Sunday, 14 October 2012

Sabbath: Human Beings or Human Doings?

There is a story told of a workaholic businessman who decided to take an African Safari. He plotted a course and determined a time-table. He hired workers from a local village to carry the various containers and cases. On the first morning, the entire party roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the second morning, they roused early, travelled very, very fast and went very, very far. On the third day, the same. On the fourth morning, the local tribesmen refused to move. The man gestured irately and fumed at the translator to get them going. “They will not move,” the translator relayed.
“Why not?” the man bellowed, thinking of all the time wasted and dollars spent. “Because,” the translator said, “they are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

The pace of modern life can be quite frightening. People are always on the move. They always seem to be doing something or nothing, so long as they are not standing still or idling around. People always seem to be in a rush to be anywhere, but where they actually are, to be doing anything other than what they are doing and to be feeling anything other than what they are feeling. Seemingly we need to always be on the move; for fear that life might just catch up with us.

But what if it did? What if life did catch up with us? What if we actually allowed our souls to catch up with us? What if we actually paused for a moment and began to experience what was actually here? Would that be so terrible? Well seemingly for many it would. Certainly for the man in the story it seemed utterly intolerable to pause from the mission, to allow our souls to catch up with us.

Frank Sinatra use to sing of “New York, New York” about wanting to wake up in that city that doesn’t sleep. I think that we could sing that about most towns never mind cities these days. We are increasingly living in a 24/7 culture, that doesn’t sleep. Is this how life is meant to be? Is this really progress?

Well some would say that pausing for one second is getting in the way and you can’t get in the way of progress. You are moving too slowly, so get out of the way.

This doesn’t sound like progress to me, it looks more like insanity. It seems utterly dehumanising. If we don’t live with our souls, then surely we are not living fully as human beings, we become like machines, like robots. As the saying goes “We are human beings, not human doings”. We are not slaves, surely not.

Being busy and being constantly on the move eats away at us, until finally it takes away all that makes us human. Wayne Muller in “How, Shall We Live” said that “Our busy-ness becomes a kind of violence because it destroys the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful...the faster we go, the more we unintentionally mishandle the ones we love. When we work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we live like people who are at war...”

We need to allow our souls to catch up with us. We need to fully experience our lives, otherwise we do indeed become human doings as opposed to human beings. We need to pause and to make space in our lives, to truly appreciate what is actually there.

Those words from Bill Darlison that I heard at Summer School keep on singing in my soul “Spirituality is about increasing our sensitivity to life”. Well how can any of us do this if we never stop and feel all that we are experiencing? How can we increase our sensitivity to life if we never stop and even savour, with all our senses, all that is around us?

Maybe we are afraid to pause, to stop, to feel, to let our souls catch up with us; maybe we are afraid of increasing our sensitivity to life.

In the early years of the twentieth century Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Sigmund Freud discovered a phenomenon that he described as “Sunday Neurosis”. He noticed that seemingly normal healthy successful people would experience extreme mental and physical distress on the Sabbath. Ferenczi believed that these people, having been deprived of their normal busy routine by Sunday, began to panic as they feared that they would lose their usual self-censoring mechanism and therefore their wild impulses would reign. They felt out of control and this terrified them. It would seem that they began to suffer from extreme pain and or mental anguish as a way of staving off the anxiety of the pause.

Maybe they were afraid that their souls would catch up with them.

Now of course in 21st century Britain we no longer have to worry about this. Today we pretty much live in a 24/7 culture. People increasingly work on Sundays and can certainly shop and pursue all kinds of other leisure activities all day every day. The Sabbath is no more; it has been discarded to the dustbin of history. We no longer have to worry about this Sunday neurosis; we no longer have to worry about stopping as we no longer have to stop; we no longer have to worry about our souls catching up with us. We can keep on going, onwards and upwards forever.

But is this progress and does it in fact increase our sensitivity to life? Do we need Sabbath? Do we need to rest? Do we need to allow our souls to catch up with us? Or should we just keep on moving forwards onwards and upwards forever?

Last year I was invited by a Jewish friend to Hale Synagogue to attend Friday evening Shabbat. It was powerful, beautiful and moving, especially the singing as Shabbat was welcomed, like a bride. During the ceremony I felt like I was allowing my soul to catch up with me.

The Sabbath relates back to Genesis I, which depicts six acts of creation and on the seventh day, the climax, God rests, looks at his creation and sees that it is very good indeed. He pauses; he smells the roses and allows his soul to catch up with him. Why on earth would God need to do this? Why do we need to pause and look at our own creations, our own lives? Well maybe because it is only when we stop and look at our lives and our work that meaning begins to emerge. If our hearts, our souls, are not in what we are doing it is unlikely that we will make a good job of it.

How often do any of us stop and look at the meaning behind what we have created, what we are creating? How often do we actually spend time increasing our sensitivity to our own lives?

Rabbi Abraham Heschel claimed that “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labour. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”

Maybe welcoming the Sabbath is a way of allowing our souls to catch up with our bodies.

It was the Jewish people who invented Sabbath, but it didn’t make them popular. Again according to Rabbi Heschel “When the Romans first encounted the Jews and noticed their habit of keeping the Sabbath, of refraining from labour every seventh day, their reaction was nothing but contempt.”

The Jewish people had escaped slavery. Exodus recounts their wanderings in the wilderness as they searched for a home. They knew that slaves never rested and perhaps, during their time in the desert they never rested too. Maybe on Sinai they realised that although they had escaped Egypt and slavery, they were still slaves in so many other ways. Maybe this is why Sabbath was created.

So maybe the rejection of Sabbath is not progress at all, but a return to a more de-humanising culture, where human beings are seen as nothing more than commodities who do without ceasing; “human doings, not human beings”. Perhaps we have all become enslaved by this need to constantly be doing. By constantly doing have we actually enslaved our souls. Maybe we don’t actually need to let our souls catch up with us, what we really need to do is free our souls once again.

We seem to be a people who are constantly on the run, whether we do paid work or not. When do we pause and allow our souls to catch up with us? It would appear that busy-ness has actually become a badge of honour. I am no better than anyone else by the way. How often do I say to people “I’m sorry I can’t do this or that because I am just too busy”? I do not keep the Sabbath myself. How often can I say, hand on heart, that I spend a day truly resting and allowing my soul to fully catch up with me, for a whole 24hrs? Well rarely if ever. My diary is always too full. I know that this is not healthy. I know I must let my heart and soul catch up with me or I will not be able to do my work with heart and soul and if  that happens I know I will not be able to do my work well, if at all. The last thing I want to be is heartless and or soulless.

Now please do not get me wrong I am not suggesting that we return to ancient times and I am not advocating restrictive laws. Nor am I suggesting that the whole nation should shut down on one particular day. This sounds like enslavement of another type and I do believe in freedom. Instead what I am suggesting is that we create personal Sabbath’s of our own. It doesn’t even need to be on a particular day, it could be practised throughout our days. Maybe it could begin just by examining how we live each day, each week, each month and each year and to commit to times in our lives when we turn from our usual activities, pause, look at our creations and see that they are very good indeed and then give thanks and praise.

We need Sabbath. We need to stop and take in life. We need to feel our feet on the ground. We need to allow our senses to sense life and then and only then we will see the riches in our lives and give thanks for life. And then what ever our work may be, we will do it well, heart and soul.


  1. Excellent article! I for one am guilty of always running and not resting enough.

  2. None of us can run for ever...however scary it may seem. I was chatting with someone this morning who runs and runs until the pain is unbearable and the real pain begins...the pain of silence, the pain of cannot outrun the pain present in life, by attempting to do so all you do is block out the joy...It was sad to see a man in such pain, it's a pain i know very well. It was even sadder to know that he is not yet ready to stop running...Trust all is well Ell, best wishes