One thing that is clear in this time is that many, many of us are DOING less, traveling less, shopping less, our impact on the world around us is reduced. Many commentators from environmentalism and post liberalism are talking about this as a vital catalyst that could reconfigure our economic systems and bring lasting change.
This language of optimism is welcome but also fragile and much of what is written begins with basic assumptions about the human condition, and the things that constitute basic human well-being, that I and others might debate. It leads into conversations about what are our lives really for? Do we identify ourselves as the things that we do, the careers we have, the voluntary position we hold? And what are we when we are not doing those things?
One of the greatest victims of this time may well be our egos; the shells that we strut around in as we live the ‘doings’ that we are. This may be especially true if we have jobs with some status in society or we have spent many years in training and striving for the vocations that we have. In the normal run of life loosing this sense of ego pride in what we do is associated with redundancy or disaster in some form, be it health or accident. This adds to the scenario the pain of failure, fear of death or anger against an employer. We find ourselves now however, redundant without loss and immobilized without illness and although for many there is still considerable fear for the future in the main right now we are gently surviving.
It seems that we are in a time of Sabbath and I will use the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel to help explain what I mean by this. His book of that title is a profound reflection on the importance of Sabbath and gives a biblical grounding to an understanding of the human condition that may give us some insights to draw on as we look to a future for our faith and practice.
Heschel writes this book in 1951 long before an awareness of inclusive language so I have in places changed the pronouns, however I quote him liberally as he writes so eloquently. He begins with his understanding of time and space that is I think incredibly helpful in this age where we are looking critically at our technical civilization and economics. It offers a deep psychological clue to our pervasive greed and manic over activity and a solution to it.
Technical civilization is humans conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential element of existence namely, time. In technical civilization we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective, yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attained in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.
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 to 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 the things of space becomes our sole concern.
We are all infatuated with the splendour of space, with the grandeur of things of space. ‘Thing’ is a category that lies heavily on our minds tyrannizing our thoughts…even God is conceived by most of us as a thing. The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact. This is obvious in our understanding of time which being thingless and insubstantial appears to us as if it had no reality.
Indeed we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labour for the sake of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm a slick treacherous monster with a door like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives. Shrinking therefore from facing time we escaped for shelter to the things of space. The intentions are unable to carry out we dispose deposit in space, possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustrations. But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the fire. Is the joy of possession an antidote to the terror of time that grows to be a dread of inevitable death? Things when magnified or forgeries of happiness there were threat to our very lives. We are more harassed than supported by the Frankenstein’s of spatial things.
It is impossible for humans to shirk the problem of time the more we think the more we realise we cannot conquer time through space we can only master time in time
The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information but to face sacred moments.
Our intention here is not to deprecate the world of space, to disparage space and the blessings of the things of space. To do so is to disparage the works of creation, the works which God beheld and saw ‘it was good’….. Time and space are interrelated. To look over overlook either is to be partially blind. What we plead against is humanities unconditional surrender to space, the enslavement to things.
Hescle goes on to explain how the Jewish faith is one rooted in time. The first use of the word holy in Genesis is not in relation to a place, a law or a person but a time.
‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it Holy’.
The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space, on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day in which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time. To turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
His description of the Sabbath is beautiful and one that was completely new to me. Being brought up in the Methodist church there were some of the older members of the church who used to talk about the drudgery of the strictly legalistic Sundays of their youth, no playing, no wireless, no knitting! The puritanical imposition of rules meant that they spoke about childhood Sundays without enthusiasm and when Sunday trading began there seemed to be consent to the general feeling that shopping was a leisure activity that should be allowed. The description given by Heschel however gives a completely different, and timely view, of the abstinence of the sabbath. It moves away from legalistic, fun denying, patriarchal legalism to a gift on spiritual, psychological and temporal levels. The gift of space, time and peace.
The person who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profundity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. They must go away from the screech of dissident days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling their own life. They must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of humanity. Six days a week we wrestle with the world ringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world on the seventh day we tried to dominate the self.
He goes on to describe how there is a good case in antiquity to be made for the sabbath being a time to rest and to regain our strength for the days of work ahead. Thinking of it like this the work is the primary motivating force of our lives with the sabbath rest being something that sustains and supports that activity. This was I think how I had been thinking about a Sunday and how I would justify a day spent without activity. However Heschel says something quite different and subtly profound.
To the biblical mind however labour is the means toward an end and the Sabbath is a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering ones lost strength and becoming fit for forthcoming labour; the Sabbath as a day for the sake of life. Humans are not beasts of burden and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of work. The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays, the weekdays or for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living. ….. Labour is a craft but perfect rest is an art it is the result of an accord of body mind and imagination. To attain a degree of excellence in art one must accept its discipline.
‘Labour is a craft but perfect rest is an art it is the result of an accord of body mind and imagination‘
In thinking of Holy rest as the primary function of human kind, with our toil as the means to achieve this, we completely reverse the puritan work ethic that so may of us labour under. I terms of our current situation as we see pollution levels worldwide drop as we slow down the frenetic activity of our lives there is definitely a case to be made for embracing stillness and a sabbath in our activity. The following passage was written in 1951 and is truly prophetic.
Technical civilization is the product of labour, of human beings exertion of power for the sake of gain for the sake of producing goods. It begins when humans dissatisfied with what is available in nature become engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance their safety and to increase their comfort. To use the language of the Bible, the task of civilization is to subdue the earth to have dominion over the beast.
How proud we often are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce. Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats in spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.
Is our civilization on the way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not two not a way out of this world but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.
To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we do not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of it an external obligations, the day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow humans and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out greater hope for humanities progress than the Sabbath?
I do not think that this passage requires translation for a Christian audience or to bring it up to date, it is universal in its wisdom.
In discussion about this book we looked at Jesus response to the Sabbath. It seems that he was opposed to the legalism that inevitably creeps in, as with the puritan injunctions mentioned above, reminding his detractors that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. So we asked ourselves what is a uniquely Christian response to this idea for sabbath. It came to us that Jesus seems to epitomize the sabbath in all he does. His way of talking, of teaching and of living reminds us of the life that ‘does not toil’. It makes sense of his conversation with Martha and Mary, of the times that he alludes to the holiness of his very presence… ‘while I am with you’. Looking deeply at Jesus we can see someone who lives in ‘time’ and in space. … divine and human, a living Sabbath.
As we experience Sabbath as a culture in this time of enforced inactivity we have been given a gift, something that we could never have imagined to be possible. With the wisdom from Abraham Herschel we can see that this is clearly a withdrawal from space into the realm of time. We have been gifted time. (see Rev Rosies lovely reflections tomorrow)
Bringing this experience into our Christian discipleship we can see that this gift is one that Jesus teaches us about and is at the core of the peaceable kingdom that he would have us live for. So we might ask as we emerge from this sabbatical, what does a church witnessing to Gods Sabbath holiness look like? How can we be a living symbol of a Sabbath for the Earth that could give rest and healing for our broken ecosystems? How can we encourage this withdrawal from space into Holy time in all we do in our churches and how can our activity in the world be a preparation for this sacred day? These questions challenge us in our busyness, in our striving for growth and even in our worship. What will our Sundays look like if we truly appreciate that they are times when we withdraw from the manipulation of the world?
I found this lovely article too….
The Secular Case For A Biblical Sabbath
Ethan Blake November 15, 2018
“It was Grandfather’s [watch], and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire … I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” This passage from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury felt bashert as I read it in a park on Saturday, unaware of the hour and carrying only the book in my hands and clothes on my back.
I eased off the bounds of weekdays’ doing and basked in a restful day of being. I bathed in the Sabbath, my new favorite weekly ritual, a 24-hour realm of spiritual bliss through timelessness.
I grew up in a Reform Jewish family whose relationship to religion was more social than spiritual. We attended Friday night service on occasion at our local synagogue, but I had never experienced a formal day of Shabbat (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), the weekly holiday of God’s rest on the seventh day after six days’ work of creating the world
A few months ago, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s lyrical essay ‘The Sabbath’ and – as a former architecture student who envied the divine craftsmanship of other faiths’ ancient mosques, churches and monasteries – I was struck by Heschel’s notion that Judaism is a religion of holy days rather than holy places, and observing the Sabbath is like walking through the holiest “cathedral of time.” I tried Shabbat for several weekends and, in confluence with my weeknight Zen meditation practice, the tradition I overlooked from my own ancestry slowly became my dearest ritual.
Just as Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted Buddhist meditation into secular mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and Dean Ornish advocated yoga as a secular physical practice, I believe Shabbat can likewise (with humble appreciation of cultural origins) facilitate profound spiritual growth for people of all faiths and secularities.
A few organizations like the Sabbath Manifesto, National Day of Unplugging, and Shmita Project have begun to provide some resources for how to slow down and realize we have “enough” when we seek less rather than more. Surely the Sabbath may lose some sacredness if separated from Judaism (or the Seventh-day Adventist Church), but I posit that, like yoga and meditation, its potential benefits are too great for the fast-paced and over-stimulated condition of our contemporary culture to fear offense of cultural appropriation.
The most observant Jewish communities abide by a strict series of Sabbath laws, like remaining within an eruv (an enclosure marked by a high wire that limits where people can carry certain objects outside their homes); refraining from turning light switches, ripping toilet paper, playing instruments and cooking food; and walking to synagogue for morning service, just to name a few. Learning and then following all the Sabbath laws – as well as gathering with friends and family for the simple joys of song, prayer, and community – can enrich our weekends with intention, but full abidance can prove difficult if we live in a secular neighborhood.
In my personal practice, I express deference to Shabbat’s traditions and then adapt them to my lifestyle and sensibilities by following just a few core rules. I do not spend money, use digital technology (I turn off my phone and laptop before Friday sunset), look at clocks nor know the time, make previous plans for the day, and I can only travel by foot (restriction from clocks and previous plans is my own reform, not tradition).
My principles may resemble penance, but like the Orthodox Shabbat laws, each prohibition is actually liberation: Abstention from money reveals an abundance of “the best things in life [that] are free.” Abstention from technology reveals an abundance of be-here-nowness. Abstention from clocks reveals an abundance of free-flowing time. Abstention from plans reveals an abundance of serendipity. Abstention from vehicles reveals an abundance of beauty as I stroll and see the world at an unhurried human pace.
For many people, Shabbat is only sacred if we firmly heed its laws; in my practice, however, the rules are flexible insofar as they build more meaningful space in our architectures of time. I once rode my bike, but for the joy of a wandering ride to nowhere in particular, not to arrive somewhere faster. I once spent money, but for a special baker’s lemon tart that a friend and I savored bite-by-bite while chatting for an hour, maybe two or even three.
A spiritual teacher once told me that he wakes up a little before 6 a.m., makes tea, and drinks it in his chair for about an hour. If the cat walks in he pets it, if someone rings the door he answers it, and if the tea spills he cleans it, but otherwise he does nothing. His practice is not meditation, but just as one’s obscured yet most essential thoughts arise only once you focus on breath and quiet your mind, his objectless morning ritual clarifies life’s immediate necessities.
Though Shabbat is an entire day of doing nothing, I become my most compassionate rather than my most idle self. I realized that I make the most selfish decisions on my busiest days, when I am under the illusion that I must do something at every moment, when altruism feels like an obligation instead of a responsibility, when a house chore steals precious time from tasks I “need” to accomplish before day’s end. Without time or plans, however, I have no priorities in the way and thus can no longer put off sweeping the kitchen floor, apologizing to a friend, and helping my neighbor move her couch. Perhaps Jesus had a similar insight when he committed the infamous dissent of healing a man on the Sabbath.
Jewish or Gentile, rigid or fluid, as a boisterous Friday night dinner or solo Saturday retreat — the practice of Shabbat can offer an accessible gift of spiritual transformation. As we strive daily to fix our inherently broken world in quests for idols and deceptive messiahs, perhaps Shabbat is a true and accessible utopia, neither a perfect nation nor era of peace, but a weekly consciousness that sees infinite gratitude for what really matters in our finite lives.
Ethan Blake is a writer, musician, educator and activist based on the West Coast. He is currently editing his first book of essays, “When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Bicycle.”