Can Sabbath Be Productive?

woman-running221Play is a key component of Sabbath, it seems to me. Especially play for its own sake—“play without purpose.” But what does it mean for something to be purposeless?

People sometimes ask me whether certain activities are acceptable for Sabbath because they accomplish something useful. Weeding the garden, for example, changes one’s environment. It’s work. It’s something a gardener has to do even if she isn’t seeking Sabbath.

I always start by saying, What am I, the Sabbath police?

But it’s a good question, and one I think about too.

I waffle on whether running is a Sabbath activity. It’s fun (sometimes); it’s playful (in its own way). It’s spiritual time for me, to be sure. And it’s a wholesome activity. But it’s a tremendous expenditure of energy. Right now I’m training for a half marathon, and I have to run if I’m going to pull that off. Exercise in general is non-negotiable at this stage of my life, like eating and sleeping and brushing one’s teeth.

Have to doesn’t seem very Sabbathy to me.

This article by Mark Rowland helps tease this stuff out. The idea of a “second childhood” doesn’t resonate with me, but I appreciate the way he approaches categories of work and play.

Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.

This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you.

He contrasts these instrumental activities of our lives (in which A produces B) with intrinsic ones, in which A may produce B, yet we do it for the sheer pleasure of it. Maybe that’s the key to what makes something a Sabbath experience. It’s pretty simple: does it feel like Sabbath to you? Does it somehow honor God, however you understand God? Does it simultaneously take you out of yourself and connect you to your truest self?

Mark Rowland describes it thus:

There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Can Sabbath Be Productive?

  1. role seems to “play a role” here – instrumentality (as in being a tool “good for something.”) God’s rest on the seventh day indicated that God’s work was complete, fully done – and like someone this week “abdicated” Creator role and switched from being good for something to being – good – (for nothing). It (creation / work) is finished, complete filled full and fulfilled.

  2. Robert King says:

    Even the Zen presence suggested by Mr. Rowland is ‘utilitarian’ and has ‘instrumental value’…though one may not see it unless their mind is fully awake.

    For one on the Judeo-Christian path – is sabbath not tied to jubilee? Sabbath, like jubilee, is meant to restore energy, to re-create life. What to us is letting the ground lie fallow, is the natural order working hard to restore the balance…to re-create life itself through re-creational activities.

    The question of utilitarian or instrumental value is a moo point. (Moo point: a question like the opinion of a cow, i.e. important to the cow, but meaningless to me.)

  3. Deborah says:

    Thanks for this post about the interplay between Sabbath and play, something I wrote about, too, a little while back (https://www.catapultmagazine.com/come-out-and-play/article/no-apologies). It’s curious to me that often our first response to Sabbath or to play is to start questioning what’s “allowed.” I’m a United Methodist campus minister and just spoke with students about Sabbath a few weeks ago. They immediately started talking about very restrictive Orthodox Jewish practices — jumping right from the idea that this might be good and necessary in life to the idea that it is overly hard and fussy and out of reach for them. I think this question of yours hits the nail on the head: “Does it simultaneously take you out of yourself and connect you to your truest self?”

    • MaryAnn says:

      Wonderful article Deborah!

      It is peculiar, isn’t it. I think some of it is works righteousness/rule following, and some of it is coming up with every resistance to the idea of something that might change us. Change is scary…

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