I was on sabbatical during this past Spring semester. Sabbaticals are a gift, not only in university settings, though probably most prominently so. It is a gift to rest, reflect, renew and rejuvenate. Of course, for professors, there’s the expectation that one will also engage in another “r,” that is, research. And I did that this past Spring.
But having a sabbatical during a global pandemic feels a bit ridiculous because how can one truly rest amid the unrest of the world? I felt like poet Warsan Shire who:
…held an atlas in [her] lap
ran [her] fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
It was as if the COVID-19 virus was everywhere. When the coronavirus became a public reality, I was provoked out of sabbatical rest because of the hurt of the world. Yet, the convergence of a health pandemic with a formal institutional sabbatical brought its own existential insights. One key idea about the nature of sabbath itself became highlighted, that is, that the worth of my life and the worth of your life are not rooted in work or production.
My worth and your worth as human beings are grounded in the notion that we are people created in the image of God. Period. Breath running through our bodies means that we are worthy and we are valuable, not due to anything we produce but just because we are people, humans.
I have worth because I am a human being. I don’t have to do anything to gain worth. I can just be. Just be me. Not ‘just do it’ like the Nike motto says. Just be it. Just be you. Just be. We are human beings, not human doings. Students, and others, may sometimes feel that they have to fill their schedules with activity after activity. It can feel like magic but magic doesn’t make a person and magic can be deadly. Busyness or the flurry of activity can be a way to avoid engaging oneself openly, honestly and deeply.
This is why sabbaticals are good—they help us slow down. To borrow a phrase from the mystic prophet Howard Thurman, “see one’s self pass by.” Not everyone gets a sabbatical but everyone can still engage in sabbath—to just be and not worry about doing all of the time. To sit quietly at rest on a park bench; to breathe in the fall air in Duke Forest; to delight in the beauty of creation as the tree leaves change colors; to listen to the trees and the stories they tell about history; to sing with the birds throughout the day even when the next class assignment is due; to flow with the wind and let your hair blow freely. Breathe and be.
Especially at a time like this—during a global pandemic, racial tensions, and political divisions—it is good to slow down and be in order to remind ourselves of who and what is important in our lives. Slow down and remind yourself that you are a human being. Even when Jesus talks to his disciples, he tells them, “You will be my witnesses.” Not do my witnesses but be.
Your life is more than doing. It is being. Our being is at stake these days—who you are. Our work ethic propels us onward as experts in human doings. But it would appear we need further mentorship in how to live more fully into our human beingness. Often, at a hospital bedside, patients really just desire you to be with them. Not more words or more advice. Just be. Be present because that is the gift, the gift of your presence, your being.
I hate to disagree with Shakespeare’s Hamlet—"to be or not to be”—for that is not a question. We are called to be.
Duke Chapel wants to help you lean into your being during this challenging time. There’s one new opportunity to help you be and remain grounded spiritually. The Chapel has opened its doors for students only. It is open to students to #FindSanctuary. Students of any faith and no faith at all are welcome to sign up for a time to meditate, reflect, pray, contemplate, or just be in the Chapel. Ticketed timeslots for students are available between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday.
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To #FindSanctuary is to discover that sabbaticals don’t have to be six months or more. A sabbatical, a sabbath, is when you finally find a holy sanctuary, not by doing, but by just being right where you are with who you are. In this way, you might learn that the sanctuary is you.
Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.