Remembering the Sabbath
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 1, 2002
“Sometimes it is necessary to stop one thing before another… can be born.” Our times of Sabbath—of rest and relaxation—of re-freshment and re-creation—are the ten-inch-high fences we put up to protect the flowerbeds of our souls.
If we don’t erect those fences—those boundaries—those borders—then don’t be surprised if the flowering spirits within us never quite come to blossom.
To the ancient Jews, the concept of Sabbath—of laying aside one day in the week—became crucial when the Temple at Jerusalem was finally destroyed in the year 70 of the Common Era. When the Jews were sent into exile, the Sabbath became their Temple—a living Temple they could carry around with them, wherever they were. Certain tasks were prohibited on the Sabbath—39 tasks in all, including sowing, plowing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, weaving, spinning, hunting, slaughtering, building, hammering, as well as 24 others I won’t mention—so that there would be time for other things—like praying and worshipping and contemplating the ways of God—to happen.
Of course, as with most other ecclesiastical precepts, matters became overly-legalistic (at least from our liberal viewpoint) over time. But the original spirit of the Sabbath, I think, was to say “no” to some things in order to grant deeper permission for other, even more critical things, to happen.
Christianity adopted the idea of the Sabbath with the Emperor Constantine in the year 321. In that year, Constantine declared Sunday (the first day of the week, rather than the last day of the week—Saturday—on which the Jewish Sabbath is observed) as a day of rest throughout the Roman Empire, in commemoration of the day upon which Jesus rose from the dead.
But Constantine and his successors also declared Sunday a day of mandatory attendance at church. Further, with the coming of the Protestant Reformation, church services on Sunday got even longer, and more frequent, in order to steer the faithful away from all those worldly temptations which an unbridled day of rest might bring. American Protestantism (the rock from which we are hewn) stepped up the severity and harshness of Sabbath observances even further, with their insane concept (bordering on masochism, really) that true piety has to hurt; that “real religion” is only found in pain and suffering and deprivation of the body and the senses.
Before long, then, the idea of “the Sabbath” became identified with the worst strictures of puritanical Protestantism. For many modern men and women, escaping these strictures—through recreation or shopping or (increasingly) through more and more work, work, work—was seen as preferable (and a better use of our precious time) than being forced to “rest” in such a gloomy, and boring fashion.
Completely forgotten, then—its seeds lying fallow for the time being, perhaps—was the original joy and the deep inner peace—and the room for spiritual growth—at the heart of the original concept of Sabbath.
Perhaps in our modern day and age, it’s time, at last, to reclaim that original concept. Perhaps, in these times in which we live, we need the Sabbath more than ever.
The Eighth Commandment—“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”—has been steamrolled by the real religion that drives this society: the religion of Commerce. The average American works 500 more hours a year than he or she did in 1980—just a little more than 20 years ago. Five-hundred hours comes out to an extra one and one-third hours a day spent at work. That might not seem like much, but it also means almost an extra ten hours of work per week—and that translates into an extra forty hours per month.
I’ve heard it said (I’ve said it myself on numerous occasions) that—“If only there were eight days in the week…” or “If only there were more hours in the day…” Well—I’ll be damned—the economic Powers That Be have managed, somehow, to get an extra week per month of work out of us!
But have “they” done it “to us”, really? Or have “we” done it to ourselves? Maybe it’s time to build some of those fences around our precious time and energy.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that we use the time we have in order to conquer space, matter, and the stuff of the material world. And Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great voices of 20th Century American Protestantism tells us that “Existence is what you find; life is what you create.” We are here to accomplish something, to build something on this Earth. We human beings, in order to be fulfilled, need good work to do to fill our days. We want to “be of use” as Marge Piercy wrote.
But could it be that part of the reason for the tension and violence and depravity and alienation of our present civilization is that we have gotten so hung up on building, in doing, that we have not taken enough time to contemplate what it is that we are building—what we are really doing—and where we truly are in this great whirling, changing universe?
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence,” wrote Thomas Merton, “and that is overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” Our frenzied activity, Merton continues, “destroys the fruitfulness of our work because it kills the root of inner wisdom” which renders our work truly meaningful and useful and in harmony with the Divine.
As Wayne Muller writes, “Without rest, we don’t respond to life; we react to it.” We respond to life from a survival mode, so it often degenerates into a cold, gray blur; and the insatiable hunger for “something more” within our hearts never abates. Tanha, the “hungry dragon” inside of us, as the Chinese Buddhists call it, never goes away. So, as if to escape its thralls, we throw ourselves even more wildly into the mad dash of activity. “And how have you been?” someone we haven’t seen for a while will ask us. Then we’ll answer, almost inevitably: “I’ve been so busy lately.” BUSY- BUSY- BUSY: What an overworked word that is in this culture of ours! Want to hear something interesting? The Chinese word for “busy” is formed from two symbols: one of them means “heart”; the other one means “killing”. Busy = “heart-killing”. The physical heart is exhausted from over-work, from not taking time for rest. But our “other” heart is killed as well—our compassion, our fire within, our love for life.
And we’re all too important to let that happen.
If you don’t get anything else from this sermon, remember that.
“There is more to life than increasing its speed,” Gandhi reminds us. Indeed, speed kills—and not just in driving, but in life it general. Rushing through life kills the chances we have for spontaneity, for the wonder and surprise that make life worth living.
The story is told of the members of a South American tribe that went on a pilgrimage to one of their sacred sites, far from where they had finally settled. Day after day, they would make the long, arduous trek. Then, all of a sudden it seemed, they would stop for several days at a time, before going any further. When someone not in the tribe asked them finally why they did this, one of the elders responded: “We stop for a while so that our souls will have a chance to catch up with us.”
Once, it is said, Rabbi Levi, a good and wise man of God, saw a man running down the street. And the rabbi asked him, “Why do you run?” The man replied, “I am running after my good fortune.” To which Rabbi Levi responded, “Silly man, your good fortune has been trying to catch you, but you have been running too fast!”
There is more to life than increasing its speed. If we persist in rushing through life, we will miss out on so many of the blessings life has to offer us. It’s a simple as that. We either choose to find Sabbath times in our lives, or we fritter our lives away with more and more activity that means less and less to us as our lives drag on.
“Sabbath time can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities, and accomplishment [of our culture],” Wayne Muller writes. “Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.”
How to we take Sabbath times? A writer named Sarah Ben Breathnach makes a few suggestions:
“Here is a short guide to what you should not be doing on your Sabbath: strenuous household chores… catching up on work that you didn’t complete last week or getting a head start on work you’re supposed to do on Monday; shopping at large department stores that insert click circulars into weekend papers.
“This is what the Sabbath is for: reverence, rest, renewal, rejuvenation, reassuring rituals, recreation, rejoicing, revelation, remembering how much you have to be grateful for, say saying “Thank you!” You can do this in a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, on a walk, while antiquing, sitting in bed propped up on pillows reading something wonderful with a breakfast tray, working the crossword puzzle before a roaring fire, attending a marvelous art exhibition or a movie matinee, or listening to opera in the kitchen as you sip sherry and prepare a fabulous feast.
“What matters is that you do something special that speaks to your soul and that you revel in whatever you do. Your activities on your Sabbath should uplift you and provide enough inspiration to sustain you during the week to come.”
Our Sabbaths are those times we put aside—that we fence off—for rest and relaxation and creativity and reflection. They can be days we put aside, or hours within a day, or even blessed moments when we are all at peace and all at peace. The ways we take our Sabbaths can differ widely among us; they may (or may not) include religious worship, in community, on a regular basis. What is important is that we find those times for ourselves, and claim them, and take them. It means being revolutionary—even counter-cultural—in the face of our “More—more—more!” culture. But it also means being true to our deepest selves, and answering the call of who we truly are, deep inside.
Then we, too, can learn to be still and hear the God within and without. We, too, can “pass into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision”. As Yeats wrote, “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather around us that they may see, it may be, there own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life, because of our quiet.”
Or, as Thoreau wrote:
Our Sabbaths do not take away from the time we have, but add to it in ways we can’t reckon, or even imagine. In the quiet and rest of Sabbath, the greater glory of this human living can be born.