O Quanta Qualia–More Musings on the Sabbath

November 2, 2004 | 12 comments
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Nate’s post on the Sabbath returns me to some thoughts on the Sabbath I’ve been kicking around for a while. Earlier this fall, as I was looking for music for my ward choir to do, I considered Healey Willan’s setting of “O Quanta Qualia.” The text is as follows:

Oh, what their joys and their glories must be,
Those endless sabbaths the blessed ones see,
Crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest,
God shall be all and in all ever blest.

There, where no trouble distraction can bring,
We the sweet anthems of Zion shall sing,
While for thy grace, Lord, their voices of praise
Thy blessed people shall evermore raise.

While a heaven devoted mostly to choir practices would be appealing to me, it seems like a decidedly un-Mormon conception of heaven, and, by extension of the Sabbath. So I’ve been wondering what difference it makes to our thinking about the Sabbath if we don’t conceive of it as a foretaste of heavenly rest. It seems, in practice, that Mormons believe in a working Sabbath, just as in a working heaven: we may abstain from paid labor, but we work pretty hard on Sunday anyway. God’s rest on the seventh day must have been something different than mere passive abstinence from work, and yet it seems unlikely to me that doing church work, and church-y work like geneaology and visiting the sick is enough of a rest to make for a meaningful Sabbath. We shouldn’t just have different tasks on the Sabbath; there should be some sense of respite from our task-oriented lives.

That said, I confess that, like Nate, I am a professional Sabbath breaker. My daily round of tasks–caring for children, cooking meals, cleaning up spills and all of the other detritus of family life–really doesn’t change much on Sundays. There are not many tasks I can leave undone on Sunday. It is hard for me to enter into anything that feels like Sabbath rest in the middle of my messy house with my unruly children (and grumpy husband who has to get up early for meetings and miss lunch for more meetings). Mostly my solution is to feel put upon and complain a lot.

Then recently, I read a sermon by Maxine Silverman. If you’ve read this far, you won’t mind a longish quotation, I hope:

All week, but especially on Friday as Sabbath approaches, I run around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, trying to finish up the work, hurrying, hurrying. But on Friday afternoon, …just before I light the candles, I take off my watch and step out of time, as though my work were done. Enough, it’s time to stop. And the blessing of it is, for me, it’s not my decision. It’s a mitzvah, a commandment, and that makes it easier for women and other compulsives, whose work has no clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.

Candles, wine–blessings over both–the food, the children. And tomorrow, when I wake up, I will leave my bed unmade. Notice the language is positive, the tone triumphant, rather than the guilt-tinged “I didn’t make my bed.”…the choice of leaving my bed unmade has its roots in childhood, mine, and in my relationship with my mother, who taught me the domestic art of making one’s bed (and lying in it). …I was always the last one up and dressed, the last one at the breakfast table, the last one out the door for school. …I had a hard time making my bed, and I had a hard time with my mother because of it.

…So it is easy to discern, without the help of an analyst, why my first decision about observing Shabbat would be to leave my bed unmade. I love it! Even as I write these words I feel intense pleasure. All week long as soon as I get up, good daughter that I am, I make the bed, but on Shabbat, I rest.

One Sunday as we rushed to get out the door, the boys to school, my husband and I to morning minyan, I realized that I had not mad the bed. Oh well, I thought, just this once I won’t. But habit and Lord knows what else were stronger, and I returned to the bedroom. As I folded the blanket under the mattress, I had an insight so strong I stopped, the mattress lifted up, just stopped. The understanding was so powerful I couldn’t move:

If I observe Shabbat, in part, by leaving my bed unmade, then making it all week is also part of that observance. All week long I make the bed so that leaving it becomes significant, becomes holy, the fulfillment of a commandment.

There is a part of the Shabbat service that talks about ennobling the workweek by resting on Shabbat. I had never understood it before, not really, I had never taken it into my consciousness by taking it into my body. Standing there with the mattress lifted and everyone shouting at me to hurry was a scene from my childhood with a twist. A saving twist of meaning, of reframing, a saving grace.

…I have felt that thoroughly shaken and joyous only a few times in my life, when I fell in love with my husband, when my sons were born, and when my husband surprised me by saying he wanted to convert to Judaism (I fell in love all over again.) So I stood there with that uplifted–and uplifting–mattress. I understood at a level of meaning below language, that when I cease from my work on Shabbat, that “work” means more than earning a living and feeding the family. It means that all the days of the week are lived in anticipation of Shabbat.

I don’t yet know exactly how to translate this insight into my life. And I confess to having no idea of what it means for attorneys and other non-housewives. For now, I have decided I won’t do *any* laundry on Sunday (if you could see my laundry room, you would more fully appreciate the magnitude of this decision!). And I wash and iron everyone’s Sunday clothes first thing on Monday morning, when I have time to reflect, instead of on Saturday night in a panic. It’s a small thing, but then, most of the things that matter are small.

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12 Responses to O Quanta Qualia–More Musings on the Sabbath

  1. danithew on November 2, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    Nice post Kristine.

    I don’t have any concrete reasons in mind… but I’ve recently become a fan of yours. Maybe it’s just because I enjoy your comments. It’s the sort of feeling I have when I remember that I liked a particular talk someone gave but can’t remember what the talk was about. Hope it’s ok to say that.

    Or maybe it’s just because the women at T&S are a minority and I’m grateful for every single one of them.

    I’ve been meaning to take action to make the Sabbath day holy … I’ve known for awhile that I need to do more. I’m not guilty of doing housework or cleaning on the Sabbath (except for vacuuming a tiny bit occasionally) but my big challenge is to turn off the tv for one day of the week. I’m simply way too addicted. Maybe I can follow your good example and make a change for the better.

  2. Amira on November 2, 2004 at 5:36 pm

    I have found it interesting to compare observant Jewish and Mormon practices. Jews prepare *a lot* more than any Mormons I know, and therefore, have more peaceful Sabbaths than I manage to have. I am slowly trying to implement some Jewish practices in an attempt to make my Sundays more meaningful (but I won’t be walking to church this winter!)

    I enjoy your posts too, Kristine. Thank you

  3. Kristine on November 2, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    Thanks, guys. Danithew, the fandom is mutual, though I confess to harboring an evil secret desire to provoking you into an unpleasant comment, preferably with swearing. I guess I’ll have to work harder :)

  4. danithew on November 2, 2004 at 7:02 pm

    Kristine, if it’s done in the right way, swearing can actually make me grin. If it’s done wrong I’d probably rely on others to say something. But now it’s suddenly occurring to me what you are talking about (my miniature spat with Sarah Marinara over the f-word?). If so, touche.

    By the way, I figured out where my impression comes from. You’re one of the elite few who permanently blogs at both T&S and BCC:. Somehow I hadn’t put those two facts together.

  5. Kaimi on November 2, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    Danithew,

    Kristine’s fan club (get in line, by the way ;) ) predates her membership in dual blogs. Heck, it predates her membership in a single blog — by the time she was asked to guest blog (and quickly thereafter, to perma-blog), everyone was already a fan because of her comments.

  6. Kristine on November 2, 2004 at 7:30 pm

    Danithew, I was not thinking of that–don’t even know about it; I was just teasing you.

  7. Jim F. on November 2, 2004 at 10:59 pm

    Kristine, this is a lovely piece enclosing another lovely piece. Thanks very much.

  8. *k on November 3, 2004 at 12:40 am

    Kristine — I enjoyed your post for many reasons as well. When I first joined the church when I was 21, turning away from “worldly” things like shopping or working was difficult. When I had very young children and my husband was called to be the bishop, my approach to the Sabbath was more in the “fear and loathing” department. He would leave at 6:00 a.m. and I would not really see him again until 4:00 p.m., except when I would glare at him as he sat on the stand while I engaged in “survival of the fittest” down in the cheap seats. I used to reject “Saturday is a special day” for the same reason that I reject meal plans, but as I have learned more about the nature of life rhythms and rituals, I have also embraced some traditions inspired by Judaism — special tablecloth, candles, songs, etc. which seem to help me sometimes escape from my domestic quotidian, if only briefly.

    Thanks for the lovely quote — I’m off to find out more about Maxine Silverman.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on November 3, 2004 at 1:01 am

    Once a convert from Judaism spoke in our ward about the Sabbath, saying that he remembered how “the Sabbath descended upon our home like an ange.” I liked that figure, and I try to realize it in our home, difficult as that is in this life stage. I play only sacred music, keep up on essential daily chores but gratefully ignore the weekly work, set a special table (but don’t serve a special meal–too much work!), and try to keep the hours unstructured and unproductive, for me and for the children.

    And I think I’ll leave my bed unmade from now on, too. (Although the discomfort of seeing the disorder may outweigh the pleasure of a simple rising… I’ll experiment with it, at least.)

  10. Andrea Wright on November 3, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    Kristine, I really enjoyed this post. I have recently been discouraged by our Sabbath observance in our home lately. I have noticed that when I prepare on Saturday our Sundays run much more smoothly; However, more often than not, Saturdays are consumed with family events and fulfilling the responsibilities of my church calling and I find myself running around Sunday morning with less than uplifting words thurrying and rushing my family. Once we manage to get through church, my husband and I are fairly spent and our 3 young children have all sorts of energy stored up. I want the Sabbath to be more than a day of “don’ts” for my kids, but find it difficult to fill it up for them with meaningful, worthwhile things.

  11. Kristine on November 3, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    Andrea, we have the same struggles, and I imagine they’ll never entirely go away–really complete preparation is impossible, I think.

    I’ll confess our after-church solution, which I’m sure is quite heretical–our kids, who don’t watch TV during the week, are allowed to watch a movie after church on Sunday. It gives me and Steve some breathing room, time for a family council. Of course, we may be setting ourselves up for a war when we try to do something different in a year or two when the kids are a little bigger.

    It has worked better for us to try to implement small positive markers of Sabbath, rather than to worry too much about prohibitions. We have a special dinner on Saturday (again, this probably won’t work when our kids are bigger) and light the “Sunday candle.” We always go for a walk (or a drive when it’s really cold) in the late afternoon on Sunday, then come home and blow out the candle and have waffles for dinner. Nothing fancy, but it seems to be enough of a ritual that the kids can count on it and mark the rhythm of their week by it. When Sam was smaller, he used to ask if it was “candle day” yet. I think even such simple things can yield a big part of what seems important from the Sabbath–a pause in the rhythm of dailiness, a vantage point for reviewing the weeks as they pass. And, of course, I hope that occasionally such simple rituals can yield the fragments of grace Silverman describes–grace that resacralizes the quotidian and helps us to “live his praise.” (my favorite Eliza R. Snow phrase ever)

  12. Andrea Wright on November 3, 2004 at 5:45 pm

    Kristine, I really like your approach. That’s a great sign that your son seemed to anticipate that day as special, that’s what I want for my family. I guess we just keep trying until we come up with a formula that works for us — thank you.

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