Our Need for Sabbath Rest

During the multiple Covid surges of 2021, I had a lot of hope about what 2022 would bring. But now that we have passed the two-year mark of the initial Covid lockdown and more than a million Covid deaths in the US, I see these expectations were unrealistic. Even though things are beginning to reopen, rather than thinking about how to get my life back to a pre-pandemic normal, I find myself thinking more and more about rest. Specifically, Sabbath rest.

For my purposes, I’ll use the definition of Sabbath from Wayne Muller’s book, “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight In Our Busy Lives.” He explains, “Sabbath is a time for sacred rest; it may be a holy day, the seventh day of the week, as in the Jewish tradition, or the first day of the week, as for Christians. But Sabbath time may also be a Sabbath afternoon, a Sabbath hour, a Sabbath walk – indeed, anything that preserves a visceral experience of life-giving nourishment and rest.”

The phrase that resonates the most for me in this definition is “sacred rest.” Rest seems to be a radical thing in our culture, and it feels like the pandemic has only exacerbated our lack of rest. Even with so many things shut down during the pandemic, I don’t think we gave ourselves rest that could be characterized as life-giving nourishment. My forms of rest were distracting rather than nourishing. It was even easier than before to mindlessly stream Netflix when isolating at home. And when I could tear myself away from screen entertainment, I noticed that my choices in books had changed. It became more about finding something easy to read, with a simple plot and a happy ending (or a neatly wrapped up mystery), rather than books that made me think.

Even our previously relaxing and self-nourishing hobbies took on a frantic overachieving. Social media highlighted people mastering sourdough bread baking, building a strong core with online Pilates classes, or planting a home vegetable garden and preserving all the bounty. Instead of dedicating myself to something constructive, I ate chocolate to assuage my anxiety about all things Covid and got even more anxious as I feared I’d never be able to stop.

Now we’ve reached a precarious resignation about the fact that Covid isn’t just going away. And our pre-pandemic activities are becoming available again. But I still don’t feel at ease doing the activities that used to be normal. And this unease clashes with the feeling that I need to “make up for lost time” and throw myself into all the activities I couldn’t do for the past two years. I’m in a permanent state of tired but wired. It feels like my adrenal system has been running at full speed for so long that it can’t shut down, and this is precisely the opposite of Sabbath rest.

Fortunately, we have precedents to follow for taking Sabbath rests. And a few passages from the Bible provide some helpful guidance.

In the first Genesis account of creation (Genesis 1-2), God rests after six days of creating the world. Note that this rest isn’t just the absence of work – it is actually the first sacred thing created. Genesis 2:3 says that after resting, “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” This day of rest is “hallowed,” it’s sacred. Not a “nice to have,” but something essential. God gives us a pattern to follow – a balance between effort and rest.

This message about the essential balance between work and rest is reiterated in the ten commandments. This is stunning when you think about it! Remembering (i.e., keeping) the Sabbath is important enough that it gets included with ethical prohibitions against killing, stealing, and lying.

God seems to have known that we humans would forget that everything in life is a blessing. That we would neglect to give thanks for the world itself and all we have. And sadly, we have done just that. We always want more. So much appears to be within our control and our grasp if we just work harder.

But that relentless pushing of ourselves (which our economy is quick to encourage) masks the scary truth that we don’t control as much as we think we do. We can’t endlessly push ourselves harder (or even smarter). We need rest. Muller says that by not resting, we lose our way. We miss the signs that show us the path to follow. We can’t hear the voices that tell us the right thing to do. We come to believe that determination and tireless effort are required for us to get good things.

We need to remember who we are without the outer trappings of our success. We need to remember who we are in our relationships; with each other, and with God. In reading through the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), I saw something I had never noticed before – how these are all about relationship.

The first three commandments are about our relationship with God. The fourth commandment, the Sabbath reminder, is mostly about taking care of ourselves (and ensuring that all in our household do the same). Only then does God give us the commandments about being in right relationship with others. It’s an interesting echo of the instruction we now hear on every airplane flight – put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help anyone else in an emergency.

So, I think it’s worthwhile to think about what Sabbath could be like in 2022. Maybe it’s not a whole day every week for self-nourishing rest, but something smaller and mindful that we can do to ease into a regular Sabbath practice. Maybe it starts by shifting our perspective to see rest not as a self-indulgent activity but as a sacred activity to provide more balance in our lives. And if we still need a bit more incentive to prioritize rest, it might help to keep reminding ourselves that Sabbath rest is likely to help us make better decisions, see the opportunities in front of us, give us a greater appreciation of our blessings, and improve our relationships.

A Closing Prayer

God, help me listen to the quiet voice inside me when it tells me to rest. Let me appreciate that everyone is unique, each with our own specific needs for rest and self-nourishment. So help me not compare myself with other people who may have different needs. Remind me of the graces that come from rest. Help me take at least a temporary break from the treadmill of hard work, and let me trust that I have enough and I am enough. Amen.

4 comments

  1. While I’m reading this blog, my brain is wandering to the list of things I want to accomplish today and my phone is dinging with text messages. This at 6:30 AM. Technology has made it impossible to rest unless we consciously shut off the noise(s). I am not one to rest, despite knowing how desperately my body (and mind) need it. Thank you for the insightful reminder, Tacky.

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  2. How do you so often know exactly what I need to hear? It’s been an especially busy few weeks here and I’ve not been great about getting my daily walk and dose of sunshine, this time to free my mind and move my body is as important to my mental health as my physical health. I am also feeling a pull to get to mass, not out of guilt or routine, but that respite that you describe (one kid’s sports schedule makes it pretty difficult, and sometimes impossible right now) I am very much looking forward to a day in the mountains with my daughter this weekend to start the path back! Thanks Cathy

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    1. A day in the mountains with your daughter sounds like a perfect Sabbath day! It will be something good for both you and your daughter (and you’re also making some good memories). Enjoy the day away from the busyness and I hope it refreshes you.

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