2 Sm 7:1-14a; Ps 89:20-37; Eph 2:11-22; MARK 6:30-56
This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice… AMEN.
What do you do for short-term or longer-term respite? Does it vary in heat or cold? What do you look for from that time, and how do you know it’s “worked” for you? Imbedded in the whole Gospel passage are these questions and sketched answers, but the feeding and healing narratives, and the four-fold preview of the Last Supper and the Eucharist, are so significant, the lectionary makers have cut the whole sharply.
People for at least 2500 years in warm weather have gone to the theater. They sat on hillsides in Athens, Epidauros, and other places, probably after the heat of the day, probably not in darkness. They watched comedies and tragedies for hours on end, in Greek antiquity seeing a trilogy of tragedies plus a comedy for relief. In other eras, other cultures, versions of this respite were common. Theater was so engaging, worries, wars, and more were held at bay. The Romans certainly continued this tradition: building theaters in many places they colonized, spreading cultural traditions. I’ve been to theaters on Sicily, in Lyon and Nice, and there are many others. Sometimes those places don’t feel safe. Obviously I’m thinking of the attack at the movie theater in Aurora, Col. An NPR story about it listed other shootings at theaters, to say there was some precedent for this, but the scale of Thursday’s was huge and as upsetting as other random, mass shootings. I was stuck on the respite thinking and how many of us go to those blockbuster movies exactly for air-conditioning, totally absorbing (even if possibly silly) content, and a communally focused diversion. I didn’t listen to NPR’s theater list, but remembered that Doris Kearns Goodwin had said that Lincoln was at Ford’s Theater for respite that night. Even during the heat of war, he went regularly—maybe 3 or 4 times a week. (Booth, obviously, shot him there because he could get to him, so it was a targeted shooting, not an appalling act of random violence— a big difference.) Lincoln’s reason for being there was not a frivolous, “There’s a war on; I’m going to the theater” one. He went to get away from people talking, talking, talking to him, and to sit quietly by himself, and to consider human character—a feature of theater. People came in waves and crowds to him all the time, about the war, strategy, the country, their sons and husbands, and to press in on him constantly. Even when “office hours” were over, they kept coming to him through various officials, and he needed to get away by himself, and he needed to pray.
Here, then is today’s Gospel edited for what I was thinking about. “Jesus said to the apostles, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’” “Then he saw a great crowd and had compassion for them… After saying farewell to them, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, he was alone on the land. He intended to pass them by, for they were terrified, but he spoke to the apostles and said ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ When they had crossed over, many people recognized him and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” That’s the rest, respite, prayer, and results outline I saw, especially thinking about respite, vacation, and their importance.
Jesus understood himself well enough to know he needed a break. Humans do get weary and need time off. He recognized that his co-workers were also tired, and so they all went off to a deserted place. From what were they weary? I’d wager not from the healings themselves, or the personal interactions, but the crowd’s relentless hemming them in cutting off their roads and choices. We’ve learned from Jesus “The poor you’ll always have with you,” but it’s not the category of the needy, but the constant, pressing omnipresence of crowds pressuring Jesus to fix them immediately and relentlessly that was really always with him. Lincoln couldn’t get a quiet moment in the White House for the same reasons. We are beset by emails and phone calls, parking and traffic, clutter and paper, and war and disasters all banging in on us all the time. All the wonderful modern communication methods keep us au courant with wars and disasters everywhere, and it takes enormous discipline and blocking out information to find respite, even if we think it’s permitted to us, let alone, good or crucial for us. All people need respite—how do we get it and what are we looking for?
Reading someone’s blog, I came across Carl McColman’s “Four Compass Points for the Spiritual Life,” which seemed to me to address these questions sensibly. While I don’t think everyone of us who wants to “take a break,” “get a respite,” “feels burned out,” is conscious of hungering for intimacy with God, I think C. S. Lewis is right, describing this restless feeling as “the imaginative longing for Joy, or rather the longing which was Joy.” “This Joy-with-a-capital-J is both the grace and the object of the spiritual life: the love that both flows from God and yet is God,” McColman writes.
He goes on to offer “four orienting dimensions of the spiritual life, each one presented as a statement not a command, but an invitation. 1. Live into the Questions…Spirituality begins not with answers but with questions. Who am I? Why am I here?” and so on. “This is the beginning, and the continuation, of the spiritual life. 2. Discover the Gifts. Mysticism is related to mystery, and mystery, in Christian spirituality, is related to the hidden things of God. So part of spirituality involves discovery: finding the hidden treasures and manifesting them in our lives. Such mysteries often come to us through sacraments (sacred rituals of grace) and through charisms (gifts from God)” and more. 3. “Remember the Stories”: “Human beings are storytellers, and as I said, each of us has a story to tell. The stories of men and women who loved God in the past—up to and including the present day—can be profound inspiration for each of us on our own unique God-search today. So let us take time to learn about, imitate, and honor the mystics and contemplatives and sages and saints of the past.” McColman names some, and I would add some fiction characters, who also act as our exemplars. We each have favorites, so we need time and space to tell ourselves their stories again, as McColman says, “ we are nurtured in our own unfolding stories of intimacy with God.” Finally, 4 “Embrace the Practices.” “As we live into the questions, receive the charisms, and honor the stories, we discover that we are called: called not only to reflect, receive, and remember, but also to respond… What choices are we invited to make? What disciplines and practices can we commit to? In what way will prayer, meditation, contemplation, fasting, study of scripture, and serving others take shape in our daily lives? How will our lives change, and what will such a transformed, transfigured life look like? No easy answers here but when we embrace the silence, we find that it will make all things new—including our very selves.” “Four Compass points: Live into the Questions, Discover the Gifts, Remember the Stories, and Embrace the Practices.”
These are a version of what respite could be for and how to proceed. Jesus took just the guys off to talk together. They knew that some of their gifts were feeding, healing, and giving people heart, and yet they were weary of doing just those things, because there was seemingly an endless stream of those needy people. The guys came back to work, continuing, to offer their gifts, and I’m sure telling about various people they’d met and gotten to know, and their stories, and ways some were now going to join. Then while they were all talking together, Jesus went up the mountain to be alone to pray. He craved silence and embraced it, making all things new. He knew that all people need rest and respite, remembering that on the seventh day, even God rested. He understood that it was a divine need too, a need for all.
After going on retreat with the guys, he fed 5000 men and others. Recovering from that and his time alone, he still had compassion for the crowds who closed in on him, and healed every one, but even he couldn’t—or didn’t—work ceaselessly. The timeout occasions led directly to his compassion, his feeding, healing, and offering an avenue of grace for all times, in taking, blessing, breaking, and giving of bread.
We can do no less to strengthen ourselves, our life together, as individuals, parish, people on mission, and servants and exemplars of God. Whether providence or intention, this Gospel acts as a commercial for vacation. It’s life-giving to us, our souls, and bodies to find respite, enter it fully, and then continue in service to God’s people to bring about God’s reign. To paraphrase: “I invite you to a holy respite.” We follow Jesus and our Creator in observing respites, weekly days of rest, and alone times. Let us each trust that need and value, and find the joy such time offers. Jesus is our model and our Joy now and always: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 22 July 2012 St. John’s, Boston