The children’s book Sabbath Lion: A Jewish Folktale from Algeria tells of a young boy named Yosef sent across the desert to collect his family’s inheritance. From a devout Jewish family, Yosef finds himself in a bind when his caravan leader refuses to stop traveling in observance of the Sabbath. We have to pause, Yosef believes. We need to observe our holy day of rest according to custom.
So he does. The young boy stays behind, alone in the desert without food or protection out of reverence for the Sabbath. He prays to the Sabbath Queen for help, who responds to Yosef’s faithfulness by sending a lion to be his guide. Together, Yosef and the Sabbath lion complete the journey. His faithfulness serves as a lesson to his siblings and to all of us: keep holy the Sabbath. You never know what God might do with your gift of time.
But what is Sabbath-keeping in the throes of daily life outside the desert? To-do lists never stop growing. Basements need cleaning, babies need feeding, work deadlines need to be met, and on and on. Who has time to take time away from the routine?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued the practice of Sabbath is not just a nice idea—it’s a necessity. He wrote, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath . . . one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.”
Know your Sabbath Day roots
The practice of Sabbath dates back to the very beginning—literally. The Genesis story tells of our creator God, who spent six days forming the world. Heavens, earth, light, darkness, sky, land, plants, animals, and people all came into being those first days. A period of rest seems only right after such a feat! The Genesis author writes, “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:3). Thus began the practice of Sabbath, a sacred time of rest reflecting God’s own decision to rest.
Religious rituals soon formed around the Sabbath in early Jewish communities. “Keep holy the Sabbath” stood as one of the Ten Commandments and a sign of the covenant. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, points out specific rules for Sabbath observance, such as no plowing fields (Exod. 34:21) and no kindling fire (Exod. 35:3). Owners must give rest to their animals and servants as well (Deut. 5:14). The God of the Old Testament is not messing around when it comes to Sabbath law. God tells Moses, “You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death” (Exod. 31:14).
The Christian practice of Sabbath stems from our Jewish roots. Jesus knew the importance of holy rest. He also knew sometimes people needed to eat or be healed—and those needs couldn’t be contained to a timeline. He puts the rules into perspective when he tells the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Christians began observing the day of rest on Sundays with communal worship. The Eucharist became a defining celebration of the Lord’s Day.
The ways people practice Sabbath have changed over time. Ideas to inspire refreshed Sabbath practices in the midst of our busy lives follow.
Life isn’t all about getting things done, especially when it comes to the Sabbath. On your holy day of rest, try taking a pause.
“Love begins at home.”St. Teresa of Calcutta
The average employed person spends just over 40 hours at their paid job each week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Studies show digital connection to the workplace rarely stops even off the clock. Tack on all the unpaid chores people do around the home and neighborhood, and suddenly work eats up most of the week. The Sabbath invites us to lay down our labor and be present to God and our loved ones—but it may take some proactive planning.
- Inform colleagues of your Sabbath practice ahead of time. Be explicit about the times you are not available. Sharing your reasons may encourage others to set similar boundaries.
- Avoid your workplace. Forget an important file on your desk? Odds are it can wait until Monday. Geographical separation helps lessen the temptation to finish “just one more” task.
- Put an out-of-office reply on your email. This automated message should soothe any concerns about a delayed response time. Clients and colleagues will know not to expect an immediate reply.
“I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”Thomas Merton
Worry makes us more susceptible to physical and mental illness, which in turn hinders our ability to truly enter into the Sabbath. Of course, it’s not feasible to completely cut concerns from our day. But Merton reminds us that God is a source of support no matter where the journey leads. How can we lessen or refocus our worries to make space for rest and rejuvenation?
- Write down all the people and things that worry you the night before your Sabbath begins. Release your worries onto a piece of paper. Put the list in a special prayer basket. Entrust it to God for the day.
- Practice deep breathing exercises. Slow, steady inhales and exhales relax the body by releasing toxins, lowering stress levels, and getting the blood pumping.
- Try aromatherapy. Smells such as lavender and jasmine are found to help lower anxiety. If you can’t shake the worry on your Sabbath, try putting a drop or two of an essential oil on your hands, rubbing them together, and breathing in the soothing scent. (Be sure to check the instructions on the bottle. Some oils can be toxic.)
A little structure can go a long way for getting the most out of your Sabbath experience. Grow closer to God, yourself, and the world around you through the following practices:
“Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.”Mahatma GandhiAdvertisement
The practices of Sabbath and worship go hand-in-hand. Why worship? God gifts us with all of creation and a covenant that promises everlasting love. Our response is to gather together as one body in praise and thanksgiving. In the words of Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad!” Public worship, particularly the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, is the pinnacle practice.
- Attend Mass at your local parish. Fulfilling the “Sunday obligation” is one way to think about going to Mass on the Sabbath. But what about viewing it as a chance to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with a community of fellow believers? The Body of Christ is made known in the bread and wine and the gathered assembly.
- Pray lectio divina with the daily readings. This ancient monastic prayer practice invites a slow, meditative reading of scripture. Listen for a word or phrase that sticks out to you. What is God revealing? A little pre-Mass prayer can heighten engagement with the readings and homily.
- Pray evening prayer. Return to ritual prayer at the end of the Sabbath day. Through hymns, psalms, and canticles, the liturgy of the Hours offers meditation on the mystery of Christ.
“Silence is the best response to mystery.”Kathleen Norris
Family, friends, colleagues, and even our parish communities demand attention. God wants a turn, too. While our incarnational God is certainly encountered through other people, God can also be found in times of solitude. The desert mothers and fathers took to hermitages to spend one-on-one time with their Creator. Even Jesus went off to the mountain to pray alone. The scientifically backed benefits of taking some time alone include an increase in empathy, creativity, and mental strength. The Sabbath presents a perfect chance to withdraw if you’re already taking a pause from work.
- Spend the day (or half the day) at a retreat center. What questions are you itching to ask God? Is there a big life decision that needs discerning? Getting away from the distractions of a familiar place often provides a refreshing environment for solitude. Retreat centers are made for your day away.
- Lock yourself in your room for an hour. If leaving the house is not an option, hole up in your room. Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign if necessary. Create a cozy prayer corner. Bring a book. Or, take a nap. Allow your body to take the rest it needs.
- Disconnect from social media. Withdraw from the digital sphere on the Sabbath. Focus on being present to the creation around you. Let your friends and followers know ahead of time not to expect any posts or pins. Your notice may encourage others to do the same.
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”Mary Oliver
One of the many lessons taught by the late, great poet Mary Oliver was to approach the world with a sense of wonder. Our earth teems with the incredible, the beautiful. Do you see it? Do you hear it? Do you smell, taste, and touch it? To keep the Sabbath holy, we must notice the holy all around.
- Create space for reflecting on big life questions. Journal or doodle about the wonders God has in store for you—and the ways God is already at work in your life. Where is God calling you? To whom? How can your gifts be used in service to the world?
- Awe at art. Pope Francis told a group of artists that beauty “will heal the many wounds that mark the hearts and souls of the men and women of our day.” Spend some Sabbath time appreciating a painting or piece of pottery.
- Play “I Spy” with the world around you. Say prayers of gratitude for the little things, such as a blooming flower, that you may normally walk right past.
“Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”Barbara Brown Taylor
For those who are able, walking is a great form of exercise and a gateway into the natural world. Continue the practice of wonder while on a Sabbath walk. Not only can you burn a few calories and improve your mood, the physical exertion can elicit clearer thinking according to some scientists. Who doesn’t want that?
- Catch the sunrise on a morning stroll around your neighborhood. The allure of sleeping in on the Sabbath may be too strong, but early risers won’t miss the dawn of a new day. God’s best artistic work tends to be across the morning skies.
- Hike in your local arboretum. Spend time immersed in the woods. Find a favorite trail or adventure across a new one. You may enjoy praying the rosary as you hike.
- Invite a friend out for a power walk after dinner. Odds are big questions or spiritual insights arise after a day of practicing the Sabbath. Get the blood pumping and process your day with some company.
“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.”Dorothy Day
Practicing Sabbath does not mean forgetting the needs of our neighbor. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brothers and sisters who . . . cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly.” Who needs welcome or companionship in our midst?
- Host a meal. Know a widowed neighbor or someone who lives far from family? Invite them over for a meal and conversation. Do as much of the prep work as you can the day before.
- Invite a new parishioner out for coffee. See someone new in the pew to your left? Welcome them to the community by going out for a cup of coffee after Mass. Learn more about their story while getting your caffeine fix. Everyone wins!
- Bring communion to the homebound. Parishes always need volunteers to visit the sick and elderly who cannot travel to Mass. Bring communion, pray together, and extend the walls of the parish by your presence.
Try out different Sabbath pauses and practices to find what best feeds your soul and strengthens your relationship with God.
This article also appears in the May 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 5, pages 18–23).
Photo by Sid Leigh on Unsplash