“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
This past summer, I found myself in a lot of cathedrals. I traveled to Switzerland, France, Spain, and England, and in each place I saw tall turrets and brilliant glass windows. I quickly learned that experiencing the outside of a cathedral is not the same as experiencing the inside of a cathedral. The outside is colossal and glorious and allows you to see where the cathedral exists in space compared to all that exists around it. The inside is colossal and glorious in a different way. It is darker, holier. In it, your senses adjust to the sacredness of the space. The scents and sounds are different, the air is cooler, and there is no direct sunlight. Rather, all sunlight is filtered through stained glass windows wherein you see your Savior and His story. He is brighter than you, and you are aware of it. When you are in a cathedral, you are in a sacred space: a space built by man but dwelt in by God. This is the Christian tradition.
While the beauty of sacred spaces can be appreciated in itself, sacred spaces only fully affect us if the time within them is sacred as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish rabbi and activist of thetwentieth century, speaks about the sacred thing that God built before man ever built the cathedral. In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that there was a designated sacred time before there were sacred spaces. This sacred time was the seventh day, the only thing God created in the beginning that He called “holy.” Sabbath—or Shabbat, as it’s called in the Jewish tradition—is like an incorporeal cathedral. It is a sacred architecture assembled not in space but in time.
During Shabbat, it is the participant who decides to make Shabbat holy. This is very different from sacred space. The sacred spaces we gather in (like cathedrals) are, in part, designed to help us adopt the right posture towards God during sacred times of worship. Yet in holy spaces, I fidget and my mind wanders if I have not learned to regard time correctly. Although sacred spaces invite you into sacred thoughts, if you have not learned to value time as sacred as well, you likely will not feel the need to actively give up your internal quarrels or evil thoughts. We can enter into sacred spaces while hiding these profanities so that they are invisible to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult to enter into sacred time while harboring profane thoughts. For Shabbat to occur, the participant must actively give up enemies, quarrels, and work. Worry is laid aside; war ceases. Shabbat is an internal commitment to keep the seventh day sacred, and it is this internal commitment to sacredness that enables us to fully experience the affect of external sacred spaces.
Shabbat celebrates time, not space, teaching us how to have a proper relationship with time. The result of the fall is a broken relationship between man and himself, God, and all of creation. We must learn how to correct our relationship to all aspects of existence again, including time, which is an aspect of existence that we often misuse. Driven by our desire for success, Americans often consider rest as merely a means to increase productivity throughout the week, failing to see rest as an end in itself. To Heschel, however, Shabbat “is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When we enter Shabbat, we enter into a glimpse of eternity, or as Heschel calls it, “eternity in disguise.” During Shabbat, we cannot pick up our worries and quarrels as we would on a normal day. We are commanded to enter into rest, and that rest reminds us that our earthly cares are just that—earthly. They cannot follow us into eternity, and if we enter Shabbat correctly, they cannot follow us into Shabbat, either. Shabbat is peace in action among man and everything else. For one day, we do not fight the earth, fellow man, or God. The only thing we fight during Shabbat is our own desire to do, a desire that often stems from the idea that doing is what makes us worthy or whole. Once we fight ourselves out of doing, we can realize that just by being—being God’s child, an heir to the kingdom, a new creation—we are worthy. Work is important to the Christian life, yes. But we must remember that it is God who makes us worthy and whole, not our work.
The cathedrals I found in Europe are merely one testament to how much we’ve done to preserve historically sacred spaces. We have done much less to preserve the ancient practice of sacred time. Imagine if the number of sacred places on earth were converted into sacred days during which we could experience the peace of the kingdom of God. Rest and peace can happen outside of a cathedral. We can fill the entire world with the sacred peace of Shabbat.