rest and be thankful

Somewhere in the Highland Mountains of Scotland there sits a stone seat with the inscription, “Rest and be thankful.”  I picture this seat atop some beautiful jagged peak at the end of a long and arduous trail.  What a welcome sight this stone bench must be after a hard journey; what friendly words to read after one has made the long climb up a mountain trail.

I have been to the Highlands.  They are far from the gently rolling wooded hills of Pennsylvania.  They are nothing like the mellowed angle of the Appalachian Mountain range.  The Highlands are rough and craggy, jagged with exposed rock.  Any rest taken atop those mountains would be well earned.

There is nothing quite like reaching the summit after trudging up the face of a mountain.  During a hard hike it can be easy to lose sight of your destination; to forget why you ever thought such a journey would be fun in the first place.  But there is nothing like reaching the top and gazing out upon a vast and beautiful landscape.  There is a reason why some events in life are called “mountain top experiences.”  The perspective is wondrous and if you let it, it will change you.

The season of giving thanks is upon us, and with it comes a rare opportunity to rest.  Thanksgiving is one of those uncommon days in our common life that remains relatively free to be what it is: a day to rest and be thankful.  There are no gifts to give.  There are few cards to send.  There are only sumptuous feasts to prepare and savor around tables hallowed with prayer and loved ones.  It is one of the few days that we allow ourselves to cease, to rest, to savor, and to experience the deep gratitude that wells up within us.

For people of faith, this quality of rest and thanksgiving is called Sabbath.  Sabbath is practiced on different days in different religious traditions, but what is so important about Sabbath-time is the way it changes us.

It is no secret that we live in a culture where work can become the center of our lives, and over-work can become of badge of honor.  Even our leisure activities these days can take on a kind of deadly seriousness.  But people of faith have long known that rest is essential to the life of the spirit.  This knowledge is conveyed in the book of Genesis with regard to the creation of the Sabbath:

“And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done,
and rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested
from all his work which he had done in creation.”
(Genesis 2:2-3)

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his seminal work, The Sabbath, three acts of God mark the seventh day: God rested, God blessed and God hallowed (that is, God made holy).  It is no accident that these three things occur together — for to bless and to make holy require a center of calm and serenity only a spirit of restfulness can provide.  The kind of rest which brings ease and relief from work is important.  But the rest of the spirit — the rest which gives birth to thankfulness — is a different kind of rest entirely.  And the life of faith must be punctuated by it.

May this season of thankfulness bring you much joy.  May your hearts be quieted and renewed by the tranquility that rest can bring.  And may these days of giving thanks prepare a place within your spirit for the gratitude that is a witness to faithfulness.

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