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Thurifer Louis Verdelotti at Old South Church, site of a conference on Sabbath observance.
By Lisa Wangsness Globe Staff
People over age 40 can remember a time when, because of blue laws — the Colonial-era prohibitions against commercial activities on Sundays — most stores were closed and very little aside from praying, newspaper-reading, and loafing around happened on Sunday mornings.
That changed as blue laws were repealed or went unenforced in the late 20th century and as many denominations relaxed their rules.
But now, some people are looking longingly at the religious structures that once forced even the nonreligious to take time to relax and enjoy life, and experimenting with ways to embrace something like the Sabbath to help authorize a day away from workaday concerns.
“The idea that you celebrate being, but not doing, is so vital for everyone, no matter what tradition you are in,” said Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.
Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said he has noticed over the last decade an increasing number of liberal Jews making a practice of turning off their cellphones on Friday evenings, when Shabbat begins. And in his interfaith work, Burton fields questions from his Christian and Muslim colleagues about what it’s like to disconnect from the digital world for 25 hours every week.
It’s profoundly restorative, he tells them; “a huge part of my own personal sanity.”
But for many Americans, trying to figure out how to wedge a quiet day — or even a few reflective hours — into 21st century life can be a tricky matter.
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The conference contemplated how people can rediscover sacred time and reconstruct a day of rest.
Certainly, there is little help from secular institutions, and little agreement on when it is acceptable to be unavailable or — imagine it — doing nothing at all.
In any case, in an era of increasing religious diversity, forced Sunday downtime sounds downright quaint: Muslims pray on Fridays; Jews observe Shabbat from Friday evening to Saturday evening; and most Christians worship on Sunday. At the same time, digital responsibilities — be they related to school, work, household, or social obligations — seem to seep into every crevice of waking life.
“That is the biggest dilemma,” said Nancy T. Ammerman, a Boston University professor of the sociology of religion. “Once we say to people, you know, it would be a really good thing to have some sacred time, you choose when it is . . . . It’s the kind of thing that sounds perfect, it’s so American, design your own Sabbath. But that kind of discipline and observance is extremely difficult, done individually, or even just as a family.”
Perhaps, she said, the best solution would be for communities of people to collectively make commitments to one another about the kinds of sacred time they want to observe, and to honor the diverse ways in which different communities try to do that.
For religious and secular alike, the rewards can be memorable.
By the end of his second semester at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2014, Christian Gonzalez Ho was exhausted. Like most first-year students, he was sleeping two to five hours a night, and pulling an all-nighter every few days.
Recalling a trip to Israel in which he’d marvelled at the country’s strict observance of prayer, rest, and family time on Shabbat, Gonzalez Ho and a friend planned an evening of communal respite two days before final reviews, a candlelit gathering with flowers, tea, toast, and music.
They weren’t sure anyone would come — at that time in the semester, he said, many students would hardly leave their desks, even to eat — but almost their whole class of 70 students showed up. And most stayed the entire two hours.
“People were just in shock,” he said. “They were so rejuvenated.”
The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, noted that many are not in an economic position to take a whole day off.
“I want to be really careful about shaming people’s overworked lives and instead invite a conversation that reminds people of the delight of rest,” she said. “Not just stopping work, but resting in a sense of God’s provision.”
The Lord’s Day Alliance, founded by six major Protestant denominations in 1888, spent a century fighting to force industrialists to give workers time to attend religious services and, later, to protect the Blue Laws. But little by little, drinking, sporting, and shopping became permissible on Sundays; in the last 20 or so years, the group has shifted to advocating for an internal recognition of the Sabbath.
“The point is, where can a stressed-out society find regeneration and renewal?” said the Rev. Rodney L. Petersen, executive director of the group, which drew dozens of people to an interfaith conference on Sabbath observance last week at Old South Church in Copley Square.
The Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain said she tries to observe a day of silence each month “to really challenge myself to be a listener.”
The Rev. Debora Jackson, executive director of the Ministers Council of the American Baptist Churches USA, said unplugging isn’t necessarily required.
“What I really want to encourage is to be connected to one another,” she said. “It’s not about the how, it’s that we take advantage of the opportunity to be together, whatever that looks like, we can reclaim that and be the Sabbath.”
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos, or measurable, sequential time, and kairos, a more abstract period of time in which something significant happens.
“Over the last few decades, we have slowly and steadily lost our concept of sacred time,” the Rev. Demetrios Tonias, dean of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of New England. “The temporal creeps in and cuts us off from the eternal.”
Tonias, who has four children, is all too familiar with how difficult it can be to move a modern family from chronos to kairos on Sunday mornings, with school and sports activities competing for attention. Sometimes, his wife stays in the suburbs with the kids and attends a local church so she can shuttle a child to an activity. Altar boys sometimes rush in from early morning football practice, shedding shoulder pads and wiping off eye black before pulling on their robes.
“God bless them,” he said with a rueful chuckle. “That’s dedication.”
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Beneficia lucis chanted during the conference.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com
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