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Time to recalibrate?

by
02 October 2020

The past six months have taught Laurie Vere the value of sabbath rest

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CALLERS to Radio 4’s You and Yours on 7 January were able to talk to Winifred Robinson and her guest, Claudia Hammond, the regular presenter of another programme, All in the Mind. The subject was “Rest”: something that Ms Hammond had been exploring on her own programme for a few weeks. She had an inkling that rest was an important constituent of human well-being.

The top ten activities that people listed as rest surprised her: running was one. At the top of the list was reading; and Ms Hammond’s own favourite is gardening — something that some would consider very strenuous work indeed. There did not seem to be a common link between them, although solitude and physical activity were often part of the recipe.

The shadow side to her exploration was that lots of people reported that they could not, or would not, rest, which had far-reaching results in their lives. It often takes a serious illness or trauma to teach people the value and purpose of rest.

I am reminded of Reginald Somerset Ward, who was spiritual director to many, among them Michael Ramsey, Eric Abbott, and Evelyn Underhill. Those he directed had to commit themselves to a rule that strictly stipulated their daily maximum working hours and minimum sleeping hours.

 

THE pandemic has given me the unforeseen luxury of trying out his regime — and discovering that it works. Work is better. Health is better. Prayer is better. Forward progress is generally straighter. Ward learned this truth the hard way, after suffering a breakdown in 1918, a couple of years before he formed his rule of “The Road” to develop the spiritual life.

It is, I have come to realise, a spiritual issue as much as anything else. Genesis presents us with an account of creation which has blessing and rest as its apotheosis. Human beings, made in the image of God, may find themselves estranged in a world of unrelenting toil for survival, but there is a promise of restoration. That restoration is not merely the cessation of toil, but a cessation (shabbat) that defines the people of God.

Perhaps it’s surprising that this willingness to rest rather than any moral value or tribal symbol which becomes the Deuteronomists’ touchstone of belonging to God. To keep the sabbath holy is to participate with God and others in a weekly break from toil. There is time to renew human relationships and to try out living at one with God.

How did this extraordinary gift come to be sold as a punishment inflicted by the religious who begrudge the happy world its Sunday shopping?

 

EVERY day, Morning Prayer offers us in the invitatory psalm the possibility of hearing God’s voice this day if our hearts are not hardened — another extraordinary invitation. The opening of the self, with the concomitant detachment from one’s own agenda, is contrasted with the unbelief and hardness of heart of the Israelites in the wilderness, “unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest”.

Well, how could they enter into any sort of rest? God’s wrath is really not the issue. The issue was that the Israelites struggled to trust God for their needs, and so could not rest.

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And us? Constantly anxious, scheming, claiming self-reliance in an uncertain world, many of us are automatically discounting any possibility of rest, on any level. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stead on thee: because he trusted on thee. Trust ye in the Lord forever, for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength,” says Isaiah to his anxious contemporaries (26.3-4).

It is the worst fate that Mary can imagine for the proud: being scattered in the imagination of their hearts, which we note in the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. Both Offices end with collects claiming the peace and rest promised to God’s people, so that we can serve effectively.

To be unable to rest, I recognise for myself, is not about coping with God’s giving me too much to do, but my attending to things beyond my own to-do list. I’m unwilling to accept my limitations, being greedy for life (and thereby wearing it very thin), catching contagious fear and guilt from others.

The writer to the Hebrews suggests a different fear for those who are on nodding terms with God: “Let us therefore fear; lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached as well as unto them; but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it, for we which have believed do enter into his rest.”

 

AN observation by St Augustine — “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they have found their rest in you” — is a truth that George Herbert, that clever, ambitious, and frustrated man, had to discover painfully, through illness and indecision in his own life.

His poem “The Pulley” speaks of this restlessness as a gift from God, withheld until the last because it is the saving lack, the spur, to seek heaven for the otherwise complacent and well-heeled. But in “Love III” and other poems, God offers utter peace and rest to the seeking and troubled, guilty, angry, resentful soul in this life. The rest comes as a shock, a surprise, an encounter that changes everything.

These experiences eventually brought an unhappy, discontented, and physically delicate courtier to unexpected stabilitas in a country parsonage, albeit for three short years.

For all the secular, medical background to Ms Hammond’s discussion, clear spiritual paths emerged, if not expressed in spiritual language. One caller said that he had heard that there were large public buildings in Russia where people were allowed to go and sleep. The presenter avoided a reference to churches; and we also still have libraries — the lucky ones — that offer the same respite.

istock A shabbat loaf of challah bread and a bottle of red kosher wine

I know of many people who avoid church services, but who regularly and devotedly clean the brass, arrange flowers, or just sit in any church that is still open, and so find rest for their souls.

The point is that rest is not just doing nothing. Hammond referred to an experiment in which volunteers, subjected to absolute stillness, began to give themselves quite painful electric shocks just to alleviate the tedium.

People who say that they worry that heaven might be boring need not worry: the offer of our final rest could be an invitation into an amazingly creative existence. St Thérèse of Lisieux had an ambitious to-do list: “When I die, I will send down a shower of roses from the heavens. I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth.”

 

I BEGAN to ponder the riddle of rest and unceasing work before the coronavirus sent many people into overwork (government ministers never failed to tell us that their teams were working “around the clock”), and others into unforeseen solitude and quite unlooked-for rest.

I am among the latter, and, even after six months, I am still learning.

What I have learned is that rest, or shalom, or shabbat, is really about that deepest spiritual issue: self-surrender. That is why running can be experienced as restful: it is a complete surrender of the body to its action. Reading, similarly, is the complete surrendering of one’s mind and imagination to the book.

It is perfectly possible — I know — to do any kind of leisure activity with a divided and buzzing mind. That is why, whatever you do with mind or body, it is the wholehearted surrender to it that guarantees rest for your souls.

It could be argued, with some accuracy, that the closure of churches was God’s response to the busy work of churchgoing and the grumbling of his people about it. Despite my reservations, I’m tempted to give a cautious credit to God for stopping so much barmy Christian behaviour, just as he grounded planes and silenced the world for a while.

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The trouble is that this kind of theology must answer for so much collateral damage. It is generally unhelpful to speak of God’s “sending” us this or that. What the Bible unfolds is a vision of shared work and rest for everyone, in which everyone shares in the divine life. This is the salvation to which our lost souls — idle or frenetic — may still surrender themselves, by grace. The world where many people work silly hours and others are unemployed is something that human beings have created, perhaps as a means of avoiding the self-surrender that is rest.

The pandemic is still with us, and offers a chance to rethink and reassess what we do, why, and whether it’s good to do it — and how much work we are creating for others thereby. However long it lasts, though, I wonder whether it will last long enough for the Church and the world to recalibrate their values.

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