Dearest monks and artists,
My word for this year is surplus. It is a word which has been working on me for some time now. A couple of summers ago I was pondering how to make the work I love so much sustainable both energetically and financially. Even with work that arises out of passion, we bump up against our limits of what we can give and how much renewal we need.
As a contemplative and a strong introvert, my needs for quiet times are high and I am grateful for our seasonal rhythms which allow for extended times of restoration. But there is, of course, always the anxiety around money and being able to earn enough to live.
Then last summer my pondering shifted to consider something even more generous than merely sustainable: surplus. I am not just thinking about how to have enough energy and resources to meet the needs of this flourishing community, but to have more than enough, a surplus, an excess of reserves.
My word is inspired by a quote I read a couple of years ago by Jungian analyst Robert Johnson in his book The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: “Nothing happens, which is enough to frighten any modern person. But that kind of nothingness is the accumulation or storing of healing energy. . . to have a store of energy accumulated is to have power in back of one. We live with our psychic energy in modern times much as we do with our money—mortgaged into the next decade. Most modern people are exhausted nearly all the time and never catch up to an equilibrium of energy, let alone have a store of energy behind them. With no energy in store, one cannot meet any new opportunity.” Those words have stayed with me ever since I read them, because I have recognized the contemplative call in them.
What makes this path so counter-cultural is the active resistance against living a life of busyness and exhaustion, of not making that a badge of pride, of having an abundance of time to ponder and live life more slowly and attentively. How many of us feel our energy is mortgaged into the next decade? How many of us can never catch up with the rest we so desperately need much less feel like we have a “store of energy” behind us? I think many of us live in the tension of “what is enough?” Enough time, enough money, enough love.
We are surrounded by messages of scarcity and so our anxiety gets fueled. I think one of the most profound practices to resist anxiety, to fast from its hold on me, is the practice of Sabbath. Walter Brueggeman, in his wonderful book Sabbath as Resistance, writes that the practice of Sabbath emerges from the Exodus story, where the Israelites are freed from the relentless labor and productivity of the Pharaoh-system in which the people are enslaved and full of the anxiety that deprivation brings.
Yahweh enters in and liberates them from this exhaustion, commanding that they take rest each week. We essentially live in this self-made, insatiable Pharaoh-system again. So weary are we, so burdened by consumer debt, working long hours with very little time off. So many take pride in wearing the badge of “busy.” So many are stretched thin to the very edges of their resources.
When we practice Sabbath, we are making a visible statement that our lives are not defined by this perpetual anxiety. It requires a community to support us. At the heart of this relationship is a God who celebrates the gift of rest. Brueggemann says we are so beholden to “accomplishing and achieving and possessing” that we refuse the gift given to us.
The Israelites, and we ourselves, must leave Egypt and our enslavement to be able to dance and sing in freedom. Dance is a celebratory act which is not “productive” but restorative. When we don’t allow ourselves the gift of Sabbath rest, we deny the foundational joy that is our birthright as children of God. To dance in freedom is a prophetic act.
We are called to regularly cease, to trust the world will continue on without us, and to know this embodiment of grace and gift as a revolutionary act. Nothing else needs to be done.
In the coming days, as part of my Lenten practice, I will fast from anxiety and the endless torrent of thoughts which rise up in my mind to paralyze me with fear of the future.
I will reclaim the Sabbath, making a commitment to rest and to lay aside work and worry. I will give myself the gift of things that are truly restorative—some time spent in silence, a beautiful meal shared with a friend, a long walk in a beautiful place. Sabbath-keeping is an embodiment of our faith that there is something deeper at work in the world than the machinations of the power structure. It is a way for us to embody this profound trust and enter into the radical abundance at the heart of things.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE