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First Sunday of Lent Reflection

finding Our Joy in the Lord

March 14,  2011

If you cease to tread the sabbath underfoot,

and keep my holy day free from your own affairs;

if you call the sabbath a day of joy

and the Lord’s holy day a day to be honored,

     if you honor it by not plying your trade,

     not seeking your own interest

     or attending to your own affairs,

then you shall find your joy in the Lord,

and I will set you riding on the heights of the earth . . .

Isaiah 58:10-14

Isaiah’s call to keep the sabbath, to keep a time when we are free from our own affairs, may sound a bit quaint to us as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.  Thanks to the increasing capacities of our own technology, our work and its demands are now always with us.  For many of us it is quite rare to have an evening, or a conversation with friends, or a meal with our families during which we are not also “plying our trade” and “attending to our own affairs.”  Keeping a whole day free from these things is now, for many if not most of us, unimaginable.  Could it perhaps be that, for this very reason, the summons of Isaiah that we hear in the liturgy of the Saturday after Ash Wednesday has a particular relevance for us this Lent?

     In a recent book entitled In the Valley of the Shadow, James L. Kugel, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, describes “a certain state of mind” that overtook him at the moment of being diagnosed with a highly aggressive and likely fatal form of cancer. 

After the initial shock, I was, of course, disturbed and worried.  But the main change in my state of mind was that – I can’t think of a better way to put it – the background music suddenly stopped.  It had always been there, the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence.  There you are, one little person, sitting in the late-summer sun, with only a few things left to do. (p. 2)

We live in the background music, an experience so pervasive that we have ceased to be aware of it.  It is the “world” of our own inner “I,” our personal thoughts, anxieties, duties, responsibilities, fears that we live out of and in reaction to.  This background music (or noise) is the accompaniment to the self-conscious and self-centered “I” that is troubled and worried about many things because it assumes a god-like role and identity.  As Kugel experiences it, when the music stops and it is silent, we are just “one little person . . . with only a few things left to do.”

     Father Adrian van Kaam taught that our functional dimension, our capacity to work and to manage life, can be a servant of the vital (bodily) dimension of life or a disciple of the transcendent (spiritual) dimension.  When our capacities for management and control are primarily at the service of the vital dimension, our works tend to be compulsive in nature.  The result is a vicious circle by which we are not only working in reaction to our anxiety but are increasing our anxiety through the stress such constant work produces.  Yet, when our functional dimension serves our transcendent dimension, we experience at once our own smallness and our efforts as a small contribution to the ongoing unfolding of Divine creation; we know ourselves as small but significant participant in a Divine, creative direction.

     Our life of work and functioning is discipled to the transcendent by means of a discipline of true leisure (not doing), silence, and stillness.  This is the meaning of the Sabbath.  It is a time to remember, by stilling our own god-like tendencies, that “the earth and its fullness” is the Lord’s.  Perhaps we can begin this year’s celebration of Lent by asking ourselves, in the words of Isaiah, how we “tread the sabbath underfoot” and whether or not we have enough time “free from our own affairs.”  If it seems well beyond the possible to spend one day out of seven “free from our own affairs,” perhaps we can at least look to see if we can, with some deliberation, have a few moments each day when we are not available for a cell phone call or an email, or where we are fully present, with our technology turned off, to members of our family or to our friends.  Perhaps we can find a few moments each day in which we dispose ourselves to an outer and inner silence in which the constant hum of the background music may cease.  By stopping and resting in this way, we can experience the truth of our own smallness and perhaps discover a momentary fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah:

“. . .then you shall find your joy in the Lord.”

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Last updated: 11/25/10.