The latter stages of the sabbatical were spent largely away from home: Israel, France, retreat time – and catching up with friends. As expected, my perception of time changed over the weeks. It appeared to accelerate with one week blurring into the next while at the beginning of the sabbatical each day could be distinguished one from another.
I was privileged to have space both to recover from and reflect on the fortnight spent in Israel – most of my colleagues returned to ministry the next day. The scale and achievement of Yad Vashem, coupled with the decency of the lecturers in the face of such inhumanity will live long in my imagination. It was lovely to share lunch with our Israeli course leader, Yiftach Meiri, a few weeks later in London and be able to talk so freely and honestly about today’s Middle East with such an intelligent and fair minded observer.
Shortly after Israel, I checked out the acclaimed independent Polish film Katyn about the massacre of fifteen thousand Polish officers in the early stages of the war by the NKVD on the orders of Stalin, later blamed falsely on the Nazis. Emerging from the film’s ghastly ending – quite the worst finale to a movie I have watched - I suspected I was perhaps overdosing on the suffering that took place in Poland in the 1940s. Yet at least I don’t have to live with it emotionally. The film’s distinguished director, Andrzej Wajda, lost his father in this atrocity and at the age of 82 he has finally made a film he could not in the communist era.
On a somewhat facile note, it brings to mind the best Polish joke I know. OK, the only Polish joke I know.
A Polish troop is surrounded on each side by German and Russian forces. Helpless to know how to proceed, a Polish infantryman asks his commanding officer whom he should fire at first.
‘That’s easy’, replies the officer. ‘The Germans.
Business before pleasure’.
The film Katyn furnishes one reason why.
What a joy it was to watch Waiting for Godot performed at the Haymarket by Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart! It took a while to adjust to two of the world’s most luminous actors pose as anonymous vagrants and I tried hard – really hard, honestly – not to think of Captain Picard, Professor Xavier and Magneto instead but humiliatingly to no avail. Still, the opportunity to revisit a text I studied for A Level was intriguing. Emerging from the ashes of war and heralding the era of absurdist theatre, Beckett’s play contains disconnected and incomplete fragments of Christian memory, evidence of a society holding a broken compass.
Nothing happens, twice. I think this was the question I answered at A Level, or was it a description of England’s batting in the fourth test. I’m not sure now.
As the U2 epic inches to a close with their defining ballad One, my mind drifts to one of the abiding memories of the sabbatical, in a synagogue in Jerusalem. The inception of the Sabbath at sundown on the Friday was marked by the congregation turning to the setting sun and bowing in respect. I found my eyes unexpectedly filling with tears, after years of enduring with others the contempt with which the idea of Sabbath is held in Britain, finally to join with a group of strangers in an act of reverence towards it.
I would like to bow my head in honour of the sabbatical I was gifted by good people and a great God. The Book of Ecclesiastes never said there is a time to work and a time to rest but it could easily have done. The time to rest is over.