The cost of being here
Only two weeks into my summer vacation, I've hit a snag.
The past few weeks, at the college where I minister, have been full of activity. Like a blur, finals, commencements, dinners, evaluations, graduations, service trips, goodbyes, and planning sessions for the year ahead have come and gone. And after months of going at breakneck speed, I paused to rest . . . and found I couldn't.
Whether you work in a school setting or not, summer offers a welcome respite. As the weather warms, minds wander to thoughts of vacation. And perhaps, if you're lucky, the season brings with it the opportunity for a change of pace and ultimately some rest.
That's what I had hoped for as I waved goodbye to the last student departing after our final week-long service-immersion trip of the semester.
Walking back to my office, I felt the frenetic pace of the semester give way to a feeling of exhaustion. The adrenaline that seemed to have been fueling me dried up, and suddenly all I wanted to do was rest. The frantic pace of life had exacted a certain toll on my body and soul; after a few good nights of sleep, I found myself feeling more refreshed, yet, the deep desire within me to rest felt unfulfilled.
Even though my days were less filled, I still seemed to be rushing around. When I sat to reflect, I felt like my body was still in motion as if I'd stopped after a long day's journey only to discover that the road was moving beneath me.
It seemed my mind was still set in the mode of accomplishing things. Whether I was catching up on reading or going for a walk, the pace I kept was still just as fast as during the semester. And even though it was what I knew I needed, the last thing that I wanted to do was stop.
As a result, I just felt more tired. Finally, I convinced myself to sit longer than I had let myself before. No distractions, no goals, no desire except to stop and be here. I resisted for the first 20 minutes. My mind swore that there were things I could be doing. It darted like a child overtired and hanging on to the last semblance of energy before crashing. I thought about the future, about the things I needed to get done and about the things I'd already forgotten to do.
Finally, the racing stopped and there I was in the quiet. Why is just being here so difficult? I wondered. The response to my question came quickly from within: because being here is costly.
Taken aback, I stayed with that response. What was the cost of being here in this moment?
Being here meant that I wasn't somewhere else. To my mind programmed by the semester to keep on going that seemed like a pretty steep price. The cost of being here is the loss of the opportunity to be somewhere else. It's a forfeiture of the chance "to do" in exchange for the opportunity to actively "be." In many ways, it's a trade-off that doesn't make sense to modern sensibilities. I knew there were messages waiting for me on my phone; that for all the times I'd said I needed a break, I had not meant to stop and actively reflect on where I was. I wanted time to mindlessly be and yet, when I got that, it left me feeling unfulfilled.
I knew that feeling well, it sat somewhere near the roots of my call to religious life — that feeling of wanting more, of being unsatisfied, of longing for something deeper.
I must admit, there are moments that that desire is not met, that I find my soul's longing deeply wanting. The question is how do I find rest in those moments?
Feeling my mind scramble for activity as my heart relished being in the here and now, I recognized the cost of being here. It meant denying the desire to be busy for something far less exciting and far more important — rest in God.
That's the kind of rest we as humans struggle with and we as women religious, in particular, are challenged by on a regular basis.
I am not what I do.
A sister I deeply respect once told me never to say no to an opportunity to do more. In order to be here and now, though, you have to be able to make space. You can't be completely given to a ministry (no matter how good or pressing it is); you have to allow for a space to stop and let God speak. In that moment and place, God could very easily bring ministry to the forefront, but it is the act of relinquishing control that is the true cost of being still for a moment.
Our ministry, after all, is not judged by the exhaustion we feel or the rest we don't take; it is measured by the lives we touch. And we are only able to touch lives as far as we are in touch with the One who calls us to service. Without rest, what we do is a wash. Who we are becomes caught up in what we do, not whose we are, in the here and now.
Even as I write this, I recognize the contradiction between my words and actions. I am as guilty of shrugging off rest as the next sister, pushing forward because "there's just one more thing that needs to get done." Living a life that is without the obligations or attachments of a family or car payments or a mortgage, I can easily engage in work as an escape. The cost of that choice is too high though. It means forfeiting the gift of ministry for the call of work. It denies our true calling and represents a distinct shift in being, from allowing God to work in and through you to a need to do accomplish something . . . but for what?
Without a moment's pause, it can be hard to remember why we do what we do. When we are able to stop and truly be here, we have a chance to capture a moment of clarity, to look at who and how we are in the world and where God has been all along.
For each person that pause looks different, but whatever rest amounts to for you, it's worth the cost.
Never take that ability for granted. For being able to even stop and consider where you are is a luxury afforded to very few. It is what God asks and we, fortunately enough, have extended time to do it. That is, if we make the time for rest and reflection.
As I watch my sisters work well into their 70s and 80s, I wonder what they think of all this, and then I recognize that I am still new to this journey. The cost of being here is learning the lessons of prayer and balance and learning them well. The restlessness that seems to haunt me is fuel for the fire. It doesn't need to be spent all at once, but in time it will light my way. That is, if I face the challenges of this life head on, take time to rest, and recognize that the only place I can be is here.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]
Read about two inspiring Chicago sisters working to bring peace to streets torn by violence.