Fr Billy Swan
As I write these words on vacation, I confess to be thoroughly enjoying a good rest – the break from routine, appointments, meetings, not setting the alarm clock, etc. That said, something I know I cannot afford to take a break from is prayer. Why? Because prayer is a time not of work but of rest. We would be exhausted without it. For unless we are at rights with God and rest in Him then no amount of entertainment, thrills or new experiences we might get on vacation will ever provide the essential rest we need.
In the Old Testament, God asks his people to rest on the Sabbath day, not because they could be free to do nothing but have the time to worship. Here at the beginning of the Bible, rest is linked with prayer (Ex. 20:10; Lev. 23:3). Worship and prayer helps us to rest and recover: ‘The Sabbath was made for ma, not man for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27-28). In the story of the Exodus, God leads his people towards the promised land which is described as ‘the place of rest’ (Deut. 12:19; Ps. 95:11). In Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd is the one who ‘revives my drooping spirit’ (23:3) for ‘only in God will my soul be at rest, from him comes my salvation’ (Ps. 62: 1). Being at rest also comes with doing God’s will and following the path he has marked out for us: ‘Thus says the Lord, stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Jer. 6:16).
In the New Testament, Jesus invites to come to him ‘all you who labour and are burdened I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28). As he ministered to the crowds with his disciples, he instructs them to ‘come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest’ (Mark 6:31). Note how the experience of genuine rest is with Christ. This is seen again in a beautiful scene in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper when the beloved disciple reclines on Jesus’ breast in a simultaneous moment of both rest and loving union (John 13:23). In Hebrews, we are taught to regularly leave behind work ‘for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works just as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest’ (Heb. 4:11). Here is the basis of what we pray for the dead – that they ‘Rest in Peace’. The Church prays for all souls who have died, that the rest of God they experienced in time may be theirs for all eternity.
This theme of rest was not lost on some of the greatest thinkers and saints of the Church. As someone who had sought happiness and rest in sources other than God, St Augustine finally conceded that ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’ (Confessions, 1,1,1).
Saint Francis de Sales describes the time we make to rest in God as a time ‘for the heart to embrace Him and make Him its own’. For Francis, resting in God is a time ‘to spiritually drink and eat the perfections of divinity, for we make them our own’ (Treatise on the Love of God, Chapter 5). St Therese of Lisieux rejoiced in the words of Isaiah - ‘I will carry you at my breast and rock you in my lap’ (Is. 66:13, 12) and saw them as a constant invitation from God to return to his rest and safety in prayer (The Story of a Soul).
During this time of summer, it is important for all of us to slow down, reflect and allow our bodies and souls to re-charge. Vacation time is a time to explore new places, visit family members and friends, catch up on sleep, pursue hobbies, sports and enjoy ourselves. All this is good. But we need to know that no amount of entertainment, relaxation or distractions can ever be substitutes for resting in God.
But how do we rest in God? St John gives us the secret in his Gospel. We abide in him and his love (John 15:4-7). Resting in God means consciously coming into his presence, preferably before the Eucharist and during the Eucharist. This is a time to truly rest by just allowing God to love us and to pray in us, on His terms, not ours. It is a time to be passive before the Lord, to be silent, to be still, to be known by God as his child and to be loved by Him. It is a time to listen with our heart to his heart that communicates love and mercy as we lean on Christ’s breast like the beloved disciple at the Last Supper. This is the time when we are drawn closer to God and see ourselves before Him in a clearer light. We come to know who we are and what is our highest priority in life. It is a time when the Lord also reminds us of our vocation or place in the theo-drama he has reserved for us. This can be crucially important for us as we prepare to re-enter our daily routines once our vacations are over. During this time of prayer, God is refreshing us and providing the essential rest and strength we need to return to our busy schedules. Another way of resting our souls during vacation time is to make a good confession that brings forgiveness and healing to any area of our lives that need it. When we are burdened by sin and victim to any sinful and addictive behaviour, one of the effects is an exhaustion of the soul that no amount of sleep will cure. Only God’s forgiveness will do.
I hope you had a good vacation this summer as you deserved. We all need times of good quality rest. Even God rested after his work of creation which gives rest a divine dimension (Gen. 2: 2-4). If we go without the rest our bodies need then the health of our bodies will suffer. If our souls go without the rest they need they too will begin to break apart. I recently saw a Road Safety warning on a billboard that said: ‘Tiredness kills’. Yes, tiredness can kill not just the body but the soul if it does not rest in God. May every area of our lives rest in Him and be refreshed.