Despite the sadness of the last few posts, I’m hoping that when I blog here, however sporadically, it will be about the joyful side of faith and journey to renewal and belief. That said, it hit me kind of hard to hear that Oliver Sacks, internationally renowned neurologist and author passed away this morning. More than his books or the films based on his life, it was his op-ed in the New York Times last week that made me feel part of the poignant journey he was going through as he chronicled his journey toward death.
In his essay, Sacks revealed details about his childhood including the fact that his mother was one of 18 siblings and that both of his parents had Orthodox Jewish upbringings. He also discussed his own Orthodox childhood, the specter of the Holocaust, keeping of the Sabbath (or Shabbos as he called it, as did my family) and his painful alienation from both his mother and his faith. The details of his life differ drastically from my own, yet the similarities and nostalgia sometimes overlap.
As a cancer survivor, I had my own copious crises of faith over the years. Yet the notion of Shabat, or Sabbath or Shabbos as a day of rest, mostly shut off from the external world was always something that I came back to, albeit not with the same stringencies I was raised with. I wrote about it in Ancient Prayer and have been more forthcoming to friends and colleagues about my need to cocoon and recharge for at least one day each hectic week.
I wept as I reread the last paragraph of Sacks’s essay:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
Maybe it’s because it’s so close to the passing of my own beloved father, himself a concentration camp survivor, and because the memories of my childhood sabbaths are always so strong. Or maybe it’s because I, too, knew the terror of cancer and the desperate craving for reprieve from the monster within. Or maybe it’s because like most people of faith, I struggle mightily with what I do or do not believe in high contrast to what I was raised with. Whatever the reasons, Sacks’s last months and death hit me deep.
I am certain that he is at peace now, and I hope someplace he will find his own version Sabbath and final time of rest.