Anderson: The summer Sabbath experiment begins now (column)
Walking Our Faith
I stood on the dusty path and stared across the valley at peaks that seemed at my eye level. How had I not come to this spot before? It was literally 10 minutes from my home. A mere 2-mile loop hike on a well-defined path from a parking lot with free parking. A no-cost, low-key hike, for priceless views and peace of mind for which I would have gladly paid dearly.
Why hadn’t I done this before? Oh, I’d thought about it since last March when my snowshoeing group hiked this trail, but I had to stop prematurely because Henry, my 10-year-old Newfie, couldn’t walk any further. The small glimpse I had of the majestic mountains on that morning made me promise that I would return. Why had it taken three months when I live just down the road?
The answer is simple. I’d been too busy. I have two part-time jobs, two volunteer obligations, and weekly writing assignments. I’ve found myself rushing from one thing to another, feeling harried, not happy.
I knew I had to make some changes in my life if this balancing act was going to work. It wasn’t a matter of cutting something out, I love everything I do, each is an expression of a different part of myself. But as I rushed from one thing to another, I felt that nothing was getting the time and consideration it deserved, I wasn’t getting the rest I needed, and I was getting cranky.
Cutting corners to get from one thing to another crept into my spiritual life as well. Instead of sitting down and enjoying 15 or 30 minutes of prayer in the morning, I’d put on a recording of the sung Divine Mercy Chaplet and sing along as I rushed to get the dogs fed and myself dressed. While I’m sure God was happy I was doing something, I missed the quiet contemplation that used to start my day.
At bedtime, instead of ending my day with a reading from the Evening Prayers, more often than not I left the booklet on my nightstand and replaced it with a final scroll through Facebook before I drifted off to sleep.
But worst of all, on Sunday mornings, when I was supposed to be at Mass, more than once, I stayed in bed and slept because I had been teaching online until 10 p.m. the night before.
That was the breaking point. When the things you love most become impossible because you are living to work instead of working to live, something needs to change. It’s easy to lose sight of what matters when we’re trying to make ends meet.
First, I prioritized the things that were most important, then made changes that were small but significant. This faith column would now be finished on Wednesday evening, leaving me two days to revise before I turned it in, instead of rushing to finish it at the last minute.
I would go to bed earlier, put my iPad and iPhone away and actually read a book until I fell asleep. I would follow Pope Francis’ admonition to read the Gospel for at least two minutes each day. And pray, not while running out the door, but while seated and giving my mind a moment to quiet. If I needed to sleep in on Sunday morning because I’d worked late, then I would go to Mass on Saturday evening.
I’m happy to report that these changes are working. I have the same commitments, but by defining my deadlines with plenty of room to spare, I’m more productive, yet relaxed, and much happier. Which got me thinking about Sabbath.
Sabbath is one of those divine mysteries which look positively simple on the surface, but upon reflection contain layers of meaning, which I’m not sure how to apply to modern life. And by ‘modern life’ I mean since the beginning of time, because we have a habit of thinking our lives are so much more complex than they were in the “good old days.”
Sabbath started like this: Thus, the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:1-3)
What a curiosity. The day of rest he calls holy, not his magnificent creation? Or does he call this day holy so that we will stop and reflect on the holiness of what he has created?
Later, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, laws to guide us in the most basic terms. Do not kill. Do not steal. These make sense. Honor God. Yes, of course. But then we read this:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
One of the first books I’ve begun reading is a classic on the Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel. When I emailed Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb of Synagogue of the Summit, she pointed me to this quote by Heschel:
“To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
In the gospel of Mark, we encounter a scene where the order to rest and restore become a rule by which we measure our loyalty to God, but not in a good way:
Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 2:27-3:6)
Last Sunday, I celebrated my first Sabbath. I took a hike. My TV remained off until after sundown. I read a book and took a nap.
What does it mean to observe the Sabbath? Why is it important for us today? Is this holy Sabbath day an invitation from God to a deeper relationship that can only be discovered when we put aside our constant movement to rest in God’s embrace? I’ve gathered a list of books I’ll read this summer and I plan to observe Sabbath from last Sunday, Memorial Day Weekend, until Labor Day weekend in September. I want to immerse myself in the Sabbath experience.
When I took my hike on Sunday, I shared the trail with people of all ages, enjoying the views, sharing conversation. The only time I saw a phone it was being used to take pictures. As summer progress, I will share my Sabbath experiences with you. There are many good reasons for a day of rest, where instead of engaging in getting more, we enjoy what we have with those we love. But any self-help book on time management would tell us that. The more meaningful question to me is whether observing Sabbath will bring me closer to God?
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