By Jayne Hugo Davis
I never thought of myself as living life holding my breath. Certainly, not like a child demanding the resolution of some grievance, willing to voluntarily turn blue. Not even with wonder and delight in anticipation of something great, though more of those moments would be wonderful.
If you’ve ever suffered with asthma, you’ve experienced that discomforting mystery of breathing in but struggling mightily to breathe back out again. To exhale. It hardly seems possible to inhale deeply and exhale but a whisper. Where does the air go? It fills us, little by little, until we are suffocating on the very thing that gives us life. Holding our breath.
One of the gifts of Sabbath is the spiritual practice of exhaling. It is part of the sacred rhythm of life. Breathe in, breathe out. Labor, and rest. Rest from work and worry, from buying and selling, from fragmentation and distraction. Breathe out the competing masters who demand your time and attention and create room to be fully present — in worship, in relationships, in re-creation and re-membering who and whose you are.
I spent part of a recent Sabbath with my friend Abby and her family.
“When I light the Sabbath candles on Friday night, I can feel myself exhale,” she told me.
Whether you have rushed to get everything done before you are cut off from work and the office and household chores, or whether you have entered gently into this moment, the exhale is there, she said. The body and the mind and the spirit know — this is their time. And collectively, they rest. It has become muscle memory, over the years. It is the seventh day.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Sundown to sundown; no work, no technology, no cooking or cleaning or paying the bills. But it is hardly a day to be characterized by “Thou shalt nots.” Instead, what I experienced is that all of the no’s make room to say yes to something even more. When I got to Abby’s apartment, father and son were engrossed in a game of Scrabble. My friend was still groggy, waking up from a leisurely afternoon nap. They had walked to synagogue earlier that morning. Another son was out playing tennis with a friend. Later they would go down to the park. No cell phones or television or internet. Holy unplugged. Fully present.
Abby and I headed to the roof and sat and caught up on news of family and work and life since we last saw one another, watching the sun slowly set on the Hudson River. Exhaling.
Friends. Family. Worship. Rest.
The sacred rhythm of life. Every seven days.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Remember. Because we forget. Somehow we forget to breathe. We inhale life, consuming as much of it as we possibly can, proud of our ever-increasing lung capacity. But we have trouble exhaling, letting it go. Resting. Afraid of what we’ll miss if we stop, even for just a little while. And we don’t understand why, on most days, we feel like we’re suffocating.
As we returned from the roof, Abby’s husband was preparing the candle and the spices and the wine for the Havdalah blessing, marking the end of the Sabbath.
“It marks the distinction between the Sabbath and the rest of the week,” he explained. Light from darkness, earth from sky, water from land, labor from rest. I was most intrigued by the spices. They were kept in a beautiful, small box and passed from person to person, each encouraged to breathe in their pleasant scent, a reminder of the sweet peace of Sabbath that they could take with them as they entered in to the coming week.
“Blessed are you Lord who separates the holy from the ordinary.” And we all exhaled, “Amen.”
No sooner had the Havdalah candle been extinguished than the phone rang. Sabbath was over. The pace and noise of ordinary life moved in quickly. It is a relentless siren, even for those who know how to turn a deaf ear to its call every seventh day. But the lingering scent of cloves and cinnamon assured me that the ordinary was now somehow different for having experienced the holy.
We resist distinguishing between sacred time and secular time, believing that every moment is God-given, pregnant with value and expectation. And that is true. Yet somehow, instead of living ever-expectant of the kingdom breaking in, instead of making all things holy, on most days we have made all things ordinary.
I left desiring more of Sabbath than what I’ve known. I don’t know yet what that will look like for me, how to holy unplug so that I can be fully present, how to exhale. There are so many voices within and without saying it’s impractical, impossible, believing the lie that the pace of life strips us of all choice where our time is concerned.
But another voice is becoming louder still. “Remember the Sabbath …. I breathed into you the breath of life …. Don’t forget to exhale.”