Today is a magic day for us. It is the last day of the current guesthouse season. When the last guest has departed this afternoon, we will close for a month.
We will start our month with an old and honored custom - we go to Gardiner, a town a few miles from here, to the home of Toni and Jim Taylor. Toni keeps our books (and a lot more) and Jim keeps our pipes (he's the plumber) - and each year on this Sunday they invite us for a party around their pool. It has gotten to be a really nice part of the closing down for us. Not everyone gets in the pool, but I do, only emerging for a taste or two of scotch, which is well supplied. Toni and Jim are superb hosts, the food and drink are bountiful, and it is always a great time and a wonderful beginning to our down time.
Then Monday and Tuesday will be days off - having 'sabbath time' we say. And on Wednesday, we begin our Long Retreat. Ten days of silence. Bliss!
After that, we have a fairly informal time for the rest of the 31 days. Our schedule is relaxed, we have time for things we don't get to during the rest of the year. Some of the community like to catch up on movies, some like to hike, and we all like to sleep. Some will be away on vacation. We tend to linger more around the table after meals, sharing our time with each other. That will take us to August 21 when we open up again.
This brings me (not very accidentally!) to the topic of sabbath. It's a big deal in our religious tradition, particularly that part of our tradition contained in the Hebrew scriptures. The Sabbath was one of the principal things that marked Jews off from other cultures, and its observance occupies a good deal of the concern of the scriptural record, both Jewish and Christian.
And what was/is the Sabbath? Christians use the word loosely to mean Sunday, called the "Christian Sabbath" to distinguish it from the Jewish Sabbath, which is Saturday. But is Sunday a sabbath? Sabbath means pretty much one thing, when you get down to it - no work.
Whatever else may happen, work is not part of it, and the definition of "no work" is very stringent. It is, in fact, quite a different thing from having a day, or a weekend, when you don't go to the office so that you can work around home.
It is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that sabbath is a necessity. Having time when you don't work so that you can pay attention to the deeper parts of life is not just a pleasant custom. Sabbath, in this view, is an important part of our nature, and we ignore it at our peril. That part of our life needs to be nourished just as much as the working part of our life so that we can be whole people. A Jewish sabbath traditionally includes worship, time to relax with the family, time to study (usually with friends), and a really nice meal with wine. And no work. It isn't just time off. It's time to be who you are, and it is necessary to stop working to do that.
It is a hard thing to get people to even consider, much less try to observe, any sabbath time. It has always been so. The books of the Prophets and the Histories of the Jewish people make it clear that people in the second millennium BCE were just as addicted to work as we are. It was a continual struggle to get folks to observe one day a week as a work-free time and people went to some really ridiculous lengths to do something that looked and felt like work. And in reaction the Sabbath regulations got more and more elaborate and detailed. (My favorite regulation is the one against moving furniture. You don't move furniture on the Sabbath because in the process you might move some dust and that would be plowing, and plowing is work and forbidden on the Sabbath). But believe me, I really understand how the situation got that way. Getting anyone - myself for instance - to consider the possibility of having a time when I can't work is itself really hard work. I freely admit that my retreats sometimes look more like silent work days than anything else. And when I decide to give a day to, for instance, meditation, I am horrified to see how much I arrange it to look and feel like work. Hard work. Yikes!
So once again I make the resolution that I am going to do something about making July 20th to August 21st different. My soul and my body both are crying out for it. There's a part of my being that I am not taking very good care of. Do you believe a monk is talking like this? (Well, those who read this column regularly probably won't be all that much surprised). I'm going looking for wholeness during these next few weeks.
My first resolution is to not write this column next week. We are going to be in retreat and I am going to honor that. You, in turn, might think about using the time you usually use for reading this blog for a bit of quiet nothingness. Just notice where you are. Meditate. Take time to notice something around you that you usually pass over. Really taste the coffee in your mug. Whatever. We'll do some Sabbath together.
And if you have some helpful suggestions from your own practice, no doubt a bunch of people would benefit from knowing about them.