Developing sabbath spirituality: restoring life’s rhythm

How developing a sabbath spirituality may help us cope in a frenetic world.

Developing sabbath spirituality: restoring life's rhythm Archdiocese of Wellington My great nephew is six. Watching the ease with which James deals with cyberspace tells me that his childhood reality is vastly different from my 1950s one with its marbles, knucklebones and hopscotch. But, despite his technological sophistication James still inhabits the same world of make-believe and wonder that I did, announcing very loudly in Mass recently that ‘Elizabeth has her very own broomstick’! I’m unsure what liturgical moment provoked this connection for James, but for now he moves happily between the real world and the world of fantasy. What about James’s parents and grandparents, long past the age of make-believe? How do they cope with the demands of the post-modern world?

This three-part series will explore how developing a sabbath spirituality may help us cope in a frenetic world obsessed with success and productivity. Part One will highlight some aspects of life today, Part Two will describe the biblical understanding of Sabbath, while Part Three will discuss ways to reclaim this tradition of sacred time by suggesting some simple spiritual practices.

Losing our rhythm—tomatoes in June?
We need a balance between work and rest. But how often do you hear people say, ‘I’m sooo busy!’, or ‘I’m exhausted!’ What has happened to the natural work/rest rhythm? Rhythms are everywhere: in the way day fades into night, our heart beats, we breathe, plant our gardens, farm the land, as well as in the seasons and tides. However, the demands of life today increasingly play havoc with these rhythms.

Sketching the complexity of life today social commentators conclude that in the midst of it all we are searching for a sense of belonging, moral authenticity, meaning and purpose, transcendence and mystery. They note that society is diverse, eclectic, cosmopolitan, multilingual, multiracial, multicultural, multireligious, deeply fragmented, riddled by extremes of all kinds and often violent.

Time is our most valuable commodity—we would rather donate money than give up time. Often disillusioned with rampant individualism and the frenetic accumulation of material possessions, we yearn for spiritual sustenance.

These commentators point out that multinational corporations have changed the face of economics. Company mergers create increasing unemployment, while economic recession in one country has instant ramifications in others. The gap between rich and poor constantly increases. Widespread poverty and disease, the displacement of peoples on a massive scale through war and natural disasters, and the ecological crisis all worsen daily. Global terrorism forces issues upon us that we would rather keep in the ‘too hard basket’.

Urban life is increasingly mobile. We can live in one area, work in another, recreate in a third and have friends in a fourth. It is not unusual to have four or five careers during a lifetime. Gone are the days when qualifications in one field were enough to guarantee meaningful employment until retirement.

Significant, too, is the tremendous technological power now available. Instant global communications and rapid air transport can bring the world to our doorstep immediately. No longer can we plead ignorance and isolation. The humanitarian disaster in Myanmar is in our lounge.

Because familial and faith bonds are much weaker today many people are ritually homeless. Some have little appreciation of custom, symbol and metaphor, and no experience of meaningful liturgy to help them accept the rhythm of life and death. They are spiritual tourists without a belief system to ground them.

Time, space and order were once unifying markers but technological advances have radically changed our understanding of them and disrupted their rhythms:
We read in Genesis that time is governed by the sun that rules the day and the stars that rule the night. Now, because of 24-hour shopping and technology that allows us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, we can have endless day. This too has influenced when and where we holiday. An increasing number of New Zealanders holiday overseas in the July/August period to catch the northern hemisphere summer, while working during the traditional Christmas break here. The natural seasonal rhythm to which our bodies are attuned is disrupted.
In many places, air conditioning and heating have created a universal climate. Massive shopping malls can mean that we rarely have to venture outside. Again our natural body rhythm is disrupted.
We once knew what was non-negotiable and what was relative. Now everything from food, shelter, health and education can be bought by those with the money. Shopping is almost compulsive and time once spent going to church is now for shopping (or surfing the web).

We are estranged—from one another, from the world around us and even from ourselves. There is often no sense of purpose apart from the imperatives of technology, efficiency and success. Reality is what’s on the TV and computer screens. Survival demands that we play various roles as a professional, spouse, club member or friend. The self gets caught in an endless flow of images, almost ceasing to exist, finally fragmenting and identifying with the flow. Even death, when we complete the breathing rhythm begun at birth, is now much less ‘grounded’—we opt for cremation and want our ashes ‘scattered’.

There are just some of the reasons for the interruptions to our natural rhythms. How then is it possible to cope in such a world without feeling spread out all over the place? We’re adults—we can’t escape on a broomstick to a world of make-believe. Where do we find the resources to restore our sense of rhythm? Next month I will explore one particular resource: the biblical tradition of Sabbath.