madly in love with it. Although wisdom is not visible, beauty is. And this is why, for Plato and many other philosophers, in loving beauty, people are moving in the direction of wisdom. The important implication here is that we human beings simply cannot do without beauty. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev once said, "Beauty will save the world."
As to setting sabbatical goals, the best I can offer is finding the love and beauty of God in your life and/or ministerial circumstances, setting out on paths of those who have searched for divine beauty before us and who do so successfully today. I will put some road markers up in the next few posts, and at some point, describe my own 6-month sabbatical in 1993 with its highs and lows. We can walk through a library of Catholic study that may prove helpful, but the nice thing about a sabbatical is your command of the pace and the menu. In his love, God will prompt you to your heart’s longing.
Next post: Thursday, some practical housekeeping.
Even the Black Plague [1347-1352] came to an end, awful as it was, and I believe that as a Church we shall go back to work, too, at some future time when it is safe to do so. I don’t think it will be soon, though, and I don’t think there will be a “normalcy day” where everyone runs from the shelter of home into the public marketplace and starts engaging with the living ministers of the church again. Were I a pastor today, I would tell my hard-working staff and volunteers to go home on a [paid] sabbatical. On second thought, I would recommend a sabbatical to every adult Catholic facing the question of what to do with enforced time off.
Webster’s defines a sabbatical as “a leave often with pay granted usually every seventh year (as to a college professor) for rest, travel, or research.” This is a period when professionals refresh their minds and commitments to their fields, read the insights of colleagues, perhaps take a course of their choice, and even create some contribution to their field. [College professors write their books on sabbaticals.] A sabbatical is a time to break free of the shackles of the phone and its evil partners, absent one’s self from the employment environment, and live by one’s own schedule. It is customary to submit a plan of study and goals to the employer and make a private or public summary of what one has researched during the sabbatical, which is a reasonable requirement.
I am struck by the inclusion of “rest” in Webster’s definition of sabbatical, because most professionals I encounter in counseling appear to be in good need of it. For many years I was a United Health Care Employee Assistance Provider for, among other populations, everyone on my diocese’s health insurance plan. The term “burnout” does not adequately describe the range of job-related symptoms presented by Catholic ministers, including priests. I don’t need to describe each stress in detail, but in the past few weeks I have seen many blogsites with posts from catechists who are literally frantic that they can’t get materials for sudden religious education homeschooling demands brought about by Corona closings. Another poster was deeply grieved that there were no hours for confession in her church; an elementary knowledge of Penance and Canon Law would have calmed her. Before World War II Saint Maximilian Kolbe wrote: "Whoever can, should receive the Sacrament of Penance. Whoever cannot, because of prohibiting circumstances, should cleanse his soul by acts of perfect contrition: i.e., the sorrow of a loving child who does not consider so much the pain or reward as he does the pardon from his father and mother to whom he has brought displeasure."
Worry is an enemy of spirituality and a roadblock to effective ministry. Consider this: You can’t take responsibility for a pandemic, nor can you take responsibility that your diocese or parish does not provide on-line resources for you to tap immediately for the next several months. Some years ago, my own pastor picked up the bill for every parishioner to access Formed, the NETFLIX of family faith formation. So, relax. It is a subtle form of narcissism to believe that the Church cannot survive without your 24/7 helicopter ministerial surveillance. Let the people who get paid to supervise you take the responsibility.
What the Church will need come next fall is a cadre of renewed and rested ministers, enriched by time to pray, healthier from time to exercise and eat nutritious home cooked diets, better qualified for ministry by virtue of a challenging study of theology. In other words, let’s consider the model of Church sabbatical, ministers and laity alike. The days holed up at home may take on a refreshing hue if you think of them as that opportunity to escape into the various branches of religious experience and theology, places you've always wanted to go.
Tomorrow I will provide an overview of how to construct your personal sabbatical plan, and on Wednesday I will connect you with books from every corner of the theological world. The Café is one place that will remain open and with you as we together transverse this unexpected sabbatical.