Good Zeal


grassy pasture on monastery groundsMy blog topic was chosen to help me make a new beginning. What launched me again was the Chinese pictograph for “busy.” It is composed of 2 characters: heart and killing. How can I avoid crushing my soul with my current load of responsibilities?

In his book, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Muller recounts a story told by Sister Gilchrist, a Cistercian nun at the Abbey of the Mississippi. Among her responsibilities was helping manage the land where they raised cattle. From that same land, she picked the few wild herbs she could find for the kitchen. When the sisters learned about the practice of permaculture, they brought in a consultant to teach them this more sustainable and efficient use of land and animals. Instead of allowing their cattle to graze freely, a portion of the land was kept fallow for a period while the cattle fully grazed and fertilized another portion. Each section of the land was fully used, then allowed to rest.

Two years into the practice of permaculture, Sister Gilchrist was walking the fields to pick spring herbs for the kitchen. To her astonishment, she discovered dozens of new herbs and grasses she had never seen. The new grasses were so nutritious for the cattle, the sisters could stop supplementing the cows’ diet. From where had these new grasses and herbs come?! The seeds had been embedded in the soil all along, but the relentless trampling of the cattle prevented their growth. When both land and seeds were given a sabbath rest, the wonders of their full capability sprung to life.

Years before I entered the Benedictine Sisters, I began attending an annual contemplative retreat for women at Sacred Heart Monastery. Sister Mary McGehee and Sister Maurus Allen gave a retreat about sabbath-keeping. Their presentations were interspersed between hours of “fallow” silent time. This was my first immersion into and reflection upon sabbath rest as a sacred rhythm. A divine life-giving rhythm is baked into all creation. For the first time, I understood the 4th commandment: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. (Deut. 5:12; Exodus 20:8)

The Exodus version of the 4th commandment is tied to the creation story. In 6 days, God was busy being creative. The 7th day, God rested. Hmmm…so being unceasingly busy might be a contemporary cultural and business model, but not the Divine pattern for a life well lived. The Deuteronomy version of the commandment is tied to God’s redeeming power that released his chosen people from slavery in Egypt. Without a rhythm of work/rest, everything returns to slavery and abuse – of people, animals, land, you name it – everything!

Hence, my confession – That 4th commandment is perhaps the most challenging for me. Forty years of pastoral ministry have seemingly brought 24/7 demands. I often find myself exhausted body and soul like Sister Gilchrist’s pasture, relentlessly trampled. Why can’t I build fences around these demands (as good and holy as they are) to prevent them from exhausting the soil of my life? Why is God’s life-giving commandment to just “be” rather than “do” so impossible for one day a week? I’ve pondered this once again to face down my inner obstacles.

Sometimes, I can blame my perfectionism. Sometimes it is my failure to set and protect reasonable boundaries. Sometimes it is my dependence on real or perceived expectations of others. Sometimes it is my fear of failure, or my self-worth tied up with accomplishment. Who knows what else is hiding under there?!

I remind myself that regular sabbath rest need not be 24 hours on Saturdays or Sundays (though that would be lovely). But I must find a regular, sacred rhythm when work/busyness cease and rest/recreation begin. What could this sacred time look like? A visit to a museum, a walk in the woods or botanical garden, playtime with family or friends, a music concert, exploring places in Alabama I’ve never been, a day at a retreat center….so many possibilities for delight and gratitude for all that is beautiful and good.

Saint Benedict quotes the wisdom of the Psalms: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days…See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.” Can you see me raising my hand? I want those good days! God’s fourth commandment points me in that direction. Every new week offers me this permaculture farming sort of wisdom. This week, I will begin again to schedule some fallow, restorative sabbath time. I can set a fence around the “cattle” of demands. Yes, I yearn to see a greater abundance and capacity for life spring up and flourish like Sister Gilchrist’s herbs and grasses. Yes, I yearn to be set free from relentless bondage to busyness, like the Hebrew people escaping slavery in Egypt. In conclusion, ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes 4:6 affirms this. “Better is one hand full of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind.”

By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB

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