“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Many years ago a friend whom I had not seen in many years came to speak with me. He had begun to go through a difficult time in his life and in his marriage of many years. He was working three different jobs, including days, evenings, and weekends, totaling typically 60 or 70 hours per week in order to provide for his wife and children what he termed the “lifestyle” they deserved. Now his wife was telling him that he was not and had never been a companion for her, and she was preparing to leave him. We began to speak regularly over a fairly long time, and, in the course of that relationship, it became apparent that this man never spoke of and apparently never experienced moments of enjoyment. Everything was work for him, a work fueled in large part by fear in the present and resentment of the past.
If the experience of the developed world is teaching us anything, it is that affluence and physical comfort do not necessarily bring with them the experience of enjoyment. In fact, it often seems as if our pursuit of comfort and ever greater affluence has quite the opposite result. Our capacity for enjoyment is one of our most distinctively human qualities and potentials. And yet, it seems as if we fairly readily lose that capacity.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of his “yoke” in contrast to the “yoke” of the Pharisees. “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt. 23:4) Unlike the religious teachers that are constantly contesting with Jesus, he invites people who are tired and burdened to a way that promises rest. Throughout the history of Christianity, this promise has often appealed to those whose life of poverty has meant constant work just to survive. For them, rest meant the cessation of work, the promise of a time when the constant effort and physical strain would cease. In this light, “eternal rest” seemed a desirable reward.
In the developed world today, although many are still involved in taxing physical labor, many are now freed of that demand. And yet, the result has not been greater creative and restful leisure, a deepening capacity for spiritual enjoyment. It has rather, mysteriously, resulted in an even increased culture of work. Where once work would end at sunset, now it goes on endlessly day and night. When on the farm there would be times of year after the gathering of the crops when space for leisure would open up, now in secular cultures work goes on seven days a week and year round. The “ethos” of work has extended far beyond our jobs. We now largely work at socializing and even at play, which largely takes on the form of competition.
Especially in my younger days I would at times have moments of awareness when I would realize that for several days, if not weeks, I had been nothing but a drudge. I had not enjoyed a moment of the life given to me, rather I had merely undertaken one task after another and pushed to meet what I experienced as the demands of my life. Those brief moments of awareness were moments of deep sadness, for in them I realized that I was “spending” my days and my life without gratitude, appreciation, and joy. I was failing to enjoy my life.
In 1952 Joseph Pieper warned, in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, of the dangers of living in “a world of total work.” He saw that one of the greatest spiritual dangers of the modern age was that, without a sense of worship, which is inseparable from leisure in its deepest sense, we would come to see and live all the dimensions of our lives as merely work. This captures well my own experience of feeling “like a drudge” rather than a human person. Life, in this way, is merely effortful and never enjoyable.
To strengthen or to recover our capacity for real enjoyment, perhaps we need to take note of and then reflect upon those moments of enjoyment that we experience. For myself, I can experience enjoyment in multiple ways: in moments of leisure, reading a good book, watching a well made and engaging film, listening to a beautiful piece of music, or attending to the sound of the birds or a colorful sunset, or a beautiful plant or tree; at times of shared work and ministry, preparing to teach and then teaching a very responsive and engaged class, working as a team on a common project, seeking openly and honestly with others the best solution to a problem, in all the ways of being “a band of brothers and sisters who help, encourage, and edify one another and who work together”; and especially in moments of loving and intimate presence to others, where we share our lives together in such a way that our hearts expand and the wider world opens us before us in a new way. For its length, this list is very partial. Yet, it reminds us that rest and enjoyment can actually be part of almost any dimension of our lives, whether we are “at work” or “at rest.”
When we think about the gospel story of Martha and Mary, we could, from this perspective, see the difference between them as a capacity for enjoyment. Jesus is not correcting Mary’s diligence in work but rather, perhaps, her inability, in the midst of her troubled and anxious mind, to enjoy herself. The Lord is in this place, and she is too worried and busy to welcome, appreciate and enjoy him. This is a constant theme in the gospels. In Luke 7 we have the story of Jesus eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee and of the “sinful woman” who enters and wipes Jesus’ feet with her tears. “And turning to the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give Me water for My feet, but she wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not greet Me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing My feet since I arrived.…” It may seem strange to speak of this episode in light of enjoyment, but I imagine that the woman is weeping out of joy and love for this blessed encounter where, as she welcomes Jesus, she is welcomed and loved in all of who she is. In contrast, Simon invites Jesus but never truly welcomes him and so fails to enjoy his presence.
Anyone who has lived religious life in the past few decades can attest to the fact of how much of our lives we have spent, often quite painfully, in meetings of various sorts. As I think of these scriptural examples, the question occurs to me: “What is it that makes these meetings drudgery and work?” How is it that by choice we can spend hours speaking and discussing with a friend and in so doing experience great enjoyment, but when we gather in these settings, even if the agenda is fostering community and mission, it can be so exhausting and even discouraging? What is the difference?
Is there an analogy to be drawn between the yoke of Jesus and the yoke of the Pharisees? In John 15:15, Jesus tells his disciples: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” No matter how difficult the moment in life in which we are involved, there is always a deep joy in being with a friend. Taking on a friend’s burden is not a burden at all. It is easy and light and, however much is being asked of us, our souls find rest in the shared presence, the deepening love, and even the shared pain. It is not work to help our friend, to speak with our friend, to overcome the obstacles to love of our friend. Yet, to obey the law, to have to meet, to work without love, as to try to obey the law without love, is truly burdensome and exhausting. To try to build our own tower to God merely out of duty is inevitably debilitating.
In religious community, as well as in other modes of human community, we say that we are gathering as friends, but perhaps we are not. Perhaps there is more of the yoke of the scribes and Pharisees operating in our gathering than the yoke of Jesus. Perhaps we are much more Martha than Mary as we gather and are engaging with each other in our typical mode of “total work.” Is it possible that we work too hard at this in order to avoid the deeper work, the potentially enjoyable work, that is the result of “working together” as friends? To take on the yoke of Jesus might require of us to take off the yoke of the Pharisees, a yoke that burdens ourselves and others by denying the truth of our humanity and making of ourselves servants rather than friends.
Furthermore, in our state of emptiness, in which we are one with God in his love, there begins a superessential contemplative experience which is the highest which anyone could express in words. . . . This unknowing is an inaccessible light which is God’s essential being; it is superessential to us, being essential to him alone, for he is his own blessedness and enjoys himself in his own nature. In his blissful enjoyment we die, for by being immersed in him we become lost as regards our enjoyment, though not as regards our being. Our love and his love are always alike and one in this state of enjoyment, in which his Spirit absorbs our love, swallowing it up into himself in a single state of blessedness and enjoyment with himself.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,D