The blessing of a sabbatical, at least as I always understood it, was something limited pretty much to college teachers. That is to say a sabbatical is that period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year. Little did I know! The corporate world (at least pockets of it) now offers sabbaticals. To find out how the corporate world does it, take a look at YourSabbatical.com. That site has a top 100 list of sabbatical ideas, such as “Circuit Iceland by car, Tackle Kilimanjaro, … Trap and track puma in Argentina’s pampas grass, Raft the Zambezi with your dad.” Hhmmm! Well, intriguing ideas I suppose but that’s not what I undertook.
Being a language fiend I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of the roots of “sabbatical,” a word derived from “Shabbat.” Shabbat comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. In other words, a sabbatical is a gift of time when we can set aside all of our routine concerns and devote ourselves to discovery and enrichment. My time of discovery and enrichment involved research, of course, a spiritual retreat, and being a student in a creative writing class.
Each retreatant has her or his own hermitage so solitude is the first gift that’s received. The hermitages are scattered throughout the woods that belong to the retreat center. Lots of good walking through the woods and to Lake Tamarack which is not far away at all. A favorite memory is sitting in the early evening at the end of the dock, looking out over the lake, watching the trumpeter swans and listening to their calls as the snow floated down; then scurrying through the woods to my hermitage before darkness fell. The solitude, the freedom from all devices electronic, were healing and nourishing; a real sabbath. Try it!
The main thrust of my sabbatical was to create (a) a modern English translation of, and (b) an edition of Patience, a Middle English alliterative poem from the late 14th century. The poem is one of four found in the same manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. and is often written about as a poem in homiletic style. Inevitably, this research led to a trip to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s in Collegeville, MN. The HMML project was born in 1965 in response to the loss of manuscripts and books in European libraries during World War II especially. HMML’s mission is to identify, digitally photograph, catalog, archive and preserve the contents of manuscripts, especially manuscripts from threatened communities. To whet your appetite for a visit check out HMML’s Newsletter.
Back to my project! The translation of Patience is complete though I’m still playing round with imitating the poem’s alliterative style. That truly is fun. I know I’ve always liked the poet of Patience (especially because of the poet’s other works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl) but after these months of study I am impressed by the poet’s canniness. There’s more to this poet than meets the eye and definitely much more to the poem itself. My ideas of this poem’s thrust and its intended audience have changed and that ultimately affects the construction of the edition itself. In the meantime during the sabbatical, another project I was working on (parrhesia and mysticism) came to completion.
And the creative writing class I mentioned? Hard work and bliss! “Writing muscles” that hadn’t been exercised for quite some time came to a rude awakening. Will you see what I created in that class? I don’t think so! Another creative writing class is in order!
Marty Warren is an associate professor of the English department. His interests are medieval literature, science fiction, and the intersection of spirituality and literature.