catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 24 :: 2010.12.31 — 2011.01.13


Break on through to the other side

For the first time in over a year and a half, my husband Rob and I will be taking a break that lasts more than just a day.  We’re quite disciplined about taking Sundays off, but, like a clog that stops responding to baking soda and vinegar and needs the full snake treatment, we’ve sensed a need for something more substantial.  As we ponder what’s next for us vocationally, we haven’t been able to clear enough clutter in our brains to assess the possibilities.  Too tired to do the discerning work necessary to make a change, we keep doing the same things over and over again and our imaginations are suffering for it.

I feel exhausted much of the time and I carry a lot of guilt around because of it.  After all, I usually get eight hours of sleep a night.  I find some time between work responsibilities to read and watch films and grow things.  Rob and I have even managed to carve out a job-share arrangement that allows us both the freedom to do a lot of currently unpaid work for *cino and for World Fare (the fair trade store we helped start). Compared to many people in the world whose bodies and spirits are broken by their work, I have it pretty darn good. 

That said, come Sunday afternoon, I can expect a sense of malaise to set in.  Even though I’ve dedicated the whole day to rest and rejuvenation, I find that I’ve lost the ability to figure out what it is that makes me feel renewed.  A few weeks ago, attempting to scratch that incomprehensible Sabbath itch by reading from an anthology of writing by Christian mystics, I stumbled on Blaise Pascal’s definition of ennui with a striking sense of recognition:

Ennui: Nothing is more unbearable to a man as a condition of complete rest, without passions, without business, without amusements, and without the need for application.  It is then that he feels his own nothingness, his abandoned state, his insufficiency, his dependent condition, his powerlessness, the vacuum within.  Forthwith there wells up, from the depths of his soul, ennui, blackness, sadness, melancholy, disgust, despair.

I think Pascal might agree that having a sense of our own nothingness can ultimately be a generative experience if we don’t stay there.  Ideally, in the disorientation of the darkness, we recognize our need for God and for others.  But I wonder if my restless Sundays just aren’t enough.  I see the nothingness, I feel hints of the despair, but I never quite manage to break on through to the other side.  This leave me feeling not excited about our impending vacation time, but apprehensive.  What if I get to the end of two weeks feeling like I just bided my time with “restful” activities until work could once again anaesthetize me to the persistent need for deeper change?

Another Sunday read I’ve been enjoying joins the chorus of voices that emphasize the necessity of rest, in spite of such fears.  In The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness, Mary Earle writes,

The teachings from the desert tell us that this kind of restless boredom is often caused by physical or spiritual exhaustion.  The ammas’ counsel to us would be to rest, to be still, to allow ourselves time to stop.  Imagine that, a Christian spiritual way that counsels rest when we are exhausted, and even considers exhaustion to be a dangerous spiritual condition.

I think I do have some legitimate issues of self-pity and privilege to work through when it comes to honestly assessing the level and causes of my exhaustion.  Despair and self-reflection are luxuries that so many cannot afford.  But I also think that shedding the guilt about needing a break would be a step forward, liberating me toward a focus other than myself.  Give up the agenda and the sense that rest needs to be somehow “productive.”  Don’t try to understand how it works.  Just be in the grace of the gift that can carry us through nothingness to something infinitely more on the other side.

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