Credo: why we would all benefit from a bit of sacred idleness


Sheila Watson

Published at 12:01AM, August 23 2014

“Retired? I have never been so busy. I do not know how I had time to work.” It is difficult to admit that we do not have much to fill out our day. Whatever our age or stage, we are all too proud of full diaries; and the pressures of the workplace, generated by the need for productivity, grow ever greater.
Not long ago, one manufacturer boasted, “Sure we take vacations. They are called lunch breaks.”
Overwork, busyness, is a symbol of status — the mobile to answer, the emails to send, the people to see, the family to catch up on over the bank holiday. It is very seductive.
Implicit within it is the sense that value depends on the volume of activity. We are justified by how much we get done.
In theological language it means justification by works at its most extreme: a conviction that salvation is earned by what we do. It is hard to believe that leisure was once the status symbol. “Only in leisure are we at our most human”, Aristotle says.
We forget or maybe never knew that in the middle of the 20th century academics and politicians worried about how people would fill their time in a new age of leisure. How different the outcome. Today “hurry sickness” is upon us. We hate the time it takes to boot up the computer. We search for another task to fit in while microwaving. Our danger is that in the race to save minutes we waste lives.
As Christians we believe, of course, that behaviour matters, but our faith challenges us to deeper perspectives. Five years ago this weekend a friend was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which subsequently killed him. His wife was at the same time undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. As we had a cup of tea on that bank holiday, to my surprise they seemed almost contented. His wife smiled as she remarked: “We are just doing ordinary, quiet things like having a cup of tea together in the garden — enjoying what there is.”
It reminded me of one of Ian McEwan’s characters who says, “I have spent my whole life discovering that the moment you enter the present fully you find space, infinite time, call it God if you want.”
We glimpse here the God of Christian teaching on the sacrament, the sacredness, of the present moment. Jesus sets it out very simply when he reminds us not to be anxious, saying, “Look at the lilies of the field. They do not work. They do not spin. Yet even Solomon in all his glory was not attired like one of these.”
The saints follow suit. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop in North Africa in the 4th/early 5th century, whom Christians remember this coming week, knew only too well what it meant to be drawn away from the important to the urgent amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy port and the constant demand on a religious leader. When a friend has a go at him for failing to get on with his great work, the City of God, he pleads the distractions of work.
Augustine experienced the modern juggling act of trying to do everything. He was at pains, therefore, to make the distinction between worldly wisdom (the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge in the sense of “knowing about”) and contemplation (sapientia meaning divine wisdom, godly insight).
At the fulcrum between the two, Augustine placed the “eye of the heart”, which he describes as seeing with compassion. Too often we are too busy, too harsh in our judgments, too full of ourselves to take the time to look and see what God gives. Bank holidays offer us that time for a cup of tea, even if it is too wet to be in the garden; or the time to go for a walk or a cycle ride.
They give us the opportunity to discover the present as sacred space, and the chance to look with compassion, seeing with the eye of the heart. George MacDonald, a Methodist minister in the 19th century, sums it up with a cure for hurry sickness that may save lives: “Work is not always required of man. There is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.”
The Venerable Sheila Watson is Archdeacon of Canterbury

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