The beautiful desert landscape of Baja California with our expedition ship in the background. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins. From Smithsonian Journeys.
With the Lenten season upon us, we Christians often turn our thoughts to prayer, self-denial and almsgiving. We look to the example of the Israelites who spent forty years wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Likewise, we consider the example of Jesus who spent forty days in the desert before beginning his active ministry.
While Jesus certainly spent a great deal of this wilderness time fasting and praying, these practices were not ends in themselves but rather at the service of something greater: his inward connection to God. The great gift of his experience was the clarification and recognition of who he was in God. His time in the desert involved temptations of grandiosity, but ultimately, Jesus emerged confident and fully strengthened in the awareness of his nature and responsibility. It was only after this desert experience that he began his ministry by remembering who he is: the Beloved Son of God.
Lent is an intentional Sabbath time that invites us to take a similar inward journey where we too, encounter the Divine Presence at our center. At our innermost selves, God calls us to remember who we are in God. During my own desert experience one year, I happened upon a song I had heard all my life. On this occasion, the song, “A Horse with No Name” by the band, America, took on new meaning as I pondered what my inner pause meant in light of the presence of God. Four lines from the song seemed to address what keeping Sabbath moments, those occasions of reflection and renewal, signified to me. The words challenged me to understand keeping the Sabbath holy in a new way.
Listen: A Horse with No Name
Looking at all the Life
The first line of the song that caught my attention was, “I was looking at all the life.” One of the most marvelous discoveries of slowing down, of really drinking in the Sabbath, is the recognition of the intricate craftsmanship of the world around us. It is in the pause that our eyes begin to catch a glimpse of what God set about to do at the onset of creation. The heavens and the earth, every kind of plant, birds and living creatures, along with the formation and functioning of the pulse of the universe reveals itself as the marvel that it is. All this is freely given as a gift from an expansive, creative God. When we take time to rest in Sabbath moments, we resist the temptation to see the world as something other than what it truly is: free gift of God’s self-revelation. As Basil Pennington notes in his book, Centered Living, the first sin of humanity was one of taking rather than waiting for the gift to be given.
As Americans, we are particularly reminded that our heroes and heroines are those that are the self-made men and women of our culture. It is easy to get lost in a cycle of productivity in our lives. Sabbath days help us remember that the entire world does not depend solely on our own labor and efficient output. The fruitfulness we do have and the ability to use our limbs and minds are part of the gifts bestowed on us by our God. It is precisely in moments of Sabbath reflection that we remember not to grasp at the gift, but to receive it with the graciousness of one who understands the magnanimous gift of the giver. Recognizing this gift is one way to keep Sabbath time holy.
In the Desert, you can remember your name
The words from the song that stopped me in my tracks were, “In the desert, you can remember your name.” In the silence of the desert, in the uncluttered peace of Sabbath moments, lays the potential to discover the truth of ourselves. As Henri Nouwen in Life of the Beloved writes, “Long before any human has seen us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes.”
What God sees is the unique blessedness of each person who is indeed chosen by God alone and created in the Divine image. God knows our name before we do. Because we open ourselves to God in our Sabbath moments, we come to experience the persistent and relentless love of the Prodigal Father. This is the same one who welcomed home the Prodigal son, while he was still a long way off and who brought out the best he had: fatted calf, celebrations, and all. It is this kind of love we encounter in Sabbath moments which help us become what we are capable of being. This is the part of us Thomas Merton calls the true self, that is, the part that believes we are unconditionally loved and grounded in the love of God. We keep Sabbath time holy by remembering our name: the one beloved and called by God.
A Desert: with its life underground and a perfect disguise above
The next line from the song was discomforting. It declared, “A desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above.” While a true self exists, a false self does as well, dominating when we grapple for recognition outside the reach of God’s love. It is this inclination towards pretense that is squarely confronted when we stand in humble exposure in our Sabbath moments. If we take time to slow down and sit in quietness, we cannot help but uncover the trappings of the false self: the person we wish to present to the world and the person at times, around which we want the world to revolve. So often, we shy away from Sabbath moments because it requires a deep honesty, asking us to shed ways that distract or self-seek. As a result, we distract ourselves with the busyness of life, making our frantic pace less like loving the Messiah and more like trying to become one.
Sabbath times require us to slow the ego down and face the fact that we, like all of humanity, are imperfect, broken people, truly in need of our God. It is precisely this recognition that allows God to enter our vulnerable selves. As Jesus reminded Martha in Luke 10:42, “You worry about too many things, but only one thing is necessary and Mary has chosen it.” The one thing necessary was presence: to herself, to others, to the moments of blessings around her, and to Christ himself. We keep Sabbath time holy when we stand in unmasked presence before our God.
The Desert turns to Sea
The last line of the song that caught my attention was, “the desert turned to sea.” This image presented itself clearly in my mind after spending time in the outback of Australia this summer. The rains do not come often, but when they do, the former barren land transforms into a robust, life-sustaining ecosystem.
Our spiritual lives are similar. Spending time apart from our usual routine, we emerge with a renewed perspective. Encountering God in the quiet, our souls teem with life. In our Sabbath moments, how would we be changed if we heeded the voice identifying us as beloved? Would our embrace of the loving, living God lead to a greater sense of gratitude? Would we understand that we too are gifts meant to be given and shared for others? Thomas Merton stated this beautifully, “We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them. We do not leave them in order to have nothing to do with them but to find out the way to do them the most good.”
Sabbath moments are not so much about the absence of people around us as the opening up of our souls before the love of God. The more we take time to experience Sabbath moments, whether it is on a daily, weekly or seasonal basis, the more deeply we recognize the flowing water, the source of which we call God. We stand in awareness of who we are and whose we are in the eyes of God. We are sought after by our God despite our imperfections. God knows our name as beloved. Our challenge is to remember this name. And then we keep Sabbath time holy by joining Jacob in exclaiming, “Surely God has been in this place with me all along and I never knew it! How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28:16-17)
Sabbath Reflection Questions
- Reflect on the gift of creation. How can we cultivate a spirit of receptivity towards the world around us?
- Do you perceive yourself as known and beloved by God?
- What are ways you distract yourself from facing the reality of your own brokenness?
- Do you feel a sense of gratitude towards God? If so, how does this affect your relationships with other people?
- How can we make the ordinary sacred through Sabbath moments?
Maria McGuire has worked in catechetical instruction for 25 years through the ministries of RCIA, adult faith formation, whole community catechesis, child and youth catechesis, retreats and as a Catholic school religion teacher. She holds a BS in Bio Sciences, an MRE in Religious Studies from Loyola University, and a Spiritual Direction Certificate. She has been married for 28 years, is a mother of four children, and currently residing in Paso Robles, CA.
For presentations, retreats and additional information, email Maria: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keeping theSabbath is available as a PDF download. Download Keeping the Sabbath.docx