“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest; it’s whole-heartedness.” – Br. David Steindl-Rast
What does Sabbath look like on a small, part-time farm? The Christian and Jewish traditions call for a day of rest each week, and as a person who works too hard in general, I think the Sabbath commandment makes a great deal of sense. However, I’m not especially good at keeping it.
This past weekend, for example, was utterly gorgeous weather: sunny, windy, and unusually warm temps in the 60s and 70s. It was a weekend to be outside – not only to enjoy the weather, but also to take care of a variety of pressing projects on the farm. As it happened, however, our entire Saturday was filled with other commitments away from the farm. We also had intended to spend Sunday afternoon with family friends, until a bit of illness in our family scuttled those plans. Hours of unexpected free time stretched out before me, and I promptly got busy: some maintenance on one of our vehicles, planting and mulching the remaining raspberry starts in a new berry patch we’re establishing, and other outdoor tasks.
“Tasks” is not the right word for this, however, nor does “work” seem like an adequate description. Our kids were outside the whole time, occasionally helping, mostly playing nearby in the creek, in the bed of my truck, on the tractor, in the tall rye/vetch cover crop in our larger vegetable plots, and elsewhere. Laughing at them and with them, enjoying the lovely weather, working deliberately but without haste, and setting my mind at ease by getting urgent projects completed – I was getting a lot done, but it hardly felt like work.
I don’t make any attempt to follow the Sabbath commandment with strict adherence to the letter of the law. In that respect, I wouldn’t make a very good Orthodox Jew (just as I probably don’t make a very good Catholic). Even so, I really do try to have a day of rest each week. I’ve long since given up the idea that it has to fall on Sunday. I frequently work weekends at Saint Meinrad, so I often find that my days off don’t coincide with the regular weekend. And in the attempt to get farming tasks done when the weather is favorable and I have time to give it, Sundays are often fair game.
So is it possible to work, as I did this past Sunday, and yet still be keeping Sabbath?
I have no definite answer for this, but most truthful response I can come up with is also the most maddeningly ambiguous: it depends. There are plenty of times on our farm when the work is plainly and simply work: it’s miserably hot or cold, my body hurts, I miss my kids and Cyndi, the job is overwhelming, I’m in a resentful mood, and so forth. But this past Sunday, none of that was the case; I enjoyed every minute, and the day definitely felt like “Sabbath time.”
Jesus was no Sabbath stickler. He and his disciples gleaned grain on the Lord’s day. He infuriated the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath and even commanding a man he healed to pick up his mat and walk, which was a violation of Sabbath. And when called to task for this, he openly made sport of the Sabbath laws, or at least the letter of those laws, insisting that the Sabbath was created for us and not us for the Sabbath.
As far as I can tell, some underlying principles of Sabbath are rest, reconnection, and restoration. Rest can mean taking a physical and emotional break to recover, obviously, but I think the deeper theological meaning of rest is the recognition that the world is finally in God’s hands rather than ours. Rest reminds us that we are limited mortals, that our own efforts alone will never suffice. We can never accomplish everything, nor do we need to; obviously we must work, but in the end, we have to trust that God will provide.
Sabbath time creates the possibility for reconnection to that which is most real and important. Sabbath invites us to spend time with fellow believers, with our family and friends and the less fortunate, with our own interior life, and on such good-weather days as last weekend, with the loveliness of the natural world – and in all of this, with God-who-is-love. All of this is a necessary antidote to the mirages of the virtual world, the marketing world, the world driven by the abstractions of capital, profit, and the most demanding of task masters, “economic growth.”
Sabbath is also restorative time, a time for bringing body, soul, and relationships back to health and wholeness. Jesus’ healing work wasn’t just to make the Pharisees crazy, nor was it to flaunt his power; it was to restore those who were ill, broken and ostracized back to full participation in the life of a community.
If Sabbath is about rest, reconnection, and restoration, then I would like to believe it’s possible to keep the Sabbath amid laboring, as long as the labor doesn’t become laborious: all-consuming, frenetic, isolating, or driven by greed or the illusion of total control. Whether or not labor is laborious really depends on your interior spiritual disposition toward what you do, and cultivating that interiority is the proper province of Sabbath.
What I’m groping toward in this essay is a desire to do most of my work – farming or otherwise – in a “Sabbath state,” less attached to the results and more intentional about being spiritually whole-hearted, as Br. David Steindl-Rast recommends. I’d hate to think I could keep the Sabbath commandment by a sort of schizophrenia: working like a madman six days a week, then slamming on the brakes on the seventh. And yet, I still think trying to set aside a day a week is a crucial discipline, even though I consistently fail at it. I know from my own experience how tempting it is to overwork, fooling myself that I don’t really need to rest as long as I work with right intention. The genius of religious practices like Sabbath-keeping is that they serve as very tangible checks on the constant human tendency toward self-delusion. Sabbath time may remind us that all time and all existence is sacred, but for those of us on this side of Enlightenment or Heaven, it can only serve as that reminder by way of difference and interruption.