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March 8, 2010

asceticismThe art of resting the mind

and the power of dismissing from it

all care of worry is probably one of

the secrets of energy in great people.

     ~ Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Although we do not ordinarily associate the practices of rest and relaxation with the ascetical mandates of Lent, scripture as well as the literature of the spiritual masters remind us that we are called to care for the body and mind as the temple of the Lord.  Even our efforts at renunciation are meant to restore bodily health and spiritual presence, enhancing at once our receptivity to the Spirit and renewing our relationship to the Divine.  An important part of our daily routine during Lent can therefore be found in the Lord’s invitation to us to come away and spend time alone with him.

The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught.  And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6:30-31)

The following passages may foster further reflection on the need for rest and relaxation as one continues the Lenten journey.

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear.

. . . the condition of exertion is more easily to be realized than the condition of relaxation and detachment, even though the latter is effortless: this is the paradox that reigns over the attainment of leisure, which is at once a human and super-human condition).  As Aristotle said, a person can live this way only insofar as the divine dwells in him or her.

~ Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Because we do not rest, we lose our way.  We miss the compass points that would show use where to go, we bypass the nourishment that would give us succor.  We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom. . . .  Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest.  And for want of rest our lives are in danger.

~ Wayne Muller, Sabbath

In The World’s Religions Huston Smith describes the rhythm of involvement and detachment that the Buddha practiced during his ministry:

The pattern was lived out in the Buddha’s life with great consistency.  He began his journey by withdrawing for six years; then, following his awakening, he returned for forty-five years.  Each year of the “return” period was divided in such a way as to allow nine months in the world, and the rainy season spent in retreat with the monks.  The daily cycle reflected the pattern as well: his public hours were long, but three times a day he withdrew that through meditation he might restore his center of gravity to its sacred pivot.

Martin Laird writes

The body is a great reservoir of wisdom.  Something as simple as bodily stillness and breathing make a contribution of untold value to discovering the unfathomable silence deep within us. This silence, as R. S. Thomas tells us, “is when we live best, within listening distance of the silence we call God.”

~ Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation

Mechthild of Magdeburg, a thirteenth century mystic, described in poetry the immense benefits that flow from a mind at rest and a heart full of love:

Of the heavenly things God has taught me,

I can speak but a little word,

not more than a honey bee can carry away on its feet from an overflowing jar.

In the first choir is happiness, the highest of all gifts.

In the second, gentleness.

In the third, loving-kindness.

In the fourth, sweetness.

In the fifth, joyfulness.

In the sixth, honorable rest.

In the seventh, riches.

In the eighth, merit.

In the ninth, fervent love.

Eknath Easwaran comments on this passage in his book Take Your Time: Finding Balance in a Hurried World:  Mechthild says not just “rest” but “honorable rest”: that is, resting at the center while contributing to life in full measure.  When your mind is still, you can work hard and be active every day of your life and still be at rest, because you will not be working under the goad of personal ambition

Another spiritual teacher and writer recommends that we

Never go against rest and relaxation.  Arrange your life in such a way, drop all futile activity, because ninety percent is futile; it is just for killing time and remaining occupied. Do only the essential and devote your energies more and more to the inner journey.  Then that miracle happens when you can remain at rest and in action together.  That is the meeting of the sacred and the mundane, the meeting of this world and that . . .

~ Osho, What is Meditation?

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Last updated: 11/24/10.