My first glimpse of Katharine stunned me. It was the first day of the seventh grade and my first day in a Canadian school. I’d spent the previous four years living in Ethiopia where my dad worked for a humanitarian organisation. In my East African world, agility and speed had been of paramount importance for spy games, climbing trees and chasing hyenas. Katharine, the first person I saw from my new class, wore a skirt. Such a blatant expression of impracticality and put-togetherness troubled me.
Against the odds, we became friends. I discovered that this blue-eyed blonde who liked wearing lipstick and painting her nails also had a deep soul. In high school, we discussed George Orwell and global poverty in equal proportion to boys. We served and travelled as much as we watched cheesy rom coms. But what made our friendship flourish was our growing faith. It was a sweet and earnest time. Whenever the storms of adolescence blew through my life, Katharine’s invitational silence tended to my wounds. She asked incisive questions and had a caring spirit.
Things shifted in university. Katharine began to wrestle with her faith through the lens of adulthood and academia. The tone of our conversations changed as we explored this foreign frontier. It was clumsy and a bit awkward, like two amateur ballroom partners thrust onto a dance floor. But we had history, and our friendship continued to grow, even as we stepped on each other’s toes and danced slightly off rhythm.
Then tragedy struck. On a sunny spring Sunday, I received a phone call. Katharine had been in a severe car accident.
My mom and I made the two-hour drive to the hospital in tight-throated silence. Doctors led me to a makeshift room with flimsy curtain walls. There was Katharine, unconscious, under a silvery thermal blanket. Katharine liked cosy things – thick scarves and puffy pillows – and the crinkly glare of the covering seemed an affront to her dignity.
My gaze focused on her broken body. The head that held my secrets was swollen to almost twice its normal size. A drop of blood slipped from beneath the saturated bandages and made its way down her cheek. Her silence, usually brimming with care, was empty. The rhythmic beeping of the machines was the only communication we had left. The nurse shifted the reflective blanket, revealing Katharine’s toes. I smiled through my tears. They were perfectly polished.
Katharine died the next day. I left the hospital in a weepy haze and stumbled into a raging storm of the soul. I hadn’t only lost a friend. I’d lost my innocent outlook on life. My life could no longer rely on an elementary faith.
Being in mourning is like always being hungry. I so wanted to hear Katharine’s voice that I’d call just to listen to her voicemail. I hungered for closure on unresolved conversations. I hungered for her insight on my pain. I learned that crying in the shower washes away tears but doesn’t hide puffy eyes.
But in that season of exhaustion and sorrow and crumpled sheets, I received a gift. In His mercy, God placed two books into my hands that gave context to my grief and sheltered me in the storm.
“Sabbath…is an opportunity to mend our tattered lives.”
–Abraham Joshua Heschel–
Until that point, I didn’t know much about the practice of Sabbath. I knew it was one of the Ten Commandments in which God told the Israelites not to do any work on the seventh day. For me (and most Christians I knew) Sunday consisted of attending church and getting caught up on chores we’d missed earlier in the week.
But as I juggled a full university course load and part-time work, I realised I couldn’t operate as usual under the weight of grief. A friend gave me a timely book called The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath by Mark Buchanan. As I read, it began to dawn on me that I had been missing out on a gift.
“In a culture where busyness is a fetish and stillness is laziness, rest is sloth. But without rest, we miss the rest of God: the rest he invites us to enter more fully so that we might know him more deeply. ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ Some knowing is never pursued, only received. And for that, you need to be still. Sabbath is both a day and an attitude to nurture such stillness. It is both time on a calendar and a disposition of the heart. It is a day we enter, but just as much a way we see. Sabbath imparts the rest of God—actual physical, mental, spiritual rest, but also the rest of God— the things of God’s nature and presence we miss in our busyness.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish author and theologian, describes Sabbath as a “sanctuary in time.” It’s not a physical space but an attitude, an outlook, a posture. Sabbath is a shelter. A shelter from demanding obligations and worries. A shelter where we can feast in the presence of our enemies. A shelter where the Holy Spirit can heal our wounds.
In Hebrew tradition, Jews observe Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The Bible refers to the Sabbath as holy, which translates as “set apart.” For thousands of years, Jewish people have entered the day through ritual. They stop working. They light a candle. They eat a Shabbat meal. They pray special prayers. These rituals, like all rituals, act as cues for the mind. They are signposts that signify this day of rest as different from the other six, where hurriedness and scarcity and anxiety reign. This day is a sanctuary in time.
Christians tend to practice Sabbath on Sundays, the day of Jesus’s resurrection, though most of us tend to do so in a lacklustre manner. Many theologians agree that the day you choose doesn’t matter as much as making that day holy. If we limited Sabbath to Sundays, for example, pastors (let alone retreat wardens!) would never experience a day of rest. The important question is: where is the 24-hour period in your week that is set apart from the rest, for the sake of rest? And what rituals could serve as cues for your mind so that you can actually receive it?
I was desperate. I sensed that if I was to emerge out of this season with any semblance of my faith intact, I had to step into the shelter of Sabbath. In my weakened state, Buchanan’s words rang true:
“God made us from dust. We’re never too far from our origins. The apostle Paul says we’re only clay pots – dust mixed with water, passed through fire. Hard, yes, but brittle too. Sabbath-keeping is a form of mending. It’s mortar in the joints. Keep Sabbath, or else break too easily, and oversoon. Keep it, otherwise our dustiness consumes us, becomes us, and we end up able to hold exactly nothing.”
I chose Thursday as my Sabbath. I re-structured my life and schedule around it. I had no work shifts that day, and only one university class – my favorite one. On Tuesday I did extra errands. On Wednesday I cleaned and completed Friday’s assignments. It took intentional work to enter intentional rest.
Thursday became a day for walking in the forest, falling asleep mid-novel, feasting on delectable foods, reading Scripture, and noticing the delicate patterns on snowflakes. It was an unhurried day – both in body and mind – perfect for spending quality time in the company of hope-bearing friends.
At some point that day, I’d find myself drinking a frothy cinnamon-laced drink while reading, taking refuge in the ministry of words. I had often struggled to stay focused on reading a book, but Sabbath helped re-train my mind. This allowed me to receive another gift. Katharine’s mom gave me a book called A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss by Jerry Sittser. Written by a man who lost his mother, wife and daughter in one car accident, it gave words to the pain I struggled to articulate. It helped me lament without losing hope.
Raw prayers spilled onto the pages of my journal, uninterrupted by the clamour of a hurried world.
God, keep my heart from growing cold.
Why did you take Katharine from me?
Lord, give me perspective.
Jesus, you hold everything together.
Where are you?
I’m so tired.
I feel so incredibly alone.
Is this my new normal?
I pictured Jesus leading me deep into a dark cave. There was no light, only his hand in mine.
Jerry Sittser, the author of A Grace Disguised, spoke words into this dark place:
“The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”
My mother-in-law likes to say that when God gives us a command, it’s either to protect us or provide for us. The Sabbath command did both. It sheltered me as I plunged into the darkness of mourning. It protected me from burnout and hardness of heart. It kept me from abandoning my faith. It calmed my anxious thoughts and gave me space to grieve with hope. And most importantly, it helped me walk hand-in-hand with Jesus through the hardest season of my life.
I still practice Sabbath, now with a husband and a toddler. It continues to bring life. Sabbath is a gift for all seasons.
We’ve been prayerfully curating our shop with books we hope will minister to you. Are you in need of Sabbath shelter? Do you want to explore God’s heart behind the Sabbath command? You can learn more by reading The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan. If you are in a season of loss, may A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser will be a gentle companion.
Michelle Brock is the media director at Ffald y Brenin.
Feature image credit: Kate Stollery (Pexels) and Colin Lloyd (Unsplash)