The experience of rest is, paradoxically, one that is difficult to live in a balanced and healthy way for the majority of priests and, perhaps, for most men and women of our time.
These days, the life of a priest is, in fact, beset by many requests and, consequently, by much activity. It seems that repose would have no place in his life, which is also because the days of the week traditionally marked off for rest — for which we use the lay term “weekend” but in the Christian tradition is, instead, the beginning of the week — are in reality the busiest time for the greater part of priests.
How can we resolve this difficulty? Above all, we must regain an awareness of the meaning and of the place of rest in our lives. Secondly, we must do all that we can and all that is necessary to protect this time and to live it in its right dimensions.
The rhythm of life
From the Jewish tradition we inherit a meaning of rest that is two-fold, and is identified with the shabbat. One part of this meaning regards the present; the other extends away from the present towards the future. Let us begin with the present. While for the Greeks and the Romans the kind of work and rest one had, which afforded various levels of liberty, created their different social classes, for the Judeo-Christian world, work and rest were the constant and unified rhythm of life, as well as the rhythm of daily life. It is a rhythm that was set in place by God with the alternation of day and night and that has entered profoundly into the constitution of our psycho-physical structure. Our body, our mind, our heart, need work and rest, in a balanced synthesis that can become a mutual compenetration of the one into the other. There is not true work that is not, in a certain sense, also repose. If work is just exertion, just expenditure of energy, it will crush us at some point. But it is also true that there is not authentic repose that is not also work, in some way. Rest cannot be, in fact, pure evasion; which is almost always impossible to realize. Instead, it is most properly recreation, regeneration of the body and of the spirit. It can take the form of a walk, a book, a time of silence, a piece of music, a conversation; in a word, a time of work that is lived differently than normal. All of these things can be repose in as much as they put us in front of reality in a gratuitous way. Until this marvelous, and continuously precarious, union can be realized, we must pass through the long exercise of times of rest stabilized during the arc of our year, of our month, of the week and of our day.
The periodization of time according to man’s need for rest has been one of the greatest gifts that Judaism and Christianity have given to the life of man and that, from our Western world, has extended into most of the world. Not every country in the world knows weekly repose, which demonstrates just how revolutionary was the vision of time brought by our fathers.
Prayer and Silence
I’ve said that the relationship of work and repose, above all, has to do with the present: of every day, every week, every year. Every day must foresee a time of rest. This means an adequate time of repose during the night and of moments of rest scattered throughout the day.
The Liturgy of the Hours is, in itself, a significant help towards this end. It requires, in order to be celebrated adequately, times in which we detach from our work. The same recitation of the Hours must become work, or, rather, rest that is also work, according to the Benedictine definition, opus Dei.
If possible, Morning Prayer, lived together with one’s house, can be the first period of true repose after our nocturnal rest. If, beyond the time of prayer, it is possible to have a moment of meditation and silence, all of the work of the day will draw from it an immense benefit. Every task of the day, in fact, needs to be prepared, and there is nothing that better prepares us than some time for silence in the morning. According to one’s specific necessities, rest can be fractioned into many short moments throughout the day. Just as prayer can be spread throughout the arc of the day, in the same way, listening to a piece of music or reading a piece of literature, a meditation or a brief conversation, can become segments of repose that break up our daily schedule of work. This concept of a work day is very consonant with life’s biological rhythm, which is made up of inhaling and exhaling, of systole and diastole, of frequent breaths, of the purification of the blood, and of a binary process that regulates every aspect of our existence without our even noticing.
The weekly rhythm of repose must foresee at least a half day a week dedicated entirely to taking a distance from the normal occupations of work. This period must represent a real moment of regeneration. It might not always be possible, but it must be an ever present ideal, a point of tension that can unveil the critical aspects of our week.
In the same way, during the course of the month, we must foresee a day or two of detachment from our ordinary routine (the ideal would be at least a day of retreat), and, during the course of the year, a time of vacation that is appropriate for the regeneration of our intellectual, physical, and spiritual forces.
Naturally, all of these considerations will have a different weight in the different phases of life. There are ages of the spirit (for example, the first ten years after the ordination to the priesthood) in which these indications must be followed in the most literal way possible. In other times of life, in one’s maturity or old age, the exercised spirit will have acquired an almost natural attention to the need for rest, and will more easily correspond to a balanced rhythm of existence, correcting itself after times that were too intense, or times that were too relaxed.
Christ is true rest
I would like to now enter a different order of considerations. Rest does not only regard the present. On the contrary, it concerns, above all, the future. The shabbat, which means the eighth day, is the rest that consists in the life of God and of life with God, a reality that awaits us. Repose is, therefore, most properly the future that enters to make our present fertile; it is the future that reveals itself to be the truest substance of our time here on earth, what remains of everything we live in time.
Here we touch on a truly important question that does not regard the duration of the rest, but its quality. It is very difficult for us to give ourselves over to the evidence that only Christ can be our true rest. This affirmation, in ultimate analysis, is repugnant to us because it seems to distance us from many experiences of eagerly awaited amusement, or to alienate us in a spiritualistic experience of rest, which, in the end, often finishes exasperating the more concrete expectations of our materialistic physco-physical structure.
We must enter into a true comprehension of Christ as repose. If every created reality can lead us to Him, it is also true that every created reality can distance us from Him. It is necessary to ask ourselves: who and what do we seek in our rest? What am I looking for when I open a book, when I watch a movie, when I seek out a friend, when I play a sport, when I desire a feminine friendship? We need to train ourselves to respond to these kinds of questions honestly, not to cancel our desires, but to change, bit by bit, their ultimate aim, or, better, to broaden their aim. Behind and within every desire, there is an implicit and often unfocused desire for Christ, which we do not know or do not want to come to the surface because we fear that Christ is a fulfillment of our desires that is too far off.
Singing with the heart
As one can see, the search for repose almost always exposes the feebleness of our experience of Christ, a form of Docetism that reduces the person of our Savior to a faraway presence, one not very attractive for our humanity. Free time opens, therefore, the decisive and ever new search for the attractiveness of Jesus, which is the true content of the existence of every man on the earth.
How can this transformation come about within the satisfaction of our desires that we seek? How can I seek Christ behind a mountain, a lake, a book, a face, a piece of music, a book?
Above all, by a simple discernment: if I know that that person, that book, that type of spectacle, lead me away from Christ, I must choose another book, another type of spectacle, or orient myself towards other relationships. There must not be equivocacy in our search for true rest.
Then, I must learn to consider my time of rest as a gift and, therefore, as a moment of joy. I must learn to sing with the heart. It is that sense of hallelujah, of the jubilee of the heart that the Fathers of the Church speak about, especially Augustine, and the medieval poets, even within the secularization of love brought about by the Provencals.
It is important, within the limits of what is possible and convenient, to know how to rest together; in other words, to enjoy my time of rest together with others — to go on a hike together, to read with others, out loud; to see a film; to listen to music together — and it is likewise important to reserve for oneself some moments of the day and of the week.
As you can see, and as the monastic experience and the experience of the societies of common life teach us, the gift of rest is anything but secondary. It questions the entire order of our existence. It is an anticipation of that eternal rest that we ask for our deceased loved ones, which is nothing other than rest in God, the definitive home in the communion of saints, which we all await.