Thus says the Lord: / Observe what is right, do what is just; / for my salvation is about to come, / my justice about to be revealed. / Blessed is the one who does this, those who hold to it; / Who keep the sabbath free from profanation, / and their hands from any evildoing.
Isaiah 56: 1-3
The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.
John 5: 36
Adrian van Kaam maintains that “the primal act of violence is the refusal of our spiritual awareness.” If functioning, be it physical or intellectual, is our greatest human potential, then our ambitions become the measure of the value of all our activity. If there is no Other, no deeper truth and reality of things, to whom we are responsible for our actions, then our ideas and ideologies, our unconscious needs and drives become the source and end of all that we do. As spirit we are aware of ourselves as participants in a reality that transcends us. We are a part of a life that is beyond us and includes all of us and everything that exists. As participants, we and our work have “a part” to play in a life and a design that we can serve and in which we can find our fulfillment but that we can never control nor fully understand. When we forget or repress this, then we live only for ourselves and become prone to inflicting our designs and needs on the world of the others and the Other.
Isaiah makes a connection between doing “what is right” and “what is just” and keeping “the sabbath free from profanation.” With some rare exceptions, at least in the secular world of the west and north, the keeping of the sabbath has become something of a quaint anachronism. Other than not having to go to work, at least for some of us, we carry very little sense of what the sabbath is for and what it means to “keep it.” In our highly functionalized consciousness, the day becomes a break from our true identity as worker rather than the place to remember and realize who we most deeply are.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl wrote of a phenomenon he observed which he termed “Sunday neurosis.”
“Sunday neurosis, that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.”
When it is work, governed merely by our needs and ambitions, that constitutes our identity we have no inner content to our lives. Then, true rest is impossible for us because lack of activity will give rise to awareness of the void within us and the anxiety that void evokes.
In order to work in the way Jesus uses the term in the gospel of John, we must be able to rest. Such rest, however, is not merely rest in order to physical and psychically “recharge” for more work. Rather it a much deeper rest in the life of the One who is our life and in whose world we are participants and servants. Jesus challenges the view of the religious leaders about what it means to keep the sabbath because he is always keeping it. He is always at his core “at rest” with God. Yet, even he needs to go off by himself at night to pray. He too must take time to make that union with God, which is the ground of his life, figural.
Our Master of Novices used to say to us in the earliest years of our religious formation that we should always take heed if we found ourselves unable to sit quietly for 10 or 15 minutes before the Blessed Sacrament. We should, he said, realize that such an inability, such restlessness, meant that we were physically, psychically, and spiritually “in trouble.” Is our social and cultural inability to keep the sabbath such a sign for all of us? Is the breakdown in our discourse, relationships, and political life perhaps not due to this inability? Is the violence that pervades our connections with each other and with the world at large not due to our inability to recognize the primacy of awe and worship in human life?
Today’s reading from Isaiah tells us that “foreigners,” that is all who join themselves to the Lord and keep the sabbath free from profanation, will also be welcome on God’s holy mountain. Religion is not, as we typically claim, something “we have.” Rather it is an expression of the reality of things. As Jesus tells the Samaritan Woman: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4: 24) To worship in truth is not tied to particular dogmas or doctrines or ritual modes. It is, rather, to realize and to respond to one’s life in the Spirit. It is to know that the work we have been given to do has, in fact, been given to us.
To do the work that we have been given requires of us that we spend time “not doing.” We must learn to be still that the Teacher may teach us, that the Master may direct our ways. We must learn how to mitigate our arrogance and self-preoccupation. We must be willing to let go of our projects and desires and to receive the “one thing necessary” for us. To know the works that the Father gives each of us to accomplish, we must learn how to lay aside our own works, to keep the sabbath always and in such a way that we remember who we truly are and what our lives are for.
All actions are not only agencies in the endless series of cause and effect, they also effect and concern God with or without human intention, with or without human consent. All existence stands in a holy dimension. All existence stands before God—not only human beings—here and everywhere, now and at all times. Not only a vow or conversion, not only the focusing of the mind upon God, engages us to God. Life is enlistment in God’s service; all deeds, thoughts, feelings, and events become God’s concern.
Religion is, as it were, the space for perpetual contact between God and the universe. This condition outlasts catastrophes and apostasies and constitutes God’s covenant with humanity and the universe.
We do not possess religion, we exist in religion. This religious existence precedes our religious experience. Creed and aspiration are the adjustments of consciousness to the holy dimension. Religion is not an election; it is the destiny of humanity.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Holy Dimension