Keeping the Sabbath


The Sufi mystic Rumi once lamented: I have lived too long where I can be reached! That was twelve hundred years ago, long before cell phones, the internet, computers, and social media. Today, most of us live where we can be reached all the time. While this has some huge upsides, it also has a nasty underside we have been slow to recognize. Never being able to step away from our preoccupations and involvements is weighing on our mental health. Many of us now find it difficult to step away, to stop activities, to rest, to refresh, to re-energize. To put this in biblical language, we are finding it more and more difficult to have “Sabbath” in our lives.

We have a commandment from God: Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. I think we can all agree that this commandment has fallen on hard times today. It is not just that fewer and fewer people are going to their churches on Sunday, or that more and more shops and businesses are open on Sunday, or that sporting events now take up much of the Sabbath space once reserved for religion. The deeper issue is that more and more of us can no longer slow down our lives, shut down the communication machines, get away from the stress and preoccupations in our lives, and simply stop and rest.

We are living where we can always be reached and have for the most part lost the notion of Sabbath in our lives. We are now treating a commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy as an idealized lifestyle suggestion: Helpful, if you can find the time to do it.

With this in mind, I offer Ten Councils for practicing Sabbath today.

  1. Practice Sabbath with the discipline demanded of a commandment, even as you practice the discipline of life and duty.
  2. Have at least one “Sabbath” moment every day. Give yourself something to look forward to every day. Sabbath doesn’t have to be a day; it can be special hour, a special moment, where you step off the treadmill and treat yourself to something you enjoy.
  3. Go somewhere every week where you can’t be reached and have a “cyber-Sabbath”. Once a week turn off all your electronic communication for six hours or, better yet, for twelve hours. Go to a place where, save for an emergency, you are unavailable. You might find this the hardest discipline of all – and perhaps the most important one.
  4. Honor the “wisdom of dormancy”. Do something regularly that is non-pragmatic. Farmers know that you can’t seed a field continuously and still get a good yield. Fields require regular seasons where they lie fallow so that they can (in that seeming condition of dormancy) soak in the nutrients and other elements they need to produce. The human body and psyche are the same. We need, regularly, periods of dormancy where our energies lie fallow to the pragmatic world.
  5. Pray and meditate regularly in some way. There is only one rule and counsel for this: Do it! Show up regularly, and whatever happens, happens. This is a major way that we step off the treadmill and have some Sabbath in our lives.
  6. Be attentive to little children, old people, and the weather. Sabbath is meant to restore wonder to our lives, and today wonder has left the building. So, as the poet John Shea says, borrow wonder from the children. It is one of the few places we can still find it.As well, time spent with elderly people can help give us a healthier perspective on life. Also, when have we last noticed the weather as a source of wonder?
  7. Live by axiom: “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not with these people, with whom? If not for God, why? We spend ninety-eight percent of our lives waiting for something else to happen to us. Have some moments where you realize that what you are waiting for is already here.
  8. Let your body also know that it is Sabbath. Sabbath is meant not just for the soul but also for the body. Give your body a Sabbath treat, at least once a week.
  9. Make family and relationships the priority. At the end of the day, life is about family, friendships, and relationships, a truth easily eclipsed and lost in the pressures of our fast-paced lives. Sabbath is meant to reground us in that truth at least once a week.
  10. Don’t nurse grudges and obsessions. Our deepest tiredness isn’t the result of overwork, but of the wounds, grudges, and obsessions we nurse. The invitation to rest for a day includes, especially, the invitation to let go of our hurts. Indeed, the notion of the statute of limitations is based on Judeo-Christian concept of the Sabbath. For every grudge we are nursing there is a statute of limitations.

God gave us Sabbath, for our health and our enjoyment.

Sacred Permission to be in Agony


We live this life “mourning and weeping in a valley of tears.” This was part of a prayer my parents prayed every day of their adult lives, as did many others in their generation. In the light of contemporary sensitivities (and one-sided spiritualities) this might sound morbid. Are we to understand our lives as time of grieving in a world that cannot deliver happiness? Is this really what God wants of us?

Taken without nuance, this can indeed be morbid. God didn’t put us into this world to suffer in order to go to heaven. No. God is a good parent. Good parents bring children into this world with the intent that they should flourish and find happiness. So why might our Christian faith ask us to understand ourselves as mourning and weeping in a valley of tears?

For my parents, that phrase brought a certain consolation, namely, that their lives didn’t have to deliver the full symphony, heaven right now. It gave them sacred permission to accept that in life there will be disappointments, suffering, poverty, sickness, loss, frustrated dreams, heartbreak, misunderstanding, and death. They never over-expected and understood that it is normal to experience pain and disappointment. Paradoxically, by accepting this limitation, they were able to give themselves permission to thoroughly enjoy life’s good moments without guilt.

My fear is that we are not equipping ourselves nor the next generation with the tools needed to undergo frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak without breaking down in faith (and sometimes too in psyche and body). Today, for the most part, our normal expectation is that we shouldn’t be finding ourselves mourning and weeping, but rather that life should be delivering a full symphony. We no longer feel that we have sacred permission to be weeping.

The spirituality we breathe in today from our churches, theologians, and spiritual writers has many strong points (just as the one my parents breathed in had its weaknesses). However, to my mind, for the most part spiritualities today do not leave sufficient space for grieving, a lacuna shared by most of the secular world.

We are not making enough space for grief, either in our churches or in our lives. We are not giving people the tools they need to handle frustration, loss, and heartbreak, nor how to grieve when they are beset by them. Outside of our funeral rituals, we make very little room for grief. Worse still, we tend to give the impression that there is something wrong in our lives if there are tears. What’s the place and value of grieving?

First, as Karl Rahner poetically explains, it is a way of accepting that in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we ultimately learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony. Grieving is also, as Rachel Naomi Remen writes, a critical way of self-care. Not to grieve, she submits, is a denial of our own wholeness. People burn out because they don’t grieve. British novelist Anita Brookner repeats a particular refrain in several of her books. Commenting on marriage, she suggests that the first task in a marriage is for the couple to console each other for the fact that they cannot not disappoint each other.”  

My parents had not read Karl Rahner, Rachel Naomi Remen, or Anita Brookner, but in their daily prayer they reminded themselves that in this life there is no finished symphony, that grieving is healthy self-care, and that it’s consoling to accept that neither of them could ever be quite enough for the other since only God can provide that.

What do we need to grieve? Our human condition and all that comes with it, namely,  impermanence, the loss of our youth, the loss of a youthful body, wounds, betrayals, frustrated dreams, heartbreaks, the loss of loved ones, the death of our honeymoons, the perennial flow through our lives of people, places, and institutions and then disappearing, our incapacity to not be disappointing to others, the loss of our health, and our eventual deaths, that’s what we need to grieve.

And how do we grieve? Jesus left us a template for this when he grieved in the garden of Gethsemane. What did he do when, as the Gospels say, he was reduced to “sweating blood” as he faced his own imminent death? He prayed, prayed a prayer that openly and honestly expressed his agony, that recognized his distance from others inside this suffering, which acknowledged his own helplessness to do anything to change the situation, that repeatedly begged God to alter things, but that expressed a trust in God despite the present darkness. That’s the way Jesus wept.

If Jesus wept, so must we. The disciple is never superior to the master. Moreover, we can learn from Jesus that mourning and weeping in our lives do not necessarily mean that there is something wrong. It might well mean that this is where are meant to be.    

We have sacred permission to sometimes be in agony.

Praying When It Seems Useless


Prayer is most needed just when it seems most useless. Michael J. Buckley, one of the major spiritual mentors in my life, wrote those words. What does he mean by them?

In the face of so many problems we can get the feeling that praying about them is useless. For example, in the face of the discouragement and helplessness we feel before some of the mega problems in our world, it is easy to feel that praying about them is useless. What will my prayer do vis-à-vis the wars raging in different parts of the world? What’s the value of my prayer in the face of injustice, famine, racism, and sexism? What will my prayer do vis-à-vis the divisions and hatred now dividing our communities? It is easy to feel that praying about these situations is useless.

The same holds true about how we often feel about the value of prayer when serious illnesses beset us. Will prayer bring about a cure for someone with terminal cancer? Do we really expect a miraculous cure? Mostly, we don’t, but we continue to pray despite the feeling that our prayer won’t in fact change the situation. Why?

Why pray when it seems useless to do so? Theologians and spiritual writers have given us various perspectives on this which are helpful, though not adequate. Prayer, they say, is not meant to change the mind of God, but to change the mind of the person who is praying. We don’t pray to put God on our side; we pray to put ourselves on God’s side. As well, we have been taught that the reason it might seem that God doesn’t answer our prayers is that God, like a loving parent, knows what is good for us and answers our prayers by giving us what we really need rather than what we naively want. C.S. Lewis once said that we will spend a lot of time in eternity thanking God for those prayers that God didn’t answer.

All of this is true and important. God’s ways are not our ways. Faith asks us to give God the space and time to be God, without having to conform to our very limited expectations and habitual impatience. We can indeed be grateful that God doesn’t answer many of our prayers according to our expectations.

But still, still … when Jesus invited us to pray, he didn’t do so with a caveat: but you need to ask for the right things if you expect me to answer your prayer. No, he simply said: Ask and you will receive. He also said that some demons are only cast out by prayer and fasting.

So, how might the demons of violence, division, hatred, war, hunger, global warming, famine, racism, sexism, cancer, heart disease, and the like be cast out by prayer? How is prayer useful in any practical way in the face of these issues?

In brief, prayer doesn’t just change the person who is praying, it also changes the situation. When you pray you are in fact part of the situation about which you are praying. Sincere prayer helps you become the change you are praying to bring about. For example, praying for peace helps you to calm your own heart and bring a more peaceful heart into the world.

While this is true, there is also a deeper reality at play. More deeply, when we pray there is something happening that goes beyond how we normally imagine the simple interplay between cause and effect. By changing ourselves we are changing the situation; yes, but in a deeper way than we normally imagine.

As Christians, we believe that we are part of a body, the Body of Christ, and that our union there with each other is more than some idealized corporate community. Rather, we are part of a living organism in which every part affects every other part, just as in a physical body. Because of this, for us, there is no such a thing as a private act – good or bad. I hesitate to suggest that this is analogous to the immune system inside the human body because this is more than an analogy. It’s real, organic. Just as in a human body there is an immune system which protects the health of the overall body by killing off cells and viruses that are endangering its health, so too inside the Body of Christ. At all times, we are either healthy cells bringing strength to the immune system inside the Body of Christ or we are a virus or cancerous cell threatening its health. Praying about an issue makes a difference because it helps strengthen the immune system inside the Body of Christ – precisely as it is dealing with the issue about which we are praying. While on the surface prayer can sometimes feel useless, it is doing something vital underneath – something most needed precisely when we feel that our prayer is useless.