Here’s Why Taking a Day of Rest Is a Divine Right
From Mother Ollie, I learned that taking time for yourself is a divine rite too.
My great-grandmother was a lifelong Baptist. Mother Ollie, as we called her, attended Mass at my family’s Catholic church in Birmingham, too, but she never drifted from her quiet adherence to the King James ways of her youth.
After church every Sunday, she went straight back to her room. On other days, she was always busy—shelling peas or snapping beans, crocheting or quilting or sewing. Her foot-pedal Singer was in daily use until a few weeks before her death in 1982, but she never sewed on Sunday.
When I went looking for her help with a tatting project one Sunday afternoon, I found out why. Tatting is a kind of lace made of tiny knots tied in very fine string. The trick is to tie the right kind of knot without tangling the string into the wrong kind, but I had made so many of the wrong knots that I couldn’t even figure out how to unpick the tangle and start again. I found her sitting in a chair, her Bible in her lap. The book was very old, with edges so worn they curved inward toward the pages, as soft as a puppy. I knocked on the open door. “Mother Ollie, can you help me with this?”
“Not today, honey,” she said. “The Lord tells us not to work on the Sabbath.” And handwork, by definition, is work.
I don’t know anyone who takes Sunday off anymore. If we aren’t doing professional work, we’re doing the housework that won’t get done once Monday comes. But it’s not as though the world stopped on Sunday back in Alabama either. The crops—and the weeds—in my grandfather’s fields continued to grow, whatever the day. My grandmother, a teacher, still had papers to grade and lessons to plan. The peas in the basket on the back porch would not shell themselves. Nevertheless, my people put work aside on Sunday to nap on a daybed or sit on the porch and rock. They didn’t ask themselves, as I do, whether they could “afford” to rest. God obliged them to rest, and so they did.
Today, there are many people for whom this kind of Sabbath is not an option. People who work double shifts—or double jobs—truly can’t afford to rest. On the other hand, I could reorganize my life if I tried. I could focus on priorities, spend less time on things that matter little to me and make more time for those that matter most. Yet somehow I have reached the age of 57 without feeling any obligation to sit still.
That changed one day after I returned home from a recent book tour. I love meeting book people with all my heart, but by the end of the tour, all my body was in revolt.
I sat on the sofa with my laptop, planning to get started on the 90 million emails that had piled up in my absence, but instead I fell asleep. I tried the wing chair next to the sofa with no better results. When I found myself looking at the one clear spot on my desk as a good place to lay my head, I gave up and went back to bed, rousing myself barely in time for supper. Then I slept 11 hours more.
Nothing in the fourth commandment identifies which day of the week should be the Sabbath. It doesn’t even mention the need to attend church. Its chief requirement is to rest. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” reads Mother Ollie’s Bible. “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.”
Reading those verses again made me wonder: What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness? What if honoring the gift of our only life in this gorgeous world means taking time every week to slow down? To sleep? To breathe? The world has never needed us more than it needs us now, but we can’t be of much use to it if we remain in a perpetual state of exhaustion and despair.
The next day, I didn’t even try to work. I took a walk around Radnor Lake in Nashville, where I live, the best possible way to celebrate a day of rest. The temperatures had finally dropped, the rains finally came, and Middle Tennessee was serving up one fine October day after another.
At Radnor, the beautyberries were gleaming in all their purple ripeness, and the asters and the snakeroots were still in bloom. Behind its mother, a fawn was foraging, its springtime spots just beginning to fade. A great blue heron was standing on a downed tree at the edge of the water, preening each damp, curling feather and sorting it into place. A fallen log just off the trail boasted a glorious crop of chicken of the woods, and the seedpods of the redbud trees were ripe and ready to burst. At the lake’s edge, the sound of a lone cricket rose up from the skein of vegetation next to one of the overlooks. Its song was as beautiful and as heart-lifting as any hymn.