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Porch Light

By Stephen Berg

12/03/2014
Stephen Berg

This week the snow came. On the street, shoulders are up, wool scarves are wrapped around necks. Downtown, in Churchill Square, the pigeons are fluffing their feathers against the needling cold. Winter is announcing its terms.

Weather prescribes. But like other things in my day, it’s more an “item” I contend with than listen to. Something to resent or ignore. Too often, I do not take time to make myself available to the signs of weather, let alone pause to make myself compatible to nature’s primeval messengers. More than this — perhaps exactly because of this — my daily work can become an abject burden, and even the presence of other people, something to be tolerated.

In Wendell Berry’s book Given, there are a collection of Sabbath poems, occasioned by his solitary Sunday walks around his farm in Kentucky. This is a poem and a prayer that arrested me one evening, after one of those heavy-lidded days.

Teach me work that honours Thy work,
the true economies of goods and words,
to make my arts compatible
with the songs of local birds.
Teach me patience beyond work
and, beyond patience, the blest
Sabbath of Thy unresting love
which lights all things and gives rest.

Perhaps there’s nothing more banal than hearing, yet again, that we are too busy. That we are stressed, distracted, exhausted. That we need to slow down. We know well enough, whether in religious or secular settings, that we are tyrannized by urgency, technology and efficiency, estranged from the tranquility of true economy. We don’t need reminding, we don’t need more information; we need strength.

I have friends — a pastor and his wife who lead a very active church — who practice the Sabbath. Owing to their responsibilities, they’ve needed to choose a non-traditional day of the week, but much of their observance, and certainly their intent, remains within the Sabbath tradition. From sundown on Thursday, to sundown Friday, they rest — rest emphatically, intentionally.

Work ceases, commerce ceases, planning ceases, and remembering one’s place in God’s creation begins. This opens up breathing space, playing and feasting space, where relationships are nurtured — relationships with nature, with family, with neighbours, with God.

And as they’ve explained to me, it’s far more than rest from a hectic schedule, it’s a kind of fallow, joyful mindfulness that has reoriented their everyday life. Now, having habituated the practice over a number of years, it has become something like an underground spring. A source of deep renewal.

Sabbath

Certainly, because of our various stations in life, our Sabbaths will not all look the same. But the rediscovery of Sabbath, for Christians, for any people of faith, is tantamount to a rediscovery of God, and our lives within God. And so wherever and whenever keeping the Sabbath is observed with integrity, it is a subversive act. It undermines our mercantile consumerist society. It threatens technology’s seeming control over human destiny. It esteems patience, reveals injustice and wages peace, beginning with personal peace.

And it’s a path, as Wendell Berry intuits, for going beyond patience to a deeper rest — a place of mental rest and repose — that has no quarrel with recreation, has in fact no quarrel with technology, but simply waits for all that noise to abate, so something from beyond can shine into the darkness — and the darkness comprehend it.


Buried within us is a natural grace, a rhythm we once plainly shared with birds, grasses, leaves. A rhythm that keeps our antennae up to the tempo of moons, the songs of seasons, the liturgy of solstice. And keeps us in wonder at the impossibility of everything around us. The kind of wonder that plays on the porch of eternity, at the doorstep of Love — that “. . . unresting love that lights all things and gives rest.”

 

Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton's inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at growmercy.org