Contemplation: A Daily Sabbath

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Yesterday at First Christian Church of Atlanta’s inaugural annual conference on Christian spirituality, I spoke about the Biblical roots of contemplation. I focused on two particular verses:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)

The verse from Matthew is used all the time to justify contemplative prayer, with “your room” and “shutting the door” seen as metaphors for entering into interior silence and choosing to observe, rather than engage in, the flow of the thinking mind. But I think if we can read Matthew 6:6 metaphorically, then we can also read Exodus 20:8 metaphorically as well. My insight for this comes from the Liturgy of the Hours. Every day, the Liturgy of the Hours in essence celebrates the entire sweep of cosmic history in its seven offices. The night office (the vigil; the office of readings) begins in darkness, symbolically re-enacting the creation story of Genesis. The morning and mid-day offices celebrate the story of the Hebrew scriptures, concentrating on salvation history as recounted in the Canticle of Zechariah and reciting excerpts from Psalm 119 as a way of celebrating the Jewish law. Evening prayer marks the climax of the Christian view of history: the incarnation, celebrated through the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving both for herself and her child, Jesus. Finally, compline closes out the day with evocative eschatological imagery: even as we face our own mortality as individuals, we also confidently await the completion of history in the splendor of Divine grace.

If the Daily Office can liturgically celebrate the entire cosmos in a day, then it seems to me that we can all approach each individual day with the same kind of creative energy that marked the first seven days of Genesis. In that mythic first week, six days of creation are capped and consummated in the seventh day of rest. And so it is for each of us: our creative and sustaining work, each and every day, finds fulfillment and meaning in the time we devote — each and every day — to rest in God. This, of course, is the prayer of rest, or contemplation.

Just as a Sabbath only makes sense in relation to the six days of work/creation that precede it, so too the Sabbath-time of contemplation makes sense only in relation to the good work done alongside such time. We can engage in contemplation because we engage in regular work. This has a double meaning: work not only in the material sense of our livelihood, but also the spiritual work of prayer, lectio divina, the Daily Office, and engagement in the sacramental life of the community of faith. Contemplation needs to be part of an overall ‘balanced diet’ of spiritual observance: the work of God. We do this work, and then we rest. We pray, we nurture community, we read the sacred text, and then we rest in silence.

Six days of work and the Sabbath need each other. So it is with the work of God and contemplation.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Kim Owens

    Hi Carl, thanks so much for this post. I was recently declared in remission from an aggressive autoimmune disease. Last year was rough. Recently our church family blessed us with a new roof on our home. The roof was part of a whole community initiative that our church did instead of church one Sunday. They installed 3 wheelchair ramps, visited nursing homes, painted and pressure washed at community housing, etc. When the guys were up on our roof our neighbor who rarely talks to us walked over. He asked one of the women on the ground about the project. She explained what our church was doing in the community. His response was something to the effect of, “Isn’t anyone in your church concerned about working on the Sabbath?” She gave him a great response, but hearing the question and knowing that he is an “elder” at a neighborhood church really got me thinking about how un-Christian Christians can seem… Anyway, I say all that to say that I’ve been studying the Sabbath since that day. I’ve learned so much, but your insight was new. Thank you for sharing. I’m reading a book called, “The Rest of God” by Mark Buchanan. He says his golden rule about Sabbath is simply to: “Cease from what is necessary. Embrace that which gives life. (Then do whatever you want).” He bases this Golden Rule upon his study of Jesus’ actions when under scrutiny of the pharasees. Good stuff. Thank you for your insight. I do practice Contemplative prayer and I’ve participated in the Daily Office at the Monastery. Thanks for this new thought to consider. Blessings.

  • brazenbird


    Thank you for this post. I wake up early today with every intention of going to church and like every Sunday before this one, struggle with my monkey brain, over-thinking it all and finding myself a little depressed about church and the purpose behind it and understanding that I simply don’t get it.

    Your book, and now, this post, remind me that much of the spiritual life is about discipline and obeying. And I am reminded that communal worship is vital for a grounded contemplative life. Now I must just go and do it. Just go and obey. Obey and trust.


  • lightbearer

    hey man my internet is down at the moment but i plan to walk the earth soon like elijah or paul
    carl .dude …i got your book from veritas in dublin
    i will keep in touch
    my pilgrimage with no money etc may bring me to the end who knows but the work of the lord beckons and i will not be anxious
    god bless all

  • Sarah Farrow

    Hi Carl, You haven’t heard from me in almost a year because I’m now a working grandmother sharing her home with a 10 year old and a 12 year old. Needless to say contemplative prayer is a challenge these days, and often I find myself longing to run away to a convent for a week or two. Not possible!

    I’ve been following you on Facebook, and this posting really reached me. I rarely say the other offices these days, but I do always begin my day with prime and end it with compline. These two offices somehow serve to bring my day into completion, a full circle, if you will. Saying compline once the boys are in bed and keeping silence after that restores my soul and insures a good night’s sleep.

    I have long wrestled with the concept of Sabbath rest since I work outside the home during the week and have to cram much of the rest of my life into the weekends. A dear friend of mine, who is a conservative Jew and who strictly keeps the Sabbath, recommended a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. I have a hard time wrapping my Western European mind around Jewish thought, but this book has been a wonderful, eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who truly seeks the refreshment of Sabbath rest.