“Work is not always required of a man.
There is such a thing as
the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.”
– George MacDonald
If there is a concept I need to grasp in the midst of the frantic wind of demands and possibilities and turmoil that blows through our days and weeks, it is this: sacred idleness.
It needs to be cultivated, rest. It doesn’t just happen on its own. I think too often of rest as that thing I’ll get to when everything else is done, but everything else is never done, and even when idleness asserts itself in protest to a mind or body on overdrive, it’s rarely a sacred, restorative time or place – unless it is cultivated as such.
“Suppose we went at a slow enough pace…to feel our bodies, play with children, look openly, without agenda or timetable into the faces of loved ones… Suppose we took time each day to sit in silence. I think if we did those things, the world wouldn’t need much saving.”
– Donella H. Meadows
Rest is not meant to be the place I go to recover from work – it is the place where everything else is conceived. The drive and the idleness of creative people is one of the paradoxical personality patterns Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. It may be a cliché but it’s still true: we are meant to work from rest, not rest from work. Rest is the place where the wisdom to know what to do (and, of course, what not to do) is given to us. It is the place where courage is forged. It is a place we can go to get the fuel we need. It’s the place where insight, creativity and innovation are born.
In sacred idleness my roots are watered and nourishment is given to my body, my mind, my spirit, my soul.
“Even if something is left undone,
everyone must take time to sit still
and watch the leaves turn.”
– Elizabeth Lawrence
Rest is one of those things that I circle back around to again and again and again on my spiral of growth and “even if something is left undone…” is a line I can easily stumble over. For rest is not what we do when everything else is done – and yet how hard it is for some of us to consciously leave things undone.
The more demands we have on us, the more we need our rest. The more creativity we desire, the more we need to play. The more productive we want to be, the more desperately, protectively, ruthlessly we must cultivate our time for sacred idleness.
“…it is not merely the trivial
which clutter our lives
but the important as well.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh, from “Gift From the Sea”
The problem is something has to go. It does, doesn’t it? I’ve been reading the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown recently (it’s simple, profound and so, so good!). In one of its chapters, he addresses three false assumptions and argues convincingly that we need to replace them with three core truths. One of the false assumptions is “I can do both…”and its corresponding truth is this: “I can do anything but not everything.”
The kicker is, if rest and sacred idleness really are important (and they certainly are), then something else that feels important is going to have to go. I know this. I know that the harsh reality of trade-offs must be faced – that to cultivate the land of my life for fruitfulness I must weed out the thorns of this and that and the other, however tantalising beautiful they may look and however deep-rooted they may be.
The process of discernment isn’t always easy, the courage it takes to make the hard choices is sometimes daunting and I often feel a sense of responsibility that I struggle to know what to do with.
But as the Essentialism book makes clear, it is only by doing less that we become able to make our greatest contributions. This is partly by avoiding fragmenting our energy and efforts, and it is partly because without rest, and without some space to think, we are pretty ill-equipped to do anything important!
“If you are losing your leisure, look out!
You are losing your soul.”
– Logan Pearsall Smith
I know what it’s like to live more slowly. Hustle may be all the rage, but I’ve tasted sacred idleness. I know the kind of work that comes out of that kind of rest. More importantly, I know the kind of person that comes out of that kind of rest. We need, we so need, that holy rest.
I am motivated in this by a heart-burning truth: I know I have had amazing seeds of potential planted inside of me. I know you have too. Those seeds have taken root and are bursting through the soil – tender seedlings heavy with the promise of beauty, strength and the nourishment that they can provide.
But they’re not invincible.
Thorns take root in the fertile soil around them and threaten to choke them out. Weeds float in which are things of beauty now, but will not last. They steal the space and kill those tender plants.
It is not my job to “produce” but it is my job to weed. These seeds will grow all on their own, if only I will cultivate the land. If only I will make space – space for life – all the goodness which has been planted inside of me will grow to produce a harvest beyond my wildest dreams.
“Only a few things really matter.”
– Greg McKeown
Rest is an intimate place. It is a place of sinking into divine beauty and love. Here, in rest, nothing is demanded of me. Here is the place where I get really still so I can hear the truth. Here, quiet confidence is built. Here repentance for frantic, reactionary, insecure and purposeless days is made. Here I am restored and remade.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
Due credit to Greg McKeown, with heartfelt thanks for his excellent book. Due credit also to the Helen Exley Giftbook Taking Time to Just Be (2005) from where I sourced many of the quotes used. The inspiration for the thorns and seeds chat echoes, of course, Jesus’ wisdom as told through the Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed in Matthew 13.
Also cited: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.