Magazine article The Christian Century

Holy Silence: Invitation to Sabbath

Magazine article The Christian Century

Holy Silence: Invitation to Sabbath

Article excerpt

IN LATE JUNE, weary of another long year behind a desk, I headed toward Ring Lake Ranch, an ecumenical retreat and study center in northwest Wyoming. A week in the high desert country of the Wind River Range, with time for silence and solitude, sounded just about right. I'd heard that Quakers have as many words for silence as Eskimos do for snow, and that they speak of various "stillnesses" as silky, heavy, light, dead, electric, even noisy. For months I'd needed desperately to explore some thing of that wide spectrum of quietude.

But as I approached U.S. highway 26 leading toward the Tetons and Yellowstone, I began to sense the full allure of the "Wind River Country" before me. I'd picked up a glossy booklet by that title from a rack of brochures at a motel in Thermopolis. Inside were listed all the wonderful attractions that lay ahead. Who could resist hiking through spruce trees to remote glacier lakes along the Continental Divide or sitting beside "spirit beings" portrayed in petroglyphs by ancient peoples? Who could turn his back on white water rafting down the Big Horn River through red canyons of Jurassic rock or square dancing on a Saturday night with ranch hands at the Rustic Pine Tavern in Dubois? I began to feel the siren call of "authentic desert and mountain experience," the hunger for a memorable vacation, the seduction of spiritual tourism.

How easy it is for North Americans to fall into a consumer mentality, even when we're on vacation or retreat, headed toward the stillness of empty canyons! I wanted to do everything at Ring Lake Ranch--go horseback tiding, hike long trails through aspen trees along mountain cataracts, spot a grizzly on a distant slope, hear the howl of a wolf at dusk, study bright stars by telescope in the dry night air. I was eager to name new wildflowers and birds, to experience the badlands by moonlight, to acquire--instantly--the local lingo of the lifelong residents.

My temptation was to "get the whole Wind River experience." This is the charm of spiritual tourism, of course, but it is only another form of consumer frenzy, the fervid acquisition of knowledge, boogie fever. Even though I'd entered the wilderness, I was still compulsively "shopping," filling up the cart with new experiences and frantically heading for the checkout lane.

We work as hard at playing, relaxing or seeking spiritual rejuvenation as we do at working, because we view it all as part of the same acquisitive exercise. We are consumers of experience as well as goods. We feel guilty if we're not continually acquiring new expansions of consciousness, becoming all we can be in a free market of endless applications of information.

That's why people often return home from vacations (and even spiritual retreats) exhausted. Under the stress of "having so much fun" or "being stretched in so many new ways" we frequently succumb to physical illness. Our bodies cannot sustain the feverish consumption of experience we demand of ourselves. And yet curiously, it is when we're physically "spent" that we at last feel immense relief--we have the permission to do nothing that we had been seeking all along. It's a comment on our whole manner of life, says Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. We experience a release of pressure only when sickness strikes and our bodies collapse. That's the only time we don't feel guilty about not embracing new experience, the only time we can legitimately allow ourselves to stop. "If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our sabbath," Muller insists. "Our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create sabbath for us."

Sabbath, Muller reminds us, is a profoundly counter-cultural injunction from the Torah. Sabbath demands that we stop this foolishness of throwing ourselves away in the endless quest for experience. God not only lures us to the Sabbath, but commands that every seventh day we stop and give up being a consumer. …

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