The Sabbath and Liberal Arts Education, Part 2

The Hebrew word for intention (also, direction) is kavanah. In The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz introduces the concept of kavanah in relation to the story of the biblical character Hannah. Beloved wife of Elkanah, Hannah was unable to conceive a child. One day when she, Elkanah, and Peninah (Elkanah’s less favored but fertile wife), had made the pilgrimage to Shiloh, where they would offer sacrifices, Hannah prayed for a son.

Hannah spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard (I Samuel 1:13).

Observing Hannah from a distance, Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, inferred that she was drunk and chastised her for her drunkenness. Respectful and fearless, Hannah responded to Eli, “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord” (I Samuel 1:15).

From Hannah, the rabbis derive a number of ideas about and approaches to prayer, including the practice of kavanah, which, writes Shulevitz, is “the rather Buddhist-sounding art of focusing one’s soul inside oneself and burrowing deep into one’s prayers.”

In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, prayer is part of Sabbath observance. Though we would not pray in a class taught at a public liberal arts university, we did try a kavanah exercise in which we burrowed deep inside ourselves to set intentions.

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The Sabbath and Liberal Arts Education

In The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, Judith Shulevitz characterizes the Sabbath as a “not-doing in a not-place,” but not doing, as the freshmen in my honors colloquium class on the Sabbath discovered, can be quite productive.

Before the first meeting of our class, the students completed this assignment:

1. Do nothing for a minute.
2. Write about the experience in exactly 250 words, not a word more or less.
3. After you complete steps 1 and 2, do nothing for five minutes.
4. Write about the experience in exactly 500 words, not a word more or less.

I kept the directions simple, intentionally did not explain how to “do nothing.” The duration and word count requirements? Fixed limits. The Sabbath: a container defined by time and space in which something extraordinary might happen.

So, what did happen? Here, in their words, are a few examples of what the students reported:

I became acutely aware of my various senses. I could hear every small sound…sounds that I would have never even registered if I had been doing anything…the passing of cars on the road outside my house…my brother’s movements on the second floor…I started thinking about how this experience felt, how I would put it into words, and what the experience could teach me.

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Cathedrals of Consumption

Many years ago now, not long after I had been received into the Orthodox Church, I had a dream that has remained vivid: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, our chief celebration of the Eucharist and main Sunday service, is being celebrated right next to the escalators in a Neiman Marcus store.

In the dream, there’s a square plot of carpet outlined by velvet ropes, and inside them two priests, long-haired and long-bearded, are doing some of the works of worship—at this point chanting prayers, and swinging golden censers back and forth.

But instead of incense, the scent being borne over the air conditioning is the collective blast of perfumes arrayed in the glass display cases on either side of the, ahem, temple. The escalators crisscross and roll on their courses, up into the air, bounded by their glittering plate-glass railings. [Read more…]

Sunday Morning Coming Down

There’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone.

I sat in my office the other day listening to Kris Kristofferson’s country standard. It wasn’t even a Sunday, as would presumably be the case. It was a Saturday, and I had to be there for an event that took up all of the good hours. But a touch of melancholy about the afternoon—pale, lazy, mute—gave me a hankering to hear him. His version of the song is the best, though his voice is not that of Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.

Still, Kris penned it, and he lived it, and what he meant comes through strongest when he sings it. You know what he’s saying when he speaks of the day’s innocence—witnessing the pleasures of those who have a place—playing, worshipping, cooking, belonging to each other when all the while he stands outside their inside—indeed, stands perpetually outside any inside. [Read more…]

Remembering the Sabbath

I was recently in an e-mail exchange with someone regarding my refusal to force my children to go to church. I do not go to church myself. I will probably go back someday, but for now I do not. I stay away from church for a number of reasons, but one of them is the fact that I desire my Sundays to be ones of actual Sabbath—days set apart for rest.

The response I found in my inbox to this argument was, “That’s bullshit,” a rationalization because I don’t like church. I know that I do have other issues with church right now, but I don’t think this one is bullshit. [Read more…]