Being Sabbath

As early as I can remember, I was both drawn to, and pained by, the sorrows of others. I was pulled toward their hurts which, regardless how they tried to hide them, I saw as clearly as my own hands.

For reasons I did not then question, suffering people have always come to me. It didn’t matter if it was Billy, who was overweight, or Melody, who always had hungry, lonely eyes, who later killed herself in junior high. It didn’t matter if it was Barry whose brother always beat him up, or the Nickersons who fought every day, their angry screams punctuating summer evenings. Their son Toby was always a little awkward and unpredictable in a creepy sort of way, the kind of kid no one would ever, ever want to play with, but always made fun of. It didn’t matter who they were, I befriended them all, doing my best to defend them from their hurts with my cheerful, encouraging company.

I saw the hurt in all my parents’ friends, and there were many, at the cocktail parties and card games and summer barbecues in the Long Island humidity, drinks sweating from the ice and moisture colliding over striped pastel plastic cocktail tumblers. I saw Mrs. P., my friend Jennifer’s mom, try to get people to feel sorry for her, but no one seemed to want to hear about it, so I sat and listened, just to be nice, so she wouldn’t feel so alone in her sad life.

Mr. Jackson, my supervisor when I worked as a garbage collector at Jones Beach in the summer, would tell me all about the dreams he had, the places he would go someday, even though I knew he heard the never come true in the stories he proudly conspired to share with me – a lowly sanitation worker – over ham sandwiches and warm cokes.

I learned to be invisible. To be empty, a place with nothing of my own to get in their way, safe and trustworthy. I became the place they could be themselves; I was the ground where they planted their seeds of themselves and felt them grow, right there, they could feel it. People liked to be around me. Somehow my invisibility helped the quieter things in them become more visible.

As time evolved, this emptiness turned into a life, pulled me into relationship with people and suffering. I was drawn to where things hurt, and the hurt in them was drawn to me, some silent wordless chemical spiritual magnetism always at work, like the gravity between celestial bodies, people felled by their sadness, fear, loneliness found themselves in my orbit, circling, burning to enter my atmosphere. In effect, I became a Sabbath—a place of quiet refuge—for people.

Throughout my life, others have been Sabbath for me. When I was eighteen I was already a sophomore in college, having skipped a grade in elementary school. Over the years I had at times used my intellect to mask my feelings. After completing my freshman year with a 4.0 average, I thought I would transfer from the University of Rochester to Harvard, for more stimulation, prestige, and intellectual opportunity. I went to see the school counseling service to get permission to transfer, and to negotiate about the particulars.

The counselor was a very wise man. He saw instantly that behind the mental bravado there was tenderness and pain, and that my heart was deeply confused. He listened patiently to my plans and strategies, and when I finished he said nothing about my ambitions or my schemes. After a period of silence, he simply said “You seem sad.” Just a few quiet words, nothing more. I was completely taken by surprise. I felt frightened and dizzy. Suddenly I began to weep, deep, racking sobs. I wept for the better part of an hour. I wept for all the loneliness in my life, for the pains of my childhood, for unnamable wounds and achings in my soul.He guided me to the carpet and let me lay on the floor, where he held my hand as I wept. His kind, quiet presence changed my life. A single moment, a touch, a Sabbath moment’s undivided attention, was all that was required.

Others share with me how they are Sabbath for one another. Margaret is a patient coordinator at a large urban Hospice center. “After years of running from patients to meetings and writing reports and calling volunteers I have finally learned that my real job, when dealing with dying patients, is to be calm, the eye of the storm.”

When she feels the time for paperwork, prescriptions, treatment plans and casework has ended, Margaret allows herself to sit with those in need of her company, and gradually become still, like deep water. In these moments Margaret becomes the Sabbath for her patients. Into her emptiness they pour their souls. The sick and dying plant their fear and sadness in the ground of her quiet, where together, in time that cannot be measured by any clock, they enter into Sabbath time. And that time there grows a peace that passes understanding.

My friend Eve is a devout Jew who practices the Sabbath faithfully. One weekend she went to a retreat center where the man who had been scheduled to lead the retreat did not show up. “We had a sudden, unexpected space in which we did not need to do anything at all – until the moment came in which whatever happened decided to do itself. We had no agenda, no plan, simply a state of Shabbas. I have been in this state in Shabbas – everyone was out in the sun, some women were on the grass, trying different body movements, some were walking, some singing, each in their own way, their own time.” Eve told me that in this leaderless “workshop” the participants were able to get quiet enough to hear whatever was arising, and simply follow it.

At our best, we become Sabbath for one another. We are the emptiness, the day of rest. We become space, that our loved ones, the lost and sorrowful, may find rest in us. Whenever two or more are gathered, there am I in the midst of you. Not fixing, not harming, not acting. Quietly empty, we become Sabbath, where the sorrows of the world are safely poured and gently dissolve into the unfathomable immensity of rest, and silence.


  1. Constance Brooks says:

    Beautiful and true. Speaks to my heart