Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church I keep It Staying at Home With a Bobolink for a Chorister and an Orchard for a Dome–Emily Dickinson
In his seminal book, Sabbath, author Wayne Muller, a Harvard-trained minister and therapist, claims many of us have lost our essential rhythm in life. “There is a rhythm in the way day dissolves into night, and night into morning.” he writes. “There is a rhythm as the active growth of spring is quieted by the necessary dormancy of fall and winter. There is a tidal rhythm, a deep, eternal conversation between the land and the great sea. In our bodies, the heart perceptibly rests after each life-giving beat; the lungs rest between the exhale and the inhale.” Marking of Sabbath time, or nourishing rest, can help restore our souls and allow us to lie fallow for a time, honouring the spiritual and biological necessities of the wisdom of dormancy, he stresses.
Sabbath practices are also decreed in the Old Testament: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy…The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” This is the fourth commandment and is written in Exodus. To “Remember the Sabbath” is also a spiritual precept in most of the other world’s religious traditions, an ethical command like those describing killing, stealing or lying. It is a time for sacred rest–often a holy day.
But, Sabbath period may, instead, be a Sabbath afternoon, a Sabbath hour, a Sabbath walk. “Sabbath time is time off the wheel, time when we take our hand from the plow and let God and the earth care for things, while we drink, if only for a few moments, from the fountain of rest and delight,” writes Muller. Today, Sabbath can only be realized if we close the factory, turn out the lights, turn off the computer, and withdraw from the concerns of the contemporary marketplace, he suggests. “Choose at least one heavily used appliance or device–the telephone, television, computer, washer and dryer–and let them rest for a Sabbath period. Notice how you respond to their absence.”
The benefits of these sacred times are also noted by the medical community. Dr. David Posen, a stress specialist, recently published a book entitled Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. The human body needs recovery time between stressful periods, he says. He cites a variety of illnesses associated with stress: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart and immune system problems, to name a few. Rest also offers the body the opportunity to refresh energy levels, he says. Mullen agrees, saying that if we do not permit ourselves the rhythm of rest in our busy lives, “illness becomes our Sabbath–our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us,” he says.
But, “just as an unborn child in the womb of its mother silently receives an endless supply of nourishment, warmth, and protection, so, during Sabbath times, does the sweet womb of sacred rest enfold us, nourish us, heal and restore us,” Muller writes later.
Posen says simply that a Sabbath period also allows people to connect with family and friends, and enhances relationships. Muller waxes poetic and writes that on the Sabbath we create space so that our loved ones may find rest in us. Quietly empty, we become Sabbath, he says.
Mother Teresa said, “God is the friend of silence.” And indeed, much is born in the quiet. Dr. Herbert Benson wrote a book called The Breakout Principle. In it he says when you take time from work, you often get your best ideas. Muller calls this “Sabbath Mind.” Sometimes we have only to be still, says the Old Testament Psalmist, and we will know.
This stillness is a beneficial response to our fast-paced life. The busier we are today, the more important we seem to ourselves and others. Exhaustion is seen as a trophy and our ability to withstand stress a strength. But, the Chinese word for “busy” is composed of two characters: heart and killing. Similarly, the writer, poet and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said, “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.” But, if busyness can create a kind of violence, celebrating the Sabbath can provide time to unwind and invite healing through effortless rest. When we act from this place, we are more capable of cultivating what the Buddhists would call right understanding, right action, and right effort. Even in monasteries, monks must cook, clean, garden and sweep. But there is a time to sweep and a time to put down the broom and rest, Muller reminds us.
Even Jesus took time from teaching and healing to retreat to a place of rest. Sometimes he took his disciples with him and invited them to pray. In fact, one translation of the biblical phrase “to pray” is “to come to rest.”
But early Christians celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday, to recognize the day of Jesus’ resurrection. This pivotal day first received official status in 321 C.E., when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, declared it a day of rest throughout the Roman Empire.
The Sabbath was also the first festival to be described by God to Moses in the book of Leviticus. But the Jewish Sabbath became even more important when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. “When the Jews were in exile, the Sabbath became their temple, their sanctuary in time,” writes Muller. “It traveled with them wherever they went, a movable feast, a holy of holies that faithfully accompanied them in adversity. The practice of the Sabbath was a spiritual glue that held the people together. This is perhaps one reason why the Sabbath commandment is the most discussed and reiterated throughout the Torah,” he continues. Furthermore, it is said in the holy Jewish writings that the most important holiday of the Jewish calendar year isn’t Passover or Yom Kippur, but the Sabbath or “Shabbat.”
The Sabbath was also the first festival observed by God in the book of Genesis. And in the Book of Exodus, we read, “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed. This word “refreshed” or vaiynafeh literally means “and God exhaled,” suggesting that the Sabbath exhale is vital to the rhythm of breath and creation.
But Kabbalists in the Israeli mountain city of Safad greet the Sabbath as a groom meets his bride. After a ritual bathing, they dress in white and walk out to neighboring fields to embrace her at sunset.
Native rituals often begin with the burning of sweet grass or sage which create a fragrance. Most Sabbath celebrations are characterized by food, song and candles– sensual experiences. “When Sabbath is done and we return to our labour,” says Muller, “we carry the fragrance of rest in our bodies.”
Muller continues this sensual theme by suggesting those celebrating the Sabbath should, like Moses, take off their shoes. “Stand still and quiet for a moment. Let your feet touch earth, soil, floor and rock. Feel the visceral holiness rise up and kiss, tender, naked flesh. Walk slowly. Let each step be a prayer, each footfall a sacred kiss of flesh and earth. Let each sensation rise up the body. Feel how the body receives the blessing of holy ground.”
The body is also awakened in the most universally popular Sabbath activity: communing with nature. Hiking, strolling, hugging a tree allows us to experience the heartbeat of the earth and synchronize the beating our heart and the breath in our lungs with the rhythms of nature.
It is also a time when mindful attention can honour those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain us. When we mediate or walk in nature, some believe that saints and ancestors send us loving kindness, as they accompany our every breath. Jesus offered this practice to his disciples: “Make your home in me,” he said, “as I make mine in you.”
Furthermore, when we gather for a Sabbath meal, we celebrate the spiritual companionship of all who have loved us, all we love, all who have gone before and will come after. It is appropriate, then, to set a place–glass, silverware, plate–to welcome all who join us at the table in spirit.
The traditional Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown, the Christian Sabbath with morning worship. Both ceremonies mark the beginning of sacred time with the lighting of candles. Jewish Sabbath ends after sunset, when three stars are visible in the sky. Jews have a closing ceremony called Havdalah. A family, for instance, would sit quietly on the floor around a Havdalah candle. They then share the best part of the Sabbath (perhaps gathering in worship and prayer, blessing children, singing songs, keeping silence, walking, reading, or sharing a meal) and what they look forward to in the week to come.
These sentiments are at odds with our national economies which measure only actions involving money and total goods and services bought and sold. Tibetan Buddhists personify this endless craving as a “hungry ghost.“ This character has an enormous belly, but a very small throat. It can never consume enough to satisfy its voracious appetite. For this reason, it is always suffering. “While the marketplace insists that happiness will come when all our desires are finally satisfied, we have, in fact, built a “hungry ghost” economy. We are not creating happiness. We are producing suffering,” writes Muller.
But during Sabbath, things that grow in sacred time are honored. We focus less on what we lack and more on our abundance. In the nourishing soil of the Sabbath, we can seed the possibilities of new beginnings.
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