Sacred Idleness: A Summertime Spirituality

Woman stand at end of pier above lake
Woman stand at end of pier above lake

While the season of summer may be more behind us than before us, summertime spirituality inspires the warm immediacy of God's presence in all seasons. The 19th century Scottish author George Macdonald aptly puts it: "There is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected."

Sacred idleness nourishes the soul, and it teaches us the wisdom of doing nothing in particular with a purpose.

A few summers ago, I set out on a spiritual pilgrimage to the birthplace of Scottish Christianity and the Mecca of Celtic Christianity throughout the British Isles: The Isle of Iona, Scotland.

Iona is an island that one Irish priest has described as still having the "freshness of the first day of creation."

It is easy to see why Iona has become a holy refuge for Christian pilgrims for hundreds of years. Its pebbled beaches, high stone Celtic crosses, lush, green hills, glistening stones at St. Columba's Bay, and even the wooly, wooly sheep are the external and visible signs of our internal and invisible spiritual landscape. Iona occupies holy turf in the middle of the Scottish surf. It is the physical embodiment of what Celtic Christian spirituality calls a "thin place," in which something like only a Kleenex separates the spiritual and the material.

Even with all of its magic and mystique, Iona is really but a geographical icon that helps us see that there are more thin places than we'll ever take notice of, whether we travel to some faraway place or to our own backyards.

Iona teaches us afresh that a sanctuary of the soul is not dependent on one geographical location. A sanctuary of the soul -- like the Sabbath rest of the Ten Commandments -- is an open invitation to everyone in every place.

This is to say that rest cannot be Rated R only (restricted to vacations!), and we learn from Jesus' genius in the Gospel of Mark about this. Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while" (6:31).

Jesus in postmodern paraphrase might say: "Come away to a deserted place where there are no flat screens, where iPads will have no wireless connection, and a text message will cost more than a U.S postal stamp."

Truth be told, this probably sounds like rest to some of us and stress to the rest of us.

Whatever our 21st century, technologically programmed reactions, Jesus' first century, spiritually innovative invitation reveals that some things are better valued in what is quiet and contemplative rather than what is clamorous and complex.

Some things are better experienced than explained; a Mendelssohn quartet, a smoky Scotch, fresh food, the Chicago Cubs in the heat of a playoff race, the church's prayers, chants of healing, or bedtime prayers with our children. This is the beginning of sacred idleness. And, this is but a sample of the raw materials of a Sabbath rest.

One of my favorite singer-songwriters is North Carolina born and bred
David Wilcox. He once went for a run on the hills beyond the Hudson River and found marked on a marble tombstone these words, "Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing."

Silence, like Sabbath, is a source of wisdom when we let it be. We might tend to think of silence the way I did in my elementary school cafeteria when the principal would gruffly say, "No talking!" when we got too loud. I've since learned that God is not some cranky school principal. And silence does not mean that we are not allowed to speak. True silence means that we are free from "having" to speak. Sacred silence is the flawless eloquence of our heart's longing to be healed from all that harms us.

Remembering the Sabbath is a way of drinking from the river of silence. It is not about keeping a rule. After all, Jesus says, "Sabbath was made for humankind. Humankind was not made for the Sabbath."

Put in an even more ancient way, "More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." That is to say, the Sabbath is not merely about keeping a day holy. Keeping the Sabbath is about keeping us whole.

Yes, there is such a thing as sacred idleness, and it is neglected to our peril. So, do not neglect it. Go and do nothing in particular with a purpose: Cut your grass, wash your car, walk barefoot in your yard, daydream, make love, smell the flowers, cancel a meeting, pack a picnic, take a nap, pray with words or without, play with your kids.

Go ahead and practice sacred idleness. And while you do, know that the God of this Sabbath rest is working for your healing and for your good, no matter what season of your life it is.