Listening to a talk by JD Crossan, I was recently reminded that in the origin story opening the book of Genesis, Sabbath—not humanity—is creation’s mounting crescendo, creation’s pinnacle. I thought: I must remember this every day—everyday as I struggle against the capitalistic pressures, the personality pressures to push and produce in excess. Often, even as I take time for rest (the body’s demand) or for enjoyment (the heart’s), I calculate the minutes on some psycho-social abacus for measuring my worth, wondering if I am getting enough done or whether I will run out of time. In a certain way, there is never enough time. Expectations of myself exceed more realistic perimeters imposed by physical energy and the 24 hours between sunrise and sunrise. On the other hand, I cannot say I’ve ever run out of time. Abundance is the echo reverberating throughout my life when I take stock. If something has not been done, something more important always interposed itself as the great instead. Not once did that abundance-echo go still in its brilliant permissiveness or evaporate, leaving in its wake a cavernous accusatory lack.
And if abundance is the nature of reality, if it is the water we collectively swim in (though often or momentarily unaware), we can settle into Sabbath. Of course we can. The recent Sabbath reminder from Crossan was timely because I’d been thinking of Sabbath in this season of pandemic. In a sense, the pandemic has made the driven industrious insecure achievement-oriented hound in our heads a little quieter. My hound is a bit quieter. I see more people taking time to garden or do puzzles or read novels or even participate in protest-marches, and think these are Sabbath sorts of doings—done mostly for rest and enjoyment, because of core values and care for others, or even because of plain giving-up. (On this last point, I think of parents who lost productivity when children couldn’t go to school or daycare—and they gave up striving so hard; I also acknowledge that some essential workers—I think of my brother, an EMT—are more busy than ever.) Maybe more Sabbath-doings have been imposed on us because more people have time on our hands: staying at home because of layoffs, reduced work hours, work-from-home-sans-time-sucking-commutes, or the stymying of before-pandemic activities that are no longer safe. But imposed or not, it seems many are setting aside more time to be less driven.
I conceptualize Sabbath in fluid terms. Traditionally, Sabbath meant setting aside one day a week—and a specific day. But the spirit of Sabbath is the setting aside; who cares if it’s a certain part of each day rather than one day a week, or whether one day a week, but always a different day? If a certain routine helps you embrace Sabbath, you should probably embrace that routine. Sabbath is about restoration, pleasure, unclenching fists, putting things back in balance. What a splurge, this practice of Sabbath; what an ice-cream truck at the driveway, running through sprinklers splurge.
Sabbath is also about the beauty of cultural and spiritual traditions, and no way around it, these have been upended. During this pandemic’s stay-at-home, many long for the cadence of collective prayer, the lit candles and wine on the lips. Others long to go to the ballpark or barbeque with friends—their own sacred Sabbath rituals. In the absence of these traditions, we are probably forging others, but denial doesn’t help. We miss many things.
One beauty of Sabbath is similar to fasting, in how setting aside something we like—say the creative productivity of a job we love (if we are so lucky) or other daily activity we relish, helps us better grasp their beauty and gift. As with fasting, this Sabbath season of pandemic, where we have set aside not only toil, but also hugging and visiting our friends or gathering for things like live music, has hopefully heightened our gratitude for those formerly mundane, sometimes-everyday pleasures. I recently told a friend, “My couch is lonely.” One of my favorite activities is having a friend over to sit on my couch and share deeply about our lives for hours as we nurse a cup of tea, or a gin-and-tonic; and I miss this. But the absence of these couch visits will only make them sweeter when they resume.
The resilience of our created world requires balance and reciprocity—a lesson modern cultures are slow to learn, for sure. Indigenous friends taught me the values of reciprocity: you do not take without giving back; you honor and show respect for what’s been granted you by taking actions to rebalance what has become unbalanced. How can your Sabbath practices be about reciprocity? What gets out of balance in your life that your Sabbath—the regular setting aside of day-to-day routines and obsessions—can set right or restore, and how can you do it in a way that shows honor and respect for all you have been given?
Anecdotes from the pandemic suggest that wild creatures, the air, the water, and other measures of “nature” have benefited from our long pause from toil—mainly, from running around in cars to work and shop and busy ourselves. This is a rebalancing on a macro scale. As some of us pause, and do so consciously, we honor and show respect for the Earth. Yet micro-scale re-balancings are also happening. I think of a close friend who had several things fall apart in her life because of the pandemic, breaking a two-year cycle of chronic and traumatic stress that threatened her health and wellbeing. The pandemic and the losses were certainly not chosen or invited, but with them came an uninvited Sabbath season that allows her to practice reciprocity toward the body that carries her through this life, to honor and respect it for the gift it is by breaking debilitating patterns of stress and overdoing; instead, getting enough rest, eating right, dreaming, clearing the mind.
What does it say about us—made in the image of God (however you conceptualize God)—that part of us, part of the nature of our universe, requires a turning away from toil? We all feel when we have been overdoing, we know in our work-weary cells that we need periods or seasons of restorative rest, whether at the end of a day, the end of a week, the end of a year, the end of a traumatic decade. What does it say about some conceptions of the Divine, the values of the Abrahamic faiths, that we’re reminded of this in our origin story in Genesis—that a period of rest-oration, rebalancing is the culmination of the story?
My wish: that we’d learn from this time and make permanent efforts at rebalancing, to right our frenetic excesses—so it wouldn’t take a pandemic every 100 years to disrupt our industrious obsessiveness. A four-day school and work week; or shorter work-school days. More work-from-home and fewer commutes. More vacation time and paid sick leave. More respite for the air water land and the non-human creatures therein. Not everyone, I realize, has embraced the Sabbath offered us by the pandemic. But some have. May our cells not forget the gift of it, our soft, collective sighs of relief.