Saturday, June 16, 2007

Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy C. Bass

“Busy people may think that what we need is a few more open boxes on the pages of our datebooks. But in fact that would provide only a flat and short-lived remedy, and not only because those boxes would soon fill up like all the others. What we really need is time of a different quality. We need the kind of time that is measured in a yearly round of feasts and fasts, in a life span that begins when a newborn is placed in her parents’ arms, and in a day that ends and begins anew as a line of darkness creeps across the edge of the earth. This kind of time exists, but we have learned not to notice it.”

This is the third book I bought for myself at work, as opposed to buying gifts for others; and the last, at the moment. It’s the first I finished reading, though. From the time I roomed with Joi and Rachel until now, I have been drawn slowly and steadily to a more… liturgical way of life. I’ve wanted to know more about the church calendar, in particular. Recently at work I’ve enjoyed my time in the Christianity section, in part because it’s the first time I’ve spent much time in a section with Catholic and Protestant books all together. It’s been, at the very least, interesting. This book is actually written by a Protestant, and I think it does quite a decent job of explaining the draw of certain traditions to my more suspicious brethren. And it did a good job of drawing me in even farther, quite to my satisfaction!

It’s a beautiful little book. Not as beautiful as a few I’ve read, but peaceful. I enjoyed mulling over this one in many small sections. It’s not a hard read, that’s just how I happened to read it.

After an initial chapter about time in general as a gift of God rather than an enemy we must attempt to manage, the book talks about three practices for receiving the gift of time. Each practice covers two chapters: one on the practice itself, and one on the obstacles and ideas for implementing it. The first practice is receiving the day, the second is keeping the Sabbath, and the third is living through the church year.

Receiving the day is mostly done through morning and evening prayer. She talks about the history of time and the clock, and that “clock” actually comes from clocca, bells. She says the Benedictine monks were committed to set hours of prayer and needed a way to call the community together – thus the bells.

Hours used to be divided by sunlight. Twelve every day, winter or summer, so summer hours are longer. I like that way of doing it. I’ve started paying attention to sunrise and sunset and tried to align my morning and evening prayer somewhat with them – not just because it’s an even older tradition than the Benedictine way, but because in today’s society it’s nice to be reminded of what nature’s doing! It’s easy for me to forget. And part of receiving the day is receiving the un-man-made parts of it, the rising and setting of the sun each day, no matter what is happening in “my” world. Noon, then, is halfway between sunrise and sunset, or about 12:50 right now. The third hour is halfway between sunrise and noon (or about 9:20), and the ninth hour is halfway between noon and sunset (or about 4:20).

These hours of prayer are alluded to in various places in the Bible – I thought I read about that in this book, but now I can’t find it for the life of me, so perhaps not. But at any rate, Peter had his vision of unclean animals when he was praying, about the sixth hour. Cornelius was praying and had his about the ninth hour. Jesus was crucified about the third hour and died at about the ninth. The Bible says there was darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour. In Acts 3:1 the ninth hour is called “the hour of prayer.” Obviously part of the reason these hours were mentioned so often in the Bible is because they were the most convenient reference points for time during the day. They didn’t have clocks (duh). Still, it seems that their convenience as reference points may have also made them convenient for regular times of prayer. I’ve certainly heard that was the case later on, and that those were the hours announced by the town crier. They’ve also become times of symbolism through the accumulated history (two noonday prayers from The Book of Common Prayer begin, “Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross…” and “Almighty Savior, who at noonday called your servant Saint Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles…”)

Anyway, did I have a point…? Um. Since it’s easy to pray in the morning and then forget about God, the third, sixth, and ninth hours are convenient for reorienting myself. I’ve made a concession to the man-made world and set my palm pilot to announce the hours. (= I don’t spend much time praying at all – I do work every day after all, just like the rest of you! But I’ve found that, even so, I can often read through the noon service in The Book of Common Prayer. It’s a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, a couple other things. Not much, just enough to remind me once again. Morning and evening prayers are more important to me, but the third, sixth, and ninth hours are nice too. They’re not talked about much in this book, but this review is not actually just about this book, but on all my current thoughts on regularity and spirituality! Apparently. Thus the length. So on that note, our culture is so eager to point out that we can pray anywhere, at any time. Yes, quite true. But you’re much more likely to do so if you also have regular times and places dedicated to it! And, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s FlyLady that’s helped me with that habit. That, and God telling me to one day… that’s another story (and one hard to tell)…

“Where did you meet God today? The length of a day—a turn from darkness to light and back again—fits our human capacity for taking stock, our ability to be in the present but also to take a larger, more reflective view of things.”

“The day in question, we should note, is not just any day, or the twenty-four-hour span in the abstract. It is this day. Now. Too often, this is the very one that escapes our attention, the day whose gifts we scorn. The bitter aftertaste of yesterday, often a yesterday long since forgotten by everyone else, keeps us from tasting the day that is now on our tongue; I dwell in my failure or another’s slight. And anxiety about tomorrow, even a tomorrow that may not come for years, gnaws away at the experience of today, not just once but hundreds of times.”

“‘Who can really be faithful in great things, if they have not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?’” – quoted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together

Then there’s keeping the Sabbath, the subject of the fourth and fifth chapters. As I write this I am happily observing the Sabbath, although it’s Saturday, the real Sabbath, not Sunday, the traditional day of rest Christians have taken. I like writing about books. It’s good giving myself time to do so. I tried Sunday last week, but I was so tired on Saturday I basically rested both days, which seemed sub-optimal. Although I have much less time On Sunday than on Saturday for work, I think I still might be more productive saving work for Sunday. And besides, the progression fits so well – day of discipline and sacrifice, day of rest, day of celebration! It also may be closer to what the very early church did. I think that as Jewish Christians they observed the Sabbath on Saturday, and then gathered to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday, although they also worked that day. As Dorothy Bass points out, Sunday is then sacred time in ordinary time, making for some nice symbolism. It’s sort of an eighth/first day.

She talks about it as the only one of the Ten Commandments that we often boast about planning to break (as in, “That’s not busy. Why, I have to…”). She often talks, not in legalistic terms, but in terms of simply resisting the world’s time patterns (or lack thereof). Referencing Deuteronomy’s reminder to keep the Sabbath because “you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” she talks about Sabbath as a day of freedom.

“Slaves cannot skip a day of work, but free people can. Not all free people choose to do so, however; some of us remain glued to our computers and washing machines every day of the week. To keep sabbath is to exercise one’s freedom, to declare oneself to be neither a tool to be employed—an employee—nor a beast to be burdened. To keep sabbath is also to remember one’s freedom and to recall the One from whom that freedom came, the One from whom it still comes.”

She then goes on to talk about the Jewish, and then the Christian, concepts of Sabbath. “In the broad consensus of the tradition, what should not be done is ‘work.’ Defining exactly what that means is a long and continuing argument, but one classic answer is that work is whatever changes the natural, material world. All week long, human beings wrestle with the created world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the sabbath, however, Jews let it be. They celebrate it as it is and live in it in peace and gratitude. Humans are created too, after all. It is right and good to remember that it is not human effort alone that grows grain and forges steel.

By extension, all activities associated with work or commerce are also prohibited. You are not even supposed to think about them.”

“In an authentically Christian form of sabbath-keeping, we can sing both the hymn of creation’s goodness and the freedom songs of Miriam and Moses. But to these songs we add a third: Alleluia! Christ is risen! And ordinarily, we do our singing not on the seventh day of the week but on the first, the day when the followers of Jesus first experienced the presence of the risen Christ. This is our day of new creation and the day on which we are delivered from enslavement to death in all its forms.”

“Contemporary culture militates against this, however, both by insinuating that worship is not a very efficient use of time and by importing habits of clock bondage into a gathering where the clock has no place. What is in the deepest sense a festival, a spring of souls, a time of freedom not only from work but also from condemnation becomes instead one more carefully measured appointment.”

And then there’s the church year. At its heart is Easter, and through the cycle of feasts and fasts we learn that sorrow is here for the night, but joy comes in the morning. The year begins and ends again with Advent, waiting for the Savior who was born and who will come again at the end of time. Although she talks about this less, even the seasons of the “earthly” calendar can be vehicles of God’s grace – right now my anniversary comes to mind, as John and I will be celebrating it soon. Every year, every summer, it will come again and remind us to celebrate each other and our marriage. I look outside and see the lavender trees blooming and ducklings swimming in our apartment complex’ pool, and I am glad. Thanks be to God, it is not always winter and never Christmas, as in Narnia at one time. Nor is it always Christmas and never winter, as Dorothy Bass points out Disney World resembles. (And Disneyland, I assume, although I will always maintain that the seasons of Southern California are obvious to a native, especially if you look beyond the irrigated lawns.)

She has more to say about the church year, but I think I’ve said enough. She concludes with a general chapter about lifespans, about “counting our days.”

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