I begin with a mea culpa. Often I have been labeled as one of those Type A personalities and only recently have I ‘fessed up to it. I wake up early each morning and I’m instantly alert, my mind whirring with thoughts and tasks for the day. I don’t have real hobbies, even though I like to do things for fun. But most of those “fun” things must have some purposeful edge to them. I want to get better at playing the guitar. I want to improve my golf game. I read all the time, but I rarely read “just for fun.” I don’t do a very good job of taking a full day off each week. I’m not good at chit-chat conversations. But give me a “serious issue” to discuss and I’m all over it.
For my entire ministry (now more than 25 years), I’ve been hearing people talk about “self-care” in conjunction with taking a Sabbath. I started hearing about it in seminary and I’ve always had a kind of allergic ambivalence to the notion. For starters, if national statistics are accurate, most of us are pretty bad at it, so a bunch of us are hypocrites. Americans work more hours and take less vacation than any of the other post-industrial, one-third world nations. And people in vocational ministry may be among the most egregious of sinners because, while most other people with whom we associate are winding down and relaxing (evenings and weekends) we are usually at our busiest. In fact, while talking about the need to take a Sabbath, we not-so-secretly enjoy that noble self-regard we feel about working so hard.
Recently I began meeting with a spiritual director, a Jesuit priest and a wise and accomplished practitioner. Of course, early on he asked me about Sabbath-taking (I should have known). I answered him honestly (how else can you answer your spiritual director?) and he said something that really got me thinking. Honestly, it was not that I had never heard it before. But he said it with such clarity and conviction, coupled with a description of how he practiced his own Sabbath-keeping discipline, that it gave me pause.
He described Sabbath-taking in terms part moral and part theological. The practice regularly aligns us heart and soul with the creative rhythms with which God created the universe. The discipline of weekly (or very regularly) ceasing from labor (which does not mean doing nothing or vegging out in front of the TV) demonstrates that we adequately grasp that God is God and we are not. Sabbath taking is an act of yielded, consecrated trust. It weans us from false notions of adequacy and autonomy. It thus is a form of dying. It is therefore not optional for me or any other follower of Jesus.
Ceasing from labor, then, is not mere “self-care.” Frankly, the term “self-care,” though important to attend to, predisposes us, I think, toward self-concern, even self-protection, even a tinge here and there of actual narcissism. Sabbath-as-self-care is psychologized language that is reductionist and distorting of what Sabbath actually is. For those of us in vocational ministry, the too frequent use of the term may point ironically to our lack of awareness of, or hesitance about, the deep theological realities to which Sabbath points. We need a new vision, a new paradigm, in which Sabbath-keeping is rooted in the language and concepts of the faith once delivered.
These thoughts in mind, I must look at my schedule – the rhythms of work and personal life – and figure out how to keep the Sabbath; how to align my labor with the rhythms of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. Doing so, though perhaps exceedingly difficult to reorganize my life patterns, is not optional. Thank you, Father Joe.