I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
God made time, and so there is enough of it.
Eight years ago I was in my second year of a PhD program, and I was dying.
It had been a long time coming. I was your classic overachieving grad student, trained from high school in the severe disciplines of maximizing intellectual work. I learned to read in mid-mornings, when my brain was attentive, and to attack language study late at night, when it was supple. I learned to chew on the inside of my lip until it swelled and grew ragged, to stay awake during lectures. I learned to write a fifteen page essay in a single sitting, ignoring my exhaustion, driven by chocolate-covered espresso beans and by the rapture of seeing a complex argument come together on the screen in front of me. I learned that my limits were far beyond what my teachers expected them to be, and I learned to prize the respect and praise that came my way when I showed off what I could do.
For whatever reason—being in a long-distance marriage, being in a program where students were treated as a renewable resource to burn through, or just being in my early 20s, when many serious mental illnesses hit in full force—by 2011 I was fantasizing every day about killing myself. This would have worried me much less if I were still able to work; but I simply couldn’t concentrate. The charming intricacies of cuneiform stood no chance against the shame and self-disgust that urged me to jump off a high rooftop. Even worse, I had forgotten why I cared about the work. I remembered that I had loved it, but most days I no longer remembered why. My days passed in alternating agony and fog.
I spent a long time, at this period, in a state of profound helplessness. I went on medical leave from my university, and then left the program when my leave ran out and my sickness remained. I applied for jobs, unsuccessfully; I worked for six weeks at Starbucks, but was unable to maintain the pace. I signed up online as a tutor but could neither hustle for new clients nor keep the few appointments I had. I could get myself to therapy, and I could get myself to church, and that was it. I was as useless as a broken pot.
I think, in the long run, this helplessness was the greatest of God’s many gifts to me during this time. I had simply become too sick to maintain the illusion that anything I owned was earned; I had become too vulnerable to imagine I was capable of protecting myself from poverty and the loss of everything I valued. I was learning, in other words, what it meant to be part of God’s creation. And as promised, I discovered that this was very good.
How can I describe the strange joy of discovering that my worth in God’s eyes had nothing to do with my ability to work? Many people find their ability to experience beauty compromised in depression; my response to beauty was magnified out of all reason. I wept at sunsets and small kindnesses; I laughed out loud at the silliness of children and the ironies of fate; I took refuge in every church service I could, and in the singing of the choir I felt refreshed as a long cold drink of water on a thirsty day.
One of the long-term effects of this time is that my capacity for work remains greatly diminished. I cannot survive without at least one full day of rest each week. When I try (and I do, still) to push my limits, I am plunged quickly into a dark and churning sea of exhaustion and melancholy. I am stuck with the Sabbath; and this also is very good.
In the early church, the Sabbath came under the same suspicion as the other distinctive Judean ritual practices of circumcision and observance of Levitical dietary laws. As Christianity expanded beyond its origins in the Judaism of the second temple period, it emerged as a category of identity which participated in ethnic, philosophical, and devotional boundaries in a new way. Early Christian writers grappled with how to understand themselves over and against other kinds of group allegiance, and one of the ways they did this was to rely on rhetorical constructions of Jews as a foil for their own self-definition. “We know that we are Christians, because we do not do things the ways the Jews do.” Thus Justin Martyr groups the Sabbath, together with circumcision and dietary laws, as commandments given to the Jews on account of (so Justin argues) their great sins rather than as a gift in itself: “For we [Christians] too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths…if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you—namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 203)
And so, as with circumcision and dietary laws, keeping the seventh-day Sabbath fell by the wayside, broadly speaking. Ignatius replaces the seventh-day Sabbath with observance on Sunday of the Lord’s Day, and exhorts the Magnesians “no longer [to] keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness, for ‘he that does not work, let him not eat’….But let every one of the you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body.” (62) True Sabbath-keeping, for Ignatius, is to be found in the inclination of the spirit, not in the disposition of the body. The rest and refreshment which God commands must be held distinct from idleness and laziness; we can, if we have the will to, observe the true Sabbath at all times. And the weekly celebration which we are called to is the eighth day, the day of resurrection.
Sunday sabbath for the Christian thus is something both more and less than the biblical sabbath. The Sabbath is a day when time explodes and collapses like a dying star. In a sense which is true and also mysterious, it is the very day of the resurrection. It is also the day of the eschaton, a day when Jesus returns in dreadful glory. Such a Sabbath offers us a weekly glimpse of being caught up with Jesus into God’s own life.
Yet we, like the writers of the early church, exist in a culture which does not know how to envision rest as a good in itself. In many parts of the world, at many times, Sabbath has come to mean, at most, going to church for an hour (and God forbid the service go over time and make us late for our brunch reservation!). Christian efforts to renew sabbath practices often borrow from contemporary Jewish theology without acknowledging the ugly anti-Jewish rhetoric which led to its abandonment as a mandatory practice in the first place.
I struggle to articulate what exactly is lacking in Christian observance of the Sabbath, and I hesitate to go head to head with the saints of the early church, Yet I find myself longing for the simple commandment to sit down and rest. I confess I look askance at Ignatius, who condemns those of us who might rejoice in the body’s relaxation.
For me the breathtaking audacity of the sabbath lies precisely in its commandment to be idle. I do not rest on the Sabbath for purposes of self-care, though care for the self is good and right. I do not rest on the Sabbath because periodic rest increases my ultimate capacity to work, although it does. I rest because God rested. I rest to remind myself that I am a creature, and not the Creator; I rest to remind myself that to God my worth and my usefulness are wholly different things.
The Son of Man might have dominion over the Sabbath, but we do not. We are creatures of God, and every moment of our existence owes itself to God’s continuing grace. If we cannot learn this on our own, perhaps we might rediscover the gift that a commandment can be.
New Haven, Connecticut