Against the busyness, the tasks, the striving, and the strain the characterize so much of our lives, Br. Nicholas Bartoli offers the radical practice of doing nothing at all. In rest, we discover the stillness at our core. Resting, we can fall into the grace of God.
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the gentle art of doing nothing
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, and the point which gives birth to all things in heaven and on earth. It’s a place capable of holding both incredible beauty and terrible pain. It’s the place where Christ is born, and from whence we can share Christ’s love and compassion in the world. It’s God’s eternal Kingdom within us and our common inheritance as children of light. Against all reason, it’s the place God chooses to call home, and so it’s our home, too.
However, it very often seems difficult to even visit this place, let alone claim it as our inheritance and home. We sense its existence most often in a feeling of restlessness, the nagging feeling that there’s something we’ve forgotten or have missed. (The most important spiritual truths often feel like remembering, like a restoration of something lost.) When we start feeling restless or hopeless, we recall our desire for something more: a desire to awaken to God’s loving presence, and to dwell in the sacred place within us that is our deepest truth.
As hard as it can be to describe this place, we can become more receptive to it. And the way is truly very simple. I can sum it up in just one word: rest.
Now, this rest is subtler than just taking a break from doing stuff, although it can 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.”
Imagine this rest like a well, boundless in depth, filled with the profound stillness of the Holy One. From those still waters arise the light and love of Christ. In prayer, with the help of Jesus, we sometimes draw from these waters, tasting eternal life and sensing God’s presence. God’s greatest wish for us is that we simply would let ourselves fall in. (In my experience, God is even willing to give us a push now and then!) Yet a part of us remains wary of the depths, and 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 exactly the reverse: our letting go.
In our daily lives, we tend to expend an awful amount of effort and energy on not letting go. We constantly try to prove our worth by accomplishing things and being very busy. Or we 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 can be spent jumping from one distraction to the next, avoiding any stillness. This last tactic is especially dangerous in our current culture of distraction, as technology promises to keep us endlessly (mindlessly) entertained — our attention held captive.
But God’s invitation remains the same: Just rest. It’s so simple and so transformative. The radical practice of rest can help us to recognize in ourselves the very patterns of effort that consume our energy and our lives. It can help us to let go of these useless strategies and this relentless striving. Rest takes us to the lip of the well, and helps us to fall into God’s generous grace.
Incorporating the practice of rest 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 specific forms of prayer that lend themselves to practicing this kind of rest. Centering prayer, for example, is a type of contemplative prayer in which the practice consists simply of consenting to rest in God’s presence. 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.”
Rest is something we can practice anytime, not just in formal times of prayer. We can practice it 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.
When we practice rest, we learn 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.
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.