The Sabbath Keeps Us

A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. Proverbs 11:25 (NRSV)
Winter lake, Asheville NC. CBoyd photo



The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.

Wendell Berry (b. 1934)

My friend the rabbi says, “Shabbat is the clearing. Each of us descending, now landing—lessening our own twirling rotors of freneticism.” His words were intended for the community he leads, which has Sabbath-keeping at its center. When I read this, even though I am outside his tradition, I found that his words themselves had a calming, slowing-down effect. “Yes!” I think. “‘Clearing’ feels open and spacious! I have frenetic, twirling rotors! ‘Landing’ sounds nice.”

But really: who has time? While I admire the words, and even feel their power, I also let myself off the hook. I find myself standing on the outside of Judaism, looking longingly in at their practice of Sabbath but not having the discipline to practice it.

A quick little bit of research turns up dozens and dozens of books on Sabbath-keeping, available in many genres: theology, Jewish and Christian spirituality, spiritual-but-not-religious, and of course in the more secular self-help genre.

Yes. We intend to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. We want to, if only because we are tired. We need some Sabbath time in life. But of course, as with so many, many other things: words do not guarantee practice. No matter how real our thoughts seem to us, we have to be honest that intending something does not make it a reality. Seminary professor David White says, “Contemporary Christians have unwittingly adopted a gnostic version of Christian faith that privileges ideas, understandings and intentions over material practices.”

We mean well. Clergy of my acquaintance have started saying “Sabbath” when they refer to their “day off.” I have heard many well-intentioned people say things like “I am blocking off a three-hour Sabbath period on my calendar.” I read this in a journal recently: “I try to grab at least a half day of Sabbath…it may come in a 3-4 hour chunk, or it may come in five-minute increments. The point is to rest in God’s presence and to take care of self.”

No. There is an existential difference between a material spiritual practice and an attempt at self-help or even self-care. Sabbath-keeping is not a quick watering of the garden with a spray nozzle. Sabbath-keeping is a long period with a soaker hose. Sabbath is not an appointment on a calendar. It is a holy space—not measured in minutes—where the Holy can enter in.

While I appreciate self-care practices such as making time for a long bath, or sharing a glass of wine with dear friends, this is not Sabbath-keeping. It is not about “making time.” Lauren Winner says that the way to tell the difference is to ask whom the intended object of the practice is. Making time for myself is lovely, but it is not Sabbath, because the object of the care is me.

The object of Sabbath-keeping is God. In our pride and arrogance about how much we make happen in our busy lives, we run absolutely contrary to the intention of Sabbath. Carving out five minutes and calling it “Sabbath” is laughable. If God has set the example of resting after the creation, who are we to consider ourselves so indispensable that we can’t stop? If I persist in my refusal to stop, unplug and make space, I am guilty of the worst kind of hubris. To keep Sabbath is to stop. Stop doing. Stop creating. Stop making. Stop going.

God’s Sabbath keeps us by God’s will, not our own.

First published in The Diolog, quarterly magazine of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.