Finding rest in stillness
I chuckled as I ran by the local elementary school on a hot sunny day in late June. I don’t typically laugh when I’m running; I’m usually too busy gasping for air to even think about laughing. But this particular day, my heart laughed as I jogged by.
It was sports day. Various stations were set up in readiness for the day’s events. The stations looked fun and I felt a childlike desire for play.
A few years ago, educators in the United Kingdom undertook an experiential study on play. A number of concerns prompted the study: high stress levels and depression in young children, poor academic performance, poor behavior, and inadequate social skills.
The educators made some remarkable discoveries when they equipped the playground with simple, everyday objects suitable for imaginative play. Student creativity increased. Playground fights decreased. Academic performance improved. Self-esteem rose; students took more risks academically and socially. Children were happier and less stressed when they had time for unstructured play.
That morning as I ran, I considered that as adults we either do not play enough, or our play fails to provide any measurable benefits.
There are obvious reasons why adults ignore the importance of play. Family commitments, work, chores, and deadlines take priority over recreational activities. The expectations we impose on our self, or those that others impose on us, dominate our time.
When we do engage in leisure activities, we may not feel rested or refreshed. That round of golf was frustrating, the motor on the boat malfunctioned, or the kids were fighting. Despite all the money and time we spend on recreation, we often remain dissatisfied.
Something, it seems, is lacking in our attitude towards leisure.
We can liken leisure to the biblical concept of the Sabbath. The Biblical explanation for the Sabbath goes back to the creation myth of Genesis. God created the earth in six days, and rested on the seventh. If rest was good for God, it was also good for people.
Initially, the Sabbath was a day of rest for everyone, including beasts of burden. Over time, a concept of sabbatical living evolved. The concept encompassed rest and relaxation, celebration with others, and sharing in God’s divine life. Periods of worship gave the individual and the community opportunities to pause, reflect, and connect with God. Attitudes of joy and thankfulness permeate sabbatical living.
The concept of sabbatical living reaches its fullness in the example and teaching of Jesus. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking Sabbath laws, Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2.27). Work and rest both have a purpose and fulfill a need in human life.
The Gospels record instances of Jesus working hard, going off for a meal and a glass of wine with his buddies, and withdrawing to a remote place to pray. Jesus balanced work, recreation, and leisure as a spiritual discipline. As a spiritual discipline, leisure was a form of personal re-creation that energized Jesus to return to his ministry with vigor and passion.
Leisure nourishes spirituality
Leisure can be for us a practice that nourishes spirituality, but it demands a shift in our attitude towards time. In a culture that often judges a person’s worth by the activity of their smart phone, leisure teaches that constant availability and activity is detrimental. In a society that makes a competition of busyness, leisure says to slow down.
In today’s social environment, we may feel compelled to buy into the busyness, even with our leisure time. Our vacations sometimes become such a swirl of activity that we return home needing a rest.
Leisure encourages us to seek rest for our souls, to listen to the sounds outside of our self, and to see the world beyond our self.
Leisure asks that we stop running so that we might breath in deeply of the stillness that makes us receptive to God. In stillness, we encounter the presence of God in our self, in others, in our activities, and in the world around us. In stillness, we temporarily transcend our concerns. We re-emerge with new vision and energy.
If we approached leisure as a spiritual discipline that nourished stillness, I suspect that we would experience benefits similar to those that the children in the study experienced from play. If we could learn to rest our weary self in God, we would become more creative, productive, self-possessed, selfless, joyful and holy.