Practicing Sabbath: Easier Said Than Done

My wife and I have been experimenting with hiking as part of our Sabbath practice: to get out of our heads and into our bodies, and to get outside into nature.  I use the words “experiment” and “practice” intentionally because praising the ideal of Sabbath as a weekly, twenty-four hour “sanctuary in time” is much easier than the messy reality of actually practicing Sabbath.

On a Sabbath hike a few weeks ago, we arrived at a beach that was supposed to be the highlight of the hike to find not only beautiful water, stunning cliffs, and white sand, but also a huge natural gas oil rig right off the coast.  So much for an unspoiled sojourn into nature!  Then, as we exited the trail, we discovered that my wife, myself, and my dog were all had ticks on our legs — prompting a flurry of showering and laundry, and an unexpected trip to the vet for a tick treatment.  So much for a relaxing, stress-free day!

The hike itself was wonderful, but the tick removal back at home left us feeling less rejuvenated by Sabbath and more exhausted from the ordeal.  At the same time, a day in nature unplugged from technology did make a noticeable difference in the rest of my week.  The next week, I felt significantly less compelled to check e-mail and Facebook, and I felt more present and connected to the world around me throughout the week.

In retrospect, our attempt at practicing Sabbath was precisely that: practice.  And as one of my friends says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.”  Settling aside one day a week to practice Sabbath doesn’t mean that you will have a sublime, uninterrupted experience of inner peace for 24 hours each week — just as setting aside an hour a day to practice shooting free throw shots does not mean that you will shoot a perfect shot every time you are fouled in a basketball game.

Instead, the surest guarantee of any practice — whether spiritual, artistic, or athletic — is that, if you stick with the practice, overtime the repetition will ingrain within you certain habits and sensibilities.  Eventually, whatever you have been practicing may not become perfect, but it will become increasingly permanent, or what is sometimes called “Second Nature” — that is, through practice, you can supplement your first nature (the tendencies and proclivities with which you were born) with new tendencies and proclivities that become like “Second Nature” to you, as if you had been born with them.

So, through persistent practice, the person who used to miss the basketball hoop every time reaches a point where she makes most of the shots she takes.  Through persistent practice, the person who used to only be able to play chopsticks on the piano reaches a point where he can play a Bach Invention through muscle memory, without consciously thinking about what the next note will be.

Similarly, practicing Sabbath will overtime be inculcate Sabbath sensibilities into our souls such that our way of being in the world on Sabbath becomes our second nature: habits such as slowing down, savoring meals with friends, and being gratefully present to God’s creation.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of the sabbath day as a “sanctuary in time” — that is, an invitation to bring that feeling of spaciousness and holiness that you experience when walking into a sanctuary, to bring openness to spaciousness and holiness into every place you go for a full day each week.

(Note: I recommend The Sabbath Manifesto for ten short suggestions to inspire your Sabbath practice. Do try them at home!)

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