Sabbath in the Time of Corona

Sabbath in the Time of Corona

I leave labor and load,

Take up a different story.

I keep an inventory

Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.

 

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths—1979, IV


 

If anyone is tallying up votes for the 2020 phrase of the year, “What day is it?” could give “You’re on mute” a run for its money. In quarantine, nebulous days, weeks, and months speed through us like a haze. And the cadence by which we previously signified time lost its rhythm, so it’s easy to lose track.

 

Along with the blurring of time, our various responsibilities also melt into each other as home becomes the command center of literally everything. We’re employees, employers, parents, teachers, and caregivers all at once, with thinning boundaries between each role.

 

Because of this, many are working longer and harder than ever before. When my workplace turns into a digital office, the net effect is, in fact, a more productive work force. Perhaps to compensate for our interrupted days, our work hours span a longer stretch of time.

 

This manner of working, I find, heightens a particular problem: it is hard to stop working.

 

When the end of the work day is undefined, and work hours can restart at any time of the day or night, you can really work until you drop. As a result, there’s a collective exhaustion that warns of an upcoming burnout, if it hasn’t happened already.

 

It is certainly not sustainable to live without boundaries. Is there a corrective, though, to our pandemic lives? I think there is at least one: the seventh-day Sabbath.

 

Sabbath as Technology for Living

 

For some of us, the ritual of the Sabbath—ceasing from work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown—helps mark life’s newly obscured rhythm. Even though it is an ancient practice, it is a relevant technology for living today.

 

In a Washington Post opinion piece back in May, lawyer Jay Lefkowitz reflects on how the Sabbath helps delineate the days of the week during COVID. It also helps separate the sacred—like worship, family time, and reflection—from the common. As rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “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.”

 

But more than just the weekly Sabbath, the practice of delineating time—the ritual of mindfully entering and leaving sections of the day—is necessary not only to make us more resilient, but also to maintain our humanity. We are not an automaton that can produce 24/7. We need restoration and demand a greater measure of our lives’ worth than just how productive we are.

 

In exercising these time limits, we are in fact exercising our humanity. The ability to stop working, willingly, and to act with purpose is a strength of our personhood. For we may work, but we should not be enslaved.

 

Ceasing as a Mark of Personhood

 

In the book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Sigve Tonstad highlights the relationship between our humanity and the act of ceasing labor. Speaking of the biblical creation account,

 

“The account reports both a beginning and a completion. [Karl] Barth notes that ‘God does not continue His work on the seventh day in an infinite series of creative acts.’ The cessation and completion are markers of personhood and of a definite purpose.”

 

The completion of creation marks two things: someone who has agency in planning the scope of the work and who knows when that purpose has been fulfilled. In a work-focused world, we know too well that declaring a work completed is extremely hard. There’s always more to do and scope creeps everywhere.

 

Tonstad continues,

 

“Extending this thought, Jacques Ellul, the prolific French sociologist and theologian, emphasizes an understanding of Creation that attributes more than a causal role to God. A mere causal function does not have the means to stop the process. ‘A cause cannot cease to be a cause without ceasing to be,’ writes Ellul. ‘It must produce its effects to infinity. God is not a cause, then, for we are told that he decides to rest.’”

 

Here, per Jacques Ellul, he makes the contrast between a Being/person and an inanimate force/a cause. The cessation of God’s creation is an act of the will; no other force causes him to stop, like friction or a brake that decelerates a moving object. He stops, because He wants to stop. We may also call this, freedom.

 

Sabbath in the Time of Corona

 

Quoting Heschel again,

 

“Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Freedom. Independence. These are odd words to say in a pandemic. But in practicing the Sabbath—that regenerative time and space, guilt-free and restful—we may reclaim some of this freedom, even if it is just for one day.


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Sabbath: The Pause in the Rhythm of Creation

Sabbath: The Pause in the Rhythm of Creation

All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full, says the King in Ecclesiastes. To the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. Vanity, he exclaims, because everything is temporary. I wonder if this was a lamentation or a poetic expression of his observations. In the eyes of an incurable optimist, however, as I am, the metaphor takes on a different light.

 

Isn’t it a wonder that the sea is never full? All the waters lead to the sea and yet they come back to us. They are transported to where they started, and round and round they go. As they ride in their atmospheric carousel, along the way, they bless all kinds of living things. The soil is dewed and refreshed, the trees drink freely, and the thirsts of creatures and mankind are quenched. Nutrients get transported from one place to another and dirt gets washed away. I am sure glad that the waters move and travel, even though they return to the same place over and over again.

 

Imagine riding a water molecule, witnessing the trajectory of its life cycle on this planet. The places it visits, the people it sees, the calamities it may take part in—these would make quite a story. When it ends up in the sea, the sun may kiss it and lift it up to the sky. It may get frozen there to return to earth or it may retire in the Arctic.

 

In an age of declining fresh water resources, I treasure this water cycle from land, sky, and sea as the largest desalination process our world has. There’s much good and meaning in this blessed movement.

 

The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. The wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. The sun may be doing the same thing every day, but boy, what would we do if it decided to not arise. How would we miss its warmth and light, and its life-giving power. The wind that goes from north to south carries pollens for the trees, moving animals and humans here and there—a life in transit.

 

Transience, it seems, is the essence of life. Life moves, and I think it is good that it does so.

 

The Rhythm of Nature

 

Nature hums in a rhythmic fashion, and we, humans, are still part of this dance no matter how much we exert our controlling powers. There’s a rhythm that we cannot escape—the rain that falls on us, the flight-delaying weather disruptions, the seasons that happen to us—we are subject to these things. One could take it as a depressive state, being trapped by nature, or one could instead surrender to the rhythm, understanding that it is much better to enjoy it rather than fight against it.

 

Part of this rhythm, the cycle of life, is rest, a period of dormancy, recuperation, and restoration. The land needs it to continue producing food, animals need it to survive through winter, and mankind needs sleep, among many other examples.

 

Wayne Muller writes in his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,

 

“We are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms that govern how life grows: circadian rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms.”

 

“When we rest, we can relish the seasons of a moment, a day, a conversation… To surrender to the rhythms of seasons and flowerings and dormancies is to savor the secret of life itself.”

 

This dance of coming close and withdrawing, of giving and receiving, is the essence and joy of living. It is a principle of life, as expressed in The Desire of Ages by Ellen White:

 

“There is nothing, save the selfish heart of man, that lives unto itself. No bird that cleaves the air, no animal that moves upon the ground, but ministers to some other life. There is no leaf of the forest, or lowly blade of grass, but has its ministry. Every tree and shrub and leaf pours forth that element of life without which neither man nor animal could live; and man and animal, in turn, minister to the life of tree and shrub and leaf. The flowers breathe fragrance and unfold their beauty in blessing to the world. The sun sheds its light to gladden a thousand worlds. The ocean, itself the source of all our springs and fountains, receives the streams from every land, but takes to give. The mists ascending from its bosom fall in showers to water the earth, that it may bring forth and bud.”

 

White continues to liken this principle with the character of the Godhead in the Bible:

“In these words is set forth the great principle which is the law of life for the universe. All things Christ received from God, but He took to give. So in the heavenly courts, in His ministry for all created beings: through the beloved Son, the Father’s life flows out to all; through the Son it returns, in praise and joyous service, a tide of love, to the great Source of all. And thus through Christ the circuit of beneficence is complete, representing the character of the great Giver, the law of life.”

Sabbath: A Time to Receive

 

The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is synonymous with rest. As such, its inclusion in human life is incredibly appropriate. It is the dormancy to activity, the withdrawing to assertion, the restoration to production.

 

Going back to Muller,

 

“Many scientists believe we are ‘hard-wired’ like this, to live in rhythmic awareness, to be in and then step out, to be engrossed and then detached, to work and then to rest. It follows then that the commandment to remember the Sabbath is not a burdensome requirement for some law-giving deity—“You ought, you’d better, you must”—but rather a remembrance of a law that is firmly embedded in the fabric of nature. It is a reminder of how things really are, the rhythmic dance to which we unavoidably belong.”

 

To stop on the Sabbath when the sun sets on Friday evening requires a surrender, a certain trust, that things won’t fall apart when we’re not attending to them. This stopping can generate anxiety, because we may have been convinced of our importance and responsibility for six days. What if I don’t check my email? What if something goes wrong? We may think we’re indispensable.

 

Yet honoring the Sabbath is an art of quieting ourselves from these anxieties, a reminder that the world will not likely end because we stop for a day.

 

“We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us… enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world. The deep wisdom embedded in creation will take care of things for a while.”

 

The Earth has been here before us and will be here after us. That’s something we can take comfort in.

 

A Kind of Nostalgia

 

The Sabbath is meant to bring a kind of nostalgia—hence the words, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”—of another world in another time. The book of Genesis narrates that mankind was created last, when the rest of creation was finished. Adam and Eve came when the world was already done, to a finished world, and their first day was to be the Sabbath. In it, there was enjoyment, trust, and surrender, because God had done the creative work, and nothing unfinished depended on them.

 

The Sabbath today carries this memory from Eden. A glimpse of paradise, I’m convinced, because we too can trust the same power that created and sustained the universe to take care of everything for one day. We too can rest, and be carried away in this rhythm of creation.

 

Consciousness of Time: Wisdom in the Sabbath

Consciousness of Time: Wisdom in the Sabbath

“Where did the time go?” we often ask, and no matter the frequency of this conversation, it’s never boring, because we feel its truthfulness each time. Blink once, it’s Monday, blink twice it’s Thursday, and so the weeks, months, and years pass by.

 

Age, I hear, accelerates this experience, and I can probably agree. It took forever and a half to reach age 10 and another half to 17. But to the observing adults, my aging probably did feel fast. They certainly talk about the flying time with more intensity.

 

Mathematically, it’s been explained that the ratio of a fixed amount of time, say, a year, to the total length of our growing lifetime will only diminish, hence the increased speediness. It’s perfectly rational. I like rational. But, if the math is the real cause of the experience, how scary is that? It means life will only move faster and faster, like a runaway train that’s gone out of hands. Is there nothing to be done about it?

 

A Glimmer of Hope

 

Reading Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air tells me that there may be a way out. Written when their authors were cancer-ridden—the first, a collection of essays written during Oliver’s[1] last two years of his life and the second, written during the two years between Paul’s diagnosis and his death—both writings seem to know how to slow time down.

 

Faced with the finiteness of their lives, these authors mastered the art of living consciously (isn’t this why time feels fast—it goes by and we are not conscious of it) and thus put a break to the speeding train of time. The writing certainly feels that way, and in reading their words, my time too slows down.

 

Consciousness of time, I think, is the kindred subject that occupied both men, evaporating the near half-century gap between their ages. Linked to this is also the fierce quest of meaning and the evaluation of their lived years.

 

Confronting mortality, humankind is forced to reflect. What of my life? Has it been good, meaningful? Am I contented with who I am? And in reflecting, time is recaptured, somehow.

 

Whether intended or not, Paul and Oliver’s writings have this recapturing effects on me. Their sense of sacredness in the time they had left produced words that grace their readers with wisdom. Yet, is this gift only possessed by those close to death’s door? I’m not dying–not that I know of, at least–and I too am covetous of this consciousness of time.

 

Sabbath

 

Oliver’s last and poignant essay was titled “Sabbath,” published in the New York Times two weeks before his death last August, and one that was very important to him. As his days were closing, he found his thoughts drifting back to the Sabbath.

 

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

 

After abandoning his Jewish faith and heritage for decades, Oliver recalled one Sabbath celebration in 2014:

 

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

 

I wonder if the Sabbath was made so that humankind would live, in the deepest sense of the word, with consciousness of time. The gift of rest in the Sabbath surpasses the physical realm into the essence of life itself. This infusion is not automatic—I’ve lived Sabbath to Sabbath my entire life and I know that Sabbath too can be busy—but it is a space and time carved out to stop and reflect each week. Did I do well? Was I good? Did I do things that matter?

 

Robert John Aunamm, 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics, said in an interview that Oliver mentioned in his essay[2],

 

The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society—it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.

 

After the ceremony, Robert John told Oliver, “had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”

 

 

Peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns. What would it look like to live, entirely divorced from even the privilege of winning a Nobel Prize. It seems like Robert John estimated the prize very differently from most people; something else mattered to him more. Perhaps it was an understanding of ultimate things—what is the most important thing in life, what matters most, things we usually understand when death is nigh, when time is short.

 

Perhaps the Sabbath is like speed bumps, preventing life from being overrun by the train of time. It is a reminder to be conscious of time, like a balance by which everything is scaled against eternity. The things that exist in the Sabbath realm are the things that matter in eternity—they will always matter—like family, friends, love, reflection, peace with God and peace with self. Everything else can take a pause, irrelevant for one day.

 

I’m writing this at the entrance of a Sabbath. For the next 24 hours then, I’m going to live with consciousness of time.

 

[1] I’ll use their first names here to make the post more personal instead of academic.

[2] Read the whole interview with Robert John Aumann here.

 

Photo by Johnny Loi