I don’t know about you, but it’s been a long and trying few months for me. There’s a lot going on in the world and the needs around us are more visible than ever. Because of this, there is a never-ending push to do more. It can often be overwhelming. Throughout my adult life, whenever I’ve become spiritually overwhelmed, I’ve thought wistfully about Jesus’ promise in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mt 11.28-30)
As much as this promise has always resonated deeply within my heart, its fulfillment has always felt out of reach. And, obviously, trying harder is a comically bad approach to finding rest. And so, this week, I decided to treat rest as a sacred practice. To paraphrase the immortal words of Yoda, “Rest or rest not. There is no try.”
In a lot of ways, Western culture is a cult of more. In a culture that values ‘success,’ few of us are immune to the pressures of being in shape, well-read, social, politically engaged, and on and on and on. Not only does our culture insist on an unattainable kind of perfection, but it also always moves the goal posts for what that perfection might look like. What Terry Patten says about our economy (which I cited last week) — “A growth economy based on constant material expansion eventually becomes incompatible with the health of a finite planet.” — applies equally to our lives: A lifestyle based on constant expansion of our productivity and filling of our schedules eventually becomes incompatible with the health of finite people. There are only so many hours of the day; and there is only so much we can cram into those hours before our bodies start to rebel.
In this context, it’s no wonder we’re in a crisis of exhaustion. According to a 2013 survey by Gallup, about 40% of Americans average fewer than seven hours of sleep per night — as compared to just 11% in 1942. And Americans in 2013 got on average over one hour less sleep than those in 1942. (Most of this change appears to have happened between 1942 and 1990; the numbers have stabilized since then.) Moreover, according to Macleans Magazine, over a quarter of working Canadians report calling in sick due to sleep deprivation and nearly two-thirds of Canadian adults say they feel tired “most of the time.”
And so, this week, in order to combat this cultural demand of more, I wanted to rest, not just as leisure, but as a sacred practice — to rest with the intention that it was not just an absence of work or busyness, but an active practice to cultivate and experience the divine presence.
What is it?
This is the simplest sacred practice I will likely ever try. It’s simply to rest, however that looks in your life. If you are a busy parent or have to work several jobs to make ends meet, it could be simply finding fifteen minutes to read; if you have more leisure in your life (like I do), it might be a bit more expansive. For me this week, the goal was to spend a half hour in bed every day after work with the intention of having a nap.
As far as sacred practices go, this one was obviously pretty easy. The only added wrinkle, which turned out to be a blessing, was that due to a series of unexpected circumstances, I ended up not attending any Holy Week services this year. (Scandalous, I know!) This made this week that is so often a push, unexpectedly spacious and restful.
I’ve had an interesting history with rest. I’ve always been a fairly low-energy person, and while I’ve found ways of using my energy efficiently so that I have a very productive life now, this wasn’t always the case. I used to be quite lazy. I would think nothing of spending a whole weekend on the couch in front of the television. While the changes I’ve made in recent years have been a boon to my happiness, productivity, and general wellbeing, I find I now have a hard time doing nothing. Even relaxed leisure time, such as reading, can be tinged with a sense of urgency, a neurotic need to get things done — something more to do, rather than an experience to be indulged and to luxuriate in. And so, this week, and just in life generally, I wanted to change my attitude towards leisure a bit, to reclaim my childhood self’s ability just to be.
I think the biggest thing I noticed this past week was that by claiming rest as a sacred practice I was able to experience it as an active presence of something rather than as an absence (of work or task). It reminded me of something I recently read by Julia Cameron (God is No Laughing Matter): “‘Rest’ is a musical term, a tiny breather built into the melodic structure, giving the beauty of the melody a little space to expand in consciousness.” I like this conception of rest a lot, of how it gives life to the everything around it. She continues: “If it takes discipline to work, it also takes discipline not to work, to allow the water level to rise until action becomes again the natural spilling forth of inner fullness.”
By treating rest as a sacred practice this week, I also found myself being intentional with how I was spending that time. It was a mindful rest rather than a mindless rest: I didn’t want to be spending it on my phone scrolling through social media or texting with my friends. I wanted to be free from the pull on my eyes and attention toward screens. In this way I noticed an unexpected connection between the kind of rest I was hoping to cultivate and meditation. While this connection was unexpected to me, it has clearly been noticed by others. Thich Nhat Hanh’s book entitled How to Relax is essentially a primer on meditation. He writes: “Mindful breathing is like a loving parent cradling a baby, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you; just rest.” And similarly, Julia Cameron finished her above cited chapter on rest by saying, “One of the reasons many of us avoid meditation is that we think of it as work — and work we may not do perfectly. What if we didn’t have to do it perfectly? What if we didn’t have to ‘do’ it at all? What if we could rest — and let God do the rest?”
The last thing I’d like to mention this week is that thinking about rest also made me think about activity and my motivation for doing what I do. It’s good to read; it’s good to stay informed. But like anything, these can be motivated by a negative attachment and can become compulsive if we’re not careful. And so this practice brought some perspective to how I use my time more generally. I found myself contemplating whether I was doing something because I wanted to, or whether out of a sense of lack or needing to prove myself to someone. Very helpful, if jarring, reflections.
So while this week of intentional rest didn’t provide any life-changing insights, it was helpful in making me think about the role of rest and work in my life and my attitudes towards them. And it left me with one big question I’m sure I’ll be pondering for some time: What if, after well, we can just rest, and let God do the rest?
Good food and helpful food for thought for me, and hopefully for you too.