Friday, January 20, 2012

From Out of Idleness

To insure the greatest efficiency if the dart
the harpooners of this world
must start to their feet from out of idleness,
and not from out of toil.
~Herman Melville
This quote from Melville is found on the first pages of Eugene Peterson's new book, The Pastor: A Memoir. It was given to me as a gift this past Christmas, a gift I was excited to receive. Ever since I began studying religion in college, ever since I began the intentional preparation for parish ministry, I've found clergy memoirs to be some of the most important reading I can do. They nourish my spirit and challenge my assumptions over and over again, enabling me to glimpse—just for a moment—what a life of ministry looks like from the other end.

Peterson's memoir is, as I expected, powerful and moving. It pushes me to reconsider my own perspectives and assumptions regarding priestly ministry. I'm reading it from Colorado, during a family vacation here. I think that is perhaps why that quote at the very beginning, that quote about idleness, has stood out to me so much. Though cross-country skiing, hiking, snow-shoeing, and all other outdoors activities are not idleness, strictly defined, this time is still an idleness of sorts.

I mean, heck, I have time to read a book.

The timing of this vacation was not ideal in terms of parochial life. Our Annual Parish Meeting is this coming Sunday, the day after I get back in town. I worked hard in the week before I left to be prepared, to write reports and ensure everything was lined up for a smooth parish meeting. But it's been hard this past week, as I've sought rest, relaxation, and re-creation with my family to remain in a place of idleness. The draw of work is always in the back of my mind. Though I turned on my e-mail vacation auto-responder, I've still been keeping my eye on e-mails as they come in. I've even, dare I confess, responded to a few.

It's hard to find a place of idleness.

One might think, given a cursory reading of Benedict's rule, that idleness is a bad thing. Indeed, chapter 48 of the Rule begins, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul." The chapter goes on to describe a schedule of daily manual labor that is an essential part of the Benedictine life. But it says more than that. In the midst of this section on work, Benedict says, "After the sixth hour, having left the table, let them rest on their beds in perfect silence; or if anyone may perhaps want to read, let her read to herself in such a way as not to disturb anyone else."

The "sixth hour" or "sext" is the office said at noon. It is often followed or preceded by lunch. To wit, in this section, Benedict instructs that after lunch the monks are to take a nap.

Or if they don't want a nap, then to go ahead and read, just don't bother those who are taking a nap.

There is a type of idleness that is indeed an enemy to the soul, this is idleness that is often called "sloth." One of the seven deadly sins, sloth is dangerous to the soul because it creates acedia, or a lack of care for the world. Sloth is a lazy inactivity that both stems from not caring and that creates a level of detachment from the world around us.

But I don't think that this slothful idleness is what Melville was writing about. I don't think this slothful idleness is what Peterson was thinking of when he chose to place Melville's quote at the beginning of his book. I think the idleness of Melville and Peterson is the one Benedict places, ironically enough, smack dab in the middle of a section about work.

Because idleness is essential to faithful work.

Originally, when I was getting ready to take this vacation, I was thinking I wouldn't want to do this again. I was thinking I wouldn't again want to go on vacation and then arrive back in town the day before a significant moment in the life of the church. But I wonder if there might be wisdom in this. I wonder if, perhaps, there might be wisdom in starting to my feet this Sunday not out of work, but out of idleness.

It certainly makes me grateful to work in a diocese where our bishop insists upon a weekly time of idleness. In diocesan language, the priest is expected to maintain "a 48 hour period each week devoted solely to personal and family use." It's hard to do and like vacation I don't always do it perfectly.

But I'm getting better.

I'm getting better at holding on to times of idleness. I'm getting better at laying down my harpoon and resting against the side of the boat. I'm getting better at turning on some of my favorite music as I work through e-mails in the afternoon (probably the strangest spiritual discipline I've ever had suggested me by a spiritual director). It's not the afternoon nap of the monastery, but it is forcing my mind to take a step back, to relax...

And I find that the work that proceeds from idleness is less flurry of activity and more careful and intentional... less batting at the air and more a careful harpoon thrown at the anxiety which infects our world.

This Sunday is a big day in the life of our parish, any Annual Meeting in any parish is a significant moment. So I'm getting ready for it, my feet propped up in front of me, a fire in the fireplace, my wife leaning on the couch next to me slowly slipping into a nap, and the snow lazily falling down around us. This is a preparation for work that can only be accomplished through a sort of holy idleness.

And I think it's a small part of my very salvation.

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