About a year ago I was getting ready to head for Tuscon, Arizona for the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop. This bi-annual trip is always one that I look forward to so I can get away from the cold of Wisconsin and have a week of astronomy immersion. Last year, however, I was feeling a little different about the trip. I still looked forward to be a part of this wonderful event, but internally I was starting to feel and see the signs of burnout. Before I left, I had a conversation with our Vicar of Clergy (It’s the title given to the priest responsible for overseeing the wellbeing of our Diocesan clergy). I was joking with him about a good friend of mine who was on sabbatical by saying, “Why is he on sabbatical, I should go on sabbatical!” What started as a playful poke at a good friend became a serious conversion. “James, if you want to go, I have an opening in the spring of 2020… You’re overdue for a sabbatical.”
Every ten years, our Diocese encourages us priests to go on sabbatical. I really didn’t know much about sabbatical other than some guys would take one to write their book or take some classes for ongoing education. Since I’ve written a book and feel more than satisfied with the ongoing education I indirectly receive writing for Sacred Space Astronomy, I rushed to the presumption that I didn’t need a sabbatical. After the door had been flung wide open for this opportunity, I did the “priest nerd” thing and looked up the etymology of the word sabbatical. What I found was a word whose Greek origins mean, “Of the sabbath.”
I started to pray with this and asked, “If God is inviting me to a ten-week Sabbath, how am I to embrace this sacred rest?” The answer came immediately, “Deepen my prayer and address my weight issues.” It was right at this time that I arrived at the Redemptorist Renewal Center for the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. In addition to being the home for the workshop, I had noticed in the past pamphlets at their help desk for sabbaticals. Since the staff has gotten to know me well over the years, I felt an immediate comfort with the idea of going on sabbatical at the center. Still, I wanted to make sure the program supported my goals of deepening my prayer and improving my health. When sitting with the director of the program, it became clear that all my goals for a sabbath rest of prayer and health would be well within the scope of this sabbatical program.
The program is rooted in desert spirituality. There is a long, ancient tradition in the Church of going out to the desert to detach oneself from the things of this world to listen intently for God’s voice. As I learned about the sabbatical program, I felt a deep peace about what I would call “detachment Wednesdays.” Wednesday will be a day of silence, encouraging us to not speak verbally, unplug from anything that could distract us, and take a day of restful prayer.
Two weeks age, I gave a presentation about my sabbatical to St. Olaf’s youth in our Faith Formation Program. When I got to the part of explaining Wednesday Unplugged, I told them, “Don’t bother trying to get a hold of me on Wednesday, but do know each one of you will be prayed for that day as I prayerfully take St. Olaf Parish with me into the desert.”
A part of the sabbatical that has been both exciting, but also is feeling a bit odd is not having a parish assignment on the weekends. The idea of having weekends to travel, seeing places I’ve long wanted to see, and not be responsible for at least three Masses on a weekend feels strange. After 17 years of priesthood, the only time I have “free weekends” is when I go on vacation. Even then, I usually plan my trips to still celebrate Mass at the parish and then fly out immediately after my weekend Masses are done. Only being “on” for one Sunday Mass for 10 weeks will feel odd to me, but it also gives me the chance to deepen my love for my newfound hobby: Mirrorless camera astrophotography!
While on sabbatical, I want to take the opportunity to capture night images in one of the greatest places in the world to do stargazing. As I’ve committed to learning the art of astrophotography, I’ve grown in my knowledge of cameras, lenses, telescopes, and how to do all this on a budget. I’m starting to get my imaging “travel bag” together and am hoping that I can share the weekend trips of my sabbatical with you.
Now, as the Vicar of Clergy has already warned me, “Remember, you’re going there to rest!” Therefore, I need to remain realistic about these weekend trips. Still, since the Redptorist Renewal Center shares a boarder with the Saguaro National Park West, I think it’s safe to say I won’t have to travel that far to do some stunning photography! In short, March thru May will be a beautiful time for sabbath rest and capturing the beauty of God’s creation… night and day… and maybe catch some spring training baseball games too… go Brewers!
Share Your Voice: As I prep for sabbatical, where in Arizona should I go to do some astrophotography? What images would you like to see pop up on Sacred Space Astronomy from my visual sabbatical journal? Leave your answer below. Pray for me as I prepare for 10 weeks of sabbath. And know that you, the readers of Sacred Space Astronomy, its authors, and all involved with maintaining this wonderful blog will be in my daily prayers! Just don’t expect any posts from me on Wednesday!