I thought if I was awake I had to be working, or I was guilty of sloth. Turns out, I was doing it wrong!
“I think I’m suffering from sloth, and I don’t know how to fix it,” I said to my spiritual director.
He asked me to describe the form that my sloth was taking. In this case it was that sometimes I just sat down and couldn’t force myself to get up, and a lot of the time I ended up not finding time to pray until the end of the day, only to fall asleep during my prayers.
“Your problem,” he said, in a heavy Czech accent “is not sloth. It that you too busy and don’t have time to rest.”
His answer floored me. At the time, I had deeply internalized a Christian work-ethic which seemed to suggest that a mother’s work in the home could be justified only by an endless devotion to industry and self-oblation. Being constantly “on” and available – to my husband, to my children, to other family members, and to anyone else who needed me – would fulfill my calling and bring me happiness and anything less, I believed, was selfish.
Weren’t we supposed to imitate the saints, who poured themselves out endlessly on only a few hours of sleep?
Of course you couldn’t do that on your own strength: you needed supernatural aid. You needed to add at least a half hour of quiet contemplation into your morning schedule so that God could super-power you up. And if there was a baby jumping on your head starting at 6 a.m., and by 7 you are swarmed with small people whose vocabulary seems to consist entirely of “MOM!” — hey, all that meant was that you needed to get up earlier! After all, God should get the first fruits of your time and not just what’s left over at the end of the day, right?
I had thus come to think that the only possible reason why I might be lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, fighting a ferocious battle of will against my unwilling flesh was pure laziness — that if I really wanted to get up, I’d be on my feet in a second. The flesh was always capable; it’s just the will that was weak. Right?
Wrong. “Your problem is not sloth.”
The words shook up a deep strain of self-accusation that I had been hauling around for quite some time. I was afraid to believe that they might be true. The only reason I didn’t immediately dismiss this as a temptation to justify my own laziness was that it came from the holiest and wisest human being that I happened to know personally.
The bigger problem, though, wasn’t that I didn’t believe it: it was that I had no idea how I would go about managing my life if this were true. If the real reason why I felt tired was, you know, that I was actually legitimately tired, what was the solution? I couldn’t just throw the kids out in the yard and let them go feral.
The dishes needed doing, the laundry was already a perpetual mountain range of washed, unwashed, folded and unfolded piles. I was behind on literally every single thing.
All the things. Way behind.
What was I supposed to do about it?
“Rest in God,” came the answer.
This was a revelation. Never had it occurred to me that prayer could be something other than yet another form of activity: Prayer was something that you “did” — you had to make a constant, conscious effort to pay attention to the words; you had to focus on the meditations, in order to be present to God and not just going through the motions like a zombie.
What my director suggested was pretty much the opposite of all that. Resting in God is a kind of prayer where you purposely don’t do anything.
You don’t deliberately meditate, but if you start meditating by accident you also don’t try to stop it.
You don’t say anything or adopt a prayerful posture. If the words of a prayer pop into your head, fine. If other thoughts crowd in, that’s okay. The goal is to not make an effort but to be open and allow yourself to receive grace from God, like an infant nursing at the breast.
That’s all. You open yourself to God, who is present in you and with you and around you. You turn to God and let Him do the work.
Or as Christ put it, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)