ONE OF the biggest blessings in life is being able to take a good night’s REST. We often take this blessing for granted. We also don’t realize how important it is to be able to rest well if we want our lives to be truly productive.
You see, not all people are able to enjoy the blessing of rest. Some are simply unable to find rest. There are even those who need medication and all sorts of techniques to be able to sleep. I remember someone with a sleeping problem telling me how much he envies cargo truck drivers who install a hammock between the huge wheels of their parked vehicles and stretch out for a siesta by the roadside. On another instance, he said, he was going to take a tricycle but the driver was asleep. He was curled up in fetal position on the seat inside his tricycle; he was so sound asleep, he was even snoring. The man with the sleeping problem said, “I felt so envious of him that I took a photo of him and sometimes use it to induce myself to sleep.”
Some people ask, what is the secret? What does it take to be able to get a good rest? Well, as I grow older, I realize more and more that it is not really the quantity of rest that I get that matters, but the quality of it. There are people who tell me that even after sleeping for ten hours, they still wake up feeling weary and dragging their feet to their workplace.
Although we have one of the ten commandments in the Bible which is about rest, not all Christians realize what this commandment is really saying. The Jews call it SABBATH, which, in Hebrew does indeed mean REST. But read it again, whether in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, the commandment does not say THOU SHALT TAKE A REST. Rather, it says, THOU SHALT KEEP HOLY THY REST. In simpler English THOU SHALT CONSECRATE THY REST.
What does it mean to consecrate our rest? It means to take time to lift up to God all our endeavors. To find God in all our labors, our activities, our relationships, our cares and concerns. To find meaning and purpose in the good things that we do, so that we actually look forward to doing them again.
I heard an interesting commentary on Sabbath from a well-known Jewish philosopher many years ago when I was still doing my doctoral studies in the University of Louvain in Belgium. His name is Emmanuel Levinas. I remember him standing in the podium of the conference room looking like a wise old Rabbi, telling us that people in the west have missed the point about the Sabbath. He said, instead of consecrating their Sabbath, they try to “compensate”. They work, work, and work so that they can splurge or binge or go partying in wild abandon during their weekends or their vacation. They love to say TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday!), but you never hear them say TGIM (Thank God It’s Monday!). They try to compensate precisely because they associate their labor with weariness and misery. Because they are unable to consecrate their labor, they literally drag their feet to work and never get to find anything life-giving about their activities. It is then that work becomes truly burdensome for them.
Take my yoke…
Rest is so intertwined with labor. Don’t you find it paradoxical that Jesus says, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” And then the next line says, “Take my yoke upon your shoulder…” Isn’t a yoke associated with the burden of labor literally being hoisted on the shoulder of a cow or a carabao? I think what Jesus is trying to tell us here is that it is when we learn to take the yoke of “divine labor” that we actually learn to rest. When we learn to see our work as a participation in God’s work of creation, God’s creative activity. We are God’s image and likeness, aren’t we?
Work, as often pointed out in the Catholic social teachings, is never meant to alienate, oppress, dehumanize, or make human beings miserable. Take note that in the book of Deuteronomy, the main justification for the Sabbath is social justice: that the day of rest is not just for us, it is also for servants, for animals, and for the earth! Everything that’s alive in this world needs rest in order to be able to regenerate.
It is when we rest that we become most Godlike, says the Biblical writer, because God himself rested on the seventh day. He took time to behold everything that he had done AND SAY THAT IT WAS GOOD! That is the point about consecrating rest: it is about finding space to see goodness in what we do. It is what Jesus means when he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It makes a big difference when our work becomes an expression of our life’s vocation and mission, when—however humble it is we are able to do it with dedication and purpose. However heavy it is, it becomes light because you do it out of love, because you find it meaningful.
The opposite of this is labor without love and without meaning, the labor that oppresses or alienates. Perhaps even worse is when we find ourselves engaging in activities that are destructive, not creative. When instead of generating life, our endeavors cause pain, misery or even death on others. Remember what happened after Cain murdered his brother Abel? Remember what kind of punishment he received? Not death. He was rather condemned to a life of “restless wandering,” a perpetually burdened life with no goal, no direction, no rest.
I have heard of people who, at the peak of their career suddenly get into a crisis and ask themselves, “What am I doing all this for?” They wake up to the reality that work has dehumanized them, turned them into robots or automatons, work has made them competitive, aggressive, ambitious, arrogant. They do not even feel proud of what they do.
Imagine if you are a policeman and you know that your job is to protect the lives of citizens. But one day you wake up and ask yourself why you have become so unhappy with your work. You know deep down that even if people are suspected of any crime, it is never right to abduct, to plant evidence, or kill defenseless people and fabricate false reports. Or even worse, to find yourself doing the job of a death squad whose work is to murder for a fee?
No wonder the families of victims put a chick on the windows of the coffins of their loved ones. Since they cannot claim justice, the only divine justice they ask for is that the killers be tormented and rendered restless all their lives until they repent from their evil deeds.
Jesus, the Teacher, says to his disciples, “Learn from me.” We cannot learn if we think we are too clever and learned already. Alas, only those who are childlike, who remain “gentle and humble of heart” can truly learn and discover the blessing of REST.
Stubbornness and hardness of heart is yet another reason for RESTLESSNESS. Everyday, at morning prayer, in the Liturgy of the Hours, we keep reciting that part of Psalm 95 where God says, “Forty years I endured that generation. I said, they are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways. So, I swore in my anger THEY SHAL NOT ENTER INTO MY REST. “
St. Augustine describes himself before his conversion as a RESTLESS SOUL. He said, in his Confessions, “I kept looking for you outside, in created things, only to discover that you were there all along, waiting inside of me. You have made us for yourself o God, and OUR HEARTS ARE RESTLESS UNTIL THEY REST IN THEE.”
Now I realize why Jesus made it a matter of routine to wake up early to pray. It was not enough for him to rest his body. He also needed to consecrate his labor in prayer, so he went into solitude every now and then. Sometimes, his disciples went looking for him. Perhaps they knew that his prayer gave him an immense amount of energy. And so, they approached him once with a request, “Lord, teach us to PRAY.” (Luke 11:1) I think what they really meant was, “Lord, teach us to REST.”
(Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 05 July 2020, Mat. 11:25-30)