Every ten years I, like many other clergy, get the opportunity for a sabbatical. My last one was in 2006 when I went to the States, South Africa and India. It was a really important three months for me and I’m amazed at how often I still refer back to the things that I experienced then. But what that means is that I can have another sabbatical and that is what I am going to be doing in the autumn.
However, with unusually efficient diary planning (that is not one of my strong points as anyone who knows me will be able to confirm) my summer holiday will almost segue with the beginning of the sabbatical. The term ‘sabbatical’ of course has its roots in the keeping of the sabbath and the sabbath rest that we look to as the ultimate gift of God to his people. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is hot on that towards the beginning of his letter
‘So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his.’ (Hebrews 4.9-10)
If it was good enough for God then it’s good enough for us. So the real privilege is that I will be having the whole of September, October and November off. I will be back for the ROBES Sleepout at the end of November but that will be the only break into this time of rest.
The reality is of course that it isn’t just an opportunity to lie on a sofa, watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and do nothing. Instead I have the space to do again as I did in 2006 things that I want to do but simply haven’t the space and time to do. The plans, therefore, are that in September I will be in Canada visiting some great cities and seeing the Anglican church in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. That will be a real treat and will involve the 4 day train journey across the country from the west coast to the Great Lakes.
Then in October and the first part of November I will be in Jerusalem staying at the college at St George’s Anglican Cathedral. I’ve been to the Holy Land on many many occasions but never on my own. I’m normally leading a group of pilgrims, shepherding them onto coaches, off coaches and out of gift shop queues. So it will be odd to be there onmy own doing things at my own pace.
But the principal reason for going there is that I have a plan.
When pilgrims stand on the belvedere at the church of St Peter-in-Gallicantu their guide will invariably point out a Greek monastery quite close by. ‘That is in the site of Hakeldama, the Field of Blood’ they say. We nod and take our photos and move on. There isn’t time to go down, there isn’t time to do everything.
As pilgrims head up the road from the Church of All Nations to Mount Sion the guide will say ‘On your left is Absalom’s Tomb’; they may say ‘That is the monastery on the site of the martyrdom of St Stephen’ but as with Hakeldama there is no time to stop and visit.
Most pilgrims visit the same holy sites during their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is right that they do that because we have to see the Church of the Holy Nativity, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the various places, Nazareth, Tabgha and suchlike in Galilee. But I am conscious that there are other holy places that we never see and yet probably have a great deal to say to the pilgrim who has already been to the ‘Top Ten’.
Two experiences in the last pilgrimage I went on earler this year have convinced me of this. The first was visiting Jacob’s Well in Nablus. In over twenty visits with pilgrim groups I had never been to this place and the opportunity to do so opened up and we visited it. It became a highlight of the pilgrimage for the whole group.
The second was in a throw-away comment from the bishop with whom I was co-leading the pilgrimage about a church that stands on the place where Mary and Joseph realised that Jesus was not with them after their visit to Jerusalem. I wanted to go and I want to go.
I have tried to find out what holy places I am missing out on. It is hard, if not impossible to do. Our focus is so much on the principal sites that we lose sight of the others. So I want to spend time visiting some of the ‘hidden and holy’ places.
My hope is that I can experience them, take some photographs, spend some time making a few notes and then writing up the experience with the intention of producing a book or website to help other pilgrims encounter the ‘hidden and holy’ because these places are also in our own communities and that is where the project comes back home – discovering the ‘hidden and holy’ where we are.
Then, finally, on my return I’ll spend a week in retreat, time to reflect on all these things.
So it’s all really exciting. But the real thing I wanted to say is that I’ll be taking a sabbatical from this ‘Living God’ blog. There will be a sabbatical blog (look out for that please) because I don’t think I can resist the opportunity to share with others the experiences I will be having and reflecting on them and praying through them. So, as I titled this blog, this is the ‘Last Post’ ….. but only until December when I will resume thinking about what Living God means for us at Southwark Cathedral and beyond.
I love Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Last Post’ with those wonderful final lines
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.
I hope that my sabbatical can help me look backwards and forwards, with the God of past, present and future. So this may be the last post for now but not the last word.
God of daily work
and sabbath rest,
bless all we have done,
all we do,
all that we will do,
with your strength,
in your grace,
by your love.