I was somewhat delayed in my ability to read and review Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath because my wife scooped it up and began reading it almost as soon as I had brought it home (Lisa offered her thoughts and reactions here). We both were attracted to the book’s design and its subject.
I have long been a fan of short well designed books. They lack the intimidation of larger tomes and invite you to pick them up and take them with you. What fun to always have something to read. Mudhouse Sabbath certainly has this vibe, with its compact design and a picture of a diner/cafe table setting on the cover. The title is also intriguing; short but thought provoking and question raising.
But the thought provoking aspect goes beyond just its design and title and into the writing. Winner writes with a laid back and conversational style, but she raises issues that are worth thinking about. The focus is on what we can, and should, do to help us focus on our spiritual lives; to think about something bigger than mundane chores and tasks. In a world whose frantic pace, and often soul deadening culture, make spiritual contemplation a challenge this is an important project.
In her first book, Girl Meets God, Winner describe her search for meaning growing up the daughter of a lapsed Baptist mother and secular Jewish father. In the convoluted process of seeking out this meaning she passed from attending a liberal synagogue to Orthodox Judaism to Anglican Christianity.
In Mudhouse she attempts to bring the wisdom and insight of the Jewish traditions and liturgical practices that she grew to love into her newfound Christian faith. In eleven short chapters she touches on issues ranging from food, body, and aging to the Sabbath, mourning, and weddings. Each chapter title includes a Hebrew word that captures the tradition or principle being discussed. And in each chapter Winner weaves in personal reflections with insights into how they bring a different, and useful, perspective to the issue.
In the first chapter for example, she contrasts the relaxing but still rather typical day Sunday that she – and most Christians – experience with the truly “set-apart” nature of Jewish practice. She misses the unique and focused nature of the Jewish Shabbat; the rush and excitement of preparation and then the peace and rest that follows. Winner notes that there seems to be a mini-revival of what might be called a secular sabbath: an emphasis on taking a day off and pampering yourself. But she notes that the focus of such a day of rest is selfish whereas the Sabbath is meant to honor God. Winner then turns to her own personal goals to better honor the sabbath: she joined a Bible study that meets on Sunday afternoon; tries to have a leisurely lunch with friends; and has given up shopping on Sunday. The point is to set up the day in such a way as to better focus on spiritual things; to truly honor the Sabbath and make it holy.
These mini-essays might seem rather shallow and flippant to some, but they are mean to suggest and intrigue not supply easy answers. The point of a short work like this is to jump start your thinking; to give you a different perspective. If you want to learn more about a given subject you can always go deeper. What Winner supplies is just a potentially new way to think about the physical side of your life and its relationship to your spiritual growth.
As Lisa noted in her discussion, liturgy and tradition can be a tricky issue within protestant Christianity. Some non-denominational churches seem to avoid any and all sense of liturgy while others find the route liturgy of mainline churches dull and repetitious. And of course their is the old accusation that Catholic and other orthodox church symbolism amounts to idol worship. But I think Winner captures the role of liturgy and tradition perfectly:
Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians. (There is an etymological clue here – discipline is related to the word disciple.) The ancient disciplines form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith.
The fact is that we are impacted by our habits and physical traditions and seeking out ways to shape your spiritual life through discipline and practice is just another part of seeking out God.
Mudhouse Sabbath is an engaging and enjoyable book. Its conversational and approachable style belies the deeper issues it contains. It might not change your life but I bet it will open your mind to new ideas. If you haven’t thought about the way tradition, liturgy, and spiritual disciplines can impact your life I encourage you to seek out this book and give it a read.