Lent Course Reflections: The City is My Monastery – Sabbath

Reflections given at Bread for the World, delivered by Revd Jonathan Evens, on the fifth week of Lent.

‘Living God’s future now’ will be the title for the next HeartEdge conference, but it is also a very effective description of what Sabbath is all about.

Discussions about the Sabbath often centre around moralistic laws and arguments over what a person should or should not be able to do either the Jewish Sabbath or on Sundays in the Christian tradition. Those of you who are my age or older will recall what Sundays were like before the introduction of Sunday trading in 1994. Sunday’s then commonly began with church worship, followed by roast lunch with the family and time at home together. Some people now miss the fact that Sunday is little different to other days in the week and the enforced slow down and battery recharge that the old Sundays had. For some the introduction of Sunday trading has eroded family time with a consequent deleterious effect on society. Others remember detesting Sundays as everything was either closed or seriously curtailed and think it’s much better now with everything open and little curtailment. A French novelist in the 1950s had a retired British Army officer character declare that: ‘If England has not been invaded since 1066, it is because foreigners dread having to spend a Sunday there.’

Our current confinements may remind some of us of those times or provide resources needed to deal with the constraints we face. However, such debates about ways to keep a particular day are ultimately distractions from the deeper meaning of Sabbath. In tonight’s Word from the Edge we hear repeatedly the assertion that the promise of entering God’s rest is still open, it remains open for some to enter God’s rest and that a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is saying that the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian practice of gathering for worship on Sunday are no more than stages on the way to the real Sabbath which will be experienced in heaven. They are rehearsals for the reality that we will experience then and that is why we can talk about seeking to live God’s future now.

In order to understand how to really live Sabbath as a rehearsal for the reality of heaven, we need to understand key characteristics of heaven itself. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews highlights particularly the idea that those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his.

In his writings about being with, Sam Wells has introduced us to the four categories of: being with, being for, doing for and doing with. He has challenged us and others with the thought that we spend much of our time, effort, energy and activism on doing things for or being for others, instead of being with others. When we are being for or doing things for others, we are in problem solving mode because there are things that we think we can fix and it is our activity that will provide or contribute to the solution. Heaven challenges our propensity to do and be for others because in heaven there is nothing to fix. In heaven God wipes every tear from our eyes, death is no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In heaven there is no being for or doing there is just being with. We cease from our labours as God did from his and simply enjoy God, each other, the world around us and ourselves for who we are.

We prepare for that reality, as Sam says, by learning to live with everybody now and receive their unexpected gifts with imagination and gratitude in recognition that these are the people with whom we’ll be spending eternity, lucky and blessed as we all are to be there. So, we’d best use these earthly years as a time for getting in the mood.      

That means that Sabbath moments are primarily those times of appreciation, revelation and understanding towards God, others, creation and ourselves. ‘The City is my monastery’ is a book that gets us in the mood for heaven by taking us deeper into moments of realisation and wonder. Richard Carter writes that ‘Rest is given to us as the culmination of creation’ and that the ‘whole of creation moves towards this time of Sabbath, and our lives have no meaning simply as cycles of survival without this arrival at the place of wonder and rest.’ The rest that is ultimately the culmination of creation is that which we will experience in heaven. Sabbath is our anticipation of that experience in the here and now.

‘Creation is not complete,’ he writes, ‘until God rests on the seventh day and contemplates all creation.’ Therefore, ‘God blesses time’ and ‘consecrates it as holy.’ The whole of creation is moving towards this time of Sabbath, ‘and our lives have no meaning simply as cycles of survival without this arrival at the place of wonder and rest.’

‘When we rest, we imitate God – we enter into the rhythm of God’s time,’ but, more than that, ‘if Sabbath is God’s time, it does not end in the keeping of the Sabbath – the Sabbath enters into all our time.’ ‘When we keep Sabbath, everything we do can be infused with that sense of God’s presence.’

He describes a day on holiday in Kefalonia where he pays attention to every moment of the day – the bread he buys from the bakery, the person who serves him, the wrapping in which it comes, the feel and taste of it. Later in the day, he writes, ‘I sat on the beach and watched people playing in the sea … I swam, ate bread and ripe tomatoes, and these actions were like a prayer.’

The poet Mary Oliver wrote that ‘Attention without feeling is only a report.’ To fully feel life course through us we must befriend our own attention, that ‘intentional, unapologetic discriminator.’ The philosopher, Simone Weil wrote that: ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’

That is true Sabbath – not a particular day or a particular set of actions (helpful as those can be) – but absolute unmixed attention presupposing faith and love. This is a style of prayer originally practised by the Celtic saints in this country and passed down the generations in Gaelic regions, in prayers said while undertaking daily tasks. In more recent years a renewal of interest in Celtic Christianity has revived this style of prayer for many.   

Richard writes in ‘The city is my monastery’ that this is possible even in the midst of trouble, difficulty and challenge. He writes of time spent in hospital and says, ‘It’s sometimes only when we are a little stripped down, like this in your hospital night-gown, and tubes coming out of your arm, that God’s presence is once again uncovered.’ He then tells of a conversation with a homeless man who was coming regularly to Morning Prayer:

‘Have you always been so faithful in your prayers?’ I asked him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘only when I am in trouble.’

‘Where did you learn to  pray?’ He is silent for a moment. And then he tells me quietly: ‘In prison that’s when I realized I needed him most.’

‘Well,’ said Richard, ‘I learnt to pray again in hospital.’

I wonder whether, as with Richard and that homeless man, our current troubles – this enforced Sabbath – could be a moment in which we learn to pray again living God’s future now by practicing faith, love and thankfulness through prayerful attention. There is an unattributed poem circulating currently on facebook which suggests this might be so:

For years our land has groaned beneath the grind
Of work, work, work, of pounding feet, of churn;
For years we stopped our ears and would not mind
The gentle voice that urged us all to turn
From endless slog and strain that warps and rends
The sinews of the Spirit, toward rest:
The Sabbath’s breathing wisdom God intends
For human flourishing and the land’s best.
Now cafes rest, deserted and the shops,
The bank, the bustle, bargain, building, bar,
The tube’s hot haggling hustle: it all stops.
Forced into stillness, now we breathe, we are.
Such tragic loss of love, of breath, to prove
How much we need to rest, to breathe, to love.

Open my heart that I might contemplate your presence in everyone and everything you have made; all that is good, all that is beautiful and all that is true. May wonder and awe at your goodness draw me closer to you and lead me to a sense of eternity now. Amen.