Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sabbath

Last March, when I was in England working on some research at a Quaker study center, I met a Baptist minister who was staying at this same study center, also working on research. At meals, we would share about how our research was going. And then I learned as the first weekend approached that he always took a real sabbath on Sundays.

He was torn that first weekend because his research was going really well and he felt sorely tempted to go to the library on Sunday to continue work. In the end, he refrained and took his sabbath. He asked if I had worked, and I was surprised at how sheepish I felt to confess that I had. I made some feeble excuse about how my time there was limited (so was his), and maybe then also talked about how Quakers don't have rigid rules about this sort of thing, but finally I confessed that I was really impressed with his practice of truly honoring the sabbath, and so I asked more about it. How did he spend the day?

He told me he does spiritual reading and reflecting. He prays. He writes to his parishioners back at home. When he is home, he visits them.

As he talked, I became more and more impressed. The image I got was that he was being intentional about staying in touch: with God and with the people in his church.

So, I started honoring the sabbath while I was there. I would engage in spiritual reading not directly related to my research. I would write in my journal and reflect. I would be in touch with the friends I needed to be in touch with, not for any "work-related" reasons, but because they were my friends. It can be too easy to lose sight of these ways of staying connected, to God and to each other, in the press of our busy lives.

Since I have returned, I have noticed that I continue to honor the sabbath. The only "work" I allow myself is following through on tasks I've promised for my Meeting, plus certain modest household chores that I engage in with an attitude of their being spiritual practices, opportunities for another kind of prayer.

Now that the academic year has started, I have wondered how my own resolve would hold up. The problem with Sunday is that it happens just before Monday. Some traditions hold Saturday as the sabbath day, and this would work better for me, except for the fact that Meeting happens on Sunday.

But also, I have come to appreciate the challenge of trying to honor it on Sundays precisely because Monday follows. The discipline of holding Sunday as sabbath feels more real as a discipline because it is hard. Monday's anxiety threatens to seep into the day, and resisting this feels very good for my soul. To stare that anxiety in the face and say, "You don't scare me!" and to dare to affirm the Transcendent boldly on this day can feel very empowering.

So far, it is working. I haven't lost my grip on my work. It hasn't all come crashing down. I step into my Monday feeling stronger and clearer when I enter work as just one state of my being, not my entire identity.

But I must confess that I write about this not only to share its power, but because these past couple of weeks I have come very close to breaking my sabbath. By writing about it and sharing it with my readers, I make my resolve more public, and so it feels more real. I have a feeling that if I stay disciplined about this as the busyness intensifies, I will gain more insight about the power of this spiritual practice.

So, I encourage my readers to try this, especially if your lives feel way too busy! Or, if you already do this, or have tried it, I encourage you to share your experiences!

15 comments:

  1. I have kept Sabbath intentionally for a little over ten years now. I have found it to be very precious.

    Keeping Sabbath means not doing any unnecessary work for one day every week. Current tradition picks Sunday from midnight to midnight but this has not always been the Sabbath. The Jewish sabbath is Saturday and "Saturday" starts at sundown on Friday and ends on sundown of Saturday. I have at times kept sabbath from Saturday at sundown to Sunday at sundown and squeezed in class preparation for Monday on Sunday night after this sabbath was over. I found that this did work so long as I remembered to start the Sabbath on Saturday at sundown. When I kept this sundown to sundown sabbath there was a very special sacred feeling about the onset of twilight. It became a really sacred moment. Somehow midnight just isn't the same because I am seldom awake at midnight.

    Also one must make exceptions for emergencies. Jesus said that it's OK to pull your ass out of a ditch on the sabbath and sometimes you have to do just that. As a philosopher I know you will appreciate that one key issue is how you define "work" in this context. Is gardening work? Is writing letters work? Is doing meeting business work? My definition of work is highly subjective: it is work if it feels like work. So if pulling a few weeds in the garden feels like pleasant relaxation it's not work. But if I look at the weeds and say to myself "Look at that mess. I've got to weed that garden!" then it's work and I don't do it. The same would apply to meeting business. If meeting business felt like a chore to me on that particular day then I would refrain from doing it.

    Man was not made for the sabbath but the sabbath was made for man and woman. The sabbath is not a duty we owe to God. It is a gift from God that we ought to be gracious enough to accept. I have found that sabbath is a blessing and accepting it makes one a more grateful creature. It also puts our work into perspective. We tend to attribute more importance to our work than we should. Not working for 24 hours each week reminds us that the world managed to keep turning before we were born and will keep turning after we leave here. So keeping the sabbath teaches humility, patience, and gratitude. It is far more than a period of time kept open for worship.

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  2. CS: I love this description. It reminded me that Pacific Yearly Meeting spent a full week talking about Sabbath and Jubilee, and yet I've barely taken time since then to reflect on that. (I was too busy writing about being clerk of the children's program committee...)

    Anyway, the point is, I yearn for what you describe. If Robin M. & I were to do this, I would probably make exception to the relatively light chores of loading and running the dishwashing and clotheswashing machines, because we have young children and things pile up quickly. But maybe that's part of the point -- ? To just set that aside, even for a day.

    And I really like Richard's description of the Sat. evening to Sun. evening observance. Twilight is luminous and numinous time. Tonight I got my four year old to watch brilliant yellow clouds that hid the sun, as tendrils of San Francisco fog came pluming in off the ocean, looking like a trail of smoke from a bright fire, with pink highlights. A few minutes later, back in the kitchen he noticed the pink light on the building next door... That was itself a moment of sabbath, on a Monday...

    -- Chris M.

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  3. Richard -- Wow! You inspire me even more! Thank you so much for sharing your own experiences! I will try the sundown to sundown approach.

    And I very much appreciate what you say about humility. I find that very powerful.

    And your words also have me meditating further on something I've already been thinking a lot about lately for other reasons: the graciousness of accepting gifts (from God and others).

    And finally: yes, you are absolutely right to predict that I would appreciate the crucial importance of the question of how to define "work." This in fact what I was planning to write further about next, and so I will do that soon.

    Thanks again!

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  4. Chris M.,

    I appreciate your sharing your thoughts and experiences too! How wonderful to share your amazement at the sunset with your four year old! And for him then to follow it up with his sharing with you the wonder of the pink light on the building next door! What wonderful moments -- the kinds of moments that can linger in memory for a lifetime.

    So as I read your words I find myself thinking how not only could it be very wonderful for you and Robin M. to find a way to regularly honor the sabbath, but for your children as well. What would it be like to grow up accepting this as a normal pattern in the rhythm of life?

    But I also appreciate how difficult it might actually be to implement. As I mentioned, there are certain kinds of tasks I will permit myself.

    It seems to me that it is an art to set this up well. I'm still really at the early stages, myself.

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  5. My inner voice tells me that I should treat everyday as being Sabbath-like! That is to say that (like on the Sabbath) we should always be making a special effort to listen to & be in touch with our inner voice. The gift of time & a place to spend it deserve to be acknowledged daily (not just one day a week)! I guess that means that we should try to make sure that everything we do (especially what we do to this place we inhabit!) should be an effort to contribute to our common good! And whenever we observe that what we are doing is not contributing to our common good, that's when we should pay special attention to our inner voice!

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  6. What many people were taught about the Sabbath as children goes something like this: we set aside one day a week to worship God so it's a sin not to attend worship services. This isn't at all what the Sabbath traditionally meant. The Sabbath was the day upon which no work was done. Since people weren't going to work they often did have worship services on that day too. But it is the exclusion of work that was the original point.

    I agree with Rex that we should treat every day as a day when we should try to be in touch with God. We should pray without ceasing and not only on Sunday. But I do recommend the ancient practice of setting aside one day of the week on which no work is done. This sort of sabbath really is a special day. We cannot and should not avoid working the other six days of the week.

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  7. Yes, I totally agree with Rex that we should be Listening all the time, and I do try my best to do this.

    I also agree with Richard M that there is something special about refraining from work one of those days.

    This experiment is especially powerful for me in life at this time because of an important transition in my own inner life. I have been coming into touch with how much I've been driven by subtle anxiety generated by others' expectations of me in life (especially in work). Through this, I've done good and important work. I've made a difference in others' lives. All of this has been consistent with my own values and goals. So it has been easy to mistake all of this for "following God's leadings as mediated through the people around me."

    And yet, through this way of living, I've mostly let others' needs dictate my own life, to the neglect of other important things I feel called to do but have never given myself permission to do fully: especially my writing projects, which require substantial amounts of solitude. I've been the kind of person who answers when people knock on my closed door.

    So my Sabbath times have helped me to see this about myself and re-orient myself to seeking God's call in a different way. The requests from others are requests from others -- not necessarily calls from God to me specifically. They are expressions of their needs. Often those needs can be met in other ways, sometimes simpler and more effective ways, than through my own efforts. This realization relates to the humility Richard M wrote about in an earlier comment.

    And I've come to realize that it is wrong of me to neglect aspects of my calling in favor of others' requests of me. Only I can write the books I am trying to write. But there are lots of people who can chip in and help my friends, students, colleagues in the myriad of ways they ask for my help. It doesn't have to be all up to me to be all things to all people. In fact, I cannot be. In fact, to strive for that is to fall into sin of pride.

    Of course I still must not totally neglect people's requests -- what I am learning is how to be better at discerning which are the ones I should accept, and which are the ones I should decline. And as I wrote about in an earlier posting, my declining some requests is a way of holding space in my life to attend to those other aspects of my calling that are not prompted by others' requests but require my own initiative.

    The idea of Sabbath for me then is, in part, to make and hold this kind of space.

    I do honor all of life as sacramental. I am fortunate to have found work that expresses my vocation. My work is very meaningful, and the ways I do try to help others feel very sacred. My being immersed in all of that six days of the week is exactly what I should be doing. But what happens on the sabbath is different in nature and is crucial too.

    Each day has a rhythm of awakeness and sleep: why not establish a weekly rhythm as well of work and rest/refreshment?

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  8. Hi,

    I found this to be an interesting but puzzling post.

    If I'm not mistaken, Contemplative Scholar is (like me and like some of the other commenters) a member of the Religious Society of Friends. That being the case, I'm surprised to find nothing at all here about the early Quaker understanding of the Sabbath. That understanding was that the true Sabbath since the time of Christ's incarnation has not been a day of the week but a spiritual state. The use of the 7th day of the week as a Sabbath day was seen by the early (17th century) Friends in the same light as just about everything outward and ceremonial in the Hebrew Scriptures: as a foreshadowing of a fuller reality which came to fruition in Christ. To continue "keeping the sabbath" as a day of the week, was seen as a practice unworthy of the gospel. In this respect it was similar to the "time called Christmas" and other supposed holy days.

    Of course, the first day of the week was nevertheless treated differently from other days and was mostly reserved for Meeting for worship. This was at first a matter of practicality. In time, the cultural influence of the surrounding non-Quaker denominations began to color the way Friends thought of First Day.

    Somewhere I read an early Friend who spoke of the "sabbath state" as one of "ceasing from one's own works and resting entirely in God" (quoted loosely from faulty memory). I would like to explore what that might mean.

    - - Rich Accetta-Evans
    (Brooklyn Quaker

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  9. Rich,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I very much appreciate your bringing the early Quaker understandings of sabbath into the discussion -- something I probably should have done myself, but since most of my readers (or commenters anyway) are Quaker, I guess I felt I didn't have to explain. I trusted that my readers would appreciate the irony of my experimenting with a practice that does seem to run counter to the common Quaker minimalism about rituals and other formal practices!

    Still, I've never regarded this Quaker minimalism as intended to prohibit individuals from experimenting with spiritual practices and spiritual disciplines that they might find meaningful.

    In my own personal struggle to stay centered in this complicated world, I find myself grateful that I work in a profession that still maintains a "weekend" distinct from weekdays. While I do try hard to stay centered even in my work, I very much find it helpful to periodically take space: more than just the hour scheduled every week for Quaker Meeting.

    Our lives are patterned by rhythms, some artificially imposed, but some natural: the rhythm of awakeness and sleep, the rhythm of hard work and rest. Since my work week is patterned to allow weekends free of teaching, as a practical matter for me (as for early Friends who did decide to schedule Meetings for Worship on First Day, as you point out), it makes sense for me to use the weekends if I'm going to be more intentional about getting rest and taking space.

    And as I become more aware of the value of this experiment for myself, I simply thought I'd share this experience, in case others might find it helpful to try something similar.

    CS

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  10. Thanks, CS.
    I certainly didn't mean to imply that you should not use any forms that are helpful to you, still less to say that you should not discuss them on your blog.

    I'm not so sure that one "doesn't have to explain" about the Quaker attitude toward the Sabbath even to Quakers. I think it is one of the most neglected areas of early Quaker thought in all surviving branches of the RSofF. Many Friends churches in the pastoral traditions blithely refer to Sunday (not even Saturday!) as the Sabbath and either observe it or ignore it in much the same manner as other Protestant Churches do. Liberal unprogrammed Meetings may not mention the concept at all, or may think that we simply left the Sabbath behind because "all days are sacred". Even Conservative Meetings seem to blur the line between Sabbath observance and First Day observance.

    It's interesting to me that the Sabbath understood as a special day found its way into Christianity at all (and, since it did, why it moved to a different day of the week than the Jewish sabbath). The gospels seem to mention it mostly as a day on which Jesus did things other people thought he shouldn't.

    That said, I want to acknowledge that I feel the attractiveness of such a holy day of rest. And when it is observed in sincere devotion, I admire it as an expression of faithfulness that can be costly in our time-money-efficiency-obsessed culture.
    - - Rich

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  11. I liked what Richard M. had to say on the follow-up comment, but am leaving this comment here so that Rich A.-E. will be sure to look at the next post! :)

    My response to Rich: On the one hand, yes, of course, early Friends were against observing empty forms or rituals. On the other hand, no: They spent Firstday focused on the meeting community (at least once there were established meeting communities). They had to have time to travel by foot or horse. I understand they often ate meals together with extended family or meeting members.

    By contrast, in this day and age, if I don't make some kind of observance then I could easily spend Sunday reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, going to free concerts in the park, or shopping-til-dropping. Setting aside a day of rest from all these activities, even the healthy ones, seems like a wonderfully countercultural and God-honoring thing to do.

    -- Chris M.

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  12. Thank you all for continued interesting discussion!

    And Rich: yes, I take your point that "I'm not so sure that one 'doesn't have to explain' about the Quaker attitude toward the Sabbath even to Quakers. I think it is one of the most neglected areas of early Quaker thought in all surviving branches of the RSofF." Yes, you remind me that not all Quakers know very much about Quaker history. Writing about our current concerns now creates good opportunities also to make connections to the past, when relevant.

    And, Chris M., I very much appreciate your perspective as well!

    Thank you all!

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  13. Don't know if any of you will read this as the original blog and comments are from over 3 years ago but i just wanted to say BLESSINGS ON YOU ALL!!! I am sitting in New College Library, University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I'm studying Christian Ethics, specifically today Karl Barth...and i googled sabbath and Quakers to get some comfort. What i discovered is so much more! As a Quaker who struggles with Christian identification but who believes in following the example of Jesus i have been blessed by taking time out to read all your words. Greetings from South Edinburgh Meeting and from me, leti hawthorn xxx

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  14. Thank you so much for your warm words! I am glad that this discussion has been meaningful and helpful to you!

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  15. Reading your article makes me remember more what Sabbath is. It makes me remember that Sabbath is very important that we should be celebrating every week.

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