Whatever Happened to Sunday?
By Wayne Muller
One morning, a few years ago, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine overslept. For this perfectionist in the midst of a major fund-raising campaign, it was cause for alarm. After years of non-stop toil in an atmosphere that rewarded frantic overwork, Rudenstine collapsed. "My sense was that I was exhausted," he told reporters. His doctor agreed. Only after a three-month sabbatical--during which he read essayist Lewis Thomas, listened to Ravel and walked with his wife on a Caribbean beach--was Rudenstine able to return to his post. That week, his picture was on the cover of Newsweek magazine beside the banner headline "Exhausted!"
Busyness Of Modern Life
In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between action and rest. As the founder of a public charity, I visit the offices of wealthy donors, crowded social-service agencies and the small homes of the poorest families. Remarkably, within this mosaic there is a universal refrain: "I am so busy." I speak with people in business and education, doctors and day-care workers, shopkeepers and social workers, parents and teachers, nurses and lawyers, students and therapists, community activists and cooks. The more our life speeds up, the more we feel weary, overwhelmed and lost. Despite our good hearts and equally good intentions, our life and work rarely feel light, pleasant or healing. Instead, as it all piles endlessly upon itself, the whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation. It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: "I am so busy." We say this to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single mindful breath -- this has become the model of a successful life.
Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that show us where to go. We lose the nourishment that gives us succor. We miss the quiet that gives us wisdom. Poisoned by the hypnotic belief that good things come only through tireless effort, we never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger.
How have we allowed this to happen? This was not our intention; this is not the world we dreamed of when we were young and life seemed full of possibility and promise. How did we get so terribly rushed in a world saturated with work and responsibility, yet somehow bereft of joy and delight?
I Suggest It Is This: We Have Forgotten The Sabbath
Most spiritual traditions prescribe some kind of Sabbath, time consecrated to enjoy and celebrate what is beautiful and good--time to light candles, sing songs, worship, tell stories, bless our children and loved ones, give thanks, share meals, nap, walk and even make love. It is time to be nourished and refreshed as we let our work, our chores and our important projects lie fallow, trusting that there are larger forces at work taking care of the world when we are at rest.
Sabbath time is a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, because it honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species do not lie dormant during winter, the plant begins to die off. Rest is not just a psychological convenience; it is a spiritual and biological necessity. Perhaps this is why, in most spiritual traditions, "Remember the Sabbath" is more than simply a lifestyle suggestion. It is a commandment, an ethical precept as serious as prohibitions against killing, stealing and lying. How can forgetting the Sabbath -- forgetting to be restful, sing songs and find nourishment and delight--possibly be morally and socially dangerous?
Roger is a gifted, thoughtful physician. Physicians are trained to work when they're exhausted, required to perform when they are sleep-deprived, hurried and overloaded. "I discovered in medical school," Roger told me, "that the more exhausted I was, the more tests I would order. I was too tired to see precisely what was going on with my patients. I could recognize their symptoms and formulate possible diagnoses, but I couldn't hear precisely how it fit together. So I would order tests to give me what I was missing. "But when I was rested--if I had an opportunity to get some sleep, or meditate, or go for a quiet walk --I could rely on my intuition and experience to tell me what was needed. If there was any uncertainty, I would order a specific test to confirm my diagnosis. But when I was rested and could listen and be present, I was almost always right."
Sabbath is more than the absence of work; it is a day when we partake of the wisdom, peace and delight that grow only in the soil of time -- time consecrated specifically for play, refreshment and renewal. Many of us, in our desperate drive to be successful and care for our many responsibilities, feel terrible guilt when we take time to rest. But the Sabbath has proven its wisdom over the ages. The Sabbath gives us the permission we need to stop, to restore our souls. As part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is already woven into the fabric of our society. Many of us still recall when, not long ago, shops and offices were closed on Sundays. Those quiet Sunday afternoons are embedded in our cultural memory.
Much of modern life is specifically designed to seduce our attention away from Sabbath rest. When we are in the world with our eyes wide open, the seductions are insatiable. Hundreds of channels of cable and satellite television; phones with multiple lines and call-waiting, begging us to talk to more than one person at a time; mail, e-mail and overnight mail; fax machines; billboards; magazines; newspapers; radio. For those of us with children, there are endless soccer practices, baseball games, homework, laundry, housecleaning, errands. Every responsibility, every stimulus competes for our attention: Buy me. Do me. Watch me. Try me. Drink me. It is as if we have inadvertently stumbled into some horrific wonderland.
Plea For A Renewed Sabbath
The point is not to return to some forced, legalistic Sabbath. We rightfully chafe against the dreary and humorless Sundays that obscured the more traditional healing prescriptions of companionship and laughter. A new Sabbath must invite a conversation about the forgotten necessity of rest. Sabbath may be a holy day, an afternoon, an hour, a walk -- anything that preserves the experience of life -- giving repose and nourishment. During Sabbath, when we take our hand from the plow and let the earth care for things, while we drink, if just briefly, from the fountain of rest and delight.
I make a plea for renewed Sabbath-keeping. As a nation, we cannot live like this, endlessly rushing about in a desperate frenzy, never stopping to enjoy the blessings of family and friends, unable to taste the fruits of life. We can change society by beginning a quiet revolution of change in ourselves and our families. Let us take a collective breath, rest, pray, meditate, walk, sing, eat and take time to share the unhurried company of those we love. Let us, for just one day, cease our desperate striving for more, and instead taste the blessings we have already been given, and give thanks. Religious traditions agree on this: God does not want us to be exhausted; God wants us to be happy. And so let us remember the Sabbath.
PRACTICES FOR A SIMPLE SABBATH
Light a candle.
Set aside sacred time for a family meal, for prayer or meditation or simply quiet reading. Set a candle before you, offer a simple blessing and let the world fall away.
Give thanks before meals, upon rising, when going to sleep. During Sabbath, we are less concerned with what is missing and more grateful for what has already been given.
Bless your children.
Place your hand gently on their heads and offer your blessing. What do you most wish for them? Self-knowledge, courage, safety, joy? Let them hear your prayers for their happiness.
Invite a Sabbath pause.
Choose one common act -- touching a doorknob, turning on a faucet or hearing the phone ring. Throughout the day when this occurs, stop and take three silent, mindful breaths. Then go on.
Take a walk.
Stroll slowly to nowhere in particular for 30 minutes. Let your senses guide you. Stop and observe deeply whatever attracts you -- a tree, a stone, a flower. Breathe.
Pamper your body.
Take a guilt-free nap. Take a leisurely bath with music, special scents, candles. Make love with your spouse. Walk barefoot in the grass. The Sabbath is a day of delight.
Create a Sabbath box.
Put your to-do list, your keys, your wallet -- anything you don't need in Sabbath time -- into the box. Or write down a particular worry or concern and drop it in. Just for now, let it go.
Turn off the telephone.
Or the computer, the TV, the washer and dryer. Create a period of time when you will not be disturbed or seduced by what our technologies demand of us.
Prepare a Sabbath meal -- or a Sabbath cup of tea.
Even if you are alone, you can choose foods you love, put flowers on the table, take time to enjoy every dish, give thanks for the bounty of the earth.
One of the most precious gifts we can offer is to be a place of refuge, a Sabbath for one another. Ask for companionship when you lose your way. Give quiet time and attention to others.
Reset your inner compass.
Make a list of the values and principles that guide your life -- both those you follow and those you would like to follow. Speak them aloud, alone or with loved ones.
Surrender a problem.
The Sabbath reminds us that forces larger than ourselves are at work healing the world. Imagine that these forces already know how to solve your problem. Turn it over to their care.
Adapted from Sabbath: Remembering the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Delight, by Wayne Muller. Copyright ©1999 by Wayne Muller. Bantam Books, a division of Random House Inc.