From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
Once two brothers went to visit an old monastic. It was not the old man’s habit to eat every day. When he saw the brothers, however, he welcomed them with joy and said: “Fasting has its own reward, but if you eat for the sake of love you satisfy two commandments, for you give up your own will and also fulfill the commandment to refresh others.”
t’s not something that most of us like to admit, but the truth is that “fasting,” any disciplinary or dour approach to life – relentless concentration on work, duty, responsibilities, business, productivity – has its own rewards. However difficult the work itself may seem to those who watch us do it, there is something secretly very satisfying about the ardor of doing it. Giving up Spartan routines to visit old relatives or play with children, to write personal mail or take the dog for a walk, to go fishing or have a picnic supper on the shore makes the hardy and virtuous cringe at the very thought of it. We are serious people, too absorbed by important things for those things. We are too “busy” to be human.
So, we drone on through life, wearing our sensitivities to a frazzle. We go from day to day drowning our mind in more of the same instead of letting it run free in new fields of thought or new kinds of experience or new moments of beauty. We just keep doing the same things over and over again. Worst of all, we consider ourselves spiritually noble for doing them. Virtue becomes the blinders of our soul. We never see the God who is everywhere because we never look anyplace but where we’ve looked before.
Re-creation, holy leisure, is the mainstay of the contemplative soul, and the theology of Sabbath is its cornerstone. “On the seventh day,” scripture says, “God rested.” With that single image, that one line of Holy Writ, reflection, re-creation of the creative spirit, transcendence, the right to be bigger than what we do, is sanctified. To refuse to rest, to play, to run loose for awhile on the assumptions that work is holier, worthier of God, more useful to humankind than refreshment, strikes at the very root of contemplation.
Life is about more than work. Work is useless, even destructive, if its purpose goes awry. What will keep work pristine if not the contemplative eye for truth and the contemplative compass for everything God called good? Recreation is the act of stretching the soul. When we stop the race to nowhere, when we get off the carousel of productivity long enough to finally recognize that it is going in a circle, we reclaim a piece of our own humanity.
The purpose of recreation is to create a Sabbath of the soul. We need time to evaluate what we have done in the past. Like God, we must ask if what we spend our lives doing is really “good” for anyone. For me? For the people who will come after me? For the world in which I live right now?
We must assess the impact of our daily work on the lives of those around us. We must ask ourselves whether what we are doing with our lives and the way we are doing it is really worth the expenditure of a life, either our own or the lives of those with whom we come in contact. Only Sabbath, only re-creation gives me the chance to step back and think, to open up and be made new, to walk through life with eyes up and heart open, to expand the human parts of my human experience.
Life is not meant to be dismal. Life is not an endurance test. Life is life, if we make it that. How do we know for sure that life is meant to be an excursion into joy? Because there is simply too much to enjoy: fishing water in a back bay, the view from a mountaintop, wild berries on the hill, a street dance in the neighborhood, a good book, the parish bazaar, the city culture, the family reunion.
Religious traditions that refuse to enjoy life, reject life. But religion that rejects life is no religion at all. It fails to connect the sacred now with the sacred beyond. To be a contemplative we must bring ourselves to life so that all of life can mediate God to us.