Book review: ‘Soul Tending’

May 7, 2018 by

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Do you remember a time when every Sunday started with three hours of church followed by a long meal, often roast beef and root vegetables that roasted in the oven while we sat in the pews? Perhaps the meal was shared with visitors or relatives.

"Soul Tending"

“Soul Tending”

After the meal, the adults talked while the children ran outside to play. Maybe there were naps. Reading. Singing around the piano or organ. Farmers had to feed animals and/or milk cows. In the evening, there was another church service.

No shopping, no video games, social media, movies, eating in restaurants, television. And no work except for preparing food and cleaning up afterward.

Sunday was different from every other day of the week. It was a day of rest as decreed in the Ten Commandments. You worked as little as possible, and you tried not to cause someone else to work.

How do you spend the Sabbath now?

If you are like most of us, even if you attend church regularly, you don’t truly set aside the rest of the day from the daily hustle. Emails, commerce, purchased entertainment and the constant presence of smartphones with their addictive social media and news alerts — all these crowd the day and clutter the mind. They bury the soul. They starve it.

“We live in hungry times.” So begins Anita Amstutz’s book about Sabbath keeping, a lost tradition in most of Western culture. Immediately the reader begins to feel pangs of remorse for a basic, unmet spiritual need.

Amstutz begins by telling us her own experience of burnout in pastoring. Her busiest workday was Sunday, and she found it difficult to protect another day instead. The tone of her story is not judgmental nor self-pitying. Nor is it heroic. Told simply and with humility, the personal story augments the larger story of human longing for the divine. The real subject is not the author but that which the author seeks — to know and love God. This is memoir with a twist. It belongs in the spiritual meditation category and should be read lectio divina style, chewing one small bit at a time.

Since hunger for God is the chief metaphor of the book, cooking seems like an apt analogy for reading the book. Among the skills of a great chef is reduction — the art of thickening and intensifying a liquid such as soup or wine or sauce by boiling and simmering. This is a book that benefits from the art of reduction.

Amstutz has read the major recent books on Sabbath. They are included in the bibliography at the end, and most of them merit one or two pithy quotes in her text. For readers familiar with many of these books — by Walter Brueggeman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Wayne Muller, Barbara Brown Taylor and Lauren Winner, among others — the question might be, “Why read another book about the Sabbath?”

The answer might be, “Have you begun to keep the Sabbath as a practice yet?” If not, perhaps you need to give the hunger in your soul a little more food.

This small book deserves its place on the shelf and in one’s life not only because it reduces other books to a thick, intense sauce, but because it moves from prose to poetry, speaking directly to the heart.

Nowhere is Amstutz’s lyric language more evident than when she is describing music. To overcome the burnout in her work, with the permission of her congregation, she took several extended Sabbath visits. On a hot June day, while visiting the Benedictine order of Christ in the Desert, she stumbled across a Wednesday vespers service. Drawn in by the music, she entered a dream state. She writes:

“That day the sung prayers were dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus, and I had gone early for the silent prayer with the Blessed Sacrament, made visible for this special day. I noticed the heaviness of the air at that time of the afternoon, the sun’s thick golden liquid drawing across the canyon floor. I heard the locusts buzzing in the distance. From my wooden pew, my spine facing the doors flung open on that hot afternoon, I daydreamed of the thick, sultry August days of my childhood on the family farm. Summer almost gone and the field cut to stubble, hay drying with sweet fragrance that clung to the moist air. I saw myself as the little girl who sat enthralled in the Sunday morning pew of the frame church of my youth, the summer morning pouring through the open windows.”

Her attention turned from the past to the present, recognizing that her body, sweating in the heat, functioned much like the thick adobe walls regulating the temperature in the room: “We are soil and water after all.” Then comes a tumult of words as she joins in the singing with the monks:

“As we chanted the age-old texts together, the words wove themselves around my body, stretching out to link me with the earth elements all around me. As the soothing yet powerful sound circled around me, my inner vision flew to the top of the chapel, my eyes catching the red cliffs again in the late-afternoon sun. The music soared and climaxed; it collided with the smells, sounds and textures. Taking off my shoes, I felt the cool floor against my feet as I stood, my kneeling pad before me. It was a full-bodied and extravagant Sabbath-keeping. My heart was home. In that moment I rested in the sacred heart of Jesus, filled with the flame of love.”

If this passage does not induce you to want to go deeper with the Sabbath, nothing will.

Amstutz could have written a nostalgic book about the rest she craved and the agrarian Mennonite traditions that offered pot roast in the oven after church and open-air harmonies.

But the kind of Sabbath she craves goes deeper than nostalgia. She describes not just practices that help keep us focused in an age of distraction and noise. She elevates us to a place where we too can imagine vanquishing our hunger for God with the flame of love. This may be the book that revives the actual practice of Sabbath.

Shirley Hershey Showalter, former president of Goshen College and author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, can be found at shirleyshowalter.com.


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