Time Out: Sabbath for Today’s Unitarian Universalists

When I think about all the religious ideas I have yet encountered, none is perhaps more powerful than the idea of Sabbath.  Take a day off every seven days and devote it to rest, family, study and the divine.  It is a concept inherent in the breath of meditation practice that is the foundation of Buddhism – sit down and be quiet.  A Sabbath of the mind.  Father Thomas Keating, creator and proponent of the centering prayer practice, says silence is God’s first language. Our culture has in many respects abandoned the idea of Sabbath.  We may as individuals make it a priority to attend worship services once a week, but we follow up by shopping, sports leagues, running errands, meetings (of all things meetings!) and many other activities where the prime endeavor is anything but rest, anything but sitting down and being quiet.  We need Sabbath.  We can not best discern what to do, where to go, or what is just on the run.  Only in the stillness do we get in touch with our deepest selves and only in making time on a regular basis for being and not doing do we develop our greatest inner strength from which springs our most powerful action in the world.

While contemplating reflection questions for my congregation’s neighborhood groups for this month, I decided to ask colleagues in ministry (including religious education) via Facebook what might be some good things to have folks ponder.

Here’s what they offered to me:

  • If you were to create a modern Sabbath, what activities would you embrace? What would be set aside? What is one small change you might make this week? Going forward? (Katy Schmidt Carpman, DRE, Emerson UU Church, Houston)
  • What do you see as the goal of your Sabbath? Is it to recover from a week spent out of balance, to renew yourself physically and spiritually, or something else? (Rev. Scott Prinster, University of Wisconsin)
  • In the absence of a socially and culturally acknowledged Sabbath, what can we as modern people of faith do to ensure that those at the bottom of the economic pyramid receive the time for rest that they need and deserve? (Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt, King’s Chapel, Boston,  blogger at http://wanderingfollower.com/)
  • In our electronically wired world, do you consciously unplug one day or even a half day a week by putting down the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Droid and refusing to answer email and text messages?  (Meryl Gunter, Consultant, Southwest UU Conference)

One of the most useful ways of measuring personal Sabbath keeping I’ve encountered is a list that takes you from the day to the year (to a once in a lifetime event).  The Cistercian monk Charles de Foucauld who lived in the Algerian desert mystically noted that people should stay in the desert for:

  • An hour a day
  • A day a week
  • A week a year

I’ve seen his list expanded to include a lifetime pilgrimage as well. Can you take time out each day for the holy? Can you make time each day for a spiritual practice?  Do you take time out each week to worship with a community? Do you set aside one day a week for just family time, study, rest and self care?  Do you make time once a month for individual or group spiritual direction or another way to check in on your spiritual life? Do you make a yearly retreat? Is there a special religious pilgrimage your faith requires of you or that you want to make in your lifetime?

Time and again when reflecting on the Sabbath I return to the place where my deep pondering of Sabbath began – with Rabbi Abaraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man.   It should be required reading for every person of any religious persuasion, especially anyone who professes a faith a tied back to the Judaism from which the practice of Sabbath originates – and that includes Unitarian Universalists.  It is essentially a book about doing and being and that the Sabbath requires of us being in a world of doing.  Heschel begins the book this way:

“Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.
To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”

Later on, Heschel mentions that when the Romans first encountered the Jews and noticed their habit of keeping the Sabbath; of refraining from labor every seventh day, their reaction was nothing but contempt.  Has anything really changed?  To suggest in our culture today that stopping and being, reflecting and contemplating has deep value is considered absurd. It doesn’t produce anything that can be bought or sold (except possibly writing or other art).  What a waste – of time! And so anything, any endeavor that doesn’t see human beings as part of a process to production, to making money, to moving the economy is frowned upon.  Thus human beings become only a means to the end of production and profit and not ends in themselves.  A person that is only a means and not a end can never truly have dignity and worth, for the dignity and worth will always be relative to the production and profit value.

Time and again I return to ponder Heschel’s statement “What we are depends upon what the Sabbath is to us.  The law of the Sabbath day is in the life of the spirit what the law of gravitation is in nature.”   What is all our doing about if it leaves us no time to just be?


Be still and know that I am God

Be still and know

Be still