By Steven Norris
Two weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the porch of a log cabin in North Georgia, sipping a fresh cup of coffee, reading a good book, and enjoying the silence of a crisp sunrise. Thanks to the generosity of new friends and family, my wife and I were able to enjoy a week of much-needed sabbath prior to Holy Week. For five days, I surrendered to the circadian rhythm of my body, eschewing the artificial demands of alarm clocks and schedule reminders.
Why do many of us find it so difficult to rest? Why do we idolize busy-ness and seemingly ceaseless productivity? Why do we celebrate those who seem unable to slow down, those whose prolificity outpaces the rest of us mere mortals?
Some years ago, I was introduced to the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th Century Cistercian monk and mystic from France. More specifically, I was drawn to one of Bernard’s treatises, “De Diligendo Deo (On Loving God).” In it, he articulates four “degrees” or “stages” of love in a person’s life. While he articulates these in connection to one’s relationship with God, I believe that his insights are applicable to our human relationships as well.
Bernard describes the first stage of love as “when a man loves himself for his own sake.” We see this in the lives of infants. When my children were born, they didn’t care about anybody but themselves. They were, understandably, the center of their own universe.
The second stage of love is found “when a man loves God (others) for his own good.” As soon as a young child recognizes that good things come from their parents, she shows love and affection for them. However, this is purely selfish love as it is dependent on the good gifts one receives and is removed as soon as those gifts cease.
The third stage of love is seen “when a man loves God (others) for God’s (others’) sake.” I liken this to the love of adolescence. Maybe you remember the feeling of being completely infatuated with another person, to the degree that you would “give yourself away” in the process. We might remember what it was like to “lose oneself” in that kind of love. On the surface this appears good, but it diminishes the lover in the process.
Bernard describes the fourth and final stage of love as “when a man loves himself for the sake of God (others).” In this final stage, I love myself, not for selfish gain, but in order that I may be fully available to serve others. When I am fully rested, emotionally stable, and have taken good care of my body, I can better serve those around me without distraction.
Could it be that such a desire for service is also at the heart of Sabbath? Slowing down and resting isn’t about neglecting others or shirking hard work, but about a desire to serve to the very best of our abilities. Such a commitment might be just the antidote we need in our work-addicted society.