I like planning and organizing sequences a lot. My freshman year in college, I took a course in BASIC, an old programming language from fairly early in the age of computers. What I remember loving was the flow charts we had to create as the first step in writing code. I loved the crispness and clarity they provided, the specificity of alternatives paths that opened based on yes/no decisions. That a task could be broken down to these exceedingly well-understood steps was both surprising and obvious. I still want to organize life, projects, all kinds of things, around a flowchart. And if I can put date and time and place and person in front of each step, even better.
I started out taking that approach when I finally settled on a trip to Maine next month. I have a basic timeline because I won’t be staying in a single place and had to make some reservations. Somewhere along the way, though, I realized I am a whole lot more comfortable moving through chaos than I used to be, a lot more willing to stay open to what may unfold in totally unexpected ways and places. As I made the decisions to leave most of the 12 days I’ll be in Maine blank, I turned back to a short, beautiful, book by Abraham Heschel called “The Sabbath.”
Heschel draws a distinction I find very helpful between time and space. He makes the argument that our relationship with space has a lot to do with mastery and control—we form and reform and reshape creation; most of our days are spent on those tasks. I don’t think Heschel intends to condemn those days. Certainly, I have known extraordinary joy and wonder on the occasions when I led or worked on a project where, not only were the results as good or better than I had hoped, but the relationships within the team had grown stronger because of the work we did together. Last weekend, I pulled out a recipe handwritten by mom at least 35 years ago, that took me two days to complete. At one point I had 5 bowls I was working with, moving quickly from one to the other. When I plated the dessert at my friend’s house, it felt like I had honored my mama by bringing that Charlotte Russe (the Swedish version) to celebrate two birthdays. I felt such satisfaction on her behalf. A recipe, like a flowchart, had given me a path to that moment and I was grateful.
But Heschel insists that to observing the Sabbath we must stop. Just stop. We cannot allow the next step, the next task, the next item on a to-do list, to hold us hostage. Within the bounds of 24 hours, the Sabbath allows those who observe it to sanctify time, because when we make that full stop, we allow God into our lives in a different way. The Sabbath allows us to “tend to the seeds of eternity planted in our souls,” in Heschel’s words.
Today is the second anniversary of my dad’s death. Stopping often this week to retrace our steps in those last days was probably inevitable. But repeatedly this week, it is another memory that surfaces. In 2012, my dad and I spent almost two weeks in Sweden so my dad could attend a class reunion and celebrate his 85th birthday. It was the height of summer and on our last night in Stockholm, we decided to ride the ferry that goes through the Stockholm archipelago, making many stops where people, going to spend some days in their summer homes, can disembark. We stayed on the ferry all along the route and had a lovely dinner on board. Then at about 9:30 or 10 that night, after feasting our eyes on the beauty that revealed itself all along the path through Baltic waters, we sat on a bench in the twilight of a Swedish summer night.
After a while in silence, my dad started talking. We’d just gone by the island where his parents rented a house in 1937. Already, the rumbles of war could be heard, even out there. But they were still distant enough and my dad was a young enough boy, that those were blissful days of time out of time. It was an exquisitely, heart-breaking-ly, beautiful moment of getting to know my dad as I never had before. I think I got some sense of the meaning of Sabbath as Heschel describes it, sitting on that bench with Dad. Time was sanctified.
My trip to Maine will be different because I will be alone. I have the sense that for Heschel, the Sabbath is deeply communal. My introverted self, who has been intensely engaged in my communal work as a priest, a mom, a wife, a friend, is longing for the open space and time of solitude. I will be able to follow where curiosity and wonder invite me. I have a couple of visits planned, including with my Godchild, whom I am extraordinarily proud of. I look forward to getting to know them as a young adult who has just bought a small market in a town along the coast. I will also blog a fair amount, I suspect. I won’t completely stay away from community.
But I am going to allow this part of the world I don’t know (except to understand it will remind me of Sweden with its granite cliffs facing out to the Atlantic) to tell me new stories. In the words of Parker Palmer, I am going to allow “my life to speak to me.” Sabbath begins, appropriately enough, close to sundown on a Friday, in 3 weeks, when I land in Portland, get my rental car and head out to places I’ve never been.