The Common Good
September 2004

The Sabbath Sweet Spot

by Rose Marie Berger | September 2004

Don't 'whistle while you work'; just whistle because it makes you happy.

In the Northern hemisphere our summer is drawing to a close.

In the Northern hemisphere our summer is drawing to a close. We move into an autumn ruled by the pitch and yaw of the ship of state. All hands will be needed on deck to navigate the American experiment through the dangers that threaten it. But for a moment, we rest in that sweet spot between the summer solstice and the fall equinox.

Have you had moments of solitude this summer? Were there short periods when time stood still—when time flowed like a mountain rather than a stream? Was there a human face framed in golden light?

In Flannery O’Connor’s story The Violent Bear It Away, a character says, "Love cuts us like a cold wind, and the will of God is plain as winter. Where is the summer will of God? Where are the green seasons of God’s will? Where is the spring and summer of God’s will?" The solitude and sabbath that summer sometimes affords allows for a "green season" in our souls.

So much of the year is spent at top speed, with barely a human moment. At those points when we turn inward, too often it is for soul churning, self-judgment, desperation, or exhaustion. We bundle ourselves against the cold wind of God. When we stop to unwrap our outer garments "love cuts us." But in the summer of God’s will, we can rest, relax, be at ease. We can even be playful. Don’t "whistle while you work"; just whistle because it makes you happy.

IN AN INTERVIEW, pollster-to-the-political-stars Frank Luntz said that the most important issue for working women in a recent election season was time. Time for themselves. Time to do their jobs well. Time for their families and friends. Luntz sells his extensive research to politicians who want to tailor their message to the swing votes. But time has always been a religious issue.

"To set apart one day a week for freedom," wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "a day on which we would 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 external obligations…—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath?"

It is keeping the Sabbath that breaks our chains of drudgery and spiritual ennui. It is Sundays, holy days, and "summer times" that prevent us from becoming servants to a system rather than friends with a living God. We don’t call this economic system "slavery" any more because we have laws against the whips, coffles, and chains. But we are still shackled to jobs that don’t pay a living wage because it’s the only way to get even partial health care coverage. Service-sector jobs don’t allow people enough hours to secure benefits, forcing them to take three part-time jobs. "Professional class" jobs are increasing compulsory overtime.

The percentage of Americans who work nine hours of overtime a week is up 6 percent since 1976, according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Free Time/Free People campaign. Americans work an estimated 70 hours more per year than the Japanese and 350 hours more than most Europeans.

HERE WE ARE in the sweet spot of summer. Have you rested? Have you played? Have you loved? What is necessary for you to have time to pray the psalms or sit at the foot of the cross?

I once rested in the center of the world. In central Bosnia there is a clear, serene lake fed by cold mountain runoff of the Rama River. Tito constructed the lake in 1968 as part of a hydroelectric project. Ten thousand people were displaced from the valley by the dam.

In the center of the lake there is a very small island. In the center of the island there is a picnic place with a fire pit and a hammock. One afternoon in July, I lay in the hammock, alone on the island, for hours. It was a place where time stood still and the world swirled on an axis of peace. Shabbat Shalom. Sabbath Peace.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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