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  • Daniel G Opperwall

The Forgotten Discipline of Rest

(George Cole, Harvesters at Rest)

God is a God of action, of work, of doing. In the story of Genesis, God spends the vast majority of the seven days of creation on active labour. One is invited to imagine God creating each and every physical thing in the universe, the immense bodies of sun and moon and stars and the magnificent construction of the firmament, but also every tiny detail, each animal and plant in all their uniqueness, the fish and the animals of the land, and the human beings Adam and Eve. The effort of these tasks is beyond our imagination--so much work is involved that we quite literally cannot comprehend it.

And then, of course, quite famously, God rests for one seventh of the process of creation--one out of seven days. God's days are not earth days, as Tradition has clearly taught from the beginning, but the point remains a crucial one; God is not active all the time. The people of God, from the earliest times, sought to emulate our creator by cordoning off one earth day out of seven as a space of rest, doing no work at all, for in Genesis God bore witness to this essential part of His nature.

Religions of the law are forever disastrous because they codify insights into rules, and in so doing the purity of the insight is lost. As Judaism progressed into the time of the Lord, the principle of the Sabbath had become a principle of pure law, so woodenly observed that even good and blessed things could no longer be done on that day, and so its beauty was lost to many. The Lord makes this point clearly Himself by healing on the Sabbath, and then arguing with the Pharisees who have become so focused on the law that they cannot even allow for such perfect expressions of God's love to be performed on a Saturday. Such an attitude toward the Law makes a nonsense of its intention, as the Lord so clearly teaches. The Sabbath is a day for the beauty of rest, and thus it is a day for all true beauty; Pharsaical law deformed this realization and had to be corrected.

Yet, I do not think it was ever the Lord's intent that we should lose the discipline of rest completely. As He Himself says, not a jot or tittle ought to be taken from the word of the Law. His meaning, I think, is that not one single core spiritual insight of the Law is overturned in His coming. We are thus meant to continue to make rest an essential part of our lives, and one of our most significant religious disciplines.

In my many years of being Orthodox, I have only very rarely heard anyone discuss rest as a part of spiritual life. There is much business, indeed much work, in our Christian lives, and there should be. We, as creatures made in God's image, are made to be active the vast majority of the time--six sevenths of our waking hours on the calculation of Genesis. As religious creatures, this means that most of our spiritual disciplines are indeed active. We pray, for one thing, typically in active ways that involve set prayer rules and the like. We fast, actively denying ourselves certain foods. We attend services, highly active affairs, and create the liturgy--literally meaning the “work” of the people. We prepare for feasts, cooking delicious foods, decorating, and then enjoying the celebration. This is as it should be--the thrust of religious life is active.

Our less explicitly religious activities are also mostly active in nature. We work, raise families, clean houses, and so forth, all to the glory of God. When we have some down time, we read, write some e-mails, talk with one another, maybe watch some TV (not that I recommend it). We stay active, even if less so. Once again, we should expect this--we are not meant to be idle creatures very often.

And yet, in all the shuffle, and in the Lord's relieving us of the letter of the Law, we seem to have forgotten entirely about rest--real rest--as a spiritual discipline. By rest here I mean spending conscious time, while awake, to do absolutely nothing at all except focus on rest. I mean sitting down and kicking up our feet, then, rather than opening a good book (including scripture) or even praying quietly, simply setting our minds on the process of being and becoming idle and simple in the act of rest. Thoughts must be silenced, for thinking is not rest. Plans must not be made, we must fight the urge to meditate on what we are going to do next, after rest is done. Idle fidgeting, simple activity, all of it must be stopped, though a cup of tea might be fair enough if it does not draw us to think about the tea itself. We must try to avoid thinking about how long we plan to rest; setting a timer and then forgetting about it might be helpful if we are truly on a schedule. Silence, mental stillness, bodily stillness--these are the markers of true rest.

A few months ago, I decided to start trying to do less on Saturday. For many of us, Saturday is our only day to get certain things done around the house, to visit friends, to have family activities. Those are good things, and as we are not Pharisees, we are not banned from doing them on the Sabbath. Yet, there is something disordered about spending the entire Sabbath day on these enterprises. Given how rare it is to have real rest on any other day of the week, including Sunday in which church likely takes up a large chunk of our time, wasting an entire Saturday on constant activity tends to leave us with no time at all for real rest during the week.

When I decided to set aside a little time on Saturdays to do nothing at all, I noticed a palpable change within myself. At the start, the experience was very difficult. So accustomed had I become to constant activity, that even five minutes of sitting quietly filled me with an agonizing sense of acedia--the desire to get up and do something, anything at all. I felt that I should be working, reading, playing with the kids, napping (if nothing else!), or at the very least praying. Activity, and perhaps sleep, was all I had come to know, and the patterns of my mind demanded it. “No moment can be just wasted like this!” something inside me screamed, “there is so much to get done!”

Yet, the discipline of rest is precisely to refuse such thoughts, to turn them aside, to reject them. I forced myself to talk back to these thoughts. “No,” I began to say, “there are times for those things. What is required of me in this moment, as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, is to do nothing--absolutely nothing at all, and to turn my conscious mind to the fact that this is my current discipline; in this, I act in the likeness of the God who did precisely the same on the seventh day.” No nap, no prayer, no books--rest and rest alone, consciously recognized, is what we are called to make a part of our lives.

I am still not very good at resting on Saturdays. They are as busy for my family as for any other, and that will not fundamentally change. Indeed, I am writing this very essay on a Saturday after a few moments of true rest, moments in which my mind began demanding that I write down my thoughts to share them. I sit here, typing away and ruining my own Sabbath just a little--hopefully for the greater good of sharing it with others. I will need, however, to set down this keyboard in a few moments and return to my rest. Acedia is a difficult demon to conquer.

Yet, in introducing some amount of rest--however small--into my spiritual discipline, the results have been astonishing. Peace and emotional regulation become vastly easier. Humility flows as one realizes that no matter how hard we work, there is always something more we could do, and that by resting we bear witness to the fact that the world keeps turning without us all on its own. Patience bubbles forward; a rested father with a clear head can spend his time with his children so much more richly, and embrace his wife with forgiveness and tenderness far more easily. The cloying thoughts that say “you could pray more, you could worship more, you could do more at the parish,” must be silenced, and thus spiritual vainglory is given a kick and told to shut up, for in this space I do not even pray; once again, the world turns even without my prayers for these moments (though it will certainly need them later). This rest, the harshest and most difficult of my spiritual disciplines, is also the most nourishing and refreshing. Man is a creature mostly of activity, but, like God, he is utterly incomplete without genuine rest.

Perhaps you are precluded from using Saturdays for this purpose. Perhaps you have to work at your job or studies each weekend, or some other good reason gets in the way. In the evening you will hopefully go off to vespers and thus your religious work of Sunday will begin. Perhaps there is little time before this to rest. If so, then you must find another time and place each week to truly rest--a regular time demarcated for the purpose at the same intervals each week. That is well, the Sabbath invites a reminder to rest, but the point is the rest itself not the day of the week. Yet, whenever you do it, rest you must--and truly rest you must. To sit, to do nothing, to be. Without this, we are not complete servants of the Lord; without this, we reject a critical piece of the image within us of the God who does not forget to rest.

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