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.