On Sabbath Time
Much of life today can involve a persistent feeling of being busy. We have full schedules, personal and professional commitments, and to-do lists of all the things we want to get done. Our physical space can be overwhelming as well: paperwork that needs to be dealt with, piles of books and magazines begging to be read, and hobby or craft supplies that we keep meaning to get to.
My life as a priest is a good example. It is an ongoing life of visitations, meetings, church services, emails to respond to, bulletins to prepare, etc. I’ve found that a typical “work week” for most priests regularly surpasses 40 hours. Add to that the desire to be a good husband to my wife, a good father to my children, and to pursue my own hobbies and interests.
And I know my sense of busyness is not unique to me as a priest, but is shared by many of my parishioners. Families commonly have similiar time burdens as clergy, with both spouses working full-time, and children navigating full schedules of school, homework, and after-school activities.
With all of this busyness, we can grow numb. We can feel like we are walking in a fog: our feet keep moving and we can see that our immediate surroundings change, but we can’t see “the big picture.” We complete the next task on our list or make it to our next appointment, but we don’t get the sense that we are actually making any progress on our journey. With numbness comes fatigue. We grow tired of all of the running around and clutter, and we need rest.
Something that gets forgotten in all of this is the Biblical mandate for rest—”Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, NKJV). This was presented by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments, and yet it is a commandment that we regularly break in our lives.
Sabbath time seems counterintuitive. We fight against the notion: it is, after all, counterproductive. There is so much that we need to get done that stopping to rest seems like a waste of time. We tell ourselves that by somehow working harder, we will get on top of our commitments. We usually find the opposite to be the case: when we have completed a number of commitments and have space in our day, we find a way to fill that space up with new commitments.
Why take regular times out for a sabbath rest? The explanation God gives Moses for a sabbath day is the creation story at the beginning of the Bible in the Book of Genesis. God rested on the seventh day of creation:part of the process of creation included a designated period of rest. In giving the commandment to Moses, God was pointing to the wisdom that we need regular times of rest to “create” well. For us, this means doing well at all of the things that we are responsible for in our lives.
An analogy might help illustrate this point. If we drive a car without doing regular maintenance on it, the car eventually breaks down. A car needs oil changes, air in the tires, topping off the fluids, and gas in the tank to keep it functioning. We can probably get away with neglecting this preventative maintenance for a while, but eventually the car will break.
By the same token, if we don’t have times of rest from our routine, we can stop functioning. This can be on physical, mental, and spiritual terms. Our sabbath time is our “preventative maintenance” that keeps us from “running out of gas” or “having a breakdown.”
Unlike the car analogy, our sabbath time isn’t a program or schedule of specific things that we do. We simply need a consistent time each week to disengage from the busyness of our lives. The rest is not leisure or vacation as we usually envision it. These can all too easily transform into more activity: something we need to do that, while in the category of “fun,” requires regular planning and effort.
How do we begin taking weekly sabbath time? I know the prospect of setting aside one entire day for rest presents a significant challenge starting out. One way to begin is to set aside a few hours on Sunday afternoons just for rest. For single people, this can be a fairly straightforward process. For families, this can take a little more work, but can be done if you establish it as a regular “family tradition.”
As you set this up, prepare a boundary around the time, but set no agenda for within the time itself. Come home from Sunday Liturgy and eat a light lunch, preferably something that doesn’t involve a great deal of preparation or clean-up. Stay away from video games, television, or movies. No household chores or homework. Spend the time doing quiet, relaxing things: naps, reading, family conversation. While being restful, the time is Godly and holy. Once you get to dinnertime, focus back on re-booting for the coming week of work and school.
What I have found is that on the Sundays when our family take this sabbath rest, we approach the week refreshed and better able to engage the challenges that contemporary life involves. The challenges aren’t removed, but, if done on a regular basis, sabbath time helps keep those challenges in perspective.
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