My family has a name for itself. We’re not the “adventurous” family or the “intellectual” family (although on any given day we might seek adventure or think about important ideas). Rather, when we had two in high school – classes, sports, piano & violin lessons, dance & other extracurricular activities, and homework filled every waking moment (literally) – leaving barely enough time, and too often not enough time, for the much needed and desired sleep. Cheryl and I did our share of burning the candle at both ends and one day, one of us (and I cannot recall who) named us the “exhausted” family. We always seemed to need more rest than we were getting.
For me personally, thirty years of practicing law, writing golf books and articles, teaching Sunday School, coaching sports, etc., put me in a place where some extended rest was most welcome. (And, as set out in my book – The Race Before Us – I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I had good reason to be exhausted.) My “Six Weeks in Oxford” was essentially a “sabbatical”, so I thought it would be useful to try to trace the origin and meaning of a sabbatical. Not to mention that a related issue (and hence the idea for this post) arose in a discussion with Professor John Lennox about what the Bible tells us about work and the workplace (and rest from work). As I come to end of my sabbatical, it also seems appropriate to make some closing observations.
As almost anyone with modest powers of observation could detect, sabbatical is derived from “sabbath” or “the sabbath”. The first mention of the “sabbath” is in the Old Testament when Moses said to the Jewish people, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; . . . “. (Exodus 16:23) (Let’s keep in mind what God said – “a day of solemn rest”.) While the precise word might not have been used, certainly the concept of a day of solemn or holy rest was introduced immediately after God finished his work of creation: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation”. (It is worthy to note how often this simple verse mentions both “work” and “rest”.)
In this post, though, I will limit my observations to the idea of a sabbatical (and not the bigger and broader questions I approached during my six weeks). The easiest observation to make, and the one that cannot be overemphasized, is that finding time for a solemn rest should be a priority in everyone’s life. Without sincere effort, it will not be easy to find the time. In fact, most will find only a catalog of reasons why they cannot do it even though they’d “really like to”.
I’m convinced that we all do what we want to do. You have to want to take a sabbatical and then you have to work to find the time and opportunity. One thing you learn in Europe is that we Americans do not rest or “holiday” well. We do not give ourselves generous allotments of time for vacation and we rarely rest when we on holiday. How often it is said that we need a vacation to recover from the one from which we just returned? Just as sometimes there’s little better for a young child than his or her nap, we all need a holy rest from time to time. In an effort to convince you of that and to even encourage you to visit this “city of dreaming spires”, all of the photographs in this post come from a single college (Magdelan College) at Oxford University (which hopefully now, we all know, was where C.S. Lewis taught in Oxford).
Perhaps the best known reference to the “Sabbath” is in the Ten Commandments where it is written that the sabbath is to be remembered and kept sacred: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11). In addition, the idea of a “sabbatical year” appears in the Old Testament where the Jewish people were to rest from agricultural labor for a year (every seventh year), which included allowing the land to rest. Also, creditors were to release debtors from all debts each sabbatical year. (Deut. 15:1-11).
So what might this mean for us today. The notion of a sabbatical developed initially for academia, in part to give professors a time away from teaching to devote to research and writing. Harvard appears to have led the way with a formal policy in 1880. Generally, a sabbatical appears to have had three elements: purpose, compensation, and tenure. Meaning you earn the right to a sabbatical by a certain number of years of service, you take time for a specified reason or objective, and you are to be compensated despite being away from regular, full-time work. The concept of a sabbatical has taken on increased importance on the business world. Companies like Goldman Sachs, McDonald’s, and Nike offer some form of sabbatical. Employees return refreshed, re-energized, and often retooled to contribute back more than might have been lost by the absence, what – in perspective – is really not a long period of time. Job satisfaction (and employer satisfaction) and therefore, theoretically, retention increases with productivity.
A “sabbatical” can be used for anything, but should be used to refresh and restore. This could be to learn a new language, walk the Camino de Santiago, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, or any one of an endless list as long as it provides rest – a solemn rest, which can be thought of as a rest that recognizes that we are stewards of our own well-being and in that vein helps us to restore and reenergize. Thus, sabbatical can be a time to consider life’s big questions – where did we come from? why are we here? where are we going? what purpose is there to life? how do we know right from wrong and how do we live the “good” life? Better yet is realizing that there are actually answers to these questions.
And sabbatical is also a time to recognize that it’s really not about us, that despite how much effort we apply, much of what “we” accomplish is as much the result of circumstances we do not control, of opportunities we have been given (and could never have created). Paraphrasing the last line of the “Acknowledgements” in my book, an extraordinary life is possible where one is blessed with an extraordinary wife, terrific children, wonderful parents, and good friends. Sabbatical is a time to recognize this truth, but those that see it sooner are even more blessed.
I will consider it great gain personally, if just one person reading this blog starts thinking about and planning for their own six weeks.