Sunday, September 24, 2006

More on My Experiment with Sabbath

I forgot to try to start my Sabbath at sunset last night. I remembered that I had forgotten this morning, when I woke up. For me, it may be better to stick with the pattern I have already been honoring: start when I wake up; end when I wake up the next day.

In addition to the elaborations that have come forth in my replies to others’ comments on my last posting about Sabbath, this experiment is related to what I wrote not too long ago about time. I’m trying to not let time gain control of me.

I finally officially got stressed on Friday. Up until then, the marvelous state of being I had described in that posting about time endured. It was Friday that it finally caved in. I still haven’t quite recovered. Even today, as I try to honor the Sabbath, I struggle mightily with anxiety.

But at least I haven’t wholly lost sight of the state of being I want to regain. It is a state of being in which I welcome the flow of tasks that greets me, because each is an opportunity to further and strengthen the good in the world. The times of meeting with others (in classes, in committee meetings, over meals, in passing) are sacred opportunities for meaningful connection. The times I attend to various tasks are times for getting important work done in the world: maintaining or reworking the best of the systems and institutions that structure our lives and our world; creating new spaces for growth and connection.

If I’ve set things up well in my life, then I can trust that the flow of my work will unfold in a beneficial way, for me and for those whose lives are affected by my work.

Does my attitude or state of being at every moment matter? If at times I am stressed, anxious, tired, or hurried as I do my work, is my accomplishment therefore diminished? Or is it okay that my state of being isn’t always calm, collected, and centered?

Quakers are rightfully dubious about ritual, worried that when certain patterns of behavior become habitual, our participating in them can become rote and mechanical. Over time, such rituals can lose their meaning. Or at least our sense of their meaning can fade.

But what about the rituals that structure our working lives? Sometimes these rituals are even intended to be merely mechanical. They are put into place not for our sense of fulfillment, but to get work done. Our emotional states are not supposed to matter. What is supposed to matter is “productivity.”

Although the early Quakers may have been worried that rituals such as honoring the Sabbath were at risk of becoming empty and meaningless, I find myself reaching for a new kind ritual to counter the plethora of intentionally-mechanical rituals that structure, even control, my life. Some rituals dislodge us from our humanness, our spirituality. Are there others that can reconnect us? Or are all rituals dangerously dehumanizing?

I try to establish a ritual for staying awake and alert. I try to establish a ritual for staying in touch, staying connected. I have caught glimpses of a life free of the subtle, almost invisible, low-level anxiety that has quietly pressed me to strive all my life. I don’t want to strive anymore, however noble were my ambitions. I want to live.


  1. I've found this particular post to be prolific, thank you.

    At the beginning of last week, I added another principle to "project t-." Not only will I set myself up to thrive, I will live each moment with intensity.

    I'll elaborate just a bit: I'm very passionate, and I feel I've lacked a productive outlet for my passion most of my life. As a result, I've come to realize, I created intensity through anxiety, procrastination, unhealthy relationship patterns, unrealistic standards, etc.

    Slowly but surely, I've decided to cast these things aside and channel my intensity into a kind of constant mindfulness/awareness. As a result, I've learned just how mechanical life is.

    What exactly does it mean to live? What makes one life more lived than another?

  2. CS,

    Hang in there. I'm feeling under pressure at work too right about now. doing something nice about for yourself on the Sabbath really helps. Yesterday my wife and I spent the afternoon on the beach.

    By nature I am a type A personality and if I'm not careful will feel driven. It takes a while to learn to see your own work in perspective. How important is it really? Setting aside one entire day per week (not just a morning or an afternoon) makes a big difference to helping to acheive perspective. Quaker business process also tends to drive type A personalities up the wall. One value of seeing the slow pace of Quaker business meetings is that over time you learn to trust it and really come to trust the slow way in which the Spirit moves.

    The question raised on the original post about how early Friends viewed the Sabbath is interesting. My impression is that they did keep the Sabbath though not rigidly. In our Yearly Meeting there are Friends who remember that Quakers most definitely did not celebrate Christmas. It was viewed as a pagan holiday. but keeping Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments--not a pagan ritual nor an outward symbol like water baptism. In our Faith and Practice there is a reference in the Advices to making productive and religious use of time on First Day not spent in worship. I always took this as an indication that they were just assuming that Friends kept the Sabbath.

    I'm not much of a Quaker historian but our Yearly Meeting contains several whom I can ask. I will see Lloyd Lee Wilson and others at Representative Body in Tenth Month and will be sure to ask them about how earlier generations of Friends treated the Sabbath.

  3. Rituals, as you note, can be good or bad. Good, because they can promote the performance of our right and proper tasks.

    Bad, and this lies close to the heart of the Quaker objection to ritual, because they prevent reflection on what it is that we are doing. A Confucian sage, commented on the usefulness of ritual in governance, said this:

    "Rulers should always avoid giving commands...for commands, being direct and verbal, always bring to the subject's mind the possibility of doing the opposite. But since rituals are non-verbal, they have no contraries. They can therefore be used to produce harmony of wills and actions without provoking recalcitrance; if a man finds himself playing his appointed part in li [ritual] and thus already -- as it were de facto -- in harmony with others, it no more occurs to him than it occurs to a dancer to move to a different rhythm than that being played by the orchestra."

    Thus, ritual can diminish or eliminate the mindfulness that is the core of Quaker practice.

    But, in this as in so many aspects of our lives, there is a balance to be attained. The act of coming together each First Day is a ritual Quakers find useful and appropriate. So, too, the social period or potluck after Worship. Others can no doubt point to useful and appropriate rituals.

    But we must alway be ready to lay down any ritual that we find to be empty.

  4. For me, rituals are nonverbal dialogues with each other and with our ancestors in community. When understood as dialogues and as vehicles of teaching, they gain in value more than they lose in magic or in tedium.

    Religious rituals attract, repel, and serve us differently because we humans are different. Our temperaments and ways of knowing can be so amazingly different. I know Quakers who abhore church sacraments but who cling religiously to such quakerish formulas as "are all hearts clear?" Candles and Taize chants are warming up some sectors of Northwest Yearly Meeting even as these same things make others' blood curdle. But we all seem to be on speaking terms.

    I think I'm pretty severe and ascetic when it comes to outward ritual, but it seems, when I examine myself honestly, I have set times for prayer and Bible reading, and for my daily journaling. I seem to accept word-based rituals while rejecting motion-based and art-based rituals. I don't think it would be right for me to claim that my word-based rituals are superior to those other variants.

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  6. Thank you all for this thoughtful and very interesting discussion! I am really appreciating this. Lots to say -- but I think I'll channel my newest thoughts into a future posting or two (currently under construction).