“Memory is not just a then, recalled in a now, the past is never just the past, memory is the pulse passing through all created life, a waveform, a then continually becoming other thens, all the while creating a continual but almost untouchable now. But the guru’s urge to live only in the now misunderstands the multilayered inheritance of existence, where all epochs live and breathe in parallels… Memory is an invitation to the source of our life, to a fuller participation in the now, to a future about to happen, but ultimately to a frontier identity that holds them all at once. Memory makes the now fully inhabitable” (David Whyte, Consolations, p. 143).
When rabbis and Jewish mystics talk about Sabbath (a mindful moment that lasts for an entire day), they turn to Psalms 92 and 93. That seems strange.
You might not be familiar with Jewish tradition. While Psalm 92 does open with the words “A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day,” it says nothing about restful sleep, longs walks in the park, scrumptious meals, or revitalizing conversation with friends —in short, nothing of the kind of delight expressed in other biblical and Jewish sources about Shabbat (1).
In fact, it says nothing about the Sabbath at all. Instead, it goes on to describe in stark terms the destiny of “brutish” and “wicked,” “fools” and “wrongdoers” in contrast to the “righteous.” For me, as an outsider to Judaism, this feels at odds with the peace we believe Jews long for every week in the 24-hour refuge made of time.
Rabbi Miriyam Glazer offers an eloquent description of the place of Psalms 92–93 (2) within the broader spiritual practice developed centuries ago by Jewish mystics (bolded emphasis mine).
The sequence of the Psalms of the week recapitulates the process of creation of the world described in the opening pages of Genesis! … By Friday, not only do we celebrate God’s reign in our universe [Psalm 93], but we declare our love for God’s law, God’s Way [Psalm 92]. By Shabbat morning, we have achieved a sense of spiritual and existential security and a reassuring, gentle and beautiful promise. Going through the week, then, is like going through the fiery furnace of human life into the beauty of God’s majestic light ( Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy, p. 17).
This led me to think anew about why I began a deliberate and disciplined journey into something as questionable as religion, starting with Christianity at age 17.
I converted. Literally converted my currency of measuring life. And I did it for two reasons:
First, in the pages of the Bible — both the TaNaKh and the New Testament — I discovered a new way of seeing the world. The world was not only made of matter, plants, animals, and people; it was made of stories — stories, all stories, are so potent that they alter the ways in which we understand and interact with the matter, plants, animals, and people. Stories alter the world. By placing my faith in the interconnection and interdependence of all of life (albeit under the umbrella term: God) I gained access to a new, flexible, and deeply meaningful narrative frame for my life. Stories create reality.
Second, I discovered the practice of Sabbath, quality of time, the only element that humans cannot control or conquer, but which we can share with one another. On Sabbath day, we give thanks for the astonishing privilege of having a life — all the past Sabbaths as we have this present one — and envisioning a future Sabbath, an unknown and, in all likelihood, a surprising reality. I entered the Christian tradition as a Sabbath practitioner. Celebrating it from sundown Friday to nightfall Saturday has held me for almost 40 years.
Shabbat is magical and who does not need some magic these days? As the poet David Whyte elucidates above, stepping out of the confines of the present moment helps us cultivate a “frontier identity,” in which past, present, and future are experienced at the same time.
During this pandemic and social upheaval related to our unfinished (or even unstarted) business of dealing with sexism and racism, I feel as if the Sabbath psalms are coming full circle in my life. Years ago, I have adopted regular daily mindfulness and meditation practices, a gift from the Buddhist tradition. I am well aware of the power of living in the present moment. Yet, the here-and-now is not all that there is.
Sabbath is, for me, the only spiritual practice (besides cooking), that weaves together our here-and-now presence with the larger story that unfolds in time and animates and shapes my life.
Years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner told me that we all have mystical experiences. I got very excited. And then he said, “Yes, they come for about 20 seconds every two years.” I have been thinking about that a lot and have come to understand that mystical experience is an occurrence of being present and storied at the same time.
This is not a small feat. Neuroscience tells us that our brain toggles between direct experience and interpretation of the experience. In other words, at any given time, we are either being present or we are storytelling.
For me, a transformational (mystical) moment is when we experience both at the same time. This can last for a second, a minute, an hour, or if we are lucky, a day. In such moments we live, love, or even lead as we go. This sort of wayfinding is best described as real change in real time. Our lives pivot to a new path in ways big and small.
For me, holding the reality of what is (present moment) and of the world as it has been (past) or the potentiality of what could be (future) are a necessary part of fully human life. The grim facts of the pandemic and systemic and systematic racism are real. But so is our past and our future. Life has been on our side. Life has loved us, from millions of years ago to a series of love stories between our ancestors to our very own parents to our birth to this morning, and will see us beyond the confines of here and now. Life has been forming in us before the present moment and will manifest itself in the future through our protests, prayers, scientific research, and acts of kindness. We are all from the past and we are all part of the future.
Returning to Psalm 92, I need to say that I still find the dichotomous language of the “righteous” and the “wicked” off-putting (and potentially dangerous). It is helpful though, to internalize these descriptions and remember that I am often “brutish,” and a “wrongdoer.”
With this reframing, I can also face the wrongdoing I see enacted by others with greater compassion for who we have been and vigilance for who we could become. My Sabbath practice provides me with a weekly opportunity to hold past, present, and future together, tenderly, knowing that life itself has loved us, connected us with one another, and empowered us to move into the great unknown.
And next Friday night, I will once again, with many fellow practitioners, pause from our physical, neural, and social routines to step to the frontier. I will clean my desk and water my office plant and walk into the Sabbath. This is where we, the respecters of time, re-learn from the past, re-astonish ourselves with the present, and re-imagine the future.
(1) — One of the sources that have been most significant to me is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s modern classic The Sabbath.
(2) — The sequence includes Psalms 95; 96; 97; 98; 99; 29; 92; and 93 (as a summation of the previous seven psalms/days of the week).
*Earlier version of this article was published in Psalm Season.