We live in a culture of restlessness, and the antidote is restfulness.
Ancient people in the Near East seem to be the first to realize and articulate the need to “give it a rest.” They were agrarian people after years and years as nomadic people. While the Hebrew scriptures suggest that from the very outset of time, even Yahweh insisted on a day of rest, it wasn’t until the once enslaved people were moving toward a more settled existence that they finally got the message and encoded it in their first book of laws. Remembering the sabbath day became a commandment that was also tied to other ideas, such as the year of Jubilee, a time of debt relief every fifty years. Both aspirational concepts that never became solidified in day-to-day life.
In our time, there is much gnashing and wailing around laws or structures that we no longer follow, but the one commandment our society seems quite bold to defy is rarely mentioned. How often is the answer to “how are you?” no longer “I’m fine,” but “I’m so busy.” A sigh of exhaustion often accompanies it. In today’s world, people are praised for their productivity, effectiveness, and accomplishments. And, like you, I have that voice pounding in my head to do more, generate more, and work more. The Pharaoh’s voice from ancient Egypt echoes through the centuries as if my value comes from building more pyramids.
There was a period when external collective agreements reinforced the practice of the Sabbath. On the farm in Montana, the wheat farmers with Nordic piety never worked the land on Sundays. A classmate of mine from seminary discovered this while on his internship in a rural parish on those open plains. That was thirty-five years ago and a reminder of an era with culturally reinforced norms. In our go-go 21st century internet-connected society, external reinforcement disappeared long ago. The only way to reclaim the sabbath falls to the individual and perhaps a tiny cluster of friends and family members.
By Sabbath, I’m not speaking of the day off to get errands done. Instead, I wonder about time on the porch, a walk in the park, contemplating Mary Oliver, or extended reflection on life’s big questions. The more extroverted among us might invite a friend to the porch or the park or the conversation on those important looming questions. Some Orthodox communities, be they Jewish or Amish, restrict engagement with all things mechanical and technological. Thus it’s a walk to the synagogue or the neighbor’s barn for supper. These practices seem utterly distant, and the reader may think I’m casting about for a time that is simply out of reach—a fair point.
But our restless times call for a response, and I do not see more activity moving us further toward the realm of peace. On the contrary, I think we are all desiring a sabbath. Self-imposed pauses, be they breathing techniques, mindfulness practices, or plain old prayers of silence, are increasingly needed.
As Walter Brueggeman points out in the quote below, finding Sabbath requires intentionality and communal reinforcement. It’s not enough for each of us to individually seek Sabbath, though that is part of the solution. What is needed is a commitment by the community to Sabbath. This might happen in gatherings where people say, “let’s pause from all this activity, even if for a moment, an hour or a week.” It can also be reinforced when we speak and listen to others about their busy lives. Can we offer words that counter the not-so-subtle implication that the more active we are, the more value we hold?
In our contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market, with its intrusions into every part of our life from the family to the national budget….But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative…The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God. Walter Brueggeman, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now
All the wise people I know, be they in the annals of recorded history or the partners in contemporary living, practiced Sabbath and still do. So let’s bring this to a close with the wisdom of Mary Oliver. Though the poem is titled Praying, it could also be titled Sabbath.
It doesn’t have to be
The blue iris, it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention, then patch
A few words together and don’t try
To make them elaborate, this isn’t
A contest but the doorway
Into thanks, and a silence in which
Another voice may speak.
– Mary Oliver, Devotions
In the spirit of the summer sabbath, I’ll be stepping away from Notebooks until the weather turns cooler and the length of days decreases. See you in September. Have a sabbath-like summer.
Previously published on jameshazelwood.net