Sabbath Rest: A Year in Review in Pictures
At this time last year, life felt particularly intense. We were applying for new grant funding at work for a project I care about deeply. My family and I were still grieving the departure of our foster daughter. And I was getting ready to launch my memoir about my faith journey; putting the book "out there" felt like one of the scariest things I had ever done.
In Following the Red Bird, there is a chapter entitled, “Sabbath Year.” Several people, including my wonderful editor, Elizabeth, and a reviewer had commented on this topic. When Elizabeth sent me her first round of edits on the manuscript, she included a question at the bottom of her email which gave me pause. "You write about the idea of a Sabbath year in your book. Is this something you're planning to try intentionally?"
After receiving her note, I reflected more on the idea of a Sabbath year and what it might involve. At that point, I was exhausted and frazzled, so it seemed an important question to ask myself. At the same time, I was clear I couldn’t make any drastic lifestyle changes. I have a busy career, family, community, and writing life that I all love. I do not want to withdraw from the world, and I am not in a position to take a true sabbatical from work.
A Sabbath Year
Instead, after reflecting on Elizabeth’s question, I decided to commit to take a 24-36 hour retreat each month. I originally got this idea after reading my friend Dana Trent’s book, For Sabbath’s Sake; she, in turn, had gotten the idea from Vanna Fox who is a Senior Vice President of the annual Wild Goose Festival. Following Vanna’s example, I would go away by myself each month to be quiet, pray, write, read, and rest. I would try to implement the plan over the following year, although I knew it was going to remain a very busy, demanding time.
Jesus in a Lonely Place
As I was contemplating the idea of going on monthly mini-retreats, I wondered if there was a Biblical foundation for such a routine. I already had a dedicated weekly Sabbath practice which I viewed as a spiritual discipline mandated by scripture. But if I took a monthly retreat was I just “making it up"? Then I was reminded that Jesus continually withdrew to quiet places for rest, prayer and renewal. Maybe I could and should do the same.
One of the first questions I received from a friend was where would I take these retreats. The question of “where” seemed relatively straightforward to me. Yet it turned out that determining the “where” each month was actually one of the most fun, quirky, and spiritually interesting parts of implementing the practice over the year.
For the most part, I didn’t spend much money on the locations where I took the retreats; most of the places I went were free or low-cost. Still, I am enormously aware of my privilege, and I am very thankful I have the resources to have done this. This includes having a family and a job which allowed me to take the time away. I am especially grateful to my husband, David, and daughter, Lila, who have been incredibly supportive even when the retreats caused some inconvenience to them.
A Year in Review in Pictures
In the rest of this blog, you can see where I ended up each month. A few times, I failed to successfully get away (and I've noted that below), but most months I did manage a 24-36 hour retreat. I have not previously posted any of these pictures online or on social media because the time away felt precious. So now, I share them intentionally and with gratitude.
This is where it all began. My friend Carol was out of town, and she let me stay at her place for two nights. She lives in a house that backs up onto dozens of acres of beautiful woods. When I arrived at her house, I was so profoundly exhausted and stressed, I knew something had to change. That weekend, the idea for a Sabbath year was born.
June and July 2017
In June, I house sat for my friend Caroline, and in July, I took a Sabbath retreat on my back porch. You can read more about how it went in this blog on Dana Trent's site.
I failed to reserve a time for a Sabbath retreat in August. The only time I could have gotten away was the same weekend as the total solar eclipse. So I skipped a solo retreat that month, and instead our family traveled to South Carolina to see the totality. Here I am with my daughter, trying on our eclipse-viewing glasses. We got there early, and we had to wait hours outside in 98-degree heat, but it was worth it. After the 1979 eclipse, Annie Dillard wrote, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” After being there, this description made sense to me. It was an incredible moment; we shared it with a small group of strangers, and it felt like Sabbath time.
In September, I took a day off of work without any specific plans of where I would go that day. In the morning, I decided to let the Spirit guide me, and I felt a strange impulse to head north when I left my driveway. I ended up in the parking lot of this tiny, perfect church. A historic building, the sanctuary is intentionally left open all day as a gift of hospitality; there was a sign welcoming anyone off the street to use their space as they felt called. I spent the day in prayer and rest. For a couple of hours, I laid in a pew looking out of one of simple stained glass windows and eventually dozed off. Later, I walked around the small pond on their property and hung out with their church cat who followed me. I didn't see anyone all day. I am thankful to the Church of the Advocate for opening their doors to a stranger for an unexpected Sabbath retreat.
Paris! The most exotic local of the year! I was in Abuja, Nigeria for work in mid-October, and was scheduled to travel to Dakar, Senegal for a meeting after my time there. However, sadly the meeting in Dakar was cancelled due to a security threat. I impulsively decided to extend my layover in Paris by a day, and spent the 36-hours walking the streets of the city.
Thankfully, there was no violence in Dakar that weekend, although I think often of the people of West Africa and the violence they continue to face in the region.
In November, I rented a cheap motel room and got away by myself to write. I read recently that when you're writing, you need to look for both "cracks" and "chunks" of time. Usually I fit my writing into the cracks in my life. It was wonderful to have a chunk of uninterrupted time.
December is a really busy month - have you ever noticed that?! I was not able to schedule a full retreat as the holidays approached; I only managed to carve out half a day. I wanted to get out of my house so that I wouldn't be tempted to do chores or work. I impulsively called my friend Alyson and asked if I could hang out in her guest room. She graciously welcomed me over without any questions about the somewhat odd request. I took a nap and then read this passage from my favorite Advent book.
My January retreat was one of my favorites. I stayed in the tiny one-room cabin that my friends Steve and Debbie own at Blue Heron Farm, the intentional community where I lived in Pittsboro, NC for several years after college. The cabin has an outdoor kitchen and shower. Unfortunately, the power went out just as the sun was going down. It was freezing and I spent the night shivering under a too-thin blanket. But the time there reminded me of how happy I was when I lived in a similar one-room cabin in my early twenties when the pace of my life was much slower.
In February, I failed to take a retreat. I was traveling non-stop and was incredibly stressed out. I don't know which came first: the stress or the lack of a Sabbath retreat. But it was a vicious cycle. This picture doesn't fully capture it, but by the end of the month, I felt like a wreck.
As the year progressed, one of the questions I had was whether the key ingredient of a Sabbath retreat is being alone. In March, I took a weekend away with David while my parents watched Lila. We got a lovely AirBnB, and I viewed it as my Sabbath retreat that month. We had a wonderful time. I actually think the key to the retreats is being able to listen for what my heart and body are calling for in the moment; during this weekend, I was able to achieve that rhythm with David. We spent time together, but also took time doing our own thing. Exhausted from my travel and work in February, I spent a lot of the weekend sleeping, while he read happily on the couch beside me.
Of course, when you're a parent, you often can't focus on your own needs and desires. In April, I took an intentional retreat with my daughter Lila while David was traveling. We rented an old school bus in Saxpahaw through AirBnB; all the seats had been removed and it had a bed in it. The bus was on a beautiful farm, and we spent the weekend hiking the land, wading in the stream, and kayaking on the river nearby. It was perfect spring weather, and Lila and I had an amazing time together. I often reflect that a Sabbath practice helps me parent differently; I am more present and less rushed to get the next thing done on the list or bustle her to the next pre-planned activity. I follow her lead more, and am able to more fully enjoy our time together.
May was the biggest surprise of all. I took two days off of work to attend a writer's retreat in Raleigh. Even though I have been intentionally creating time for writing over the past six years, I've never attended a writing workshop or conference. When I arrived, I felt weary and discouraged. Writing is awesome, but "marketing" a book is weird and hard, and the question about how to share my writing with the world has felt deeply confusing. But the people and the content of the workshop filled me with renewed energy, passion, and clarity about the way forward in my journey. Out of those two days, the idea for this blog, "On the Edge of Faith," emerged. Pictured here is writer and consultant Margot Starbuck leading a session. After listening to her, it felt like my almost-empty gas tank suddenly became re-filled. This final retreat of the year reminded me that it is not just rest that renews us but also having vocational, God-filled work that we love. Since the retreat, I have recommitted to a regular writing practice; this has given me energy and joy in other areas of my life, including in my day job.
June 2018 and beyond...
A year has passed since I started the experiment of taking mini-retreats each month. Moving forward, I will reflect on if and how I will continue to incorporate this practice into my life. It took effort and intention to carve the time out of a busy life, but it felt worth it. I will keep you posted and would love to hear about ways that God may be calling you to explore what a "Sabbath year" could mean for you. Please email me with any stories or photos: firstname.lastname@example.org
With blessings and prayers for Sabbath peace for the world,