Toward a Theology and Spirituality of Rest
Although not everybody is a fan of his methodological approach to theology, his particular conclusions, or his theological starting points, I know of no one who would not readily admit that the late German theologian Karl Rahner was a genius. Even if you disagree with him for substantive or unsubstantial reasons, Rahner’s insight and impact, even to this day in the field, is really unmatched in the contemporary Catholic Christian academic (and pastoral) world. I thought of this particularly prodigious thinker this morning when I read Tony Schwartz’s guest column in the New York Times titled: “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive.”
Schwartz’s starting points are the counterintuitive reports from scholars and scientists in recent years that suggest working harder, longer, and more is actually less productive (and less healthy, duh) than striking a balance that values rest, vacation, exercise, and sleep as much as hours in the office, emails answered, and the like. He contends that this applies on the macro level, such as the need to sleep more each night and take more and lengthier vacations throughout the year, as well as on the micro level, such as the cycle of work habits throughout the day.
I thought of Rahner because among his more philosophically complex engagements with the theological tradition, the German theologian was also interested in exploring the theological significance of what he called Alltägliche Dinge or “everyday things.” Among these everyday things were subjects like work, walking, seeing, laughing, eating, and — you’ve guessed it! — sleep. Rahner asks:
Is there such a thing as a theology of sleeping? Most certainly there is. In a wonderfully earthy way, scripture first of all confirms our own experience with sleep: It talks about the solid sleep of the one who has worked hard, the destructive sleeplessness of the one in charge of many things, the excessive sleep of the lazy one, and similar things. But scripture also sees in sleep an image and reflection of a deeper reality of human existence: the image of death, the image of dead and deadening dullness, the image of being mired in sin. Also, scripture sees in sleep an inner relaxation, where a person is receptive to the instructions of God (as if given by the Lord in one’s sleep), a time for meaningful dreams that can clarify God’s directions and call and that can perhaps make one conscious of what is otherwise repressed.
Surely Rahner is correct — Matthew’s account of the Gospel practically begins the whole story of Jesus Christ with sleep and dreams as we read that Mary’s husband “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him an a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit'” (Matt 1:19-20).
Likewise, we know of Joseph’s role in interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams in Egypt and the ways in which dreams and sleep intertwine at various points in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Rahner explains that it’s not all about dreams and visions, but that the simple, human, and necessary physiological exercise of sleep is itself a religious and spiritual practice. He wrote:
Sleep is an act of trusting one’ deepest inner conviction, one’s own certainty, and the goodness of the human world. It is an act of innocence and of consenting to the elusive. If one approached sleep like that, not as a merely dull succumbing to physiological mechanisms but as an agreeable and trusting acceptance of an utterly human act, then falling asleep could be seen as relating to the inner structure of prayer, which is equally a letting-go, an entrusting of one’s own convictions to the providence of God which one lovingly accepts.
In other words, it is about awareness and surrender, about trust and recognizing the presence of God in our lives at all times, in all places and, as Ignatius Loyola made popular, “in all things.”
Rahner’s notion of sleep was elicited by Schwartz’s column because there is an overlap and complementarity in their respective points — Schwartz from a physiological and productivity standpoint, and Rahner from one of theology and spirituality.
Rahner pointed out that, “sleep is peaceful and relaxed, a communication with the depth in which needs to be grounded and rooted whatever makes us free as human beings, all conscious planning of life, if we want to remain whole or wish to be.”
Schwartz says something very similar, if in a different way.
Our basic idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. By managing energy more skillfully, it’s possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably. In a decade, no one has ever chosen to leave the company. Our secret is simple — and generally applicable. When we’re renewing, we’re truly renewing, so when we’re working, we can really work.
He gives an example from his own professional life of how balance and a different approach to work, centered on valuing rest, sleep, and renewal along the way. He talks about the experience of writing his first two books and then his more recent publications and the difference that switching from a “binge” mentality of unbridled work (something I see far too often in academia with colleagues, as well as studious undergrads, spending endless hours and even days/nights in libraries and in front of computers) to a sense of a cycle for awake-activity akin to that of our sleep cycles. In other words: working in cycles of ninety-minute intervals. Schwartz explains:
I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.
Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.
What he says resonates well with me. I’m often asked “How do you do so much? Do you ever sleep?” and my instant response is always, “Yes, I sleep quite a lot, actually!” The presumption on the part of the inquirer being that in order to “get a lot done” one must work all the time and through the night, and so on and so on.
That “sleep quite a lot” is, of course, relative. I know that I need at least seven hours of sleep a night and I work hard to make sure that I get it. More sleep makes me tired, less sleep makes me tired. I also never work nonstop for hours on end, nor have I ever. This is not some sort of prescient virtue, rather it’s just not something I have ever had the patience to do, even if I wanted to do it. This is why I found Schwartz’s narrative and supportive data so affirming — I’ve been accidentally doing what he’s talking about here for most of my life.
Working in short spurts of an hour here or 90-minutes there and the accompanying breaks, not so regimented but more naturally present, might be the way to explain my own experience. Until reading this column, I’m not sure I had a good answer to the question “How do you get so much done?”
I think there is a curious connection here between the theological reflection of Rahner on sleep and Schwartz’s proposal about rest and productivity. If we live in a graced world where we are always already in communication with the God who is the ground of our very being, perhaps the Benedictines have it a little off. Their traditional motto has been Ora et Labora, which essentially means balancing one’s life between “prayer and work.”
But, what if, following Rahner and Schwartz, the real motto of our lives should be striving to recognize that the Ora comes in the balance between Operis et quietis, “work and rest.”