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Holy Time

From the website during the first month of lockdown

One thing that is clear in this time o the pandemic lockdown is that many, many of us are DOING less, traveling less, shopping less, our impact on the world around us is reduced. Many commentators from environmentalism and post liberalism are talking about this as a vital catalyst that could reconfigure our economic systems and bring lasting change.

This language of optimism is welcome but also fragile and much of what is written begins with basic assumptions about the human condition, and the things that constitute basic human well-being, that I and others might debate. It leads into conversations about what are our lives really for? Do we identify ourselves as the things that we do, the careers we have, the voluntary position we hold? And what are we when we are not doing those things?

One of the greatest victims of this time may well be our egos; the shells that we strut around in as we live the 'doings' that we are. This may be especially true if we have jobs with some status in society or we have spent many years in training and striving for the vocations that we have. In the normal run of life loosing this sense of ego pride in what we do is associated with redundancy or disaster in some form, be it health or accident. This adds to the scenario the pain of failure, fear of death or anger against an employer. We find ourselves now however, redundant without loss and immobilized without illness and although for many there is still considerable fear for the future in the main right now we are gently surviving.

It seems that we are in a time of Sabbath and I will use the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel to help explain what I mean by this. His book of that title is a profound reflection on the importance of Sabbath and gives a biblical grounding to an understanding of the human condition that may give us some insights to draw on as we look to a future for our faith and practice.


Heschel writes this book in 1951 long before an awareness of inclusive language so I have in places changed the pronouns, however I quote him liberally as he writes so eloquently. He begins with his understanding of time and space that is  incredibly helpful in this age as we are looking critically at our technical civilization and economics. It offers a deep psychological clue to our pervasive greed and manic over activity and a solution to it.

Technical civilization is humans conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential element of existence namely, time. In technical civilization we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective, yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attained in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations to the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space the acquisition of the things of space becomes our sole concern.

 We are all infatuated with the splendour of space, with the grandeur of things of space. ‘Thing’ is a category that lies heavily on our minds tyrannizing our thoughts…even God is conceived by most of us as a thing. The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact. This is obvious in our understanding of time which being thingless and insubstantial appears to us as if it had no reality.

Indeed we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labour for the sake of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm a slick treacherous monster with a door like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives. Shrinking therefore from facing time we escaped for shelter to the things of space. The intentions are unable to carry out we dispose deposit in space, possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustrations. But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the fire. Is the joy of possession an antidote to the terror of time that grows to be a dread of inevitable death? Things when magnified or forgeries of happiness there were threat to our very lives. We are more harassed than supported by the Frankenstein’s of spatial things.

 It is impossible for humans to shirk the problem of time the more we think the more we realise we cannot conquer time through space we can only master time in time

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information but to face sacred moments.

Our intention here is not to deprecate the world of space, to disparage space and the blessings of the things of space. To do so is to disparage the works of creation, the works which God beheld and saw ‘it was good’….. Time and space are interrelated. To look over overlook either is to be partially blind. What we plead against is humanities unconditional surrender to space, the enslavement to things.

Hescle goes on to explain how the Jewish faith is one rooted in time. The first use of the word holy in Genesis is not in relation to a place, a law or a person but a time.    

And God blessed the seventh day and made it Holy’. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space, on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day in which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time. To turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

His description of the Sabbath is beautiful and one that was completely new to me. Being brought up in the Methodist church there were some of the older members of the church who used to talk about the drudgery of the strictly legalistic Sundays of their youth, no playing, no wireless, no knitting! The puritanical imposition of rules meant that they spoke about childhood Sundays without enthusiasm and when Sunday trading began there seemed to be consent to the general feeling that shopping was a leisure activity that should be allowed. The description given by Heschel however gives a completely different, and timely view, of the abstinence of the sabbath. It moves away from legalistic, fun denying, patriarchal legalism to a gift on spiritual, psychological and temporal levels. The gift of space, time and peace.

The person who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profundity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. They must go away from the screech of dissident days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling their own life. They must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of humanity. Six days a week we wrestle with the world ringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world on the seventh day we tried to dominate the self.

He goes on to describe how there is a good case in antiquity to be made for the sabbath being a time to rest and to regain our strength for the days of work ahead. Thinking of it like this the work is the primary motivating force of our lives with the sabbath rest being something that sustains and supports that activity. This was I think how I had been thinking about a Sunday and how I would justify a day spent without activity. However Heschel says something quite different and subtly profound.

To the biblical mind however labour is the means toward an end and the Sabbath is a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering ones lost strength and becoming fit for forthcoming labour; the Sabbath as a day for the sake of life. Humans are not beasts of burden and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of work. The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays, the weekdays or for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living. ….. Labour is a craft but perfect rest is an art it is the result of an accord of body mind and imagination. To attain a degree of excellence in art one must accept its discipline.

'Labour is a craft but perfect rest is an art it is the result of an accord of body mind and imagination'

In thinking of Holy rest as the primary function of human kind, with our toil as the means to achieve this, we completely reverse the puritan work ethic that so may of us labour under. I terms of our current situation as we see pollution levels worldwide drop as we slow down the frenetic activity of our lives there is definitely a case to be made for embracing stillness and a sabbath in our activity. The following passage was written in 1951 and is truly prophetic.

Technical civilization is the product of labour, of human beings exertion of power for the sake of gain for the sake of producing goods. It begins when humans dissatisfied with what is available in nature become engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance their safety and to increase their comfort. To use the language of the Bible, the task of civilization is to subdue the earth to have dominion over the beast.

How proud we often are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce. Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats in spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.

Is our civilization on the way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not two not a way out of this world but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization. To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we do not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of it an external obligations, the day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow humans and the forces of nature - is there any institution that holds out greater hope for humanities progress than the Sabbath?

I do not think that this passage requires translation for a Christian audience or to bring it up to date, it is universal in its wisdom.

In discussion about this book we looked at Jesus response to the Sabbath. It seems that he was opposed to the legalism that inevitably creeps in, as with the puritan injunctions mentioned above, reminding his detractors that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. So we asked ourselves what is a uniquely Christian response to this idea for Sabbath. It came to us that Jesus seems to epitomize the sabbath in all he does. His way of talking, of teaching and of living reminds us of the life that 'does not toil'. It makes sense of his conversation with Martha and Mary, of the times that he alludes to the holiness of his very presence... 'while I am with you'.

Looking deeply at Jesus we can see someone who lives in 'time' and in space. ... divine and human, a living Sabbath.

As we experience Sabbath as a culture in this time of enforced inactivity we have been given a gift, something that we could never have imagined to be possible. With the wisdom from Abraham Herschel we can see that this is clearly a withdrawal from space into the realm of time. We have been gifted time. Bringing this experience into our Christian discipleship we can see that this gift is one that Jesus teaches us about and is at the core of the peaceable kingdom that he would have us live for.

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