16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

The Value of Rest
(Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)
Introduction to Mass
Very often Jesus and the disciples were so hard pressed by the crowds of people that came to them that they were exhausted and needed a rest. We're not any different and the gospel this Sunday shows us how important it is to get a balance between work and leisure. Psychologically and spiritually we all need occasional breaks and regular periods of quiet and rest.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
Today's short gospel reading shows us how concerned Jesus was for the disciples, who seem to be physically exhausted after being out on the mission trail.
Saint Mark says that there were so many people making demands on them that they didn't even have time to eat, and so Jesus tells them to "come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while". When the crowds follow then and continue to press their claims on the disciples, Jesus himself takes over and allows the disciples to carry on resting.
Of course Jesus knew from his own experience how the disciples felt. So many people came to him that he often had to escape and go off by himself to rest, to pray and to get his energy back. Saint Mark doesn't try to hide the fact that Jesus was liable to fatigue just like anyone else.
As far as we're concerned I dare say that most of our normal work and our activities aren't exactly identical to the great missionary efforts that the disciples undertook, but whatever we're doing most of the time we can still get tired like them so that we need to take a rest.
Some Christians, I think, are tempted to think that if we're going about our spiritual lives the right way God gives us a sort of boundless energy for activity - for helping other people in some way, perhaps, or for some other activity we identify as "God's work". The truth is, this is probably a bit presumptuous.
It's wiser to be more humble and to admit to ourselves that occasionally we suffer the same tiredness and lack of energy as everyone else. Jesus didn't make the mistake of thinking he could carry on, indefinitely, without any kind of break, so neither should we. That's the first thing we can say, perhaps, about how this advice of Jesus might apply to us in the circumstances of our own lives.
But the other way in which Jesus' attitude is relevant to us today is that it challenges the hostility that exists in our culture to the idea that quiet and stillness and just doing nothing are valuable in themselves and sometimes even necessary.
Over the last twenty years or so our society appears to have made a kind of fetish out of constant activity and restlessness. Even a lot of supposed leisure activities and forms of relaxation seem to be very busy and hectic, a matter of achieving "targets".
Some people seem to feel guilty if they're not permanently exhausted. They don't think they've had a good holiday, for example, if they can't come back and boast to everyone about how shattered they are on account of all the activities they've packed into a week or a fortnight.
The reality is that freedom from activity and stimulation gives us time to think things through and reflect about things in a way we can't do if we're busy all the time. But rather than benefiting from a period of inactivity and stillness when they get it, many people now seem to have acquired an intolerance to peace and quiet. If they've got nothing to do, they panic. Almost immediately they become bored and restless.
It would be far healthier, physically, mentally and spiritually, if they realised that we all need some free time to recuperate our energies, not just so that we can carry on our work better when we go back to it, but so as to maintain a sense of balance and inner equilibrium.
The feeling of being buried under a mountain of "things to do" gradually has a damaging effect on our personality: it causes depression and a gradual festering of anger and aggression. Whereas, if we remember to take a rest when we need it, we save other people from the bad temper and irritation that come to the surface more easily when we're feeling worn-out.
In the gospel passage today Jesus is concerned that the disciples withdraw for a period so as to get some quiet and rest. We should take note of the fact that his first concern isn't that they should be spending more time praying or meditating. Jesus promotes leisure and relaxation as desirable in its own right, without reference to any higher "spiritual" justification.
But having said that, another reason why rest is necessary is that the more exhausted we are, the more difficult it is to pray or to keep up any kind of devotional practice or regular contact with God.
It's a truism of spiritual direction that we need to acquire a certain level of stillness and calm in order to pray properly and nothing interferes with stillness as much as feeling harassed, rushed, distracted.
The temptation, when we're busy and agitated, is to put off praying or turning to God in a state of quiet and relaxation. Experience should tell us that we have to plan deliberately to set aside such moments. If we wait for them to happen spontaneously we're likely to end up losing the habit of prayer altogether.
So there are all kinds of reasons why quiet, rest and leisure are important factors even from a spiritual point of view, and not just because people who work hard need a physical break from time to time.
This is the sort of wisdom that Jesus takes for granted in the case of the disciples, and it's surely a principle that we also can use to order the priorities in our own lives.