Of Summer and Sabbath

At seventeen, I spent a summer working as a groundskeeper in a large cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. On thing I can tell you: it was hot. Another thing: I found out I had not been raised to do manual labor. It just about tore the stuffing out of me but I persevered, determined to make the cut. And I did.  It was a fifty hour work-week before overtime. The day began at seven and ended at four-thirty Monday through Friday and on Saturdays we left at noon unless there was an afternoon interment.

There were four women on the grounds crew—all of us young, and a passel of men ranging in age from twenty to sixty-five, mostly illiterate and all raised to labor with the strength of their backs. One of the fellows was a man named Leonard, mid-forties, with wavy black hair tamed with Brylcreem and thick-soled black oxford shoes.

We spent most days trimming around markers, mowing the grass, and edging weeds out with a bank spade. The only break from the interminable heat was pulling the assignment for an interment. We got to set up the tent and chairs and line the grave, and then blessedly, rest in the shade until the mourners arrived. More than once, when I shared burial duties with Leonard, he would ask, “How about you and me go get us a Co-cola and a motel room this afternoon and take us a rest?” Each time I politely declined, and though Leonard may have had something else in mind, looking back on it, I like to think Leonard appreciated the biblical admontion to rest. I can tell you, it wasn’t until I toiled so darn hard that I understood the value of a day dedicated to stillness.

As a child, I felt sorry for my cousins who observed the Sabbath. My uncle walked to the synagogue. My cousins didn’t get to go bowling or shopping or out to a movie like my brother and I did. Their Friday nights centered around welcoming the Sabbath—lighting the candles, consecrating the bread and wine and eating a meal together. On Saturdays, they attended synagogue and probably spent a quiet afternoon at home. The years my aunt and uncle owned a dimestore, they never worked on Saturday. They hired folks to do that.

Growing up, the Sabbath appeared to be a series of prohibitions: a seemingly endless list of what my cousins and other observant Jews could not do. For the strictest adherents, no shopping, no cleaning, no turning on lights or the TV. No handling money or driving the car. No swimming on Saturdays, no matter how hot it got. Downright Draconian, or prehistoric. Secretly, I celebrated that in my immediate family we were Reform Jews. We lit the Shabbas candles and prayed over the bread and grape juice, ate dinner together, and attended Temple some Friday nights, but I was just as likely to host a sleep-over for school friends or have dinner at their house.

It wasn’t until mid-adulthood that I understood the value and wisdom of keeping the Sabbath. As my life felt more and more cluttered, driven by what I thought I needed to do, I experimented with the Sabbath. I chose Saturday and instead of beginning the day by checking email or running errands, I engaged in what the Benedictines would call “holy leisure.” I spent the day contemplatively: reading, writing, relaxing, recharging my spiritual batteries. A few times I met with a Jewish friend for Torah study, which I loved. I relished the quiet of the day amidst the noisiness of my life. The stillness nourished me. I granted myself permission to ignore the laundry. I didn’t have to grade papers or think about work. Instead, for the brief period I managed to keep the Sabbath, I made time for what mattered most.

I wish I could tell you that I maintained that spiritual practice but I am aiming to reclaim it. I try to find a few moments of Sabbath each day. Still, it is not the same. A few moments gathered here and there help maintain or re-establish a sense of balance, but they cannot fully address the deep need for spiritual replenishment.

When I lived in Ontario, the stove in my house had a Sabbath setting. I could direct it to automatically turn on, cook a meal, and turn itself off so that I never had to touch a dial on the Sabbath. If only I had such a setting. If only I could automatically program myself to observe the Sabbath. Humbling that my stove is smarter than I am.

Though historically rabbis spent the Sabbath in prayer and Torah study, they knew also the value of a time set apart to complete the work of creation. Talmudic scholars point out the origins of the Sabbath, documented in the book of Genesis and codified in the book of Exodus where Moses reminds the Israelites of the importance of rest and the prohibition to work, even to kindle a fire (hence the reason for the Sabbath feature on my stove). “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death,” Moses warns. In a life-affirming tradition, what could be the reason for such a drastic consequence?

For Jews, the Sabbath represents a covenant between Creator and all generations. A day made holy through rest but also by mindfulness. The original Sabbath afforded beasts of burden and all workers, even those enslaved, a day of rest. Sabbath became the great equalizer in a time and place where distinctions of species and class typically set beings apart. And from the Sabbath came the Sabbatical year: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land.” Even the earth gets a break. We all need time to lie fallow. Maybe that’s what Leonard had in mind.

The Sabbath affords its keepers more than rest. It provides the time to evaluate, to reflect on life’s meaning, to consider the ways we are all in this together. After all, if we constantly do without allowing time to assess the quality or worth of our endeavors, or their impact on ourselves and others, we reduce ourselves to machines. When I speak of humans as spiritual beings, this is what I mean: that we are living beings capable of consciously experiencing meaning and connection.

Time set aside to attend to meaning and connection informs the Benedictine tradition of holy leisure: taking “the time to step back and ask what’s going on” in oneself, in each other, and in our surroundings. Paying attention. The time itself becomes the prayer. Holy leisure invites us to understand “no matter how valuable [our] work, the empty vessel must be filled.” We can only draw upon the inner resources we have stored.

Joan Chittister defines holy leisure this way: “leisure that makes the human more human by engaging the heart, broadening the vision, deepening the insight and stretching the soul.”

While some of us may associate contemplation with navel-gazing or a cloistered existence, genuine contemplation does not remove us from reality; rather “it puts us in touch with the world around us by giving us the distance we need to see where we are more clearly” (Chittister). The monastic traditions of East and West understand that contemplation provides time to clarify meaning and distinguish it from purpose. While purpose “determines what {we] do…meaning demands to know why [we are] doing it and with what global results. …Contemplation is sacred mindfulness” (Chittister).

And like all mindfulness, contemplation and Sabbath-keeping involve a kind of spiritual discipline. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” We must remind ourselves because it’s so easy to get caught up in life’s demands and distractions. It’s all too easy to let goal-setting, the drive to accomplish, and the tug of consumerism bend our days and nights into a helix of activity. Even in retirement or on vacation, we consult to-do lists or feel pulled by the tasks and dalliances that shape our lives. Thus it becomes all the more important to slow ourselves enough to ask who will be touched by what we do and how? Who will gain and who will suffer? We need to take inventory not only of our actions but of ourselves so that we replenish ourselves when our stores of patience, compassion, and energy run low.

Consider your own life for a moment. Can you find ten minutes in your day for contemplation, quiet, solitude? Can you imagine choosing a day each week for holy leisure? Making time for play? for rest? for spiritual renewal? What would it take to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy? Or what about taking a periodic spiritual retreat? For some that may involve going to a retreat center; for others it may mean a day in the woods or in the library. When is the last time you devoted a day to the care of your spiritual well-being?

It’s easy for any of us to confuse activity with connection, busy-ness with importance, immediacy with urgency. Our doing takes precedence over our being. Those moments we take to quiet ourselves and re-connect with the web of existence—all the processes and life-forms that sustain our living and contextualize our dying—are the moments that not only stretch but nourish the soul. Maya Angelou, poet, memoirist, and performer, writes,

Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, lovers, family, employers and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.

Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.

If we step away for a time, we are not, as many may think and some will accuse, being irresponsible, but rather we are preparing ourselves to more ably perform our duties and discharge our obligations.

When I return home, I am always surprised to find some questions I sought to evade have been answered and some entanglements I had hoped to flee had become unraveled in my absence.

A day away acts as a spring tonic. It can dispel rancor, transform indecision, and renew the spirit.

 

We have entered the season of vacation, of days long enough for extra recreation. Why not accept the invitation of the season to engage in holy leisure? Start with moments of Sabbath and envision a day of renewal. The days we have are limited. Their number unknown. Just as we may refrain from the excesses of libations or tobacco or artery-clogging foods in an effort to extend or improve our lives, we would do well to consider the benefits of spiritual maintenance. It’s not just second-hand smoke that poses risks to others; it’s second-hand stress, second-hand overload, second-hand spiritual emptiness.

 

Wendell Berry asks:

“But where is the all-welcoming,

all –consecrating Sabbath

…the quietness of heart…?”

It is in each of us, waiting to be released.  Amen.

 

I close with one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems.

Teach me work that honors Thy work,

the true economies of goods and deeds

to make my arts compatible/ with the songs of local birds.

Teach me patience beyond work/ and beyond patience, the blest

Sabbath of Thy unresting love which lights all things and gives rest.