Disciple: Away Time as Holy Time
By the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple
“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
- The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel
When I returned in March from my three-month sabbatical, I was often greeted with enthusiastic comments like, “Oh! You look soooo rested!” I had to resist the temptation to wonder how worn out I looked when I stepped back from my diocesan duties at the beginning of Advent. True, the six years since my election as bishop suffragan have been pretty demanding. It is also true that by late fall I am pasty pale no matter how rested I am. So, since I was just back from language school in the beautiful city of Merida in the Yucatán of Mexico, I was glad I looked as refreshed I felt.
The second most common greeting was, “So, how was sabbatical?” After the perfunctory replies, “It was great, I really enjoyed it and I am really happy to be back,”—all of which are true—I often replied in ways that may have seemed vague and evasive. “My sabbatical was less about doing and more about being. It was about the extraordinary gifts in ordinary life. I accomplished nothing remarkable or exciting and that was pretty much the goal.”
My curious interlocutors often seemed a bit confused by these responses. Then I would try to explain how holy it is to be alone for long stretches of the day. How delicious it was to have time to amble about my neighborhood and enjoy random encounters with new neighbors and long-time friends. My husband and I took the opportunity to do something we heard about from other friends, something called “a long weekend away.” Wow! What a great practice that is! I went on a retreat where writing and silence were my partners and my sister was my trusted companion. It was exhilarating to send Christmas cards for the first time in about 15 years, each with a personal note.
And for the first time in more than 30 years, I did not organize Advent, Christmas and Epiphany events for any community other than my own extended family. I enjoyed being one of those back-pew people who leaves church quickly and without stopping by any signup table. I baked and decorated and napped to my heart’s content. I could pray and sit and read and walk and study, motivated each day by invitation rather than duty. I had the time and space to see and call out intentionally the sacred in the so-called mundane. And then I explored the beautiful scenery and culture of the Yucatán while working on my still-pitiful Spanish.
MORE THAN A BREAK
“I need more time to get all my work done.” “I need some time away from this situation.” “I need you to give me some space to think this through.”
We have all had such thoughts, right? The need for down time and time away. We all know that need “to get away from it all.” We desire a change of location or habits to get a new perspective. At some point, we all crave the time and space to step away from all the blessings that feel like burdens, all the burdens that feel like shackles, and all the demands that crowd the creativity out of our imaginations.
Taking a simple break from the routine is fine and sufficient if that routine is not grinding you down. Sabbatical takes it all a step further. And while I understand you may be thinking as you read this that very few are lucky enough to be given the gift of a months-long break, its gifts are within reach of us all.
At the heart of “sabbatical” is “sabbath,” and sabbath is a more intentional and spiritual practice. Sabbath is setting aside time for rest as a good thing in order to be restored to full engagement in work and life. It is time dedicated to stepping away from work and stepping into a deeper awareness and appreciation for holiness that comes from God and not one’s sense of accomplishment. Sabbath for a day or for a week or for months allows the time for all things to be made new.
The problem with merely “getting away from it all” is that it can be rooted in a negative energy about what we are stepping away from. Returning then feels like something necessary but not welcome. The invitation of sabbath time is to step away and appreciate the parts of creation that are good, very good. A good sabbath helps us appreciate the tasks God sets before us when it is time to re-engage.
THE WAY OF SABBATH
Observing sabbath is first and foremost the spiritual practice of obeying God’s commandment to stop working, as he did on the seventh day, in order to see and celebrate the gift of life in the beauty of creation.
Observing sabbath is remembering that God is Lord of all creation and the author of salvation, and we are his invited and valued guests. God’s grace is sufficient, and our responses—our work—are best rooted in thanksgiving for all God has done for us.
For me, sabbath is a sacred and intentional period where some limits are imposed to see better God’s limitless presence and the gift of utterly resting in God’s grace and love. God invites us to experience that rest and love as a good in and of itself. Sabbath is not utilitarian, it is gift. It is God’s invitation to us, and it is our offering back to God a time of dedicated awareness. It is observing a holy time to give ourselves renewed energy for more lively and creative relationship with work and life and, above all, our fellow travelers once it is time to return.
The first gift of sabbath is the holiness we feel during the time dedicated to rest and renewal. The second gift of sabbath is the fact it is finite and, if we are so blessed, we return from it renewed to be more aware, more engaged and more filled with gratitude for all that God is doing in our lives and in the world. Taking a day of rest is an ongoing invitation, a weekly gift from God.
I am profoundly aware it is a privilege and a blessing that our diocese allows some of us such a sacred time for renewal. I am grateful for my colleagues who had to bear extra burdens while I was away. I am especially grateful for Bishop Sam Rodman’s encouragement and support so I could let go of any worries about “things left undone.” I am profoundly grateful for my executive assistant, Shelley Kappauf, who managed to keep all sorts of trains running (i.e. committees, deadlines, projects) and prevented who knows how many train wrecks.
I am also aware not all our clergy are allowed such benefit, and it is even more rare for most lay people. The end of my sabbatical does not mean the end of my sabbath keeping. I know its value, and I hope and pray that together we can continue to find ways to support one another in creative, faithful sabbath keeping, whatever the constraints.
I have resumed my duties as bishop suffragan with a renewed sense of wonder, gratitude, curiosity and enthusiasm for following Jesus in the Way of Love. My sabbatical renewed my convictions and my desire to continue this journey with you, my beloved sisters and brothers of the Diocese and the church universal. Above all, this period of stepping back has given me a stronger, deeper conviction to go forward in faith, hope and love. I am quite excited about all the good news around our diocese, the incredible talents of our people and the resources in our communities. My sabbatical reminded me—and renewed in me—the faith that God is working in us and through us, doing more good than we can ask
The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple is the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of North Carolina.