Some old men came to see Abba Poemen, and said to him: Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake? The old man said to them: Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.Desert Wisdom, Sayings From the Desert Fathers, p 17
This morning I am feeling exhausted. I’ve had conversations with people about the spiritual soul-searching they are experiencing because of the protests and debates of the last few weeks; my own personal grappling with the same; additional stress and obligations at work; and some unexpected spiritual concerns that seem to have arisen out of nowhere. I’m physically tired, and more than just a bit emotionally run down. The idea of laying my head on someone’s knees and resting while someone else is watching out for any interruptions or dangers sounds fantastic. The idea of allowing my mind to rest and be free of distractions for just one hour sounds even better.
In today’s culture of constant motion, it seems that the only way to make time for rest – mental, spiritual, or physical – is to forcibly remove ourselves from our jobs, our ministries, and our families by shutting off all our devices and retreating to the wilderness. It seems like that is the only way to slow things down enough to allow our thoughts to collect.
The thing is, I could get rid of most of these distractions, since for the most part, I have permitted them the space in my life. Other distractions are not so easy to get rid of. Some come from work, some come from ministry, and others are simply unavoidable, such as family obligations or emergencies.
But even then, these obligations may not be a hardship, because we love our family and care for those in our ministries. They may take our time and distract us from things we may wish to do for ourselves, but they are things that we have gladly taken upon ourselves. And, of course, they can be dealt with through proper self care.
But there’s more to this little story of a tired brother. There is so much more wrapped up into the simple idea of pinching the brother so that he stays awake during the sacred office. So many ideas of what it means to be right and holy.
Some people place demands upon others for a level of holiness that can never be attained. And, what’s worse, they believe there should be some punishment for failing to live up to those standards. There is no attempt at understanding what the other has experienced. There is no attempt to see things from another point of view. There is no desire to see things outside of the viewpoint of what is right, and how it should be.
This past Sunday, the Gospel message included the words of Jesus, saying
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I am gentle.
I am humble of heart.
My yoke is easy.
My burden is light.
Abba Poemen had it right. He took things at face value. We cannot ever know what another is going through unless we have shared their lives and understood their situation. If a brother says that he is tired, or that brother is already asleep, then all we can understand is that our brother needs rest. If a brother is angry, saddened, bitter, or spiritually numb, we can only take things at face value and understand that he is angry, sad, bitter, or spiritually numb.
Our job is to be gentle of heart, to be humble, and to provide a rest for their souls.