An Invitation to Slow Time from a Lifelong Learner of Rest

— Carrie Rehak, Ph.D., Oblate, OSB Cam.,
Executive Director, SAT

The original article appeared in The Occasional Newsletter - Fall 2016 published by Incarnation Monastery, Berkeley, CA

The late poet John O’Donohue begins his blessing in, ‘For One Who Is Exhausted,’ with the following words:

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

It seems to me that most of us have experienced, or will likely experience such exhaustion, which is why, I suppose, observing the Sabbath is not only a commandment but a gift from God. The Divine, scripture assures us, desires to give us rest: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ (Matt. 11:28).

You may consider me a slow learner of slow time. Even with many wise and patient mentors, I am still a beginner when it comes to contemplative rest. I am a student of Scripture. Of the natural world. Of trusted teachers, family, and friends. Of poetry and my own practice in art. Of beauty and loss. And, of spiritual and religious traditions, my own as well as others, that practice some form of holy leisure.

Since June 2015, I have been serving as the Executive Director at the School of Applied Theology (SAT) an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU). SAT, an urban oasis in North Oakland, honors the Hebrew understanding of Sabbath and the sabbatical year by providing a leisurely learning environment that seeks to apply theology and spiritual practices to work, ministries, and life. That is, we offer a holistic Sabbath experience of rest, study, reflection, art, contemplation, meditation, movement, and prayer to those who come to us for a day, a week, a month, or a semester or two of Sabbatical. With nearly six decades of serving thousands of laity, priests, deacons, and men and women religious, SAT is more aware than ever of the need of all people, from diverse walks of life—whether working in the home, in the church, or in the world - to take a break.

In a recent phone call an alumni of five years, who is currently pastor of two parishes, told me that his SAT Sabbatical not only saved his vocation but his life. Another participant, an engineer and mother of a young son who joined us for a couple days of Sabbatical, commented that SAT is the ‘best spiritual spa day for a mom taking a day off!’ To quote Wendell Berry: ‘Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.’

Through my work at SAT I am learning the value of attentive rest. That it is a value in and of itself. I am also learning that it is a means for emboldening inspired action in the church and in the world. It connects us with others, particularly the most vulnerable, human and other-than-human - protecting them from exploitation. To quote Joan Chittister: ‘The rabbis taught that the Sabbath was threefold. The first purpose was to free the poor as well as the rich for at least one day a week, and that included the animals too ... The second purpose was to give people time to evaluate their work as God evaluated creation to see if their work, too, is really life- giving. And the third reason for the Sabbath was to give people a space to contemplate the real meaning of life. If anything has brought the world to the brink of destruction, it must surely be the loss of Sabbath.’

Admittedly, I still have much to learn when it comes to living a balanced life. In many ways, those who know me well find it ironic at best that I am working in a field that is in the service of rest. My work at SAT, however, has been a supreme teacher: over the past year I have witnessed, time and again, the transformation that occurs in the lives of our participants who come to us exhausted and who depart radiant. One participant commented: ‘The SAT program helped me to discover more of my True Self. I rested, relaxed, related to new friends, visited new places, got new insights for future ministry. Transformation happened.’

Finding a spiritual home at Incarnation Monastery has also instructed me in rest, in contemplative rest. In fact, being an Oblate and sharing in the Camaldolese Benedictine charism and rule has been among my most liberating, life-changing, and life-giving experiences. My relationship with this praying community continues to open in me a more spacious spirituality that, to quote Josef Pieper on leisure, ‘... is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.’

Lately, I have been dipping into a little book by Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled How to Relax, in which he offers simple techniques for experiencing rest, such as returning throughout the day to the ‘refuge of your breath.’ He writes: ‘Whenever you’re carried away by thinking, overwhelmed by strong emotions, or feeling restless and dispersed, return to your breathing.... With awareness of the breath, our breathing naturally becomes light, calm, and peaceful.’ He also suggests calendaring light, calm, and peaceful.’ He also suggests calendaring for ourselves ‘lazy days,’ with unscheduled time. He says, ‘A lazy day is a chance to train ourselves not to be afraid of doing nothing.... Your time is first of all for you to be - to be alive, to be peace.’

One of my favorite suggestions is the ‘breathing room,’ which consists of a dedicated space, no matter how simple or small, in your home for the sole purpose of relaxing. He says, ‘This is not a space for eating or doing homework, or folding laundry or building anything. This is as essential as a place to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. We need a small space where we can take care of our nervous system and restore our tranquility and peace.’

This learning process on slow time is my camino. I am on a journey with hills and slopes, twists and turns, and some benches that look out over what appears to be endless vistas. I invite you to sit with me.

In closing his blessing, ‘For One Who is Exhausted,’ John O’Donohue writes: 

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time. ◆