The Idea of a Sabbath


When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive – the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough – the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.

The idea of a sabbath day is beautiful, but it’s an idea that always seems just out of reach. When I think about it long enough, a weekly sabbath makes perfect sense. Of course I should take one day a week where I rest from my usual work. And this is true even without all the (inescapable) religious connotations. A sabbath is part of a natural rhythm. Human being are not robots, the world is not a machine: we cannot work incessantly without also resting.

Keeping the sabbath would also reorient our perception of time. I recently listened to an episode of Mere Fidelity that discussed Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions, where Augustine meditates extensively on the nature and the human experience of time. At one point, Alastair described how a sabbath presents us with an opportunity to step out of the slavish linear progression of time: it gives us a birds-eye view of the past and the present, and simultaneously relieves our bodies and minds from the strain of living moment to moment.

Alastair’s comment reminded me of T. S. Eliot’s observation that “Time past and time future / allow but a little consciousness.” For Eliot, the moment of consciousness is a present moment, eternal and free from the march of time. But that moment is not experienced as an escape from time. Later in the same stanza, he writes:

To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

How fitting, then, is the sabbath–a moment in time where we stand still while the world continues to turn. Stillness, an idea Eliot contemplates throughout the Four Quartets, is always at the center of movement. It is the source and end of movement. Without stillness, there is only incomprehensible chaos.

And so we ought to sabbath.

Today I took a sabbath. Sort of. Really I just gave myself permission not to grade papers or plan lessons for next week. Instead, I took some deep breaths, read a non-school book, watched some soccer, played my guitar, attended a funeral, and then got caught up on a TV show with my wife. Today may not have been an ideal sabbath, but every aspect of my day was restful in some way. The mere act of choosing not to respond to the usual pressures of my work as a teacher was invigorating, almost timeless.