For Jesus, Saturday – not Sunday – was the most important day of the week. Saturday, not because of shopping, or afternoon barbeques, or baseball games, or getting bills paid and the laundry done, but because Saturday was the sabbath, the most important day of the week. Jesus was formed in the observance of the Ten Commandments. Of all the Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”[i] You are probably quite clear about the commandment not to commit murder, and not to steal, and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but what about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy?[ii] Is that a little fuzzy for you? If so, what happened, because you’re not alone? For many people, several things have colluded to compromise the observance of sabbath.
For one, there’s the Church’s deference to Sunday. Sunday is the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter. By the Middle Ages, most Christians had transferred sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday, i.e., keeping Sunday holy. Sunday, for most Christians, became the new sabbath. As a young boy, I remember the preparation for Sunday, our sabbath day, included the ritual Saturday night bath. Sunday morning I put on my very best clothes for church. My father taught me how to tie a necktie because because of church attire on Sunday. And that’s pretty much what we as a family did on Sundays: we went to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and we were together as a family all Sunday. I didn’t play with my neighborhood buddies, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t make a lot of noise. There were no school activities on Sunday. There were “Blue Laws” which kept the stores shut: no shopping on Sundays, which also allowed store employees to do the very thing we were doing on Sunday: having a day of rest.[iii]
But I’m giving away my age. This is not the culture in which we live now. That’s done and gone. Here in the States, fewer and fewer self-reported Christians are attending church services on Sundays, stores and the world-wide-web are wide open on Sunday, and if you’re parents or relatives of school-age children, you’ve probably got a soccer game or a school event to negotiate on your Sunday calendar. And as pleased as you may be with your iPhone, you not only have 24/7 access to family and friends, and they to you, but so does your boss or your “bosses” – your employer and the people you join in volunteer organizations. Here’s why a sabbath practice is so important to retain or to retrieve.
For one, we need a sabbath practice because this is how we are “hard wired.” In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, God rests on the sabbath after six days of work. We are called to imitate God, but actually we mimic God in remembering that we are not God. In mirroring the divine behavior, we discover our human limitations. The sabbath forces us to recognize we are creatures, that we are “made from dust,” and that without proper care we break down or burn out. God doesn’t need rest, but we do. Rest is indispensable. I remember in my school days occasionally “pulling an all-nighter,” as we used to say. It’s amazing what you can get done in 24 hours if you don’t sacrifice a third of that time being in bed. But you can only do that for a night or so, and then you begin back-paying your dues. For Jesus, the observance of sabbath rest one day each week is as much a given as the need to sleep each night.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel makes a contrast between biblical thinking and Aristotle’s thinking. Aristotle presumed that relaxation is not an end in itself. Relaxation, he said, is for the sake of activity: we rest, we relax, for the sake of gaining strength to return to work. Isn’t that familiar? But this is not the biblical understanding. The Hebrew understanding is that the rest is the goal or the end; it’s the purpose, it’s the crown, it’s the culmination of the week. Rabbi Heschel writes that sabbath rest is not for the purpose of recovering lost strength to be able to return to work. It’s the opposite. Sabbath rest is for the sake of life: “[Humankind] is not a beast of burden and the sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of our work. The sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the sabbath. …[The sabbath] is not an interlude, but rather the climax of living: the last day in God’s creation; the first day in God’s in intention.”[iv]
Jesus was formed by the practice of sabbath rest. When we hear him say, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly,” he’s not talking about giving us abundant spiritual life, he’s talking about giving us abundant life – the whole shebang, 24/7 – and that, for Jesus, presumed the practice of keeping a sabbath day.[v] The sabbath is meant for life. The sabbath is meant to free us from the numbing routine of a life driven by work, by the need to produce and to accumulate.
I’ve been reading the research of a palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, in what she reports are “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”[vi] From hundreds and hundreds of interviews with the dying, she reports:
- The #1 regret of the dying: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me, my driven life, driven mostly by others;
which is directly connected to
- The #2 regret of the dying: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard, which got in the way of my most important relationships and in my enjoying life.
Sabbath-keeping is a resistance movement, and it’s very counter-cultural. Sabbath keeping is a resistance to the clutter, the noise, the advertising, the busyness, and the “virtual living” that sucks the life out of our lives. Sabbath-keeping is a resistance to constant production, and work, and accumulation. It may be the most difficult of the Ten Commandments to keep, and it may also be the most important, especially in our absolutely-driven, over-paced culture, which is breaking our hearts and our bodies. We are the most medicated, depressed people the world has ever produced. We are overworked, over-stimulated, over-entertained and over-the-top exhausted. We need to discover – or re-discover – the purpose of the sabbath.
Here’s three words that will help you keep the fourth commandment: to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The most important word is “yes.” Say “yes” to your creaturely nature. Say “yes” to God that you will live within the life parameters in which you’ve been created. You need to sleep every night… but you need more than that. You need the space to “be” as a human and not just “do.” We are human beings. Claiming and revering space for rest and re-creation is absolutely essential for your living a whole life. Don’t wait for the intervention of your cardiologist or your psychiatrist, or for your death-bed to get clear what is most important in life.
In the Brothers’ Rule of Life, we have an entire chapter on “Rest and Recreation.” We recognize that how we individually enjoy our weekly sabbath day will be many and varied, but that it needs to happen. Our sabbath day of rest (which for us Brothers is on Mondays) gives us the opportunity to refresh and deepen our friendships. It enables us to rest, and exercise, and play, and to enjoy the use of our senses. Our sabbath observance encourages a space for music, art, entertainment, for pursuits that interest us, for hobbies. We even go a step further. We even say in our Rule that each and every day should include an element of sabbath.
For some of you, that may be the way in. If you’ve lost the practice of keeping sabbath time – or perhaps never had this practice – enjoying an entire day of sabbath may be unimaginable, perhaps impossible, at least for now. If so, what time could you set aside in a day? or perhaps in several days? Be intentional. If need be, start small. You may also find it helpful to start from memory. When can you remember real rest and re-creation in your past? I have some wonderful memories of sitting in my grandmother’s porch on a wicker swing after the evening meal. Our extended family would simply sit on the porch. If you asked me what we did while we sat together, I have absolutely no recollection. We simply sat on the porch and lapped up life. It was wonderful. And I have other memories of floating on a still lake, of sitting in trees I’d climbed and gazing all around, of making bread in the wee hours of the morning. Do you have some memories of rest and recreation that you can go back to? If so, you’ll open a pathway into the present. Draw that memory into the present. What could that happy memory look like now? The most important word in sabbath keeping is “yes.” Cooperate with how God has designed your capacities and your needs. You need sabbath rest and re-creation. Say “yes” to that.
The second most important word is “no.” If you cannot say “no” to yourself and “no” to others, you’re really not free to say “yes.” If you cannot say “no,” your “yes” will become an “oh well,” or “oh dear,” or “rats,” or you will find yourself living life resentfully because you’ve handed the custody of your life over to a tyranny of claims by others. The compromising power may come from electronic gadgetry. Consider putting a boundary around your availability to email and social media – when others can and cannot get at you. If the first thing you do habitually in the morning is check your email, or search Facebook, or click on NPR – which may completely allow yourself to hijacked – then take on some other holy practice to begin the gift of a new day. Put some constraints on your electronic gadgetry: how you are accessed, and how you access other people and other things throughout the day. Practice an “electronic sabbath.” And what else? Where should you say “no” to your availability to do the things you are being endlessly requested to do by other people? Where should you say “no” so that you can live a “yes” to the prior claims of life?
The third word for sabbath-keeping is an important qualifier. “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.” “Keep it holy.” Sabbath-keeping is not just about stopping, important as that is. Sabbath-keeping is about sanctifying, which is the practice of holiness. You are the holy one. You are one in whom God has chosen to dwell. Saint Paul says our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit.”[vii] Holiness is about living our whole life, practicing the presence of God, and by the terms in which God has created life, which includes sabbath rest.
Sabbath-keeping is countercultural, it’s also essential. We are hard-wired to need it. Claiming and revering space for rest and re-creation is absolutely essential for you to be whole and holy. Truth be told, I have to work to keep the sabbath. Living in a monastery has not spared me of this struggle, because sabbath-keeping is so counter cultural. I’m assuming this is probably true for you, also. Sabbath-keeping is so worthwhile; you are worth it to keep a sabbath. What is sabbath for you?
We don’t rest in order to be more efficient. We don’t rest in order to work better. We practice a sabbath rest to be fully alive. You need it. God knows, you need it. And you’re worth it.
[i]The explanation about the sabbath is given in Exodus 20:8-11 and in Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
[ii]Inspired by Christopher C. Moore in Solitude, a Neglected Path to God(Cowley, 2001), p. 125.
[iii]The term “Blue Law” was used in the 17thcentury as a disparaging reference to rigid English moral codes. Oliver Cromwell’s supporters in Parliament were known to wear blue stockings.
[iv]Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005), p. 14.
[v]Jesus speaks of his giving us “abundant life” in John 10:10.
[vi]Bronnie Ware in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying; A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing(Hay House, 2012).
[vii]1 Corinthians 6:19.
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