Abraham Heschel, Wendell Berry & the Subversive Sabbath

Written by andrewtatum : October 23, 2007

This being my first post for the Jesus Manifesto blog, I figured I would begin with a bang by writing on a subject about which I know much less than I should: Sabbath.

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man…The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else (Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Sabbath, 13).

This blog is meant to be a means of bringing people together to write and to think about what it means to be disciples of Christ in the midst of (or, perhaps, in spite of) contemporary Empire. This is an Empire that so often seeks to rob our time of the gift of the sacred - a gift given to us by God that often passes us by without our noticing because of the heavy demands of daily life placed upon us by a culture that prizes constant movement and noise over stillness and quiet. The Sabbath, distinctive in both Jewish and Christian thought, is “the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man; a day on which handling money is considered a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world’s chief idol (The Sabbath, 29).” Sabbath is difficult for Western Christians precisely because our lives are so controlled by the idols of money, power, influence, status, happiness. The list could go on.

In his Sabbath poems, Wendell Berry has sought in part to recover the subversive simplicity of the sabbath - a simplicity that is at once soothing and terribly disconcerting. For when we think about the reality of rest from OUR work - and the reality of God working on us - we fear what we will have to give up. Berry writes:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
(Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir, #1)

Sabbath - quiet, rest, surrender to God’s hand - has the opportunity to subvert our obsession with ourselves. Such self-obsession is a minor (major) virtue in our society. My contention, however (and I suspect this is what both Heschel and Berry were getting at) is that when we we engage God in time and (for a time) relinquish our toiling in the world of space - of things - we will be formed by God into a people who are more generous, more peaceful, and more fully able to respond to the hurts and sighs of a world burdened by the obsession with space. The sabbath is a retreat from space into eternity - The Sabbath must be spent “in charm, grace, peace and great love…for on it even the wicked in hell find peace.” (The Sabbath, 29)

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profilepiture.jpgAndrew Tatum is a North Carolina native who currently lives in Durham, NC where he is an M.Div. candidate at Duke Divinity School. He hopes one day to earn a Ph.D. and teach at the university level in the areas of Christian Theology, Ethics & Missiology. Andrew attended Campbell University where he earned a B.A. in Religion & Christian Ministry. Andrew is an avid bicycle commuter and likes to support local businesses. He is engaged to be married to Lydia Pratt, a Youth Minister at Fuquay-Varina Presbyterian Church and a Student at Campbell Divinity School training to be a hospital chaplain and pastoral counselor to children with special needs and their families. Andrew and Lydia met in New Testament Greek class at Campbell and have been studying together ever since (wink, wink). One of their goals in life is to found or become a part of a Christian community working toward environmental sustainability and radical discipleship. They have an amazing foxhound named Tucker.

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4 Responses to “Abraham Heschel, Wendell Berry & the Subversive Sabbath”

  1. daniel.t on October 24th, 2007 7:11 pm


    Great post. I too have been pondering the whole concept of Sabbath for a while now. I was really interested in the way you ended the post, suggesting that, “The sabbath is a retreat from space into eternity.” I wonder if it really so much of a retreat from space (which you correlate to things) or if it is an overlapping of space and eternity, in which the sacredness of God breathes redemption into the space of the rest of our lives.

    I tend to think of Sabbath as one of the regular glimpses that God is giving us of the already/not yet kingdom of God all around us. I find this lens helpful for considering what Sabbath is supposed to be, since, in my particular church background, Sabbath has had little to do with rest, celebration, hospitality, and connecting with God, and everything to do with retreating/ separating from the world around us.

    What if Sabbath is about healing those who are wounded and crippled all around us?

  2. Andrew Tatum on October 25th, 2007 4:02 pm


    Thanks for that clarification. What you (rightly, I thnk) point out is a possible difference between Heschel’s view (a Jewish view) and one prevalent Christian view of the sabbath’s role in the life of faith. I do love, however, the idea that, on the sabbath, we rest from our toil in the “world of the things of space” to experience a glimpse of eternity. Isn’t this that in which we have been called by God to participate? Thanks so much for your comment. I look forward to more input.

    Grace & Peace,

  3. beyondwords on October 26th, 2007 8:28 am

    Andrew, thank you! The post created a Sabbath space for me–I’m going to bookmark it and refer to it regularly for that purpose.

  4. Andrew Tatum on October 26th, 2007 9:35 am

    Thanks so much…but may I suggest that you just read some Wendell Berry and Abraham Heschel instead of reading what I wrote…they say it much better anyway.


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