Sunday, August 29, 2004

Trapped by time? Get free by giving one day a week to God: the Sabbath is a gift from God.

I am so grateful to have discovered the wonder, beauty, and power of the Sabbath 14 years ago at our Fall Priests' Retreat given by Fr. William McNamara, o.c.d., and Sr. Sharon Doyle, both formerly of the Spiritual Life Institute of America. Their respect for the Jewish faith and religious/cultural tradition allowed us to discover the gift of the Sabbath, which God entrusted to Israel as custodians for the benefit of humanity.

To put it simply, God - who is infinite and "outside of time" - created us to live, for now, within time. The original sin of Adam and Eve - whoever those first human beings were - was a break in the relationship of trust and intimacy they had enjoyed with God until the time of their rebellion. It was being in communion with God their Creator that kept them in a wonderful state of freedom to live among all the other creatures without losing the true sense of who they were. Once they broke trust with God, their safety net was broken, as it were, and all of creation - even good things - became potentially dangerous for them. Like many native peoples, they appreciated every creature and respected it, recognizing its link with the Creator. After their fall, however, they began to lose sight of the dignity of worth of each creature, and could fall into using it without respect for it and without remembering from whom it came. They became subject to inner attitudes and feelings such as insecurity, fear, acquisitiveness, greed, and anger.

Even time became a threat and remains dangerous for human beings to this day. The more we try to control time, the more we end up trapped by it. In his mercy, God gave to his Chosen People in the desert, through Moses, the Ten Commandments (see the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Torah/Law part of the Bible, in the beginning). God said to the people then and He says to us now, "Listen. I have given you seven days. You may work six days, but you must not work on the seventh day (Sabbath). The Sabbath belongs to Me. Give it back to me, and my blessing will be upon you, and you will not fall under the power of time. Observe the Sabbath rest by taking time to worship Me with your family and your people, and then spend the rest of the day in My presence: discussing all that I have done for you, studying my Word to you, delighting in my love and mercy upon you, and celebrating with joy the life that I am giving to you in peace, quiet, mirth, and festivity with your family and friends. Do this, and you shall live. Fail to do it, and you will find yourself living a half life, living to work, a slave of time."

In the same way that the week has its Sabbath rest on the seventh day, which Jews observe on Saturday (which comes from the word Sabbath), and Christians observe on Sunday, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead and the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and disciples; so too the year has its Sabbath at Passover for Jews and Holy Week for Christians. Our years or lives also call for a Sabbath rest, which we can observe by going on retreat once a year for a week or weekend, and for a longer retreat every so often - after 5, or 7, or 10 years. We can listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit within us, or observe the signs in our body, mind, psyche, and soul, and become aware of our need to pause, be still, rest, and get back in touch with the roots and source of our lives; in order to clear the soil of our lives from the brambles and thorns that have grown up over the years and now hinder the growth of the good seen God plants within us.
Even in the workplace and marketplace the concept of sabbatical not only exists but is valued and practiced. University professors consider the opportunity to go on sabbatical as an honor and a prize, and often use the time to go to a prestigious center of learning or field work and produce an article, book, or study for publication. People in the medical or other professions use the time to get themselves updated to current developments in their field, while also enjoying the time through rest and recreation. When they can, professionals bring their families with them on sabbatical, and it becomes an opportunity for the whole family to be renewed and rest.

I make this post from Chicago, where I am just beginning a sabbatical rest of just under four months. There are 22 other participants here from all over the world: from Nigeria (1 priest and 1 sister), Ghana (2 priests), U.S.A. (5 priests, 3 sisters, & 1 brother), Rwanda (1 priest), Ireland (1 priest missionary in the U.S.A.), Ontario (1 priest), Germany (1 priest), Tahiti (1 French missionary priest), Tanzania (1 priest), South Africa (1 priest from Uganda), France (1 Nigerian missionary sister), and Sri Lanka (1 sister), and myself.

Since Friday, we have been giving each other - in a large group - a 30-minute sketch of our lives; so that we may come to know one another better and enter into an experience of community with one another. Of course, this means that rather than only have a few professors and other speakers address us - which will also happen - we also have this wealth of human experience of faith and struggle, from which we are already learning a great deal. I already feel myself filling with gratitude for the great gift and privilege of having entered into this sabbatical experience. It is a sacred time, a time for stillness and prayer, for sharing and reflection, for reading and study, a time to be renewed and refreshed, and to rediscover a balance of life.

"Lord, I thank You for this time of grace from your merciful providence, and I ask your kind blessing on all those people who have in any way made it possible for me to be here, or who now support me in any way and especially through prayer. May this holy sabbatical become an instrument of your blessing and grace for them as much as for me and for my companions that You have assembled in this place. May You be known, blessed, and loved, now and always and forever and ever. Amen."