Lewis Shuts Down

By David Kessler

In this Installment: National Stillness.  A Traditional Island.  Nec Tamen Consumabatur.  Eavesdropping at the Free Church.  Exit, Stage Right!  Jerusalem and Stornoway, Sister Cities.  Havdalah on the Ferry

"He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce ...he must go away from the screech of dissonant days"   (A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath)

Peace and quiet is a national holiday in Israel, known as the Sabbath.  To be sure, large segments of the population do not observe "Shabbat" (to use the Hebrew pronunciation), but everyone is aware of it, and understands that certain things will be different for those 25 hours of holiday.  In most cities, bus service stops, many commercial stores close, and life becomes a little quieter.  In some areas, all commercial activity stops on Shabbat, and no one drives cars, listens to TVs or radios, or uses any electrical equipment.  As a result, the constant background hum and buzz that all these electric and motorized gadgets combine to make for 6 days of the week, disappears, leaving a peacefulness that can be distracting or even unsettling at first.  In the year I lived in Israel, I came to associate the power of Shabbat with this stillness and peace more than anything else.  I would walk down the middle of the street confidant that, in the stillness of the day, I would easily hear any approaching car long before I was in any danger.  I have always had very sensitive ears, and value the lack of "noise" - that muddiness that comes from too many indistinct noises blending together at any volume - even more than I do the presence of music.  At the end of Shabbat is a ceremony called Havdalah, marking the transition from the sacred seventh day to the other six.

When I traveled to The Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Hebrides this past summer, I planned to return to the mainland on the Saturday ferry.  Lewis is a very traditional place that shuts down on Sundays for the Sabbath - ferry service included - and I had been warned how sleepy the place was even during the week.  I didn't want to be stranded there with nothing to do and nowhere to get a meal.  I ended up throwing away these plans when, the night before I was scheduled to depart, I met Roddy and was invited to stick around and go surfing.  I spent Saturday with him and several others, learning to surf (and getting tossed and tumbled in the waves) at Europie beach, at the northern tip of the island.  I might have gone again on Sunday had a miscommunication not left me behind in my hostel.

The day was bright, sunny, and reasonably warm so after washing some clothes and hanging them up to dry (I would discover that evening how silly this was; nothing dries on Lewis) I went out to do some exploring on my last full day on the Island.  Mr. & Mrs. Hill had recommended that I attend a church service if I were on the Island on a Sunday, and their description of the singing and general warmth of the Free Church of Scotland's services appealed to me.  But it was almost 11:40am and Church services had begun at 11.

I walked out into the perfect weather and the perfect quiet of the morning, and headed for the Free Church with English services (perhaps on my next trip I'll go to a Gaelic service).  It was only a few minutes away and I enjoyed the walk.  When I arrived, I walked up the driveway to the building and explored its outside a little; the doors were all large, wooden and closed, and I wanted to determine where each was, in relation to the congregation.  I imagined opening a loudly creaking door placed right alongside the pulpit and diverting all attention to myself at some significant moment in the service.

I found no doors that I felt comfortable opening and might have simply chosen to use the one farthest from the preacher, but there was that open window next to the pulpit and under the eaves of the roof.  I stood under the window and listened to the sermon that was just under way.  I could hear easily, and was very comfortable standing in the sunshine with the birds chirping around me.  I pulled out my memo pad and sketched the symbol on the church's sign (an odd looking tree which turned out not be a tree at all, but the burning bush - the symbol of many Presbyterian churches), and its encircling motto: Nec Tamen Consumebatur ("And Yet Not Consumed").  I listened, sketched, and jotted a few notes.

"Examine yourselves that you live what you profess!"  The preacher said, and he warned us not to be like King Saul after fighting the Amelekites: Saul had been commanded to not merely defeat and kill the Amelekites, but to destroy their possessions and livestock as well.  Saul did defeat them, but had spared their king and saved several of their sheep for himself as spoils of the battle.  The prophet Samuel confronted Saul with this rebellion against G-d's commands and Saul claimed that the sheep had been saved to be burnt in sacrifice.  When Saul disobeyed and then lied about it, the preacher said, "he wasn't in fellowship, but in darkness".  Samson, the preacher continued, believed that his faith and devotion were so strong that he could indulge his passions.  But this was self-deception.  Samson later repented, and "died beautifully".

We deceive others, ourselves, and we try to deceive G-d.  His third example was Judas, who "pretended to be a disciple but gave a kiss of traitorship."  His voice changed just slightly, his pace slowed in emphasis, and I imagined I could hear him leaning forward with his arms grasping the front corners of the pulpit: "My friends be careful... when you live like that, do you know what happens?  The Lord G-d has no authority over you."

He paused briefly then and offered us an alternative: To confess is to agree with G-d; to say the same thing that He says - that you are a sinner.  Say it without deception.  Call your sin what it is - lust, hatred, idolatry - and G-d gains power over it to lift it up and carry it away from you!  G-d is faithful and does not deceive; Any and every time you confess to him he will forgive.  You may consider your sin great, but He can take "any sin, any mess, and make something beautiful of it."  For example, he commanded Solomon to build the temple on the very spot where King David truly confessed after bringing down a plague with his pride.  With these stern warnings and redemptive images coloring the air around us, he adjured, "May you learn better to confess."  He then let his voice resume a more normal speaking timber, and announced that the service would conclude with Psalm 130.

"O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption."

They sang simply and without harmony, and while the rafters did not shake it was clear that the entire room was taking part in the tune.

I listened and enjoyed this effect, still standing under the window at the side of the church.  That's when I noticed that the acoustics were changing somewhat.  Then, maybe midway through the psalm, I heard footsteps behind a door to my left.  In an instant I realized that the entire congregation was about to parade, singing, out that door and that I shouldn't be doing my best Tom Sawyer impression for them when that happened.  There was a van parked nearby and a line of 3 cars next to it in the driveway.  I quickly got to the other side of the van, rounding its corner just as the doors were opened wide.  I walked down the driveway and into the street as quickly as I could while using a normal looking pace.  The congregation was slowed down somewhat as they each shook the hand of the man at the door and by the time the first ones reached the street I was a full 100 feet ahead of them.

Two short blocks later I reached the centre of town and stopped.  Most of the congregation was coming along the same route and I wanted to enjoy the sight of all those sons and daughters of Lewis in their Sunday best.  The older men all wore suits, the younger men all wore jackets, and the women all wore hats to compliment their dresses and skirts!

I sat on a bench there and looked all around me.  The CalMac ferry was tied securely at the dock and not going anywhere.  The busses were quietly lined up at the main station like horses standing idle and satisfied in a field.  No engines or winches were churning along the waterside, No shops were open, and no one was rushing about.  No fishing boats were unloading their catch, so even the seagulls were calm and quiet.  There was myself, 3 old men relaxing and talking by another bench, and the procession of locals coming into the square and then breaking off in different directions.  With none of the weekday noises and distractions, the only sounds outside my head were those of the wind and waves; the only sounds inside my head those of the preacher's sermon.  The effect was one of a wonderfully relaxed concentration - probably just what the rabbis had in mind when they began shaping the communal observance of Shabbat.  In Stornoway, as in Jerusalem, this is still understood.

I soaked in the effect and took as much of its benefits as I could.  I introduced myself to some of the men relaxing near me, had a good conversation with one who was retired from 30 years in the merchant navy, and then went off to explore the local castle and its grounds.

Returning to the hostel that evening after dark, I found they had saved me plenty of Collie's delicious supper.  They were worried that I would go hungry without it since nothing else was open.  We ate and compared the day's stories as we watched the EuroCup finals.

I got up early the next morning and headed for the docks and the 7:30 ferry.  I should have been charged a few extra pounds for my ticket, since I had stayed beyond the duration of my 5-day ticket, but when I said "oops" and told the man at the counter what a great time I had staying those extra 2 days, he stopped me from getting my wallet out, smiled, and pointed me up the gangway.  On board, I noticed that the newsstand only had Saturday's paper for sale.  This brought me back to Sunday's wonderful calm; for one whole day, nothing had changed on the island.

The ferry cast off its lines and headed out.  As we reached the outer harbor we entered a pure white fog bank that was exactly the height of the boat.  It stayed with us for almost an hour leaving us no visibility at eye level, but a perfectly blue and unobstructed sky above.  The glare was harsh, so I put on my sunglasses and was amazed; the bright sun hitting our tailored fog bank created a perfect 180 rainbow that was so pale I hadn't even realized it was there.  I stood on the aft deck and watched this secret tag along behind us for a while, before wishing the island well, and going below to read a little and make the transition from island to mainland, and from weekend to the week ahead.

"The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all.  It is not a date but an atmosphere."  (A.J. Heschel, the Sabbath)

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