Mudhouse Sabbath: A thicker and more vibrant faith
Those who are even half-awake to cultural trends know that spirituality is hot. Traditional Christian religiosity may be in decline, but the hunger for a deep experience with the sacred is everywhere and can be seen from recent TV shows to the bookshelves at the mainstream chain stores. In serious Christian circles, names like Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Henri Nouwen are twentieth-century classics; more recently, evangelicals especially are writing mature (and very helpful) books guiding the discerning reader into an encounter with God. Books by authors like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Bruce Demarest, Eugene Peterson, Gary Thomas, Ruth Barton, and Jan Johnson are on our list for some of the best Christian authors of our time, each writing on spirituality and inner formation. (Indeed, these evangelical authors are getting increasingly known: Wheaton College's David Benner's new InterVaristy Press book, Surrender to Love, for instance, has an endorsement by renowned Catholic mystic Basil Pennington, saying it is one of the best books he has ever read!)
Given this great shift in religious hunger and writings, it shouldn't be surprising to know that a trend in recent years has been interest in rest and Sabbath-keeping. Marva Dawn, Dorothy Bass and several others have written popular guides to finding not so much inner disciplines of quiet, but of concrete practices of Sabbath habits, supported by weekly schedules and views of time, pace and calendar. In fact, a brand new title by Christine Sine is called Sacred Rhythms: Finding a Peaceful Pace in a Hectic World. (Interestingly, each draws heavily on the 1951 Jewish classic, The Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel, a book we have carried since we opened 20 years ago.)
To have the inner experience of sacred rest, we must, these authors tell us, find concrete ways of "doing" time, uniquely religious styles of embodying space and time. This is the really hot trend (you heard it here!): the shift from solitary inner-soul-shaping disciplines to concrete, communal and embodied practices. Although Foster's classic Celebration of Discipline hinted at this by calling some of his spiritual disciplines "outward" ones, and Willard routinely talks about the role of the body in holistic spiritual formation, this new trend is less about mystical encounters and more about daily ordering of life in ways which give rise to and allow for mundane moments to be seen as bearing the possibility of disclosing holiness. One of the bell-weather books indicating this new trend was, of course, the extraordinary Practicing Our Faith edited by Dorothy Bass (Jossey-Bass) and the subsequent youth edition (which I raved about here a year ago), Way to Live. Several more are promised from this series, with the most recent being Honoring the Body by Stephanie Paulsell.
And now in this transition time, amidst a bevy of books on prayer, devotion, experiencing God, encountering the Spirit and developing passionate worship, and this new wave of books on practices, habits, priorities and lifestyles, comes what is the most evocative and delightful book I've read in quite a while: Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. Written out of a young Christian's good efforts to live into and embody a uniquely Judeo-Christian way of life, Winner's winsome new reflection follows up her highly acclaimed 2002 memoir, Girl Meets God, and addresses these exact matters. For those who don't know, I'll tell you a bit about this great writer and her first book, then the meaning of the perplexing title of the new one.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of the book we here at Hearts & Minds declared one of our favorite titles in 2002, Girl Meets God. We were pleased to host Lauren here doing a reading and it was a wonderful evening! She read exquisite excerpts from her finely-crafted book and answered questions about her journey into conservative, Orthodox Judaism and her eventual conversion to Christian faith. That memoir got nearly rave reviews from numerous sources -- from Sojourners to The New York Post to a Jerusalem daily. None glowed as much as my own review here. We found that book not only insightful, funny and interesting, but exceptionally well-written and at times quite powerful. What a story!
Mudhouse Sabbath happily continues Winner's story (yes, she is getting married), and it is at once more anecdotal -- there isn't the plot development of her conversion narrative to move it along -- and a bit more educational. Its point is simply reflecting on several Jewish customs and practices from which Christians could learn. (Ahh, see now the connection to my opening remarks, the shift from disciplines to practices...)
Winner, you see, although content in her Episcopal faith, shaped as it is by the liturgical calendar and the Calvinist rigors of the Book of Common Prayer, is seriously in love with Christ and yet misses her Jewish routines. Certainly a writer with above-average theological chops, she understands why this is; she sees the similarities and differences between her old and her new faith; she realizes that the disconnect between Christian spirituality and the orthodox Jewish lifestyle of customs and rituals is not necessary. She wants to reconnect these two parts of her lives, and invites us to similarly consider what Christians can learn from Jews and how they might adaptively embody Hebrew ways of practicing the faith.
Beth and I found ourselves wanting to underline whole sections, wiping tears at some parts, chuckling right out loud often. Mudhouse Sabbath was a fun, quick read, marvelously structured with a flow of teaching and story and memories and memoir (even though it ended way too abruptly). Its vision -- a wish for communal Christian lifestyles which are more intentional (and more intentionally drawing upon Jewish roots), working out practices that mark and shape us as followers of the gospel -- stays with us. I rarely have time to re-read a book immediately after finishing it, but I am currently on my second time through.
The odd title is a good example of the quandary Winner feels. The Mudhouse in Charlottesville is a coffee shop she frequents on Sundays. She describes what seems to me an idyllic and restful Lord's Day, ending up with a chai and a good book. Yet, after citing Jewish writer Nan Fink's experience of the frenetic preparation for Shabbat and then the extraordinary experience of different time during that next day, Winner writes,
"It was not an ordinary workday and I did feel somewhat more relaxed than I would on Monday morning. But it was not Shabbat. Nan Fink nailed it: Shabbat is like nothing else. And Shabbat is, without question, the piece of Judaism I miss the most"Â¦. Here a Sunday afternoon finds me sitting in a coffee shop, spending money, scribbling in the margins of my book, very much in "time as we know it," not at all sure I've opened my heart in any particular way."
Although Winner's former Orthodox Jewish ways give her a deeper sense of loss about not having idiosyncratic customs and rituals; it is the same ennui that many of us feel. This anxiety and remorse about not having a community (let alone a community of shared discourse, habits and ways of ordering our lives together in ways that might be considered Godly or sacramental) may be the defining remorse of my life these days. Mudhouse knows this anxiety and speaks it, and I found it very reassuring.
Many of us have no doubts about our loyalty to God's Kingdom; we are fully aware that God's saving and restoring mercy has drawn us to Him in grace and we are happy to at least consider some of the public implications of Christ's claim upon our lives. But we still know there is more, something not quite right about our faith and fidelity in this idolatrous and disordered culture. Winner knows this too, yet continues to write in faith and hopefulness. Our lives exhibit an accommodation to the culture and we sense an immersion in what Jesus warned of -- "the cares of this world." We long not only for deeper spirituality, but better ideas for marking our days with ways of being that reflect and nourish and shape and deepen these Kingdom commitments. We long for that which Winner speaks of. Consequently, despite its brevity and chatty style, this is a very, very important work.
Each chapter in Mudhouse Sabbath tells of a different Jewish custom from which Christians might learn. Sometimes, she tells of her own feeble efforts to incorporate the heart of these customs. The specificity with which she writes is wonderful and revealing. For instance, in a fascinating chapter on Jewish kosher codes, she writes about discovering Barbara Kingsolver's essay "Lilly's Chicken" when the beloved novelist tells of her ecological and ethical reasons for eating seasonally. And she quotes one of our favorite passages from Robert Capon's stunning Supper of the Lamb, the part on onions. She continues, on page 25,
"Now, like some of my Jewish friends who keep kosher at home but eat more liberally in restaurants, I try to keep a seasonal kitchen but allow myself to indulge when I'm out on the town. For the first time since I became a Christian, I have found myself thinking about what food I put in my body, and where that food has been -- in whose hands, in what countries -- before it got to my plate. Like Capon's musings on the onion, this reflection on and participation with my food leads ultimately back to Him who sustains, provides, and feeds."
Or, listen as she explains how she lives out the Jewish sense of duty and obligation:
"My mother is not yet elderly, but she is sick, and her cancer has required some caretaking on my part. To be honest, I don't usually enjoy folding her laundry or flipping her mattress or running to the pharmacy for her prescriptions, and I don't always enjoy visiting with her. I do not look after Mom because it is consistently easy and delightful. I do it because I am obligated. I do it because of all the years she looked after me. This is a sort of holy looking-after. It is not always fun, but it is always sanctifying. And in this way, perhaps, caretaking is something of a synecdoche of the spiritual life. Most good and holy work (like praying and being attentive and even marching for justice or serving up chili at the soup kitchen) is sometimes tedious, but these tasks are burning away our old selves and ushering in the persons God has created us to be."
In the second to last chapter (on Jewish customs of hanging mezuzot on the doorways) she gives yet another example of the power of such simple rituals:
"Shin is also the first letter of the word shalom, peace. If having a mezuzah on one's door does not necessarily make one's home a peaceful refuge from the hostile world, it does serve as a reminder: a reminder of shalom bayit, peace in the home, an ideal toward which every Jewish home is meant to strive. Once, when my college roomie and I were duking it out over the dishes (in the sink) and the bathtub (filthy) and the phone (ringing much too late at night) the muzuzah squelched our screaming. In the middle of railing about the long hair destined to clog our bathtub pipes, my roommate walked to our bedroom door and tapped on the front of the muzuzah, and we smiled and laughed and breathed deeply and started to wash the dishes. Little mezuzah reminders don't work miracles, of course, but sometimes they help the fights to simmer down and the dishes get clean."
Two absolutely marvelous chapters (actually, all of 'em are) are the ones on the body (guf) and the kiddushin one, on the dissimilarities between Jewish and Christian weddings. (Did you know that conservative Jewish newlyweds don't go on a honeymoon in part because they are forbidden sexual intimacies for seven days after the ceremony? Her explanation is brilliant!)
Listen to this honest assessment of the sub-Christian understanding of the body:
"Attending Christianly to our bodies is a matter of some urgency, because there is no neutral way to be a body. If we do not take our bodily cues from the Christian story, we will take them from somewhere else -- from the magazines screaming about taking off five pounds, from the all-you-can-eat buffets asking us to stuff our bodies, from the fashion designers asking us to parade them.
"Yet to think of Christian practices of the body seems almost to ponder a contradiction in terms. In church, I sometimes kneel and raise my hands and bow my head. I decorate my body with cruciform jewelry. That's about it. I have not, apparently, managed a Christian attitude toward skirt size."
After this reflection, she gets to the passage that made me gulp, a section on her mother's body damaged by chemo. A good Christian worldview informed by Old Testament creation-theology and the essential goodness of humanness to the consequent way this helps us construe and cope with suffering could hardly be better expressed. It is one of the many gems in this book that you will want to read and note and quote to others"Â¦
You've got to read the wedding chapter, the one in which she explains sheva bracht -- seven days of post-wedding parties designed to root the newlyweds in community. The lesson of yichud is of immeasurable importance, oddly ignored although central to Old and New Testaments: the need for community. It is a moving chapter with good teaching that anyone who is about to be married needs to know. Pastors would be wise to use it instead of the pop psychology lessons, which too often passes for premarital counseling.
Every enjoyable chapter in this book is worth pondering. From Shabbat to the various practices of Jewish mourning; from the biblical demands for hospitality to the significance of rituals of prayer; from hiddur p'nai zaker (on aging) to a great chapter on fasting (tzum); these are all useful and edifying. I don't think it is an overstatement to use a biblical compliment: this book is wise. Vinita Hampton Wright (herself a cool young novelist-turned-essayist) has said, "The soul of the American Christian needs this book. Lauren connects us with spiritual understanding and practices that have been missing from our faith"Â¦wonderfully textured and beautifully told."
We sincerely commend this little gem to you and yours. It is a book which gives voice to concerns and anxieties and remorse and desires that many of our friends and customers feel. When Winner says, "I miss the rhythms and customs that drew the sacred down into everyday," she speaks volumes about our postmodern quandary, our busy, American times. When she says that these ancient Jewish disciplines "form us to respond to God, over and over, always in gratitude, in obedience and in faith" she is giving us keenly needed insight.
Such insight, I think, is on the cusp of the next wave of spirituality studies. It is a move of the Spirit (I believe), ushering us away from individualized, evangelical piety, out of disembodied contemplative mysticism, away from dualism towards a vibrant and concrete Christian lifestyle in God's good world.