Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Proper 11 B – Sunday, July 22, 2012
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
O God, you rested on the seventh day and are still at work; in the course of this busy lifeIn the Customal of the Order of the Holy Cross we read: “Provision shall be made for an annual retreat of ten days and for monthly retreats, and these times must be carefully guarded against interruptions and distractions.” We also read: “Provision shall be made that each member of the Order may have an annual vacation of at least two weeks.”
give us times of refreshment and peace, and grant that we may so use our leisure to
rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness
of your creation. Amen.A Traveler's Prayer Book, p. 114
I think we need to begin with the simple acknowledgment that St. Benedict, our great monastic legislator, would have been either deeply puzzled or frankly appalled at such suggestions. Benedictines have made much of the virtues of a balanced life, a life lived within the monastery in such a way that all needs—spiritual, psychological, social—are met. A life lived in such a way that there would be no need for special periods of
“retreat” or so-called vacations, that is, times away from the monastery or the monastic round, a concept that St. Benedict thought deeply dangerous to a monk’s spiritual life.
But in this, I think, we need also to acknowledge that Benedict, at least insofar as we can gather from his Rule, and Benedictines who are literalists when it comes to the Rule, simply have it wrong. At least for us. At least now. How often the monastic rhythm needs to be broken, and for how long, and where and how we spend our “free” time or time away are surely matters of debate and discernment, but that such breaks and such times are necessary seems beyond question.
Even Jesus seems to get this point. In today's Gospel the disciples return to Jesus after some very successful and exciting missionary journeys where they cast out demons and cured the sick. They excitedly report to Jesus what they had accomplished. And Jesus' response? “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Or as Eugene Peterson's The Message has it: “Let's take a break and get a little rest.” For as Scripture tells us: “...many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
The whole question of “leisure” is a very loaded one for us, and “time away” or “time off” or whatever is the equivalent for you, is very complicated and profoundly culturally layered. Consider all the different words we associate with leisure: holiday, holy day, vacation, feast, sabbath, sabbatical, day off, down time, weekend, long weekend, leisure industry, leisure travel, even leisure suit...which I considered wearing as I preached this
homily, but couldn't find one in lime green.
Surprisingly, Christian monasticism has a long tradition of speaking of “holy leisure.” And even Benedict’s Rule, though it makes absolutely no provision for retreats or vacations or days off, shapes a way of life that is regularly punctuated by the differing rhythms of the calendar and of liturgical and agricultural seasons, of Sundays and Holy Days, feasts and fasts. In a “world lit only by fire,” life in a medieval monastery in
December was very different from life in that same monastery in March or August. That is something most, if not all, of us will never again know at first hand. And add to this the opportunity for regular local fairs or market days, guests, pilgrims and crusaders, wars (which God forbid!) and the growth of towns around the always permeable boundaries of monastic enclosures, and you have a pretty rich and diverse menu of activity and rest, and of varying human experiences and encounters.
But what about us? What does leisure look like for us? What do we expect of it? How do we go about it? What do we want, say, out of a vacation? A retreat? A pilgrimage? A sabbatical? Time away? Time out? Time off?
These are often difficult questions to address, both personally and communally, because we now live in a society that values, indeed over values, busyness. Consider this from a recent edition of the New York Times Opinionator column as summarized in the latest Christian Century:
When you ask people how they’re doing these days, a stock response is “crazy busy.” That’s “a boast disguised as a complaint,” says blogger Tim Kreider. It is not the complaint of a person who has to work three jobs to make ends meet. Their response would likely be, “I’m tired.” Busyness for professional people is often self-imposed to inflate a sense of self-worth. Kreider wonders whether keeping busy is a cover-up for the fact that much of what we do doesn’t matter. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” Kreider says.There is of course truth in what St. Benedict recognized in his Rule, that “idleness is the enemy of the soul.” But it is at best a partial truth. There is the enforced idleness that comes from illness or disability, from unemployment or imprisonment, which can indeed be soul destroying. And there is the idleness that comes from a kind of spiritual malaise or laziness—the famous acedia of the Desert Fathers—wherein one chooses to not see what needs to be done or, having seen it, decides to not act at all, a kind of laziness or torpor or selfishness or downright greed with regard to our time and energy and gifts.
But there is another kind of idleness that is, as Mr. Kreider says, “as indispensable to the brain [and the soul] as Vitamin D is to the body” And that is the kind of idleness to which I believe Jesus is inviting his disciples and us in today’s Gospel. It is the idleness that comes after a busy day, after work well done. The idleness that comes after responding to real human needs and claims made upon us or after waiting patiently upon
God, even if nothing obvious has been asked of us except to wait patiently in hope. This kind of resting, of taking a break, of going on neutral or catching our breath, is really miscategorized as idleness. Perhaps it might be better termed openness or availability or just being. And as Abraham Heschel reminds us, just to be is a blessing.
A contemporary monk writing about “monastic leisure” says of that strange term:
Taking each moment of the day as a gift from God I think is something that everyone can do. It's not exactly rest, but it's not rushing around trying to get too much done either. Monastic leisure is, perhaps, an attitude which is transformed into an action. Monastic leisure is a “calm approach” toward the responsibilities and challenges of each day. We do what needs to be done at the time it needs to be done and try not to worry about what needs to be done next.How wonderful! And if only we could all live that way every day, all the time, we would probably never need annual retreats or days off or vacations of at least two weeks.
But alas, few of us have mastered that fine art of living. So off we go in search of the right place, the right time, the right director, the right people (friends, strangers, family, ourselves), the right activity or inactivity in which and at which and with whom to spend our precious leisure time. Jesus understands. Maybe Jesus even approves. But let's remember that for us, the getting away is not an escape...at least not primarily. It is, rather, our project to come home to ourselves more fully and permanently so that wherever we are—at work, in church, in the office, at the beach, in the monastery, in the kitchen or the supermarket—we can live more comfortably in our own skin and thus be more fully God's and more fully present to our neighbors and our world. This is the happy and desired outcome of “holy leisure,” though few of us think about it or plan for it explicitly. Maybe we should.
Like the disciples in today's Gospel, we all need to come away from time to time and rest awhile. I know I do. My guess is that you do as well.
So... how was your weekend? What are you going to do (or not do) on your day off? And where are you going on your summer vacation? However you answer these questions, remember that the Lord goes with you. That the Lord is with you.