Monday, February 13, 2006

Why sabbath?

I got up yesterday with waffles on my mind--the perfect breakfast for a Sunday morning. About the time I was finishing dressing, my daugher called from New York. Since I'd planned to call her, this was perfect timing, and I was delighted to spend time catching up on the grandchildren and family question with her.
Suddenly time was crunching on me. I had an hour left before I needed to leave for mass. But that was time to squeeze in the waffles--right?
Wrong!
I could race around getting waffles made and then wolf them down in time to run out the door panting on my way to choir warm-up, or I could pour myself a bowl of trusty granola with a dollup of berry compote and a swish of soy milk, and sit down to enjoy some of the paper.
This decision prompted reflection on sabbath. What's it all about anyway?
A weekly rest, a time to relax from all the racing of the week--that's what sabbath is. It's not necessarily a time to do all the good you can, although you wouldn't want to neglect doing good on the pretext of practicing sabbath. The old practice of making it a real day of rest--a day to visit family, to spend time on relaxing enterprises, to replenish spiritual resources--made a lot of sense.
Without waxing eloquent about the reasons for this, I want to note what a difference that could make in society--what a difference it may, indeed, HAVE made. Because, what does leisure allow us anyway? It's hard to judge from today's society, when we have a great deal of freedom to do whatever we see fit. In previous generations, life was not so easy. The life of the mind and the practice of the arts were limited to the upper classes, who could pay to have their daily needs taken care of. The poor and lower-middle classes worked from dawn to dusk just keeping bread on the table and clothes on their bodies. School was a luxury.
Go back even farther, to nomadic or agricultural societies. (Having lived among farmers, I have some experience with this.) The land and animals dictate in those circumstances. Work is ongoing, there are few opportunities for other occupations.
In such a society, the sabbath provided a weekly break long enough to accomplish something other than physical labor. It was a mandated time to be used for study, conversation, worship and reflection.
The idea of sabbath--Shabat--came to us from the Jews. Look at what sabbath produced in early Jewish society:
first, one of the first alphabets. With that alphabet, the Jewish scribes were able to produce a collection of historial and literary books that is quite uncommon in the ancient world.

Secondly, it produced a society with strong familial structures, which led to a similarly strong society. If there is any doubt about that, how many ethnic groups today can point to a similar identity as a people after 4000 years of history, 2000 of which were lived without a homeland? Did sabbath contribute to the societal ties? I think it did. When you have a day to spend in family gatherings, you tend to build stronger ties.

Thirdly, setting aside a day of the week on which no work can be done requires that you organize your week to get things done in a timely fashion. This results in better use of time.
I'm sure the benefits of sabbath go far beyond the ones I've mentioned, but these are a few to consider.

Can we still benefit from Sabbath today? As our lives become more and more crammed with options, obligations, observations, we need permission to take time off. It's not the animals and fields that dictate to us now, but rather the competition of today's life.

Having lived in a small town for many years, I have seen how the traditional weekly rhythms can become part of one's life. There, in Delta, most businesses were closed on Sunday. The hardware store and the groceries and one stalwart merchant stayed open. Most of us did not do much shopping on Sunday. It was a day for puttering around the house, going out for a walk or a drive, visiting family, going to church. You couldn't buy alcohol, except in a bar or as 3.2 beer. Now I live in a larger city, where you can count on businesses being open on Sundays. In fact, the parking lots are crammed every day.

Now, you might say, well I enjoy shopping, so why should shopping be prohibited on the sabbath? Why should anything be prohibited? I can speak for my own experience in saying that it is hard for me not to drive myself. I welcomed the closed businesses, which removed one confusing option from me on Sundays. Today I have a tendancy to want to edit web pages on Sundays, when I have a nice block of time. Hey, I like working on web pages. The html is like a puzzle that my mind likes to get around. Web work also tends to become addictive. Invariably it gets to the point where I want to stop, but can't because of some problem that I can't solve and can't stand to leave alone. I end up feeling drained.
What ought I to do on Sundays? Go to the beach, go for a walk or a drive, go to a movie, visit friends, read a book, putter.

I do go to church, and that's one of my favorite parts of the week. Sunday mornings I go for a walk, take a leisurely shower, listen to the NPR puzzle, make a nice breakfast, read the paper. Then I go down to mass at the Basilica. That's the best part of my day. In the evening I watch a few TV programs I like, do a little knitting. These are the Sundays I enjoy most.

Everybody's got to slow down in their own way. But we've all got to slow down. We have to shut out some of the clammor of the world and allow ourselves time for reflection and thinking if we're going to sort out the truth of our lives. It's more important now than ever.

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