Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.
Genesis 2: 1-3
Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, when it is written: “This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me. Their worship of me is empty, when they teach human precepts as doctrines.”
Mark 7: 6-7
As of a few years ago, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one third of adult Americans were sleep deprived. One might suspect that some 5 years later, the percentage is even higher. Adrian van Kaam would often say that “formation is sheer work.” So, it may seem quite paradoxical to state that perhaps the greatest spiritual problem in western culture today is the inability to rest.
At the conclusion of the Priestly account of creation which we have just read from Genesis 1, God rests, and so “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” In a famous prayer Cardinal Newman asks that ‘In his mercy may God grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.” The sabbath is holy because it is the time of a holy rest in God. It is the rest in God that makes possible the holiness of our lives and of our actions. As we pray in Psalm 127: 1-2,
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Deep rest is a time of re-sourcing for us. It is a reconnecting with our source, and so the source of every true word and true action. Our human propensity, especially in a cultural form tradition that is merely functionally oriented, is to distance and even in time dissociate from our very source. Creation is a work of God, as Genesis teaches. We are instruments and servants of God’s creation, of God’s work. In 1960, John F. Kennedy concluded his inaugural address with the words: “. . . let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” The question is how do we know what is God’s work, and, as the ongoing debate about the meaning of this line suggests, how do we avoid the mistake of thinking all of our work is, in fact, God’s.
Our tendency to work in a way that is no longer connected to our source in God becomes manifest even in our practice of religion. In today’s gospel, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees not for having rituals but rather for performing those rituals without heart. Practices and rituals are means, not ends. They are not magical and are not to become talismans. They are reminders of whose we are, of our Divine source, of where we truly live. They are not a means by which we are to attempt to control life and God, but are rather a way to more fully abandon ourselves to God. In this sense, they should not be but another task and duty but rather a means to release, at least for a moment, our own “hold” on life and to enter into a moment of rest in God.
What does it mean to live in the world in a “contemplative stance”? It certainly does not mean to impose religious talk on our own projects or to perform lifeless rituals before, after, or in the midst of our actions. It is rather to enter little by little into the experience of resting in God, a rest that can, in time, come to pervade everything we do and say and are. It is in resting in God that we reconnect with the flow of God’s creative love; it is in this deep rest (where our noisy, ambitious, illusory self-creations are stilled) that we are sent as disciples of God’s love and work into the world.
The more we become distanced and dissociated from our life in God, the more fearful it becomes. The more we confuse our own illusions of grandeur with our deepest identity, the more difficult it is to rest. At some level, we always know the distance between who we pretend to be and who we are, between the person we have grown accustomed to and the one whom God creates and calls. Thus, we may be able to measure the degree to which we as individuals and we as a people are lost and alienated from God by the amount of difficulty we have in resting. What’s left of us when all is still and quiet?
It is said that before reaching the age of 50 St. Thomas Aquinas stopped his writing and told a confrere: “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” What Thomas had written, of course, is far more than straw. And yet, he seems to have had an experience of reality, of the truth of God’s love that relativized by transcending it all of the work he had done. The moral here is not that we should cease doing our work. Yet, our work should not consume our lives, because there is a far greater work occurring. We abide and are participants in that work. Anything we do, or any love we offer, is finally but an invitation to another, to others to know their place and their share in that great work of God. In the worlds of Theodore Sorenson as spoken by President John F. Kennedy, ““let us go forth . . . asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
There follows the third point, which concerns the living essential being in which we are one with God above and beyond all exercises of love in a state of eternal enjoyment—that is, above works and virtues in a state of blessed emptiness, and above union with God in unity, where no one can work except God alone. God’s work is God’s very self and God’s nature, and in God’s works we are empty and transformed, becoming one with God in God’s love. But we do not become one with God in God’s nature, for then we would come to nought in ourselves and be God, which is impossible. There, however, we are above reason and also without reason in a state of clear knowing, in which we feel no difference between ourselves and God for we have been breathed forth in God’s love above and beyond ourselves and all orders of being. There we have no demands or desires and we neither give nor take. There is only a blessed and empty being, the crown and essential reward of all holiness and all virtue.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,D