Reflections on Keeping Sabbath

This has been a weekend of hard physical labor, mulching the flowerbeds and working in the yard. One of the things I like about that kind of work is that it takes a certain kind of mental focus that leaves my mind free to have all kinds of inner conversations as I work. In the morning, I’m ready to take on Socrates or Wittgenstein. By mid-afternoon, I’m arguing with Richard Dawkins, and by the time the sky starts to redden and the idea of a cold beer grows dear, I’m debating Michelle Bachmann.

But often, I’m not feeling quite so disputatious and let my mind run free. Today, the silence next door caught my attention.

Our neighbors are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, commonly abbreviated as LDS, more commonly known as the Mormon church. We don’t know the adults well, yet, but their youngest son was over here all summer, mowing the lawn; he’d approached me early this spring and told me he wanted to make some summer money. He’s a sweet kid, and we had some good conversations, since I’d generally work with him — he really likes the television series Supernatural, for instance, and wanted to know who was my favorite character (Bobby, of course).

At any rate, we had one Saturday this summer when for some reason, he couldn’t come. I told him it was no problem, he was welcome to come over the next day.

“Oh, I can’t,” he said, crestfallen. “It’s Sunday.”

Oops. I’d forgotten that about the Mormons. They “keep the Sabbath,” and it means they do church things all day Sunday. Most importantly, they don’t work on Sunday, and mowing lawns for pay certainly qualifies as work.

So here I was this particular Sunday afternoon, raking and mowing our little patch of lawn and working up a furious sweat, noticing the silence and the missing vehicles next door. I started to reflect on this idea of “keeping the Sabbath.”

I grew up in a strict Sabbath-keeping household. That came from Mom, who had some mental problems all tied up with religion, and she’d go through phases. During the Sabbath-keeping phase when I was young, my sister and I were kept home on Sunday; we weren’t allowed to have friends over, nor were we allowed to go play at their houses. We didn’t go out for shopping, nor for McDonald’s, nor even for a drive to the mountains. It was “family time” which meant Mom would read the Bible, Dad would do cryptograms, and I’d generally retire to my room to read. I’m not sure what my sister did.

I dreaded Sundays.

We didn’t even go to church. Mom had grown up as a member of a tiny, insular sect of Christian Fundamentalists in Oklahoma, and there simply were no members of that sect in our part of the country. She could never get comfortable with those liberal, money-grubbing Baptists, and none of the fire-and-brimstone sects in town preached the proper Word of God. So we’d stay home.

As I said, Mom went through phases, and by the time I was in high school, we were going to a Congregational church with a very active youth program. There were bi-annual church camps in the mountains, Sunday evening gatherings for the teens, and a choir. I never thought of any of this as keeping the Sabbath; Sabbath-keeping was the hour beginning at eleven o’ clock on Sunday morning, which I believe was a pretty good preview of Hell: trapped in a long, hard pew, dressed in uncomfortable clothing, required to stay awake while the minister delivered well-turned platitudes in a dulcet drone. All the rest — all the fun stuff — was the loophole through which I could escape from the rest of the Sabbath while pretending it was keeping the Sabbath.

In graduate school, I would go to an Episcopal service on Sunday mornings, and in the summer we’d all go out to a little lake right at the place where Long Island splits into the North Fork and the South Fork. We’d swim in the lake, and barbecue on a little Son of Hibachi, and have a beer or two. By then, I’d come to appreciate and even love the Episcopal rite on its own terms, and didn’t mind keeping Sabbath for that short hour. I never thought of those long, wonderful summer afternoons as Sabbath-keeping, nor the Wednesday evening “prayer group” where we would sing rather than pray, and then go out to Friendlies for ice cream.

Today I started to muse on this bizarre little detail of not working on the Sabbath. Why the prohibition against work? Then it suddenly all came together.

Charles Eisenstein has written a delightful book called Sacred Economics. He starts by talking about gift economies.

Gift economies are real economies — they aren’t a New Age hippy utopian concept. These are among the oldest and most primary economies, and they involve giving and receiving gifts, and accepting the obligation that the gift brings with it. The gifts are not free, and accepting the gift without honoring the obligation is not merely rude, it is a form of theft and is dealt with accordingly. You see traces of this in the tales of the Irish Sidhe: to wander into the Faerie lands and accept a gift of food or drink binds you to that land, and you can escape and return to your home only through great deeds, or great cunning — and then you might find that a hundred years had passed outside Faerie and all your family is long-dead. Old tales from every land speak of this understanding that accepting a gift imposes an obligation, if not a curse or geas. It lives on in the idea of a life-debt: that if someone saves your life, you are bound to him until you have saved his in return, or died trying.

The problem with gift economies is that they only work among people who all know each other intimately: family, tribe, clan. There is a delicate balance of gift-giving and gift-receiving, and you have to know if a person is “worthy” of the gift you offer — that is, if the person will be able and inclined to meet the obligation. Furthermore, the gift is generally not repaid directly or in kind, but instead indirectly through other members of the group, so you have to know that what you give has a path by which it can eventually come back to you.

When you deal with strangers outside your group — such as traders from far away — you don’t have that kind of intimate knowledge about them. So you use barter instead of the gift.

The essential feature of barter is that the transaction is completely finished before you part ways. You obtain a dozen fresh eggs in exchange for a tanned rabbit skin. You have both agreed that the trade is fair, so there is no continuing obligation, as there would be with a gift. You are done.

Our own economy is primarily a barter economy, with an intermediary of money, and it is marked by the same absence of personal obligation once the transaction is complete.

Eisenstein’s central point is this: gift economies foster connection between people — barter economies foster separation between people. This isn’t an accidental side effect. It is precisely what these two kinds of economies are intended to do.

The gift creates a dense network of obligations among people in a group, with a very informal and flexible index of “value,” and a complex system of balance that takes the place of direct repayment. Disputes over value arise, and are usually settled informally, as with any negotiation. Sometimes the dispute has to be taken up with the tribal elders, who might offer the gift of advice — which carries its own substantial obligation, so there is a strong incentive to settle “out of court.”

Trade exchange severs the natural connections created by the gift of a good or a service: it satisfies all gift obligations within itself through fair reciprocation, and ideally leaves both parties equally well-off, and better-off than they started. Value is often standardized, particularly when money is used as an intermediary. Disputes over the fairness of a trade arise, and can often be settled informally. Sometimes it has to be taken up with the lawgivers for the community, who will generally offer a judgement. Once dispensed, the judgement is final, and forbids any further dispute over an ongoing connection associated with that trade.

Most of us haven’t experienced anything like a gift economy outside our immediate families, and perhaps our faith community. What people have commonly experienced for thousands of years, instead, is a money-mediated barter economy, and it is this economy in which the idea of work or labor arises. We exchange work in barter (via money) for the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter.

That was certainly true for the early Hebrew tribes, once they went to Egypt to escape famine and the destruction of their tribal/nomadic way of life. It was true in all the cities of Canaan where they settled, and the great city of Babylon where they served as slaves. It was true under the Greeks, and true under the Romans. It was these Hebrews who gave us the concept of “keeping Sabbath.”

Now if we keep the Sabbath, we are forbidden to work. We are not to buy and sell and engage in barter, through money or otherwise, because barter is the economy of separation. The idea is to hold sacred one day a week where we can pursue reconnecting the community that has become separated through six days of bartering with work.

The time I spent in high school with my friends in church-sponsored activities was the real keeping of the Sabbath, even when we were chasing each other around and expending lots and lots of energy — the vestibule of Hell I sat upon every Sunday morning in a posture of seated repose was not a part of keeping the Sabbath at all. In retrospect, it seems the church service was a barter exchange itself, in which the minister would labor to prepare and deliver a sermon, in exchange for which the congregation would give money that paid for the facility and the salaries. Most congregants showed up on Sunday, paid for the show, and went home. They might as well have been watching a (very expensive, very dull) movie.

In graduate school, although I did not find the Sunday morning service onerous, the true keeping of the Sabbath was those hot afternoons at the lake, when we splashed in the water and told stories to each other about our lives, our dreams, our doubts, our fears. The Sabbath was those Wednesday nights we met to sing and eat ice cream together. It was the Thanksgiving potluck and the Easter pancake breakfast.

I think this way of looking at the Sabbath touches something much deeper than a rigid insistence on simply avoiding anything that might be considered work. It is certainly present in Jesus’ commentary — he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, and replied, “If you neighbor’s donkey falls into a pit on the Sabbath, don’t you all help pull the donkey out?” That image captures, in fact, the essentials of community building: pulling together with the goal of getting something done. It is, I think, the very heart of what it means to honor the Sabbath. It is about, for one day a week, giving up community-sundering work and returning to the world of the gift and the connections it creates.

I suspect my neighbors are engaged in a community-restoring Sabbath-keeping. They leave early and return late, and my young lawn-care assistant says that they “have fun.” That’s what restoring community usually feels like.

All of the above flashed through my mind as I mowed a row of grass.

So what about all the sweat that was soaking my T-shirt? Was I observing Sabbath, or breaking it, with all my hard Sunday afternoon exercise?

I think I was observing it, though in an odd way. To be a Druid is to be in connection with the elements of nature, something with which, despite growing up in Wyoming and having backpacked and camped all of my life, I still feel profoundly disconnected. It is very easy to backpack in a National Park, frame pack filled with food, and experience nothing more profound than: “Oooh, a pretty view! Oooh, a pretty rock! Oooh, my feet hurt!”

What I’m starting to appreciate is that there is an order to the natural world, what most now call an ecosystem. When you set your hand upon the land, ripples spread out, like ripples in a pool. Plant a fern here, dig up bindweed there, add water, add loam, mix sand, mulch…. You can create harmony, or discord. You can kill the soil, or bring it back to life. You can plant things, and watch them thrive, or shrivel because they don’t get enough sun, or too much sun. Bees will come, if you call them with scent, and hummingbirds. Squirrels have their own social arrangements, as do crows. Our health is tied to their health, our prosperity to their prosperity.

My community rebuilding today was with the earth.

It’s a pretty modest effort, raking the leaves and mowing the grass. But they do serve to make me more aware of the land and its inhabitants. I notice how much more slowly the grass is growing as the days shorten, note the areas that are going to need more seed in the Spring. I see the pine needles multiply on the lawn, and the big yellow cottonwood leaves that flutter down and strike the ground with a slap. Spiderwebs are abandoned by the dozens: we’ve had some cold nights. While I was mulching, I moved some leaves, and disturbed a moth that was sheltering under them. These are tiny details, hardly worth noticing, yet by simply being aware of them, I can start to gain a sense what is “normal” and what is “abnormal” in the environment. In my environment.

All that said, I’ll be happy when our yard changes are settled in, and my Sabbath-keeping requires a little less sweat.

This entry was posted in General.

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