A note from Jamie Howison: This is the last in a series of weekly updates regarding my sabbatical study leave. For background on my work during these two months, plus other updates visit the sabbatical news page.
ith just a few more days to go before I pack up my bags and head toward home, this will be the last in my series of sabbatical updates. These weeks at the Collegeville Institute seem to have just flown by, mostly because there has been a “same-ness” to my days here. Up in the morning in time to have coffee and read the paper before setting in at my desk by 9:00am. Basically work through the day, with a break for midday prayers at noon, and ending with vespers at 7:00pm. A bit of supper and a glass of wine, followed by tea and my novel, and off to bed before 10:00. That’s pretty much it, six days out of the week.
In terms of my writing, it has been really very fruitful. I have completed decent first drafts of ten of the proposed thirteen chapters, and in the next three days will be able to write one more and probably even manage to chip into a second. Of course, as John Berard will tell you (from his recent experience of seeing the book he jointly authored come to publication), that will be followed by a serious polishing to get things ready for an editor, who will then send me back for more rewrites and even more thorough polishing… but I’m at least well on my way.
The chapter I worked on over the past couple of days had me thinking and writing about music and time. I was working with John Coltrane’s piece “Attaining,” and picking up on Jeremy Begbie’s reflections on how music can teach us much about what he calls “fruitful transience;” how “musical continuity emerges from transience, from the coming into being and dying of tones.” The passage of time—and maybe especially the passage of life—is not something that we should fear or deny, but actually embrace for the fruit that it can bear. I reflected that this is part of what St Benedict had in view when he instructed his monks that they should “keep death before them daily.” It isn’t based in some fear of judgment or in a denial of life, but rather in a knowledge that this life we have been given must be fully embraced and lived, yet at the same time held lightly and always entrusted back to God.
I think that we have to learn how to balance the “embracing” with the “holding lightly,” but first we actually have to learn what it might be to fully embrace life. And I am more convinced than ever that this learning has much to do with the practice of sabbath. “Oh sure,” you’re thinking. “Fine for you to say, tucked away in your cottage at the monastery. But in the ‘real world’ who gets to do that?”
It actually has less to do with my study leave, and more to do with the fact that I built a weekly sabbath day into the pattern of my leave. In New York, Sunday was a day to go to worship (usually twice), read the Sunday New York Times, wander for miles, and not write. Here at Collegeville, it has been a day to go to worship, walk for miles (unless it was too cold…), read for hours, and not write. These were always wonderful days—strangely time-less, in that I never quite understood “where the time had gone”—and deeply rejuvenating. Inevitably, I found that Monday was one of my most productive writing days of the week, but that alone isn’t reason to take a sabbath rest.
It represents a different value system (which is part of where the biblical Sabbath comes from in the first place), in which an intentional choice to not do anything productive turns out to be the most productive thing of all. Life is savoured, simply because it is good, and not because so much was accomplished. It is a bit of that blend of “embracing” and “holding lightly.”
We have really lost a sabbath sensibility in our culture, but maybe we had to lose it before it could be rediscovered. A lot of people over the age of forty or fifty have stories of how they dreaded Sundays because other than going to church you weren’t allowed to do anything. It wasn’t a break from work so much as a burden of restless boredom. Even going to school on Monday morning was better than this…
Fortunately, I grew up in a family context in which that kind of thinking simply wasn’t present. My grandfather firmly believed that after church on Sunday morning what you really needed to be doing was something that gave you life and brought you joy. For him it often meant poking around in the garden; pulling a few weeds and fussing with his flowers. As a kid my favourite Sunday afternoons were the ones on which I managed to convince my mum and dad to take us bowling, made all the better if there were some extra quarters to slip into the pinball machine. In other words, I didn’t grow up seeing Sabbath as a burden, and I’m grateful for that.
So this renewed appreciation for a sabbath sensibility is part of what I will be bringing back home with me, because I have been powerfully reminded of how good it is for our souls to break routine and to place ourselves under no obligation to be productive. It doesn’t necessarily have to be rigidly observed on Sundays either; some of us do have to work on Sundays, after all… In fact it shouldn’t be rigidly observed at all. But worked into the rhythm of life, as a part of our practice and (in the best sense of the word) discipline? We just to have to find ways to make that happen.
And a word of thanks to all of you at saint benedict’s table, who have so graciously enabled me to take these two months away. It has been good for my soul.