Contents: UU World Back Issue

Relax: the discipline

... Observing a Unitarian Universalist Sabbath

by Amanda Aikman

Are we becoming a nation of cat-vacuumers? I raise this pressing question remembering my neighbor Betty. She had a rambling three-story house filled with knick-knacks. She had a gentle husband, Jay, who mostly stayed out of her way, tending his roses. And she had a cat.

Betty also had some sort of compulsion that made it impossible for her to leave the house in the morning without first dusting or vacuuming every single item in it. This included Reuben. He was a slim, black little fellow whose elegance of gait and demeanor did not betray his humble origins: As a kitten, he had been rescued from a dumpster by Jay, who brought him home in his pocket. Reuben knew he had been rescued from a dumpster. He knew about the world outside Betty and Jay’s house—a harsh reality where there were bad smells, hunger, other cats, and noises even louder than the whine of a vacuum cleaner.

And so every morning, with a martyred expression on his furry face not unlike that of Saint Sebastian in Guido Reni’s famous painting, Reuben would lie on his back and submit to being vacuumed. Betty used the Hoover’s upholstery crevice tool, determined to get every last scrap of fur and dander. Jay would sometimes come by and say (over the noise of the vacuum), “Now, Betty, why do you have to vacuum that poor cat?” Betty didn’t know. She just kept vacuuming. She had to do it before she could feel free to leave the house.

Brothers and sisters, is there something in your life that is the equivalent of cat vacuuming? Something you feel compelled to do, even though it drains your time and energy, even though it makes very little sense—something to which you have bound yourself and from which there is no rest?

Does it sometimes feel as if your entire life is like this—an endless round of work and frantic consumption and leisure that feels suspiciously like work? Is true, healing rest something you are vaguely planning to enjoy . . . one day? Can you even remember the last time you were truly, totally relaxed? Was it days ago? Months?
In the early years of the twentieth century, Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, noticed a phenomenon he called “Sunday neurosis”: normally healthy professional people would experience mental and physical distress on the Sabbath. Ferenczi theorized that these patients, deprived of their normal busy routine by the advent of Sunday, feared that their usual self-censoring mechanisms would prove inadequate to keep their impulses repressed. They felt out of control—and developed pain or mental anguish to drown out their anxiety.

A hundred years later, we have eliminated the blue laws that restricted the range of things you could do on a Sunday. Now we can work, shop, and engage in all kinds of organized recreation, twenty-four seven. We don’t suffer from Sunday neurosis; most of us never sit still long enough to experience it.

Because we Americans turn even leisure into work, true rest eludes us. Some years back, when sensory deprivation tanks were in vogue, I “floated” a few times as an aid to meditation. I loved the dark tank, the skin-temperature water so saturated with minerals that it felt oily, the effortless floating sensation, the physical and mental refreshment it brought. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that some floaters turned even that deliciously empty time into an opportunity for self-improvement. Once, as I was emerging from the tank, I noticed a small screen on its inside lid. On my way out of the building, I asked what the screen was for. “Oh,” a staffperson said, “some people study videos about how to improve their golf swing while they’re floating.”

The Sabbath comes to us from the Jewish tradition. In the story of creation in Genesis, each of God’s six acts of creation is like an act in a play. And the climax is: God rests. Why would God have thought it so important to rest? Rabbi Elijah of Vilna said that God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only when we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so.

We don’t stop to rest, however. We don’t stop to think about the meaning of what we have created. We don’t stop to consider ourselves and our place in the universe. Judith Shulevitz writes that “the Sabbath, the one day in seven dedicated to rest by divine command, has become the holiday Americans are most likely never to take.”

Longingly, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “When will you ever, Peace, wild wood-dove, shy wings shut, / Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?” Peace does not just come and alight under one’s boughs. If we are relentlessly and unceasingly busy, we can’t even recognize peace. Peace might come and start cooing around our tree, and we might mistake it for boredom or depression. Yet how can we hope to create peace in the world when we don’t experience it in our own bodies, our own souls?

It is extraordinarily difficult to take a real Sabbath, to shut out the myriad voices that berate us for lazily sitting still when we could be earning money, improving ourselves or society, or—our real patriotic duty—shopping. It is difficult. But it can be done. We can set aside time and space, and keep it sacred. We can clear out the underbrush to make space under the tree, and sit there quietly. Then peace can gently come and roost, nurturing us, giving us joy and a sense of reconnection with the holy.

That is why the Sabbath was created: to build that nest for peace. Observant Jews light candles on Friday evening to welcome the Sabbath. Observant Christians may start Sunday with prayer or quiet Bible study. But many nonreligious people, too, have learned how to usher Sabbath into their own lives.

Sharing a meal with loved ones—or preparing a beautiful meal for oneself—is one popular Sabbath activity. A woman who regularly invites friends over to cook with her tells Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath, “It becomes almost sacred, sacramental, the way food and hands and friendship all work together in the warmth of the kitchen.”

The Sabbath does not have to be restricted to one day a week, of course. There should be moments of Sabbath in every day—moments of hallowing the world. Kalu Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual leader, visited an aquarium and kept stopping to put his fingers to the glass of each tank, quietly blessing every fish as he walked: “May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

My partner and I spent last Thanksgiving at a lodge on the Olympic Peninsula and went for a long hike one morning. As we set out, we agreed to walk in silence for the first hour. I took a brief detour off the trail, and when I returned to it, Nancy was signaling to me urgently, smiling. There, just off the trail, was a doe, staring calmly at us. We stood silently for a long minute, the two humans and the wild creature, before the doe melted away into the underbrush. If we had been talking, she never would have lingered, and we would have missed that transcendent moment.

Observing the Sabbath, observing a day of mindfulness, taking a real day off, does not require anything extra of us. It does call for the intentional creation of sacred space and time. It takes a little discipline. It also calls us to overcome our fear of what we will find in the silence and the emptiness, our fear of what disaster will strike if the cat remains un-vacuumed.

The most challenging thing about Sabbath is that it is useless. Nothing will get done, not a single item will get checked off any list. Our work is necessary. But Sabbath time offers the priceless gift of balance. We are valued not for what we have done, but simply because we are. During Sabbath time, we reconnect with what is truly valuable: the beauty of the world, the love of God, the miracle of being itself. Sabbath is waiting quietly for us, a haven of calm, a nest of gentleness, a sweet apple on the tree of peace. Let us reach up toward it, and taste it for ourselves.

The Rev. Amanda Aikman is minister of the Olympic Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Angeles, Washington. Adapted from her sermon, “Welcoming the Wild Wood-Dove,” one of three winners of the first annual Richard C. Borden Sermon Award competition.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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