• Helen Dillon-Cottee

Why we can't get back to normal just yet.

How do we sum up this past season? How do you put the loss, confusion, disruption, hope and lost hope, the resetting and relearning and hardships into words? My assumption is that we will have to wait for the benefit of hindsight to be able to name and make sense of the whole of this experience, and history will, no doubt, be able judge with different eyes.

But it still seems important to be able to experience the ‘now’ in such a way that we can learn necessary lessons without having to wait for all the dust to settle. I believe that things happen within a grander, wider purpose. I believe in divine timing. I believe that ‘coincidences’ are important to notice because they are pointing us to connections that lead us to deeper learnings.

Here’s the curious thing about this past season, a connection that is asking to be noticed… as we head into month 20 of a global pandemic, we are also led into a sabbath year.

On 7th September 2021, the Sabbath year quietly rolled in; a soft wave on a deserted beach.

The ancient Jewish practice of seven-year cycles has in many ways been forgotten due to our disconnection from the land and our roots. The wisdom that these ancient practices taught was earthy, real hands in real soil kind of practical. It came from a grounded faith tradition that taught that God was in and through all things around us from the waving fields of tall corn heads to the sprawling arms of an oak tree. This kind of spirituality valued the lolling rhythms of the seasons, the natural sway of day and night and week and month. And it requested a simple, easy alignment from its participants — that humans would allow themselves to be led in this beautiful rhythmic dance by the moon, the sun, the Spring and the Fall, the trees and waves and crops and rain.

The ‘Schmita’, or Sabbath year, is a movement in this dance.

The ancient ways knew that pauses and rests are a vital part of a symphony. The movement between and each week was given a pause, as well as the deeper, longer rest of each seventh year. This seventh year was where divine wisdom required our ceasing, not our work, a release from toil and tilling. It was designed to give the land the rest it required, as well offering the gift of rest to its people. The Schmita taught that neither we nor the land we work are machines that are designed to relentlessly and religiously churn out more and more. We are an interconnected organism that lives and breathes and needs its rest.

Schmita literally means ‘release’. And releasing ourselves from relentless toil is as holy necessary as work is.

We, with all our industrialisation, capitalism and knowledge-based religions, have all but forgotten this. These man-made systems severed our connection to the divinely led rhythms that were woven into the earth and into mankind. We have lost so much of what creation taught us, in the creation of our own clever faith systems. We have separated ourselves from the land and therefore the mirror that helped us learn who we are, and also who God is, with our machines and vehicles and tarmac and a faith that exists in our brains but not our bodies.

We refuse to allow either ourselves or the soil to cease and recover, we toil and toil and wonder why we are exhausted and rung out, empty vessels, stripped soil. We believed a lie that our virtue was found in our work ethic, that busy is better and 80-hour, seven days a week work patterns are normal. And of course we did, we had lost our mirror, our connection. With lights and laptops that are always turned on, we have no need to notice that the day has turned to night and the seasons have shifted around us. We no longer wake with the lark and stop when the sun drops from the sky. We no longer work the long summer days, and harvest as the leaves fall. We have stopped turning inwards as winter wraps us in her blanket of darkness only to peep out again as the Spring chirps her arrival. Instead of listening to the mountains and the trees clapping out their worship, we plug in and turn on day and night, week after week. Always on, always going, always working.

Until the world stops requesting our participation in cessation, it demands it.

2020. Empty streets, empty squares, empty skies. We are finally faced with the jarring discomfort of layer upon layer of emptiness and loss. Finally, we are forced to stop the many kinds of work that have become normal to us, and we are made to do a different kind of work. The work of noticing and taking stock of what we have become.

We struggle and wrestle and push back, of course, because we are so unused to the silence, we have been taught to fear the emptiness. The inability to ‘do’ cracks open our worldviews of ‘busy’ and ‘important’ and we are left with just ourselves and the echoes of the world we created.

For months we have been thrust into this hard season, forced to face ourselves, our relationships, to re-assess the way we work, the way we connect with our families, to relearn, hopefully, how to be human in this world.

And then comes a curiously timed invitation into Sabbath.

This summer I was ready to pick back up, to launch new programmes and new work into the world. I was gearing up after what felt like a season of stopping. But everything felt forced. I felt like I was pushing against the tide. Courses I would have easily filled in the past remained empty, opportunities I thought were timed to open instead closed. And after a while of pushing and striving, I recognised that I had had this feeling before — the feeling of pushing against a closed door. And so I stopped and started to notice instead of ignoring.

And I noticed tiredness. I noticed overwhelming weariness. I noticed that people need a break. We have not been resting these past months we have been doing the hard, hard work of navigating a planet-wide trauma. We have been doing the work of re-learning to be human in a world that asks us to be machines. The ceasing of many of the cogs in the wheel forced us into different work — and we are bone tired. We have not been resting, we have been trying to stay alive.

The sabbath year is an invitation to cease and to release. The next four seasons are a divine request for us to stop constantly working ground that needs to rest, to recognise that humans are rhythmic creatures, like the ocean and the skies and the moon. Now, is not the time to push things forward — the ancient clock that has carried on ticking unheard in the belly of the earth has chimed us into a season of letting go.

It is time to Sabbath.

Traditionally the Schmita was a time for five things:

· a time to let the ground rest — to cultivate what was already there but not to toil;

· a time to cancel debts;

· a time to even the playing field between rich and poor by removing ‘ownership’;

· a time of freedom for those who had been enslaved;

· and a time to trust the One who holds all things in their Divine hands, not ourselves.

Historically, these lessons were literal. Now, I wonder if we are invited into both the metaphor and also a reconnection to the literal.

So, this year I have decided to try to lean into the ancient practices of Schmita. I am going to seek to cultivate but not to toil. I am not going to strive to work ground that needs to rest. I am no longer going to push against closed doors but instead to release from the striving.

It seems the wisest and most counter cultural thing I can do is to get myself back into the ancient divine rhythms. In recent years, I have moved more and more into alignment with the seasons, doing different work in the winter than in the summer; honouring the Autumn and Spring equinoxes as tipping points from one way of being to another. I have started to notice the natural rhythms in my body each month, recognising that God chose to weave the pattern of death and life into women’s bodies as well as into the earth around us and into the message of Christ. And now I have decided to lean into this further request to connect to a faith that is grounded and earthy by honouring the sabbath year.

It’s scary on many levels. It pushes against something that was conditioned into me about work and security and what it means to choose a longer period of rest. It’s scary when there are bills to pay and teenagers to feed and no-one else bringing in a salary. So I will do the work that has been an easy open door for this next season, but I have let go of the striving to fill all my time and all my hours. Instead those hours will be given to learning the lessons that can only be learned through Sabbath.

I am learning that a better way of being for me is connected to a deep sense of intuition, a faith that is grounded and earthy, a way of encountering God that is less in my head and more in my body… and these things are leading me into the practices that I sense will be my teacher in this next year. Sleep, quiet meditation, honouring the rhythms of day and night, a full day of rest every week, yoga, long walks, baking, eating seasonally, writing, staring at the ocean…

And this is also an invitation to you.

Firstly to recognise the work that you have been doing this past season — the work of relearning, of grieving and walking through a hard, hard season. Then I invite you to spend some time praying or meditating or leaning into your intuition to sense what this Schmita, or year of release, means for you.

What is the radical rest you need? Which closed door are you pushing against that you can release for a while? Where do you need to let the soil recover for a year rather than toiling it over and over? Who or what needs your forgiveness of their debt? And what practices will help you to Sabbath well, trusting in something greater than yourself?

If nothing else, this is a reminder that we were built from the same stuff as the earth and the planets not the same stuff as machines — and that means that we work rhythmically like everything else in Creation.

You are not a machine. You are supposed to ebb and flow. You are supposed to both work and rest. You are supposed to have times which are dark and times where the leaves fall to the ground and times where the sun shines for most of the day.

So welcome to the Sabbath year, a year of release. I pray you find the space and the permission to take a breath, to slow down and to allow ancient wisdom to restore your soul.