Thinking Anew – Welcoming the Sabbath queen
“We are beloved creatures, not units of production.” Photograph: iStock
Like many people I long for balance in my life, searching for rhythms of work and rest which sustain and are sustainable. Since being a curate I have had to accustom myself to one day off a week rather than the two days of the weekend when most people tend to be free. Sunday (though still special) is very much a working day for me – an early start, the need for careful time-keeping, significant engagement required. So I have been learning to embrace my own day of rest on Thursdays in a deeper way.
As Christians we have inherited and adapted the principle of Sabbath from our Jewish forbears – a radical and radiant notion which was unique in the ancient world, and remains a deeply subversive discipline in our frenetic postmodern one. No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest, and keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments – on a par with not murdering, stealing, or committing adultery. This command to cease work and embrace rest applies to all women, men, children, servants, animals, the very land itself upon which we all depend. The Sabbath principle is as old as the hills. Older actually, it is built into the creation story itself: on the seventh day God rested – a curious, heart-warming insight into the creator of the universe!
So on Thursdays, my day off, I try not to do anything at all which can be considered “productive”.
This is a wholesome antidote to a temptation that plagues many of us in our lives: we calculate our worth and our “success” in terms of how productive and efficient we have been, measuring out our lives in self-generating “to-do” lists. This has always bothered me. We are beloved creatures, not units of production. “Being productive” is surely a poor measure of our worth, and judging ourselves accordingly will (and does) affect every aspect of our lives. Are the young and strong worth more than the old and frail? Are the poor worth less than the rich? Not in the Kingdom of God.
Keeping an intentional Sabbath goes a way towards re-setting this pernicious tendency. It is a discipline, a trusting that it doesn’t all depend upon me – something I know in theory but often find myself ignoring in practice.
Time takes on a different quality: Michael Fishbane describes it as “trying to stand in the cycle of natural time, without manipulation or interference”. It is an inner divesting of anything striving or competitive or achievement-based, trusting God with my unfinished work, yielding instead to the gifts he freely offers.
So Thursdays I tend to say my prayers in bed and get up a little later. The dogs have an extra-special walk. I may meet a friend after and I make sure not to be rushing off or looking at my watch or my phone. I take time to read, just for pleasure. Sometimes I may take a nap on the sofa. I host myself far more gently and respectfully than I can usually manage. I try to cook something extra special for when the family comes home in the evening, and seek to be fully present to them in a way that I otherwise often fail to be.
The whole experience of Sabbath feels like permission to enjoy the day that God has made – in his company – and it is so precious!
Cutting the cord between productivity and my sense of worth feels like an act of heroic resistance and it spills out into other relationships throughout the week, in a good way. Both the prospect of my next Sabbath and the memory of my last Sabbath cheers me and nourishes me on those days when I am feeling exhausted.
The Jews describe the Sabbath as a queen to be welcomed into our homes. This captures perfectly the deep hospitality at the heart of this ancient discipline – a learning to let God take care of us by giving up our own attempts to be God in our own lives.