This summer, quite by accident, my son and I stumbled into a new bedtime reading routine that has been so nourishing and therapeutic, it’s opened my eyes to a fresh vision of rest and margin. One night, as we were heading into his room, my son pulled a chapter book from his bedside table and told me simply, “I’m going to read this tonight.” I gawked for a moment, feeling a bit unwanted, if you really must know, but then I had to smile. This was a step up the ladder, a big one actually. So, I found a book of my own, and there we lay for twenty minutes or so, reading quietly beside each other. The practice – he calls it “side-by-side” – has continued on and off for the past few months.
And it’s been beautiful. In the near-quiet, I become aware of so many things – the steady rise and fall of his chest, the sound of his breathing and the occasional sigh or sniffle, the scratching of an itch on the top of his head, or on his neck, the rustling of pages turned. I feel his little elbows jabbing into my side, his warmth, all of it. I read beside him most of the time, but sometimes, I just lie there staring off into space and doing, well, nothing. Nothing productive in a world governed by agendas, anyway. What I’m really doing is sabbath. A little rest after a long day of rush and noise and schedules and bright screens and yellow highway lines and stop lights. A little rest. A little Sabbath.
Sabbath. The Hebrew word is menuha, which Christopher Smith and John Pattison describe in their beautiful book Slow Church as “much more than a lack of activity. It implies, peace, harmony, joy, celebration, and delight.” It’s when we “pause our striving and start abiding.” It’s tranquility, weightless be-ing, not burdensome do-ing.
I used to crave large blocks of rest, sabbath in the form of a weekend, or just a full day. And, yes, that is God’s design – one day in seven given to him for gratitude and resting. But what a difference these small sabbaths can also make! A half-hour of rest, harmony, ceasing, and listening, when the Spirit hovers and whispers. It might be the morning, when the house is still, the sky outside still blue-gray, or the crackling of a wood stove, or an unexpected few moments to stand beside the apple tree and examine the ripening fruit. What matters is stillness and expectancy, a reverence for the present moment that can only be found by slowing and ceasing. “The Sabbath is a reminder that time is ‘eternity in disguise’ and that we belong to eternity,” say Smith and Pattison in Slow Church. “The architecture of time is built on every uniquely precious and sacred hour, for it is only in the present moment – now … now … now – that God dispenses God’s provision, grace, beauty and wonder.”
For all its beauties, family life is also hard. It’s taxing in a way that I never thought possible until I was in it. For every task necessary to a single moment, there are a dozen more waiting just around the bend. To hold all those “to-do”-s in the mind at any given moment is enough to drain the life right out of you. That’s why these small sabbaths aren’t simply rest, they’re an opportunity to be fully in only one moment. Instead of living simultaneously in the present and a long string of futures, I choose to live only now, to quiet my mouth, my heart, and my spirit, and to drift slowly through the seconds as they pass, watching with wide eyes, listening with wide ears, and most importantly, opening my spirit with reverence to the beauty of this moment, and whatever God may choose to lay on my heart.
Will I miss things? Probably. I’m too clumsy and inattentive for that not to happen. Does it always happen? Some days. Others, it’s hamster-wheel time, running for broke. But I’ve found that as I’ve prayed for more of these small Sabbaths, my own grip on other competing interests in my life grows weaker. Instead of being burdened by the task of carving out Sabbath time, letting go of things is freeing. Saying no becomes easier. And when I find myself in these these small Sabbaths with my family, I celebrate. They’re rejuvenating, nourishing, and most of all, they bind us together around the life-giving power of remaining in the Spirit, moment by moment.
Photo courtesy of Ming-Wai Selig