Sabbath: The Holy Practice of Rest

by Rev. Elizabeth River

November 2009

Rev. Elizabeth River

I want to talk about the Sabbath as a time to take a day of rest. More than that, I want to lift this thing—rest—to a higher plane, because in my experience it is a spiritual practice, a holy command.

What does the word “Sabbath” mean to you? Is it something like a religious word, a Bible word, signifying a sacred day set aside for going to church, hearing a sermon, singing, prayer? Do you think of it the way it is used in the 4th commandment, as a direct order from God about what we are and are not to do on this day?

In essence God said, “I did all this big stuff—made heaven, earth, sea, and everything in them…and then I rested—for a whole day!”

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Work six days and do everything you need to do.
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God.
Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter,
nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals,
not even the foreign guest visiting in your town.
For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and Sea,
and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day.
Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.”
(Exodus 20:8-11) 

This is given as a commandment, not just a kindly suggestion for the weary soul. It’s right up there with do not kill, do not steal, no lying, no adultery. It’s one of God’s Top Ten Commandments for living the spiritual life. And, embedded in the commandment, is God’s description of what being busy looked like for him.

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence
…[and that is] activism and overwork.
The rush and pressure of modern life
are a form, perhaps the most modern form,
of its innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away
by a multitude of conflicting concerns,
to surrender to too many demands,
to commit oneself to too many projects,
to want to help everyone in everything,
is to succumb to violence.”
(Thomas Merton)

Before we talk about the Sabbath and its deeper meaning and implications, I want us first to look at the 24/7 lives we are living, and this is the life that is a form of violence which Thomas Merton talks about. The very expression “24/7”, which I hear more and more these days, makes me shudder. It is an exemplar of the violence of our times, as it suggests a constant flow of activity, information, communication, movement, travel, commerce, and noise.

I want to ask you to think of the pace of your life and how you move through each day. Do you stop and eat meals sitting down, with other members of your family or household, at a table? How long does it take? Do you take any rest during each day? Do you have times set aside when you refrain from things like talking on the phone, or driving, or being on the Internet, or watching television? Do you always watch and/or read the news? How much time do you have direct conversations with others? With God, or your own deeper wisdom? Do you read? What creative things do you do? How much time do you allow yourself to have in nature?

A few years ago, I took a “Journey in the Spirit” led by Ann and Bill Eichhorn, which drew upon the book A Pace of Grace by Linda Kavelin Popov. I found myself hungry for the messages of this book. This author teaches us how to rest … how to let go of the frantic busy pace of life … how to be peace. I felt grateful to have been brought to this information, and began slowly to put a few of the principles into my life.

I am grateful that I didn’t have to have a paralyzing disease to be willing to look at my overcommitted days. But still, it took me a few more years of what I now call “living violently” to begin to make big changes in how I walk on this planet. I still have a long way yet to go. I have struggled with exhaustion a lot. And I’ve learned to let my exhaustion be my teacher and friend, rather than the enemy. From this teaching, I have been better about letting go of commitments and activities in my schedule.

Then, in June of this year, I was at a Marin Interfaith Council silent retreat led by Henry Schreibman, a rabbi, and Arthur Scott, a Sufi. Their amazing presentation on the art of silence was completely inspiring. Henry said, at one point, something like: “Being a devout Jew means living a 24/6 life.” He went on to explain that this means we need to keep a Sabbath day, which excludes things like driving, telephones, the Internet, and using money.

I decided, right then and there, to begin to celebrate a Sabbath for myself. I started by choosing the things I needed to exclude for the Sabbath to be truly a day of rest. And, remembering this passage from Thomas Merton, I thought about all the things I do that do not bring me rest, that incite me to busy-ness, overwhelm, worry, anxiety, sometimes even dread.

Next, I chose a day that can be Sabbath for me: Monday. Like the Jewish Sabbath, I begin mine on Sunday, the day before, at sunset (6 pm actually), and go until 6 pm on Monday. I have chosen for my Sabbath prohibitions: no driving, no phones of any kind, no voicemails, no Internet, no money transactions, no work. I’ve also chosen not even to turn on the computer, as it’s too much of a temptation to go to email, which is absolutely one of the clearest sources of violence for me: I can’t control the sheer numbers, much less content of incoming email. Once I start looking at them, I lose control of my time and my state of mind, and the majority of what I read is not nurturing and loving. So that’s all out. I don’t own a TV, so of course television is out—I gave myself that gift a few years ago. Ditto all news; I don’t read the news either.

Okay, so we know what’s out; but what’s in? Just as I looked at the things that made me feel worry, or dread to eliminate, I looked at what puts a smile on my face, at what I love! The list looks something like this: Rest. Read. Write (by hand). Pray. Meditate. Be outside in nature. Walk. Sing. Draw. Make a collage. Garden. Knit. Pet the cats. Fix food. Have lovely meals at the table with candles and music. Breathe in and out. Take baths. Have someone over for Sabbath dinner on Sunday evening. Laugh and have fun. Play games, do puzzles. Have candles and burn incense. Use affirmations and centering prayer: “My cup overflows.”  “He restores my soul.”  “I shall not want.”

I have been doing this practice since June 22, almost 12 weeks! Each one is different. A couple of times, I was so wiped out from my week that all I did was rest! And I mean REST. I stayed in my pajamas all day. I read an entire novel between naps. I sat in my rocker and looked out the window at the birds in the orchard. I went back to bed. … On another Sabbath, I got an idea for a collage and worked on that for 6 straight hours, full of joy!

Once I cheated on my Sabbath: I drove the car to the Laundromat, bought groceries, and entered my timesheet on the computer for work. This happened because I had not prepared for the Sabbath by getting everything else done on the other 6 days. That week, I felt bad on Tuesday morning, the first day of my normal week. I had let myself down, and I was disappointed. I not only wasn’t rested; I had not restored myself by returning to that deeper place in the life of the spirit. So now I’ve learned that I have to organize myself even better, by getting the house clean, all chores done, groceries in the house, bills paid, etc. so I can truly celebrate the Sabbath with peace and gratitude, instead of worry or regret.

I want to invite you now, into thinking about Sabbath as a practice for you. Think about your own one wild and precious life. Do you rest? Do you give yourself the heavenly gift of silence on a regular basis? Of being in nature? Of playing?

I want you to imagine giving yourself a Sabbath day each week. Think of one or two things that you would like to refrain from, on that day, that would give you more peacefulness, rest, or joy. And think of one or more things you would like to do, that you never seem to have the time to do now, that would bring you peace, joy, pleasure or delight.

In closing, I offer this prayer:

Holy One, You who are called by so many names
and are beyond all names,
Thank you for your unfathomable gifts
and limitless love.

Show us how to live in the sacred rhythm
of the cycles of our days:
work and play and serve and rest,
with reverence for each moment.

Thank you for
hope and healing,
love and forgiveness,
kindness and compassion.

Let us allow ourselves the space of grace,
of silence, stillness, quiet and rest,
that we may carry these messages with us
in every moment of our precious lives.



This article is adapted from a sermon delivered at Sermon at Community
Congregational Church in Tiburon, California, on Sunday Sept. 6, 2009.