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Holy Leisure

Ordinary Sunday 16, 23 July, 2006
Philip Bewley, Pastoral Worker & Stipendiary Lay Minister,
St Peter's, Eastern Hill

In today's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to do something. He says to them, "You must come away to some deserted place all by yourselves, and rest for awhile." In other words, Jesus tells them to take a break – to devote some time to, "being", rather than, "doing".

Now I can't help thinking that these words ring true for all of us. Doesn't our Lord ask us, from time to time, to come away and take a rest? Yet often we ignore this call. And I am just as guilty here as anyone else. I am not good at finding time to be just "me". Unless my days are filled with a myriad of activities, I tend to feel rather useless. I need always to be doing something – to justify my existence. And rest seems the lazy option.

And yet, the Lord has very good reasons for inviting his disciples to rest. They have just returned from a mission – one in which Jesus had sent them out in pairs. They were not to hamper themselves with anything, but were to simply trust local hospitality to meet their needs. They were advised not to linger where they were not wanted. Instead, they were to be on the move, calling people to repentance, casting out demons, and anointing the sick. It was work they had never done before, and once they had returned, they were no doubt totally exhausted.

How often do we, in our work, whatever that may be, find ourselves exhausted. And yet we don't rest. We feel guilty if we even "think" to do so. We have this habit of pushing ourselves, in a way that we would never push others. We may lead a very productive life, and our work may be important and beneficial to many people, but deep down we may recognize that something is wrong – that something is missing.

We heard today how the disciples had returned from their travels, but the pace of life had not slackened. "There were so many coming and going, that the apostles had no time even to eat." "No time to even eat." Does this sound familiar? Is your workplace like that? Is your home like that? I'm afraid this is the common experience of many people in our modern world. There is much coming and going, and no time to even eat!

On their return, Jesus listened to the disciples, as they report to him, all they had done and taught. But note, he doesn't tell them to turn around and immediately go back into action again. He doesn't ask them to do the impossible. Instead, he asks them to simply come away and rest.

The early Desert Monastics, those monks who lived in solitude in the Egyptian desert, considered this problem as well. They asked themselves the same questions of today. Was all of life to be hard work? Was all of life designed to exhaust the body in order to save the soul? Was all of life meant to be spent giving too much of one self? These Desert monks asked these questions over 1,600 years ago, so we find there is nothing new under the sun.

In answer to these questions, we have the story of a Desert Father, Abba Anthony:

One day, a hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren, and he was shocked by what he saw. "What kind of spiritual guide is this?" the hunter asked himself.

But the old monk sensing the hunter's disapproval said to him, "Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it." So the hunter did as he was asked. Then the old man said, "Now shoot another." And the hunter did. Then the elder said, "Shoot your bow again." And he continued, "Now, shoot another, and another, and another." And the hunter finally said, "But if I bend my bow so much, I will break it."

Then Abba Anthony said to him, "It is just the same with the work of God. If we stretch ourselves beyond measure, we will break – so sometimes, it is necessary to meet other needs." When the hunter heard these words, he was struck with remorse for his lack of insight. Greatly edified by Abba Anthony, the hunter went away, a much wiser man. As for the monastics who were with the old monk, they went home much strengthened too.

Leisure, in other words, is an essential part of our Christian spirituality. It is not laziness – it is not selfishness – and it is not an optional extra. Leisure has something to do with depth and breath, length, and quality of life. Our busyness – our work – must not exist in a vacuum. No one dimension of life should be exclusive at the expense of another.

Jesus today invites us to rest, yet we treat "rest" as a four-letter word. If people are resting and enjoying themselves, modern society has made us into people who tend to be suspicious of them. If "we" are resting, God forbid, we become even suspicious of ourselves. There is always more to do – further ways to justify our existence. But, in the face of this, the Lord smiles at us and says, "come away and rest."

Most of us are able to resite the pattern of our daily work – those things we do, day in, day out, week after week. But I wonder whether we are able to say the same thing about our times of rest. Do we have patterns established – patterns that ensure we have time for rest by ourselves? Or is "rest" just some distant desire or dream?

Perhaps we are one of those guilty persons who lack such patterns of rest, but we can always take steps to build some into our lives. We can gradually incorporate rhythms of rest and solitude, to balance out our busy rhythms that pulsate strongly. It can be done.

A lot of us try to function without the rest factor. But today's gospel calls us to include some "holy leisure" in our lives. When we factor in some rest – some Sabbath time so to speak – we may find we aren't working as much as before – but what we do find, is that when we do work – what we do becomes more significant – it becomes more meaningful – much more meaningful than when we were always on the go.

"Holy leisure" is part of our spiritual tradition. It makes the human more human – by engaging the heart – by broadening the vision – by deepening the insight – and, by stretching the soul. In other words, "holy leisure" exists for the pursuit of "holy things."


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