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The Radical Practice of Rest – Br. Nicholas Bartoli


Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Matthew 11:28–30

There is within us all a very sacred place, a gift of stillness, light, and love central to our being. We could call it our heart or soul or the indwelling of Christ. It’s at once a point of utter nothingness, while also giving birth to all things in heaven and on earth. It’s a place capable of holding with infinite gentleness both incredible beauty and terrible pain. Against all reason, it’s the place God chooses to call home, and so it’s our home, too. It’s the place where Christ is born, and from where we share Christ’s love and compassion in the world. It’s God’s eternal Kingdom within us, our common inheritance as children of Light.

Very often, though, it seems so difficult to even visit this place, let alone claim our inheritance. We live our lives as if in a dream, where we’re separate from God and from all there is, and often we don’t even realize we’re dreaming. But then something happens, we start feeling restless, a part us senses our perpetual slumber, and we desire something more: to awaken to God’s Loving Presence, and dwell in that sacred place. And our Beloved God is encouraging us all the time, tirelessly offering this generous gift. Unfortunately, we tend to slumber deeply, but there is a way of being more receptive to this gift, and it’s truly very, very simple.

It may even be hard to believe that so simple a thing can help us enjoy this gift of peace and joy in the eternal life of each moment. How simple? Well, I can sum it up in just one word: rest.

Now, the kind rest I’m talking about is a bit subtler then, say, taking a break from doing stuff, although it could include that. Of this particular kind of rest, Julian of Norwich writes: “For He is the Very Rest. / God wishes to be known, / And it pleases Him that / We rest in Him; / For all that is beneath Him / Will never satisfy us. / Therefore no soul is rested / Til it is emptied of all things / That are made. / When, for love of Him, / It is emptied, / The soul can / Receive His deep rest.”

Julian’s message on this deep rest is timely in this season of Lent, with our focus on readying ourselves for participation in Jesus’ resurrection through our baptism in Christ, a process of dying to self or self-emptying. This kind of rest, the kind Jesus offers us by taking his yoke and learning from him, is a rest we experience at the core of who we are, in the very depths of our being. But this begs the question, why aren’t our souls resting in the first place? Why all the restless weariness and heavy burdens? Well, the question of “why” is probably best left to our Beloved Holy One, but it seems to me that in the first place we were resting, in our first naiveté of the garden of Eden before taking that fateful bite out of the apple.

And then, suddenly, we think we know everything, distinguishing good from evil, this from that, and it might seem to work for us for a while. But then the restlessness sets in, and there’s a nagging feeling, perhaps not so much in words, that there’s something we’ve forgotten. The most important spiritual truths always feel like remembering, like a restoration of something lost. Remembering to receive God’s deep rest is like waking up from our slumber and noticing that peace and joy beyond our understanding are already here, and have been the entire time.

Staying asleep, though, can be very attractive, because in our dreams we’re in total control. We imagine we control things like our safety, our worth, and whatever goes into the self-image we present to the world. This makes the dream of separation and sin deceptively alluring, and it’s why we so resist be roused by God’s invitation.

Still, there is eternal peace and joy on the line. Who wouldn’t want to relinquish the illusion of control if this pearl of great price is at stake. Why would anyone resist the call to rest in this beautiful, sacred place within us filled with nothing except Christ’s light and love. Well, there is one small catch, one tiny detail I’ve neglected to mention. You may have noticed, on your way into the chapel the crucifix hanging behind the altar.

It’s a stark reminder of what we can expect on the journey from our dream of sin to the reality of the resurrection. Dying to self, although holding out a glorious promise, is about as pleasant as it sounds.

Imagine it like a well, boundless in depth, filled with the profound stillness of the Holy One. In those still waters arise the light and love of Christ, and limitless peace and joy. In prayer, we sometimes draw from these waters with the help of Jesus, tasting the eternal life therein. God’s greatest wish for us is that we would let ourselves fall in, and God’s even willing to give us a push now and then. But, there’s a part of ourselves wary of those depths, afraid of encountering whatever pain and suffering might await us between the top of the well and its glorious depths. So, we cling to the lip of the well as if our life depended on it, which is ironic since the life God wants for us depends on our just letting go.

For a people asleep, dreaming the dream of sin, we expend an awful amount of effort and energy not letting go. It’s a very subtle kind of effort, though, and it can often go unnoticed. It might look like constantly trying to prove our worth by accomplishing things and being very busy, because we haven’t accepted that our worth is beyond measure as God’s beloved children.

Or it might take the form of an endless scanning of the environment for proof that we’re without worth, an unfortunate lie we might have learned to accept as truth a long time ago, but a lie nonetheless. Or we might spend a lot of energy judging other people, trying to prove our righteousness by focusing on the splinter in our neighbor’s eye. Or our effort could be spent jumping from one distraction to the next, and to the next, avoiding the stillness within which we may find those unpleasant parts of ourselves veiled in shadow. That last one is especially dangerous in our culture of distraction, with the latest in technology used to keep us endlessly entertained — our attention held captive to all the world has to offer at the expense of something harder to measure, but infinitely more valuable.

The radical practice of rest can help us recognize those patterns of effort. It can help us let go of the lip of that well, and fall into God’s generous grace. Yes, it will probably hurt on the way down, but the promise is well worth it. It’s radical because it addresses a part of our prayer life that often goes unnoticed, and because the fruits of this practice are so great. It’s a practice because there’s discipline required. God knows it’s hard, but we commit to this practice of rest, anyway, knowing that with God on our side we never go it alone.

Over time, we’ll remember more and more what it was like before tasting that apple, and life will feel less like a dream of separation, and more like a life lived wide awake in union with Christ. Incorporating this practice into our prayer life means doing less, trusting in Jesus, and letting God do all the work. Catherine of Siena writes, “The sun hears the fields talking about / effort / and the sun / smiles, / and whispers / to me, / ‘Why don’t the fields just rest, for / I am willing to do / everything / to help them / grow?’ / Rest, my dears, in / prayer.”

There are forms of prayer that lend themselves to practicing this kind of rest. David Frenette in his book on centering prayer writes that this kind of resting, “… is a resting of your being in the Being of God. With this very subtle resting, your mind, heart, and bodily awareness can also rest and just be in the source [of all things]: God’s indwelling presence… you gradually learn a new freedom; you discover a new peace, a peace that passes all understanding and serves you by giving you a ground, a center in the busyness of life.”

But this rest is a kind of practice we can practice anytime, not just in formal prayer. We can practice when we’re driving, when we’re waiting in line, when we’re out for a walk, when we’re at work, when we’re cooking or cleaning, anytime really, maybe even when we’re listening to a sermon.

When we practice this rest, it’s as if we’re learning a new way of relating to life, just as it is and such as it is. It’s a practice requiring the minimal amount of effort imaginable, like letting a leaf gently fall from your hand. It’s the cultivation of an open and spacious attitude toward ourselves, the world, and God.

This Lent we can follow Jesus’s example of radical self-emptying, dying to the parts of ourselves expending so much energy and effort not resting in God’s presence. And when we allow ourselves to accept God’s deep rest we remember what we forgot, that we never really left the garden after all, we only fell asleep and dreamt we were somewhere else. When we let ourselves rest we realize God’s being within us, and we awaken to the truth that we are already the peace and joy of the risen Christ. When we let ourselves rest in the blessed stillness of our heavenly Father we become the hands and feet of Jesus on earth, sharing the light and love of Christ in a world desperately in need of just this.

Our prayer, then, is as simple as the practice itself. Please, Lord Jesus Christ, help your beloved servants rest. Please, Lord, grant us rest.

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1 Comment

  1. Elspeth on March 28, 2017 at 09:18

    Thank you for this message. It motivates me to meditate today

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