Wednesday 10 July 2024

And on the seventh day…

Rest and relaxation are seen, sometimes, as the privilege of the well-off, or the care-free, or even the lazy. For those of us who have much to do, such a luxury as relaxation is just a far away dream we might attain to one day. But perhaps this is not the right way to view it.

In the Bible, from the very start, rest is built into the logic of the universe by virtue of the fact our creator rested on the seventh day — he did all his work, saw that it was very good and then rested. Paradise is portrayed here and there as a garden, a place of refreshment, and gardens are never enjoyed hurriedly. Some of the most evocative art portraying scenes from the scriptures show little moments — the woman at the well, rest on the flight into Egypt. And our Lord himself would frequently take time away in a quiet place to be by himself and pray to the Father. These are moments of retreat, but not retreat from any hardship or used as an avoidance tactic, but rather a retreat to the source, the place from where our strength comes and might be renewed again.

Many of the saints, too, found solace and renewal in a time of being away, in those desert moments, and in cloistered escapes. St Philip found his on the little loggia on the roof of the Fathers’ house, watching the birds darting around the Roman rooftops, or out in the cool quiet of the catacombs. He also found his recreation in the picnics and walks out into the countryside with his young friends, where food was shared along with words of holy wisdom and songs were struck-up under the stone pines and the cypresses.

If we are to be resilient in a world which will forever add to our to-do lists, and make further demands on our energies, and challenge those most fundamental aspects of our lives, we have to know how and when to return to the source, like a cool spring. Some quiet prayer is always essential, but so too is an escape, some time away with the laptop closed and the phone on silent, and maybe our rosary in our hand too. A quiet walk, a long sit under a tree, and if we are very fortunate, maybe even a time of retreat. Any and all of these can help to remind us that we are not alone, that it does not all depend on us, and that the one on whom it does depend can often be found in the stillness of a place apart, waiting for us.

And it is an anticipation of something greater. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, refers to peacefulness, yes, but also to wholeness, safety, completeness. At the end of our earthly life, we pray that we will be welcomed into a place of refreshment, light and peace. Eternal rest is our prayer for our departed loved ones, and the desire for a perfect rest ends the Church’s night prayers each day. To anticipate something is, in some sense, to participate in it, and so if we can carve our some rest now, it is a little taste of heaven, and who doesn’t want that?

As the summer vacation begins for many people, perhaps it is a timely reminder not to make our holidays another source of stress, but to build in to them the kind of rest and relaxation that is a sort of retreat. Perhaps we should all try a bit more to use this time to seek the Lord in the quietness, to listen to his quiet promptings in our heart, and to just sit still with God. I don’t think any of us will be sorry if we try.