I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.
— Karen Amstrong as quoted in Profile at TED (2009)
Religions don’t agree on which day is holy, but by and large they do agree that once a week you must check in with your beliefs, your community, and yourself. For Jews, this ritual starts Friday at sundown and lasts until sundown on Saturday. For Muslims, it usually starts with Friday afternoon prayers. For the wide range of denominations of practicing Christians, it’s on Sunday, with the exception of Seventh-day Adventists, who are defined by their observance on Saturday. For Quakers, a sect of Protestants who downplay annual holidays because they see every day as an equal celebration of Christ, silent worship at their weekly meetings is the heartbeat of belief. In Buddhism, the holy day of the week changes with the phases of the moon.
For my great-grandparents the holy day was called Shabbos (the Yiddish word for the Sabbath; Shabbat is Hebrew). Each week, for an entire rotation of the Earth, they did not work or handle money or use electricity: no lamps, no phones, and no riding in cars. Just prayer, synagogue, and family time. It was about rest, reflection, and taking stock of the week, a kind of early TGIF.
There are, as with all things, loopholes even for the orthodox. For example, there are large buildings in places densely populated by observant Jews where the elevators are preprogrammed to stop at every floor during Shabbat. If you’re not pressing any buttons, you’re not breaking the rules, right? This is the subject of much debate. Other exceptions also get made. If you’re extremely ill, it might be okay to ride to synagogue as long as a Gentile drives you. But even when my great-grandfather Benjamin was dying of stomach cancer, he was so devout he still walked to services every week.
After Grandpa Harry’s declaration of independence, holidays like Passover and Hanukkah remained part of the family calendar, but we lost Shabbos, and some part of me has longed for it.
Luckily, secular people have weekly rituals, too. Maybe Thursday happy hour with coworkers, a steady date night, a favorite exercise class, or a time set aside to volunteer somewhere. Whether it’s a trip to the farmers market, the nail salon, or the psychiatrist’s office, almost everyone I know has something particular they do once a week. Before VCRs, DVRs, and streaming services, a favorite television show, broadcast at its appointed time, was a ritual. Sporting events are still watched mostly as they unfold live, millions of people sharing thrills and agonies in their living rooms. These may not leave us with a sense of the divine, but they create a pattern for our lives, a set moment to dip back into our communities and ourselves.
After school on Fridays my mom would usually take me to buy a loaf of challah from the Clever Hans Bakery in Ithaca, in upstate New York, where I grew up. This was a kind of hat tip to the ways of our forebears. For me, the visit to the bakery was more about the brownie with mint icing that I called a “greenie,” and that I ate ferociously in my car seat on the way home. This was another kind of holy sacrament, my first appreciation of what it felt like to finish the week, to transition from work to rest (even if, for me, at that time, work largely consisted of coloring). It was, I think now, a way to learn about marking time, about feeling it happen. Time is an elusive concept. It’s passing constantly, yet it’s so hard to feel. It’s like lying in the grass, trying to feel the Earth rotate. When changes are both small and constant, we can’t grasp them. But watching a sunset, for example, we can process that we’ve successfully completed another rotation.
On most weekends my mother and I had another sacred ritual, although I have only started thinking of it as one from the purview of adulthood. My mother would produce a large book of construction paper, some Elmer’s glue, a pair of safety scissors, and one large piece of cardboard. We would decide on a theme—the ocean, space, dinosaurs, forests—and create a world by cutting out paper flora, fauna, rocks, and suns. Sometimes the themes were even religious. The stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark were not censored in our house. They were taught. I cherished my wooden toy ark with two of every animal and displayed it prominently. The only difference was that these pillars of civilization were presented as important, influential literature—not history. (My mother would say things like “There is evidence that there was a great flood, but the fossil record contradicts the idea that two of every animal survived and repopulated the planet.”)
It didn’t really matter what shapes we cut out, it was more about the time we spent together. Sitting and talking, doing something a little educational and creative. It was about the ritual.
When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?
— Muriel Barbery from The Elegance of the Hedgehog
- Guide to Advent 2019
- Come Home and Rest
- Don’t Squander Joy
- Savoring The Sabbath
- May You Allow The Wild Beauty Of The Invisible World To Embrace You
Will you help? You can help this site by making a contribution here. Your ongoing support makes this site possible and helps me to continue posting.