Source: Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers, newsletter of the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, April 1988, pp. 10-11.
The following remarks were made by Joanmarie Smith, CSJ, at the Board of Directors luncheon on April 7. Sister Joanmarie, currently a Resident Scholar at the Institute, is Professor of Christian Education at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
I have three things to talk about today. Obviously, the first two are the northwoods and sabbaticaling. The third was not included in the title because I did not know the purpose of this meeting. The topic is guilt.
When I was asked to give a few brief words at this luncheon, I said, “Sure. I’m a sport. The Institute has been very helpful to me. This is the least I can do.” A few days later I asked Patrick about the purpose of the luncheon. He told me it is to raise money for the Institute. O, brother! Here I am, coming from my spacious two bedroom apartment, with a study, designed by a famous architect, built on a lake, where I have no deadlines, no interruptions, and very few distractions.
Would you raise your hand if you have never had a full year’s sabbatical? [Most hands were raised.] Just as I thought. Can you appreciate my guilt now? Perhaps the men in Matthew’s Gospel, hired at the eleventh hour to work in the vineyard, could get inside my feelings. If one of them, after getting the same pay as those who had worked twelve hours, had then been asked to raise funds among those who had borne the burden and heat of the day, he might feel a little awkward, too.
I will work at diminishing my guilt and perhaps any hostility you may feel at my good fortune. But first I will try to share with you what it is like for a kid (relatively speaking) from New York City to come to the northwoods of Minnesota.
New Yorkers are a Rare and Parochial Breed
I was born in Manhattan and bred in Geraldine Ferraro’s congressional district across the East River, in Queens. In at least one of my ancestral lines I am fifth generation New York City. That is very rare, as you might imagine, in New York. People from all over the world gravitate to the challenge of New York because, as you know, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. So, native New Yorkers are a rare and very parochial breed. And very sedentary.
I am convinced that those of us whose ancestors came to New York and settled on the East side of Manhattan, as mine did, have different genes from those whose foremothers and forefathers pushed west, to New Jersey, not to mention Ohio. I can’t imagine what your genes must be like, if your people got off the boat and kept on moving, and moving, and moving. But I get clues about your genes.
From my study in my apartment, I can see the road across the lake. At lunch time, the road is peopled with walkers and joggers. I don’t know a single native New Yorker who walks, never mind, God forbid, runs. So we are sedentary. And we are parochial. I am sure that you have all heard stories about New Yorkers’ unfamiliarity with the rest of the country. Let me tell you mine.
Milwaukee? Minneapolis? Both Start with “M”
My sister, who is quite sophisticated, a frequenter of museums, a patron of the theater and night life in the big city, decided to visit me here last fall. Less than four hours before her plane was scheduled to take off, I called her because there seemed to be some mix-up between the time she said she would land and the time Northwest Airlines said she would land. She did not know what the difficulty was but as she checked her ticket, it dawned on her. Was Milwaukee really her destination? Milwaukee? Minneapolis? They both begin with M. That’s what threw her off.
She had non-refundable tickets so she was well punished for her ignorance. Justly so.
What is it like, then, for a native New Yorker, a person with city in her tissues, to live for a year in the Minnesota northwoods? The answer is suggested by the fact that my sister returned in February and brought four of her sedentary and parochial friends with her.
I guess they have birds in New York, but not so you would notice (aside from the pigeons, of course). They have trees, too; there was one on my block. They also have water, but mostly it comes out of faucets. Here in Minnesota I have been pushed into nature naturing, as Spinoza would say. Not that I have walked in the northwoods. I would never want to leave that impression. But I have lived in the northwoods. And it has been something of a culture shock.
Trees, loads of them have leaned into my living. At least fifteen different species of birds populate my space. And I can name and identify them all. A chipmunk has resumed his or her (I’m not that good) residence in the firewood on my patio. A woodchuck has appeared from a hole on my lawn near the lake. I have watched the water outside my window flow, then crystallize, then freeze, and now the crust is beginning to break up again—signalling the end of my sabbatical. I would relocate here if I could. In any case, I will never be the same again. Which is, I would suggest, an appropriate insight with which to conclude a sabbatical.
The Sabbatical is an American Invention
Ray Hart, a well-known theologian, in his presidential address to the American Academy of Religion, said that there are three reasons why people become college professors: June, July, and August. He might have added a fourth, and perhaps even greater reason: the sabbatical. I had assumed the sabbatical went back to the Middle Ages, to the founding of the universities. I was surprised to learn that it is an American invention, and rather recent. Harvard gave the first sabbaticals in 1880. According to a 1913 edition of the Encyclopedia of Education, England was still not granting sabbaticals at that time. The term is now so identified with the academy that we forget that sabbatical is essentially a religious category, rooted as it is in Sabbath.
Sabbath as Part of Natural Law
Whoever writes about Sabbath begins by talking about it as mystery. One of the most mysterious aspects of it is that it is part of the natural law. Remember, “to sabbath” is one of the Ten Commandments that are considered to be written in the human heart as well as on the Mosaic tablet. Certainly it is the most outrageous of the commandments. The others all make good and obviously natural sense. The possibility of civilization hinges on being able to trust that most people will not lie, steal, or kill; that children will not abandon their parents.
Even the first three commandments make good natural sense. We should not allow anything or anyone but God to be God in our lives. We should not think that we have ever captured the reality of God in any form or concept. We should not trivialize the power of God to which we have access. Then there is this command to sabbath because God did. Keep holy the sabbath because the Lord your God sabbathed at the creation. We are commanded to imitate God. Quite a stretch, wouldn’t you say?
Sabbath as Part of Creation Process
Other points to note about sabbath include the fact that it is depicted as part of the creation process. Moreover, it is an invention that comes down to us from paradise (a point that those of us sabbaticaling find easy to remember). But, from the beginning, it was also a portent, a vision of the Kingdom to come. Everyone and everything was to sabbath. The land, the oxen, the slaves. Every seventh year was to be a sabbath year. Land was to lie fallow, debts were to be canceled, slaves were to be freed. “Not to worry,” says God, “I will bless you in all you do” (Deut. 15:18). But the people did worry, as you might imagine, and commentators tell us that the sabbath year was only sporadically observed.
Moreover, as had Isaiah before him, Jesus had to correct the insensitivity and hypocrisy that sometimes creeps into Sabbath—the cultic observance that is inclined to take precedence over humane observance.
The Roman Catholic tradition forbade servile work on the Sabbath. Most commentators described servile work as work which was drudgery, not work which was oeuvre. In other words, creative work such as painting or writing was encouraged, as was re-creative work, such as playing. It seems to me that this is the tradition that has been institutionalized by the academy and more recently by corporate America, which is beginning to introduce the idea of sabbaticals.
The institution tells you that they will pay you whatever; that they will see that your job is held for you; and that you will have a stated period of time free from the drudgery of your job: you won’t have to grade papers, attend committee meetings, write reports, or read memos. You can do what you want most to do in the world. You can have your druthers. And for scholars, that druthers is almost invariably research and writing. So it has been possible for me, since last September 1, to work unremittingly on a book that has been roiling in me for almost ten years
Sabbatical Cannot Be Taken; It Must Be Given
But there is one final point to be made about sabbath, about sabbaticals.
A really paradoxical thing about sabbath is that you cannot take a sabbatical. You can give one and you can be given one. But you can’t take a sabbatical, any more than you can take a nap. You can dispose yourself, lie down, shut your eyes, and then, if you are lucky, a nap takes you.
You cannot take a nap and you cannot take a sabbatical. You can give one and you can be given one. I have been given a sabbatical; you have given me one. Your support of the Institute made it possible for me to come here at a cost at which I could sabbath. I am very grateful, and guilty. To assuage my guilt I try to think of the reward promised to those who give a cup of cold water in Christ’s name. What can be the reward for those who give away sabbaths?