Sabbath

by Pam Collins

I sometimes notice that Biblical injunctions, if looked at closely, have practical implications that transcend religious confines.  Lately, in the age of COVID-19, the idea of “Sabbath” has gained traction for me.

Consider these words from Lawrence Jaffe — “Work can and will take up all of one’s time and energy with nothing left over for God.  The subjective world, the psyche, the eternal world, will be neglected.  That is why the Sabbath was created — to demarcate and structure a regular and collectively sanctioned time when individuals could be freed from worldly obligations.”

From a UU perspective, there’s much to be unpacked here.  I’ll start with the nature of our imposed “lock-down.”  One could argue that since it is imposed, it doesn’t qualify as a personal sacrifice to “God” (I’ll get to that piece in a minute).  True.  But in this imposed retreat from the social world, how we choose to use our time is very much in our control.  

And if we define “God” as the spiritual/psychological health of our inner being which then informs our good relationship with others, then “taking time off” is not a sacrifice at all, but a blessing to ourselves and others.  

In modern culture, it seems that the “sin” is not failing to take time for one’s inner health, but rather taking time away from the concerns of the material world — a perspective that we’re seeing emerge from those who are more concerned about the economy than the possibility of a plague-like spread of a virus.  (As if that wouldn’t do more damage — lasting damage — to our economy than a temporary shut down).

The challenges of this “shelter in place” policy are many and not to be dismissed, but it seems to be necessary and so to rail against it isn’t the best use of our energy.  That’s where the notion of Sabbath comes in for me.

A strict sabbath means no house cleaning, no TV watching etc.  which might be ok for 24 hours, but certainly not for an extended period of time.  I for one am working on my basement.  So far I’ve filled my huge recyclable container and there’s more to go.  

But I’ve also, to my amazement, maintained a daily meditation practice and looked at my activities with heightened mindfulness.  And of course, there’s the deepening appreciation for the freedom of movement and engagement that is now in abeyance.  In short, I’m definitely spending more time looking inward.  Again, from Jaffe…”Perusing that silent sea of time, what unsuspected thoughts or feelings might arise.  One could just stay home and talk.  Talk to another or to oneself…Talk and listen.”  

My 15 year old granddaughter, as one might guess, is suffering from this as only a teenager dependent on interaction with her peers could.  Grandma tried giving her some suggestions of things to do, none of which gained much traction (they were things that appealed to me, after all).  When I suggested that she might write about her experience of this situation her response was that she didn’t want to be in this situation and writing about it would make it worse.  I didn’t argue.  She is 15 after all.  But we all have our stories of what “love in the time of COVID-19” is like.  I hope that many of us commit our experiences and thoughts to paper as we spend more time listening to one another and our own thoughts.

All this being said, I will acknowledge that two or three weeks or (God forbid) longer than that of “turning inward” could have negative effects…but we’ve made a commitment as a community not to let that happen.  While complying with the needs of this situation, we are finding ways to connect, to continue commitments, and to do what we can to make sure the wheels of the larger world keep turning.  All this, but learning something new as well.

“It is a symptom of our spiritually benighted age that the impact the Sabbath day could have on our lives has been forgotten” Jaffe concludes.  In our current situation, we have an opportunity, forced though it is, to learn something highly valuable.  The concept of Sabbath need not be confined to religious doctrine.  The need for slowing down, turning inward, paying attention to the health of our psyches, transcends religion.  It is a basic human need.  May you all be blessed with your own version of Sabbath in these strange days.