Thoughts on Sabbath
by Lauren Whitnah
Once a rider has mostly figured out how not to fall off a horse, one of the most useful techniques he or she can learn is the half-halt. It’s complicated, but by basically asking the horse to speed up and slow down simultaneously, the rider can make sure that the horse is both physically balanced and mentally attentive. If the horse has a tendency to be nervous and rush ahead, a half-halt can remind him to relax, keep his legs under him, and not fall forward. If he has a tendency to be lazy, a half halt can remind him to be alert and ready for the cue to pick up the pace. So when I half-halt a horse, I am asking him: Are you paying attention? Is your mind with me? Is your body? Where are those hind legs? Are the brakes working? How’s the steering? What about the gas pedal? Whatever comes next, whether it’s a turn or an increase in speed or a jump or moving laterally or a full stop, a half-halt gets the horse ready. It helps make him both physically and mentally prepared to do the next thing, even though at that precise moment, he doesn’t know what the next thing is going to be.
And for me, this is how Sabbath works; it’s a time of rebalancing body and mind, a brief pause before the next thing. A day of rest is a chance to balance, re-set, prepare, and pay attention. So, on my Sabbath, as if I’m half-halting, I go and stop all at once. I go to church. I spend active time outside, hiking or riding or walking or running or cross-country skiing. I tidy up the house or make a big pot of soup or do the laundry. I go! But, at the same time, I pause. I sleep in or take a nap. I read a novel. I call a friend. I don’t check my work email, grade papers, or write lectures. I stop.
My practice of other spiritual disciplines have waxed and waned: there have been times of lots of prayer and times with very little, times of lots of focused and intentional solitude and times of very little. But the Sabbath-keeping has been steady since I was a sophomore in college, and I find now that I rely on it. On the occasions when I’ve had work commitments on Sunday, I have felt profoundly out of alignment for the rest of the week. The rest and re-balancing reminds me that I am not my work. Nothing in my work life is so important that it cannot be set aside for twenty-four hours. And I am not so important that my job will implode if I take a day off. This is a deeply humbling—and freeing—reminder. So I half-halt: I take a breath, find my balance and focus, and gather myself for what the next week brings, whatever it may be.