The Poetry of Sabbath Keeping

Rains have come again, and with them the shorter days and longer nights that mean the season is shifting.  Cooler temperatures mean that long sleeves and socks are making an appearance after months of bare feet and swimsuits.  We even took a trip out to the Pumpkin Patch.

I’ve been thinking about Sabbath keeping again.  Not in some sort of legalistic sense–making a list of things it’s forbidden to do.  But in a poetic sense.  Two poems have been singing to me, one by Wendell Berry and one by Jane Kenyon.  Berry speaks directly of Sabbath while Kenyon only hints of it at the edges of her poem.

First, let’s look at Berry’s “X” from his collection of Sabbath poems. The poem opens with these four lines:

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.

These are common themes in Wendell Berry’s poems.  I love how he returns to them in “The Country of Marriage” and throughout the whole collection of poems in The Wheel.  The promises we make in the light, Springtime of love are tested in the day to day rounds.  The vision comes to light only after faithful work.  And yet even our most faithful work can’t account for the harvest.  “Great work is done while we’re asleep.”  Without the work, the vision will wither without bearing fruit.  But the alchemy of harvest is hard to reckon.

It seems like there’s an analogous lesson in Sabbath keeping.  Somehow the fallow time, the time spent without regard to our striving productivity still bears fruit.  It makes our return to work deeper and more rich.

Kenyon’s poem, “Let Evening Come” recalls these late Summer days when the long light of afternoon turns everything golden.  The simple refrain, echoing out at the end of every other stanza, sounds like a sigh.  A release, an opening of the clenched fist, a relaxing in the shoulders.  And isn’t that just what we want our Sabbath to feel like?

A couple of small shifts have happened in my own Sabbath keeping that have opened up that reflective place and made the day feel more spacious.  I’ll tell you about each of them in the coming days.