Congress will (let’s hope) go into summer recess soon, if they can finish whatever they think they’re doing. An old joke in Washington – even before the House and Senate spectacles of recent years: at least during the vacation, the Constitution is (temporarily) safe and the nation secure. Also this week (August 15, Feast of the Assumption), parts of Europe, notably Italy, will enter ferragosto: that blessed time when most activity ceases until early September. Lately, it has seemed very good when the Vatican goes quiet as well. But these are only passing interruptions in the turmoil of institutions. At this time of year, it’s even better for each of us to try to enter into deeper, personal stillness.
The challenges never go away, and we can’t abandon the struggle for the Good, True, and Beautiful. But a neglected part of that struggle, as the Psalmist says, is to “Be Still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:11) For most Americans, eager to do or achieve something, this is a hard saying. We have a native bent towards Pelagianism, as if we can – in the absurd modern lie – “be/do anything we want,” if we just work harder, smarter, better. But we can’t.
Just before “Be still,” the Psalmist explains:
9 Come and see the works of the LORD,
who has done fearsome deeds on earth;
10 Who stops wars to the ends of the earth,
breaks the bow, splinters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire. . .
Many things depend on us. But the greatest things, even the ability to carry out our duties, do not come merely by our own efforts. We have to invite graces that far exceed anything we ourselves could do.
I remember being brought to a full stop reading a brilliant essay by Edith Stein (now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) in which she describes how after having been a fierce intellectual (research assistant to the great philosopher Edmund Husserl – Martin Heidegger succeeded her) she discovered the importance of “resting in God, an absolute break from all intellectual activity, when one forms no plans, makes no decisions and for the first time really ceases to act, when one simply hands over the future to God’s will and ‘surrenders himself to fate.’”
To many people, this looks like fatalism. It’s not. She explains:
God is there in these moments of rest and can give us in a single instant exactly what we need. Then the rest of the day can take its course under the same effort and strain, perhaps, but in peace. And when night looks back and you see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it to Him – really rest – and start the next day as a new life.
Our inclination to think this is “fatalism” says more about us than about the truth of things. Resting in God is more like the practice of teaching our swollen egos that we are not in control of very much, not even in our own sphere. We talk a lot these days about defining yourself – your identity, your “gender,” even “your truth.” Acknowledging and even welcoming how much is not subject to human powers takes humility – a humility that looks like “death of the self” to people captivated by notions of their own radical autonomy – from others, nature, even God. But it’s not death; it’s true life.
In my experience, you have to seek out what moves you – in particular – to various forms of rest and contemplation:
• If you’ve been so busy about whatever you think is of overriding importance, that you’ve isolated yourself – a particular problem in COVID-time – you have to detach for a while. Pay greater attention to whomever is around you. Make a point of doing what we all often feel too busy to do, just be with other people. Surprising graces follow.
• We’re also often divorced from nature. We confuse screens and virtual reality with “real” reality – another danger, especially for those of us who earn a living looking at and producing swarms of pixels. One thing I myself like to do in summer is get outdoors somewhere, preferably away from urban light pollution, look at the Milky Way as our ancestors saw it, an immense, spiraling band across the sky. They didn’t have modern astronomy, but they had a direct, livelier sense of the immensity of Creation. And as a bonus: the Perseid meteor shower peaks, starting tonight.
You can start small too. The great American theologian Avery Dulles had a life-changing revelation as a Harvard undergraduate just seeing a tree blooming.
It’s our bane that we look at others – sometimes even ourselves – and the physical world solely through scientific lenses: biology, psychology, sociology, astronomy, and not as the strange and wonderfully inexplicable beings that we all are.
I say again: to enter into this realm of rest is, ironically, not easy for us. We’re more comfortable with thinking about labor statistics, college enrollments, market indicators, moral disasters. There’s a place for all that – a limited one. And it all comes back soon enough. The realm of rest and contemplation is a fulfillment for us precisely because it’s also beyond us. Pagan Aristotle knew that how we “do leisure” [scholen agein] is the “main thing” because “man cannot live this way insofar as he is a man, but only insofar as something divine dwells in him.”
There are whole libraries of Catholic works about contemplation. It all begins simply, however, with making times to be “still.” We “know” – in the abstract – that something divine dwells in us. But it takes an effort at quiet, detachment, to know it not just in our heads but our hearts and very bones. There’s no time like easy summer – right now – to make a start.