My wife and I and daughter Nicola lived in Wales for 4 months, in winter and spring of 2012. Sarah, our other daughter, joined us for the last few weeks (alas, our son Adam was unable to get away from work). It was part of a sabbatical that the church I was serving then graciously gave to us.
We had been to the UK before, on brief visits, but my haste on those trips, trying to cover much ground and take in many sights in slivers of time, reduced my experience, and my subsequent memories, to blurry fragments. That’s the irony of trying to see too much too fast: it often renders everything forgettable.
Our time in Wales was different. It was a lingering sojourn. We traded houses, and vehicles – and even churches – with a pastoral couple who were just beginning their retirement. We had only met them, through a mutual friend, via email (and then face-to-face, for 30 minutes, at Gatwick airport in London, where we quickly exchanged greetings and keys).
Their home sat high on a green hillside overlooking the endlessly twisting Teifi River and, beyond that, the tiny stone village or Pentre-cwrt, a place even most Welsh people are stumped to locate on a map. The house bordered a sheepfold, and every morning when we stepped into the kitchen to make our coffee, a dozen or so plump and skittish ewes, sometimes a haughty surly ram, then later in spring a few spindly and curious lambs, stared at us through the window, though scattered at our first greeting.
It was magic. I think of it now – I thought of it then – as my season in Narnia. The days unfolded with unhurried ease. I learned to drive under the speed limit. Life’s slowness, its stillness, its deep quiet, made us, not drowsy, but fully awake. The stillness enhanced everything, made each colour brighter, every sound sharper, all movement more dramatic. Looking back on it now, almost 4 years later, I remember almost every walk we took, meal we ate, conversation we had, drive we drove, church service we attended, visit we enjoyed, with photographic precision. It lives inside me vividly.
That’s also what Sabbath is meant to do. It slows everything down, and so brightens everything up. It creates space and time – a stillness – for us to linger, to savour, to notice. It is one day, rung like a tuning fork, that makes all the other days sing on key.
I wrote a book many years ago – actually, while I was on my first sabbatical, given to me by the same generous church that let us go to Wales – on Sabbath. It’s called The Rest of God. I wrote it when I was still a rank beginner, stumbling through my first clumsy steps, babbling my first garbled words. The book did well in spite of all that, and for the past dozen years I’ve been asked to speak often on the topic, treated as something of an expert on the matter.
The truth is, I’m still mostly in a rush. I still wrestle wild impatience. Most of my days still go by in a blur.
But it’s not all that. I’ve been keeping Sabbath, in at least some cobbled-up way, for 14 years now. And it’s made a difference. It’s making a difference. The weekly slowing has made more room inside me. I listen better. I notice more. I’m more curious, more thankful, more receptive, more generous. Admittedly, I’ve a good stretch yet to go. And other things, including painful things, have helped in all this. And there are some areas in which I’ve made, it seems, little progress – maybe even fallen backward. But generally, Sabbath has been for me a long obedience in the same direction, to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, improbably, Friedrich Nietzsche).
I remember reading many years ago something by Henri Nouwen in which he described his hurt over a friend accusing him of insensitivity and uncaring. Nouwen admitted to these faults. His defense was simply this: Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry – but please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a man of prayer.
I still move too fast. Still listen poorly. Still grow impatient over minor things.
Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry. But please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a Sabbath-keeper.