Hobbes: You know what I like about summer days? They’re just made for doing things…even if it’s nothing.
Calvin: Especially if it’s nothing.
~ Bill Watterson
When I lived in New York City, I ate little, slept poorly, and wallowed in angst. Naturally, I got sick, and eventually I tracked down a walk-in clinic to get some help.
“Deep breath…and out,” the doctor instructed as he moved his stethoscope around my back. Then this question: “How long have you been in New York?”
“About a month or so,” I replied.
“Another breath…and out,” he said. “What are you here for?”
It was hard to explain – I wasn’t even sure why I was there – so I hedged: “I’m figuring stuff out.”
“One more breath…and exhale.” The doc took off the instrument and came around to face me. “Well, while you’re figuring stuff out,” he said flatly, scribbling on a chart, “try to get more rest.”
That was it – no x-rays, no antibiotics, no referral to a specialist. I felt gypped (despite having invested only my time and a five-block walk), and I wondered if there was another clinic nearby. I’d gone to an expert with a problem, and the expert’s advice was to do nothing – that is, to do nothing extra or special. “More rest,” I scoffed. “That’s true for everybody.”
I got better.
“Doctors can fix some problems, others are better fixed by the patient,” writes Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth professor of medicine. “Some problems will resolve on their own, others are better left alone.” We’re all healthcare “consumers” now, and so we naturally want something tangible when we fork over our healthcare dollars. Yet the conscientious physician will take into account the whole person – what’s going on beyond objective measurements and physiological assessment – in order to come up with a holistic treatment plan. And that plan just might turn out to be…nothing at all! “The doctor who advises no action,” writes Welch, “may be the one who really cares for you.”
What’s true for doctors is true for other professions as well – like college professors. One of my favorite scenes in the play Wit comes early on when Vivian Bearing has a flashback to an encounter with Professor Ashford, her academic mentor. Ashford had severely critiqued Vivian’s essay on a John Donne poem, and Vivian was scrambling to recover – “I’ll go back to the library,” she offers, “and rewrite the paper.” Ashford’s sage response addresses Vivian’s undetected, core need: “Don’t go back to the library,” the professor gently scolds. “Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?” There’s such a thing as trying too hard, and sometimes it’s better to coast than to tinker and tweak – at least the experts think so.
The same is true for the spiritual life, and conscientious Catholics can be especially susceptible to the idea that more is better – more devotions, more prayers, more apostolic works, more, more, more. However, there might be such a thing as too much “more” when it comes to our relationship with God, and this time the expert guidance comes from none other than the Lord himself.
It was in a recent weekday Gospel reading. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus warns those tempted to win heaven by doing more stuff. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’” Yet doing more stuff isn’t what Jesus has in mind for his followers, but rather zeroing in on doing “the will of my Father in heaven.”
“Great!” we say. “We’re on it! Just give us the God’s-will list, and we’ll get cracking!”
No so fast. Action is required, of course, but doing nothing comes first. “The wise man,” according to Jesus, is the one who “listens to these words of mine” before acting on them, and proper listening involves repose, attentiveness, and inaction. No multitasking, no texts or email, no errands, good deeds, or novenas. Just…stop and rest. Gaze. Imagine. Listen.
Crazy, right? In these latter wired and caffeine-charged days, doing nothing is a challenge – “it takes discipline, practice and effort,” writes Alison Gopnik. “Our animal impulse to be up and doing is hard to resist, even in a long, hazy cricket-song dream of a summer day.” However, summer is precisely the right season for practicing holy dawdling – long, sultry days that lend themselves to a slower pace and frequent pauses – and the middle of summer provides us with an ideal exemplar of how to accomplish it: St. Athanasius the Athonite (July 5).
Athanasius was orphaned at an early age and raised in the royal court of Constantinople. He served as a teacher for a time, but eventually he gave in to his monastic yearnings and sought out a life of prayer – first in the city, and then in the extreme isolation of the Greek Athos peninsula in 958. “Athanasius, a rich man’s son, appeared on Mount Athos as a peasant, intending to lose his identity,” writes Sydney Loch, and anonymity provided him the freedom to attend completely to contemplation and prayerful listening.
After five years of this purposeful inactivity, Athanasius sprang into action, gathered together a number of other solitaries, and founded the first cenobitic community on Mt. Athos – The Great Lavra (Greek for “monastery”), which it became the model for the many other monastic communities that later appeared on Mt. Athos. The Lavra continued as the preeminent monastic center of the region after Athanasius died in 1000, and it still holds a place of honor down to the present day.
This is the monastic template then: Quiet receptivity leading to intense industry – ora et labora, in the words of St. Benedict. It can be our template, too, and we needn’t feel anxious about the quiet receptivity part of the equation. “Idleness is not an empty thing,” writes Chesterton. “Idleness can be, and should be a particularly full thing.” Let this summer be one which finds us often wasting time doing nothing with our Lord – either in his presence in Church, or on the beach, in the forest, even on an amble through the neighborhood. Like Athanasius the Athonite, let’s rest before we run. “We can defend ourselves, even on the Day of Judgment, if our work has been useless,” Chesterton concludes, “with pleas of opportunity, competition and fullness of days.”
These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart