The Cardinal Hume Scholarship was most certainly the greatest gift I have ever received. My sabbatical in Cambridge focused on various spiritual practices that can lead us to discern where we are called to be in our retirement. I was able to live in community with some outstanding women, to study in person and research with wisdom figures, to immerse myself in a rule of prayer and work, to walk among some of the greatest theologians who preached at Evensong or Mass, and to come into contact with the God who calls me daily to renewal. The gift of sabbatical was an authentic interpretation of God’s Third Command, to keep Sabbath—to set aside time for the pursuit of holiness by a return to wholeness.
As the Institute of Theology principal, Dr. Oonagh O’Brien, constantly reminded me, the sabbatical was intended to be just that—a Sabbath, and not merely academic research. I took some inspiration from the named patron of the Institute, Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), who was the mother of King Henry VII, and thus the grandmother of the more famous Henry VIII. She was a scholar in her own right, a great supporter of the study of theology and the patron of two colleges at Cambridge (Christ’s and St. John’s). She was a powerful woman of prayer and a lifelong student of theology.
As we recall from history, it was several centuries after the English Reformation before Catholics were allowed to hold any public offices or even to study at the great universities. So when they did return to Cambridge, a group that sponsors the study of Catholic theology for lay students chose Margaret Beaufort as their patron, and the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology became part of the Cambridge Theological Federation. The Institute is housed in a former convent known as the Lady Margaret House in what was once the village of Newnham, where the local pub stood on the site of a public house listed in the Domesday Book (1086).
In my time at Cambridge, I had the opportunity to do research in some of the greatest libraries in the world, especially those associated with the Federation. I was able to schedule appointments to view ancient and medieval manuscripts at several of the university’s famous libraries, like the collection at St. John’s, the Wren at Trinity, the Pepys at Magdalene and the University Library; to see precious books of hours and documents from the Cairo Genizah, a sacred storeroom that contained Jewish manuscripts covering 1,000 years. For a historian (my BA and first MA) and a student of theology, it was like being in paradise. And the books of hours were tremendous inspirations.
Cambridge University was founded in 1209 and now has 31 colleges and more than 100 libraries and stands at the center of English history in many ways. While logging slightly more than 300 miles on my Fitbit, I walked within the campuses where Rupert Brooke, Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge wrote poetry; where Thomas Merton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking studied; where Rosalind Franklin worked with James Watson and Francis Crick to discover DNA; and where actors like John Cleese, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Derek Jacobi honed their skills. And I viewed illuminated manuscripts dating from the 12th century.
I read several novels set in Cambridge and walked to Grantchester for tea a few times. I met, heard lectures by, and/or had dinner with world-famous historians like Mary Beard and Eamon Duffy as well as theologians and religious authorities like Timothy Radcliffe and Edward Kessler; prayed in Ely Cathedral and the cell of Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman; and was welcomed to small gatherings by world-class museum curators including National Gallery of London Director Gabriele Finaldi and mythographer Marina Warner. I watched horses working out at Newmarket, sat in on a session in the House of Lords in Parliament and walked in silence through the American Cemetery, which honors the 2 million U.S. servicemen and women who served in England during the Second World War.
Not a single minute of the more than 1,000 waking hours of my sabbatical was wasted. During my first walk to Grantchester, I saw a flier for a bookbinding course. My calligraphy teacher in Louisville, Laurie Doctor, is a great fan of bookbinding, so I saw the flier as confirmation of my plans to make sure my time in England included creativity with study. The book I bound in the course became my journal, Sixty-Three Days in Cambridge, after I realized that I could use my 63 days to look back over my 63 years and to plan for my “third age.” (Our youth and study time is our first age; our work is our second age; and our retirement is our third age.)
In yet another happy coincidence, I heard a lecture at Great St. Mary’s on aging where the preacher mentioned the University of the Third Age-Cambridge (U3A-C), and within two weeks, I had a dinner at Lady Margaret House at which one of the guests was a director of the U3A-C! We met for tea later to discuss her work and I learned that their continuing education program is not unlike our Veritas Society. Over 3,000 members of the U3A-C teach and take courses from each other as they move through their third age.
My journal indicates a surprising number of these coincidences, or God-incidences. I’d read an essay by someone and meet him or her within a week. I’d mention something of interest to a new friend and find the very same topic as a lecture on campus within days. The spiritual practices I researched through the words of advice from spiritual mentors of centuries past (from Margery Kempe to Maimonides) inspired me to try my own hand at a creating a calligraphic journal. The creative time I spent illustrating quotes and prayers was my sabbatical in color. It was a spiritual practice I had only briefly encountered before, but in the quiet of my room at Lady Margaret House, I traveled through time and space to God’s house.
The results of my time away are still part of my daily discernment and processing. I can hardly believe that I’m back in the States and that the pace of my life here is so easily pushing aside the peace I experience in Cambridge. But when I return to the journal and the work I began at MBIT, some of that peace returns. I will forever be grateful and in debt to all those who encouraged and supported me in a return to my spiritual center and to what Thomas Merton would call my “true self,” as the Melanie that God recognizes, knows and loves.
By Dr. Melanie-Préjean Sullivan
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar
Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Dr. Melanie-Préjean Sullivan, director of Campus Ministry at Bellarmine, spent two months on sabbatical at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology at Cambridge University in England as a Cardinal Hume Scholar. We asked her to reflect on what she called “the adventure of a lifetime.”