The Sabbath World 

Why Beauty and Joy Are Essential to the Sabbath
New books dissected over email.
March 24 2010 2:36 PM

The Sabbath World 

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The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz.

Dear Dahlia and Judith:

Our conversation has generated many more threads than our word limits allow us to pick up. But the conversation will continue in my own mind long after our exchange is published.

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One of my favorite lines in your book, Judith, is this: "We grow obsolete faster than we used to." I'm ahead of you on this, as our exchange makes me realize I am a generation older than both of you. Oy! So the Sunday Sabbaths of my childhood were simpler, with fewer distractions. After morning Mass, I likely spent the day playing and doing homework. Weather permitting (this was Seattle), we might work in the yard, which was not servile work, according to my mother's Halakha.Or we might go on a drive. Our phone was a four-party line, so lengthy conversations with friends were discouraged (much to my exasperation as a teenager). If the (one) television was on, it was likely tuned to a sporting event—my father loved sports and passed his love on to me—but television wasn't much of a draw for us. Often in the late afternoon we would head across the city for dinner at my grandparents' home, joined by my aunts and cousins.

The era and culture set the slower beat to our Sunday rhythm more than did the church. Even in the Pacific Northwest, the country's most secular region, the stores were closed. There wasn't much to be plugged into. Then, as the blue laws faded away and the gleam of technology mesmerized us, Sunday began to look more like the rest of the week. Clearing away the clutter remains a challenge, in part because my tradition does not have the fence of restrictions that protects the command to "keep holy the Sabbath." Precisely for that reason, a number of Christian writers are exploring practices that might honor Sunday as sacred time. A particular influence on me has been my friend Dorothy Bass, author of Receiving the Day; see here.

Although Sunday Mass has been my one consistent Sabbath practice over the years, I empathize with your reserve about religious services. Living in New York City, I have found parishes with a vibrant liturgy, but in many places congregants have only banal liturgical fare, with vacuous preaching and uninspired music. Not to mention my feelings about the exclusion of women from the priesthood. And Dahlia, I'm with you on the music. Fine music—excellent instrumentalists, trained choral leaders, a broad repertoire—brings joy and life to church services. Music has a way of moving the heart, whether it's the simplicity of chant, the harmonies of polyphony, or the exuberance of gospel choirs and pulsating drums. Of course, when the music is trite or out of tune, it is more distraction than prayer. I confess I detest the genre of "praise music," with its dreadful lyrics and sentimental melodies.

Beauty and joy are essential to Sunday. In The Sabbath World, Judith, you speak of "beautifying ourselves and our home." In my Sabbath world, Sunday isn't a day to "practice death," but a day to revive hope. So much weighs us down that we need a counterweight to restore equilibrium. The title of writer Nora Gallagher's lovely memoir, Practicing Resurrection, expresses what I think Sunday is meant to be: a day to live into the fullness of life. Galllagher asks: "If there is some kind of life after death, what if it's not a life exclusively for the dead? What if it's a life available to us all, something the living can participate in, too."

Practicing resurrection requires our attentiveness, our presence to the world around us as well as to our deepest selves. Too often those of us in the churches are, as Annie Dillard says in Teaching a Stone To Talk, like "cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute." We're shooting countless photos with our digital cameras without taking in what we're seeing. The Sabbath gives us time to give our lives more than a passing glimpse—and to look on ourselves with the mercy with which God sees us.

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Mary C. Boys is the Skinner and McAlpin professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names.

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