Six weeks ago the parish leaders at Apostles removed my ordination stole, placing it on my seat in the sanctuary, a symbol that my priestly sabbatical had begun. The stole’s placement was a call to prayer for our church, to pray for me during this 12 week sabbatical. In response, I pledged that I would continue to pray for the people of Apostles.
At the halfway mark of this sabbatical, I have a renewed sense of the mystery and power of intercessory prayer. Though I’ve only run into a few Apostles members around Knoxville these past six weeks, I’m deeply conscious of the spiritual presence these prayers have had in my daily routine. Words cannot adequately capture the effect of receiving this gift of intercessory prayer. To confess the words of the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ is no small thing.
The reason that the gift of prayer seems so precious is because I discovered very early in this sabbatical how much I would need it. The last Sunday I preached at Apostles before my sabbatical, I shared that I was tired and needed rest. A few weeks into the sabbatical revealed I was more tired than I knew myself. By the grace of God and prayers of the saints, I’m entering a place of rest and renewal the past few weeks, but it’s taken longer than I expected to experience a renewal of energy.
As I prepared to enter this sabbatical, I asked that our church would pray for me to learn the virtue of slowing down. That prayer is being answered, but not without its surprises. Learning the virtue of slowing down comes, well, slowly. One might think that weeks of uninterrupted time would make slowing down a simple process. Weeks of interrupted time only reveal how impatient I am. But even in the discovery of a deeper impatience, I encounter the grace and wisdom of God. He is patient with my impatience. And I am upheld by a church praying that I would encounter that very grace and wisdom.
As I think about what sabbatical time has been like so far, I see that I’ve encountered God in three distinct places: creation, time, and silence. In many ways, I see the grace given here as a kind of reconciliation. To be reconciled with creation is to become more attentive and thankful for the place where one lives. To be reconciled with time is to recognize its limits, to receive each day as gift rather than burden. To be reconciled to silence is to recognize that words alone cannot communicate the love and knowledge of God.
All my life I’ve enjoyed exploring new places and these weeks have given me occasion to explore local places that I’ve overlooked or never visited. As I grow older I’ve become more curious to find places of stillness near my home. Good benches are essential for stillness. Finding places of stillness simply sit and listen to God’s creation is not easy; most of the places we create for recreation encourage motion and activity rather than silence and stillness. But I’ve found several good locations near my home that provide a retreat only 15 minutes from west Knoxville, especially the Oak Ridge Arboretum. I’ve been cataloguing good places of stillness, so I’ll feature those places in some later posts. Seeking the voice of God in these places has been a way of becoming reconciled to the place where I live.
Wes Jackson, a close friend of Wendell Berry, is an author who is leading me to discover the treasures of the land around me. Jackson speaks about ‘becoming native to a place,’ and that is something I’m seeking to do by learning the names of trees in my backyard (a skill I never acquired). I may have lived in Knoxville most of my life, but I’m discovering this land anew. Just as the ancient Greeks believed ‘no one steps into the same river twice,’ this city is not the same from one year to the next. Finding new places, looking patiently and contemplatively at familiar places is to become a witness of God’s beauty, as Annie Dillard says.
I began practicing sabbath in seminary and have continued that discipline over the past ten years, but that alone hasn’t prevented me from being formed by our culture of hurry. Living in a culture that overemphasizes productivity and efficiently, I’ve subconsciously equated faithfulness with completed to-do lists. I’m a believer in making lists and getting things done, but when lists reach a certain length, it suggests an unnatural pace of work for everyday living. Now that my to-do lists are a fraction of what they were, I realize how often I postpone good projects that can only been done slowly over a long period of time. How often have I postponed planting a garden because it doesn’t yield results overnight?
Which brings me to another important practice that had been (mostly) absent from my life: manual labor. I entered this sabbatical asking the following question: how could I practice the Benedictine value of work and labor (ora et labora)? Contemplative prayer is a major emphasis of my sabbatical, but that doesn’t last all day long. There comes a time when prayer and study should end and another kind of work should begin.
So I’ve begun clearing dead brush around the lot of our new home. Chopping down a magnolia that obstructed the front of our home was great fun. I’m also clearing spaces in the autumn planning for the spring. It’s good to begin a project that cannot be completed in one day, one week, or one month. Working with the soil means I must respect the rhythms of creation, not imposing my own rhythm to yield a result of my own choosing.
In his inspiring work, Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford speaks about the virtue of craftsmanship, saying ‘The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. The craftsman is then more possessive, more tied to what is present, the dead incarnation of past labor…The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft.’
I began my sabbatical with a vague idea that I’d like to build something with my own hands, but those words inspired me even more. So I’m not only preparing our lot for some kind of garden, I’m also going to learn how to build a prie dieu (prayer desk) for the prayer room in our home. Working with my hands tutors me in a more patient and prayerful pace of life.
There have been long spaces of silence during these weeks and that has been the best gift of this sabbatical. Silence is not an absence of sound, as Annie Dillard says. Silence awakens the heart to creation’s melody, a song that attunes the soul to God. It is tempting to enter silence seeking answers and solutions for questions and dilemmas, but I’m learning how this personal agenda in prayer subverts a spirit of true surrender. Entering times of silence without an agenda is an act of surrender, and with that surrender comes freedom and joy.
It is not easy, however, to maintain that kind of surrender. So I see a sabbatical devoted to contemplative, silent prayer as a kind of apprenticeship, a novitiate, in a way of prayer that is not ‘productive’ or ‘efficient.’ Its fruit cannot be measured on a given day. But cultivating a heart that will wait upon the Lord, this is the treasure to be acquired. Silence teaches the greatest truth of the Gospel, a truth which John Wesley so beautifully expressed: ‘the best of all is God with us.’
So, that’s a summary of the first half of my sabbatical time. I focused on rest a great deal the first half of the sabbatical, hence the reason I haven’t written much here yet. But as I look to the second half of sabbatical time, I know that I’ll be writing more often here and at AnglicanPastor.com. Thanks for reading, and most of all, thanks for praying for me.