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I lent The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the former Teen the Elder and borrowed it back when I visited him recently. He kindly left me some margin notes, as did the first owner of the book! I found this book on the sale shelves at Adelynrood last summer.

In the introduction, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a scholar in her own right, explains that for her father, the Sabbath, in the sense of “holiness in time” defined Judaism. Heschel examines our definitions of time and space, of our identity within these concepts, and of the philosophical understanding of goodness versus the religious understanding of holiness. Yet for all these nuanced ideas, The Sabbath is a quick, and in many ways, a simple read.

It’s particularly poignant to think about the time when Heschel wrote as the backdrop of his thinking. This book was published in 1951 when the full revelation of the extent of the Holocaust was still fairly fresh. In the chapter, “A Palace In Time,” Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Despite the incredible horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people only a few years earlier, Heschel focuses on the eternal, and celebrates the gift of a day set apart for its eternal peace.

I see that contrast in this passage: “But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the profanity of all other days . . . . For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” The Sabbath brings us back to our being what we are meant to be — God’s people. Or, as Heschel says, much more beautifully, “On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Heschel’s observations of human weakness also remind readers that the problems of the world are not new or unique to our present anxious time:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty.  Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Really, that about sums it up!

I’m using a guide to Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poetry as part of my Lent reading this year, which is what reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read The Sabbath. The challenge of setting aside and honoring time, whether a day or part of several days, to remember ourselves does not come naturally in this world. I’ve tried to observe the sabbath in various ways over the years, mainly as a time to slow down, recharge, and be ready to bring my best self to the rest of the week. But I think the sense of sabbath that Heschel teaches, as “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” and as a “foretaste” of eternity, that “raises our minds above accustomed thoughts” goes far deeper than a mere day of rest.

I am going to try to think of sabbath as “Spirit in the form of time” as Heschel affirms, and to rest in the sabbath rather than on the sabbath.

 

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I’ve been intending to read more of Karen Armstrong for years. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I read and re-read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life a few years ago. We have acquired a few of her other books over the years, but recently I turned to a Kindle version of St Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I’m a member of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the guy who preached at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) calls “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement,” and as part of his work, Bishop Curry has challenged people to follow The Way of Love. One of the recent challenges related to this was to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the season of Epiphany (which runs from the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, to the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, which this year, is on March 5).

Romans is tough going. Although I have a serious church history and scripture nerd in my house (yes, the Computer Scientist is a man of many talents), and my own personal seminarian to call on (the former Teen the Elder) I found myself looking for more context for this repetitive, rambling letter than seems to contradict itself, and at times, to contradict the entire notion of loving your neighbor as yourself. At a discussion group about Romans at church I got a taste of what Karen Armstrong talks about in her book, and also several people recommended it.

Now, I was raised Catholic and except for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve attended church pretty regularly my whole life. But I learned all kinds of things I never knew from this book. For example, Pauls’s second letter to the Corinthians is actually five letters, out of chronological order, and with a couple of passages he probably didn’t write stuck in (including the infamous cover your heads, ladies, and the women should be seen but not heard in church). Paul was the earliest writer in the Jesus movement, and he wrote his letters and did his work before there were any written gospels. He only took on a trade (probably tent making or leather working) when he hit the road, as a way to connect with people and to make money for his travels. He believed the “Parousia” or coming of Christ was imminent, and he never meant his writing to be read later, much less a couple thousand years after he wrote. In fact, much of his advice to the communities he wrote to was very specific to their issues and concerns, and wasn’t meant to be taken as general advice for Christians (who didn’t exist yet, anyway).

I knew bits of this, but hadn’t ever read it all in one place before, nor had such an erudite but accessible guide to Paul as Karen Armstrong. She admits that as a young writer, she was prepared to dislike him (her first book was also about Paul) but she came to admire him as she researched. Other things in the book were a complete surprise to me — she writes that the American scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that the disciples left Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and probably didn’t know what happened to him in the immediate aftermath, and reminds us that the passion accounts are “prophecy historicized” rather than actual history. The stories are so familiar to believers, and even to nonbelievers as a result of Western culture (even network TV showed Jesus Christ Superstar last Easter), that Crossan says “It is hard for us, I repeat, to bring our imagination down low enough to see the casual brutality with which he was probably taken and executed.” Armstrong notes that Paul, too, was probably killed brutally and without fanfare, as was the Roman empire’s specialty.

She reminds us that only seven of Paul’s letters were likely to have been written by him. And that his words, and his legacy, were mediated by various figures, from the author of Luke and Acts through Augustine and Martin Luther and various church figures over centuries. This I knew — and it is criticism that has been leveled at Armstrong herself. Mediation, of course, is impossible to avoid in human communication; we all make meaning out of what we take in, and are influenced by others’ frames and agendas. I’ll leave arguments about where Armstrong falls in the continuum of New Testament scholarship to others, but for me, this book was helpful. It reminded me that much of what we know about the first century Jesus Movement is uncertain, even that which we accept as gospel.

But this book also reminded me that the people who carried Jesus’ story to others then, and those who do now, are participants in a faith tradition that doesn’t need absolute historical facts and details. Exactly what Jesus did when and where and with whom isn’t really important, nor is what Paul said about it, nor how Martin Luther or others interpreted or misinterpreted what Paul said. What is important is that the transformative message of this strange, mysterious life, the life of a man at once a Galilean peasant and the Son of God, has endured down the ages in part because an imperfect man named Paul was called to make it his life’s work to tell people about it. Armstrong helps clarify that, and I recommend this book to anyone struggling to understand Paul a little bit more.

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