a little something extra

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sabbath 1

I've recommended this book -- Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, by Wayne Muller -- to several friends. It was first recommended to me by my friend Margaret. Later I recommended it to my friend Sara. Most recently, I brought it up with my friend Tripp.

Tripp has recently taken up a job as senior pastor of a church outside Chicago. One of the challenges this job has brought him is the temptation of the seven-day work week. He mentioned that he was having trouble figuring out how and when to take the down time he needs. I mentioned Muller's book to him, thinking he might be able to use some of the tips and encouragement it offers.

So now, the two of us have decided to read the book "together." Though we're not able to sit in the same room and read, we have agreed that we'll each read a chapter every week, and write a blog posting about it on Sunday. In this posting I'll address the introduction and chapter one.

But first, a few explanations. This book is not about religious practice. The author notes that the practice of designated time for rest and rejuvenation turns up in most organized religions throughout the world. But beyond that, the practice of a biologically mandated period of rest turns up everywhere in the natural world. Everything, from soil to microorganisms to plants to vertebrates, experiences periods of growth and productivity regulated by periods of fallowness and rest. So. We'll have no God-freaking-out in the comments, please.

Muller interleaves his short chapters with some recommendations for action that express different Sabbath practices from different traditions, and open different paths to rest and rejuvenation. I've decided to include in my weekly posts the exercise that goes with the chapter I've just read. If I do the exercise myself, I'll write something about my experience of it.

Muller's introduction is titled "Remember the Sabbath." This is one of the ten commandments given to the Jews and included in the responsibilities of practicing Christians. But the full commandment is typically translated along these lines, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." Muller doesn't stress the holy part. He discusses the importance of rest and the risks we run when we fail to rest. He notes that our current culture puts artificial value on simply being busy, and on appearing to be busy. And he translates the Chinese pictograph for the word "busy," which is made of two characters: heart and killing. Too much busyness kills the heart. My heart has certainly felt that strain at times.

Muller notes that "Sabbath time is not spiritually superior to our work." I agree with this. Work time is positive for one set of reasons. Sabbath time, rest time, is positive for another set of reasons. Ideally we'll each be able to create the balance of work time and rest time that sings in the best harmony for us. I know very few people, though, who live this way.

Muller stresses that there are some human qualities that can grow only in the medium of time. It reminds me of a science fair project I did in seventh grade, in which I grew some plants in potting soil and other plants of the same species in a hydroponic medium called nutrient agar. Time is the medium in which certain qualities grow, and without enough time, they simply won't grow. I would say that wisdom, the ability to see the big picture, and patience with others are all qualities that require a significant amount of time to develop. If we starve ourselves of time, we will never develop these qualities.

And that takes us to chapter one, "Rest for the Weary." It is the first part of a larger section of the book entitled "Rest" -- one of those lovely words that is a verb and a noun. In this short chapter, Muller tells stories of several people he has known who conducted busy modern lives until they were diagnosed with catastrophic illnesses. During their periods of illness, they changed their lives to include more rest. His own story is one of these.

But the thing that seemed to touch Muller the most deeply was how several of those people told him that they were secretly grateful to be struck with cancer or AIDS or heart attacks, because it finally gave them an indisputable, gold-plated excuse to indulge in the rest that they craved to the point of tears. He writes, "If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath."

The experience he describes sounds familiar to me. I enjoy utterly fabulous health -- and yet I have fantasized about contracting an illness grave enough to confine me to home, if not to bed, for weeks at a time. This is not a thing I actually wish for in my real life. It's a fantasy, and that fantasy expresses the need for rest that has grown up in me over years of overwork. Happily, I'm actually less overworked now that I have been in some past periods in my life. (The price of that reduction in overwork is food for another post sometime, but for now I'm going to press on.)

The exercise that concludes chapter one is "Lighting Sabbath Candles." Detour for a quick anecdote: one of the coolest experiences I've had in the past year was a restaurant dinner with a friend on a Friday night. We met at a casual bistro, and when our waiter brought us bread to nibble on while we waited for our order, my friend blessed it with the Hebrew blessing for bread. I had not been thinking about the fact that my friend is Jewish by heritage, nor did I know how much that was in active practice. But it was after sundown on a Friday. It was a very simple, very open thing to do, and I was moved by it.

Muller discusses briefly how candles are significant in the commencement of Sabbath in different traditions -- many Christian worship services begin with the ceremonial lighting of candles, as does the Jewish Sabbath meal. Here's his exercise:

Find a candle that holds some beauty or meaning for you. When you have set aside some time -- before a meal, or during prayer, meditation, or simply quiet reading -- set the candle before you, say a simple prayer or blessing for yourself or someone you love, and light the candle. Take a few mindful breaths. For just this moment, let the hurry of the world fall away.

Since I moved into my present abode in July, I have lit a candle on my table during every dinner I've eaten at home. In the past, I usually only lit a candle when I had company. But now, without a cable TV subscription, I'm not tempted to carry my plate into the living room and eat on the couch. Instead I eat at the table, and I enjoy the sense of well-being that the burning candle induces in me. It's inexpensive and satisfying. It also reminds me of architect Christopher Alexander's discussion of the hearth and fire. He places great emphasis on the power of fire to indicate home and safety. While I don't have a fireplace or a hearth in this apartment, I can mindfully let a candle flame bring a delicate sense of home.


At 9:15 PM , Blogger Benjamin said...

Being married to a woman who can barely tolerate relaxation time in her schedule, I am very appreciative of anyone who takes the vantage point that rest is not only a good thing, it is a *necessary* thing. Ever since I graduated from college the first time I have made an effort to build down time into my regular schedule. This was in direct response to one memorable 54 hour stretch of working feverishly to finish work on my undergraduate honors project (and yes, I remember most of it, unfortunately), after which I swore never again to allow any one thing to consume that much of my attention for that long of a period of time.

For those of us who really like what we do for a living, however, the temptation to do that all the time really is a problem. Finding balance can be amazingly complicated - it takes work to relax!

There are so many more conversations to be had about time being a medium for growth. My family (consisting of architects, educators, musicians, and computer geeks (in fact, all of those terms apply to pretty much all of us at some level)) has discussed how music and architecture are things experienced in both space and time, and how the variables of each (architecture and music) are so similar in so many regards. This sort of thing also applies to computer science, but in a much less visceral way. The differences between good code and bad code just aren't apparent to the layman. I can put code I know to be bad and code I know to be good in front of Average Guy and he won't have the capacity to tell the difference... but everyone has their favorite song.

This should be a good indicator, by the way, as to why computer geeks usually stick to their own kind. It sucks to go to a party and have someone ask you what you do for a living, and you say I'm a Computer Scientist, and that has effectively ended the conversation 92% of the time. Or, if someone is so brave as to ask for more detail, the eyes glaze over in short order. I get this a LOT, and I know that almost of my friends consider my professional career a black box, and on some level this makes me sad. It's not an ego thing (I have plenty of ego to spare)... but everyone appreciates an appreciative audience.

I've come rather far afield here. I think I'll go create my own post as a riff off of this one maybe. Hip Hip Hooray for creative plagarism!

And a lovely post, Megan!

At 9:28 AM , Blogger meeegan said...

Hey, you did it! First comment!

I don't think we experience music in space, though.

And because we are time-bound creatures, we experience EVERYTHING in time.

At 11:15 AM , Blogger Tripp Hudgins said...

Agreed, all things are experienced in time. This is why it is precious to us. And we should not think of it as something to spend in order to be successful. Time is gifted to us. Sabbath is for the people and not the other way around. What if we said the same about our work? Would we honor our time away from work as much as we honor the work itself? I would like to think so.

At 11:37 AM , Blogger meeegan said...

I don't understand the difference between capital and a gift, as you're stating it there, Tripp. Can you be clearer?

At 7:42 PM , Blogger Benjamin said...

I think we definitely experience music in space! From the many recordings (and performances!) I've done for Wanda and for various choral groups, I can tell you that the space in which one experiences music changes the character of the music drastically. Nothing kills a beautiful piece of music like listening to it in a shitty acoustic. Performing the Britten War Requiem at the Berlin Philharmonie was a VASTLY more rewarding experience than the performances we did of the same music at Atlanta's sad symphony hall (granted, not all of the difference was in the hall, but the hall... my goodness what a space!). I don't think you were with Festival Singers when we had to perform in the Church of the Epiphany, but that was a dry, nasty space and the music had no life there. We'd perform the same music the next day at St. Mark's and the entire character of the exeperience changed, both for us as performers and for the audience.

I think we can take your assertion that as temporal beings we experience *everything* in time a step further and say that, as we are also physical beings, we necessarily experience everything in space as well. Maybe a more interesting question is, is there anything that we experience outside of the context of our four dimensional existence? Perhaps dreams?

Ad whilst Tripp and I might have fascinating discourse on the nature of time, I definitely agree that all time spent in this life is valuable and around with not to be fucked, even the time you're just spending fucking around to recharge the batteries.

I read Tripp's distinction as similar to the distinction between money you make at work and money you are given by your grandmother for Christmas. The former you tend to put into a bank or spend on fixing the car, the latter you decide what you want for yourself outside of the context of necessity and spend it on that (when you have the luxury of doing so - sometimes grandma helps with the groceries, too). So considering all time as time gifted to us, we have to decide what it is we really want and spend our time pursuing it, rather than pretending we can save it up for later.

Or, I could be a total crack smoker and now Tripp thinks I'm a thundering jackass (get in line)...

At 7:59 PM , Blogger Wanda said...

As a rebuttal to the first comment, the wife of Ben not only tolerates, but she enjoys "time off." It's just that I prefer to go for the quick and easy opiate of the masses--Oprah, the Food Network and E! Entertainment. It keeps me strangely connected to popular culture, and it lets my brain slow to a halt. So there :P

At 5:53 AM , Blogger Tripp Hudgins said...

Ben, I would not call you a thundering jackass. I don't know you that well yet.

But, yeah, that's pretty much the disctinction. If our time is a gift from God, our lifespan if you will...then to squander it as if it were allowance is perhahps mistaken.

At 12:31 PM , Blogger meeegan said...

Wanda, I agree that the Food Network especially is the opiate of the masses! Karl Marx had nothing on Alton Brown. :-)

At 2:58 PM , Blogger Tripp Hudgins said...

Alton Brown...I want to be the churchy version of Alton Brown.

At 9:02 PM , Blogger Cristopher said...

can I play?

At 1:54 PM , Blogger meeegan said...

But of course!


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