Wednesday, May 05, 2010

"You're not there yet"

In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about something that she calls "sabbath sickness:"
Anyone who practices Sabbath for even an afternoon usually suffers a little spell of Sabbath sickness. Once you have finished the paper and the second pot of tea, you can start feeling a little jumpy, a little ready to get back to work. You can discover the true meaning of rationalization, which is what your mind does when it wants to do something that you have decided you will not do. Is yard work really work if you enjoy it? Is flipping through a mail-order catalog really shopping? Yes it is.

If you decide to live on the fire that God has kindled inside of you instead of rushing out to find two sticks to rub together, then it does not take long for all kinds of feelings to come out of hiding. You can find yourself crying buckets of uncried tears over things you thought you had handled years ago. People you have loved and lost can show up with their ghostly lawn chairs, announcing that they have nowhere else they have to be all day. While you are talking with them, you may gradually become aware of an aching leg and look down to see a bruise on your thigh that you did not know you had. How many other collisions did you ignore in your rush from here to there?
I bring this up because I wondered for quite a while yesterday whether this time of rest and renewal is overprogrammed. If one looked at my calendar for these five weeks, it wouldn't seem like much. It's more in my mind: I look at a new day with little to nothing to do, and my immediate reaction is to fill it with stuff. A lot of it has been leisure time stuff: reading a book, playing my bass, watching a movie, sitting on the porch, sitting on the couch, sitting at the coffeehouse, taking a walk.

So it looks like I'm relaxing. But once an activity ends, once I'm faced with a moment of nothing, my first thought is, "What can I do next?" My immediate tendency is to use a free moment - I can't just enjoy it, can't just let it be; I feel a need to use it.

I was actually quite disturbed by this realization yesterday. Why can't I just relax? What if I were to just sit; close my eyes and do nothing for a little while?

The other day when I took a nap with one of my cats may have been the only true sabbatical moment that I've had so far.

Could it be that even engaging in leisure activities are sometimes signs of "sabbath sickness?"

Yesterday I visited a local retreat center. It was the first of three trips that I'll make to that spot. It has a small cabin set back in the woods. It's a very irenic space; my sacred space away from the empty church sanctuary, I may even say. I began the day with morning prayers and journaling, which took me right up to lunch. After that, I decided to walk the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is a fascinating, confounding, frustrating, wonderful practice for me. I can't stay away from it, yet I don't fully understand it and can't say that I always receive much from it. I love the journey metaphor that it embodies; that's one of its main draws for me. But I don't always calm or focus myself enough for the experience, which is probably just another sign that I tend toward overfunctioning.

Yesterday, I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth and silently asked a question: "What should I do next?" This question is related to what sort of specialty I pursue, i.e., D.Min, some other degree, etc. It's a concern that I wanted to think about during this time, though I haven't been as inspired by that question since I began.

At any rate, I began my walk. The question remained with me at first, but eventually faded into the background. Instead, I became conscious of the walk itself. I tried to keep my pace slow, but caught myself speeding up several times. I also caught myself anticipating the next turn, trying to gauge how far away I was from the center. A thought began to repeat itself: "You're not there yet." Indeed I wasn't. I was beginning to think that there was a larger truth behind this simple statement.

As I neared the center, I felt a pull to truly slow down, even slower than the pace I tried to keep. I felt like I couldn't speed up if I wanted to. That's how strong this pull was. My feet became heavier and heavier, my body rebelling against my mental urges.

When I reached the center, I can't say that any revelation came to me. I did feel moved to sit down in the grass for a time, but no special message came; no angel descended. I just took a few moments to feel the warmth of the sun and listen to the birds.

When I stood to begin my journey out, however, something had clearly changed. That same pull to walk slowly was even stronger, such that I didn't walk the path so much as shuffle, one foot barely ahead of the other. I paid more attention to the grass: what it felt like through my shoes, the bumps in the ground, the way it moved with my steps. My gaze ahead shrunk from about half a foot to maybe 2-3 inches in front of me. Frequently, I didn't know when the next turn was coming until I was on top of it. I have no idea how long it took for me to complete my walk, but I know it was quite a while before I reached the exit.

Whether this experience was an answer to my question is debatable. I'm an impatient, looking-ahead sort of person in general and not just in a career sense, so the point of this slowing down seems to be more far-reaching than what I'd asked. If nothing else, it was the beginning of the realization of my own sabbath sickness, which had slapped me in the middle of the forehead by the end of the day.

That evening, I sat down with a glass of wine and watched part of a ballgame. It was a conscious effort to move more slowly and to recognize that I'm not there yet, wherever "there" is and whatever I'm trying to do to get there. I want to take slower steps during this time and enjoy the gift I've been given.