There are so many things we could say about how this strange time has felt for us, and for those of us who have not been exposed to the most acute experience disease there are still some troubling symptoms that many have reported. Among the most common are fatigue and strange dreams. It’s easy to dismiss these as relatively trivial but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that many have found these last few months to be deeply wearisome. Confinement, anxiety about a real threat of harm, the dislocations caused by things just not being in their normal place, troubling thoughts, broken sleep, strained relationships, loss of purpose, financial worries, lack of proper human contact; all these things are real and demanding.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ These words of Jesus, then, come like a healing balm in a time of widespread anxiety. Even just to hear them from the lips of the one we follow, the one in whom we find ourselves, is to hear a word of comfort and restoration, to know oneself to have been noticed, and loved, and relieved. And even to have this place open once more gives us an opportunity to allow ourselves to be drawn into a peaceful space at the invitation of Jesus who says ‘come to me’. The cancer hospital where I was chaplain in London had a spacious modern chapel and many would go to sit there, in the one place where there was none of the busyness of hospital life, none of the paraphernalia of the clinic, and rest. To offer a place of quiet is a very precious thing.
But there is even more on offer from the lips of Jesus this morning. He goes on to invite us to take the yoke of his teaching upon us and learn from one who is gentle and humble in heart so that we may find rest for our souls, deep, inner repose, a quietness of heart-mind that is even more restorative than a well-needed break from the daily toil. What does he mean by this?
There is a long and steady strain of unobtrusive Christian spiritual practice that would readily identify this ‘rest for our souls’ as the gift of contemplative prayer. The Latin version of the sayings of the desert monastics from the 4th century onwards called it ‘quies’, or quiet, in Greek, ‘hesychia’, or stillness. The Greek word became the term that we associate with the prayer of the heart, with the practice of hesychasm flourishing in mediaeval Constantinople and 19th century Russia. Slightly nearer to home, it’s the prayer of quiet that St Teresa of Avila described so carefully in her ‘Way of Perfection’ in 16th century Spain.
As I said, there’s a steady witness to a simple way of prayer that really does bear fruit in the gift of inner stillness and I mention some of its history not to suggest that it’s a thing of the past, but to emphasise that it belongs right in the heart of Christian life. Contemplative stillness is not an elite activity for the spiritually adept, but an easy yoke, a light burden, a wisdom of simplicity hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants. The path of contemplative stillness, of inner rest, is a way of humility and gentleness – unspectacular, uncomplicated, and freely given to any who are prepared to receive it. The only work we have to put in is precisely this work of preparation to receive, the first step of which is the desire for it.
St Theophan the Recluse, a major figure in that Russian renaissance of hesychasm in the 19th century, described this desire as a ‘warmth of heart’. He says, ‘As soon as this warmth is kindled, your thoughts will settle, the inner atmosphere will become clear, the first emergence of both good and bad movements in the soul will become plainly apparent to you, and you will acquire power to drive away the bad.’ I can think of no better description of inner rest than that – thoughts settle, inner atmosphere becomes clear. Most of what makes us unsettled comes from within – anxiety, fear, low self-esteem and what Theophan describes is the kind of internal quiet that allows us to see these troubling thoughts for what they are; insubstantial and impermanent. What abides is the unfailing goodness of God, and that brings me to Theophan’s second step, which accompanies warmth of heart, and that is the remembrance of God.
For most of those involved in the Hesychast movement, this remembrance was achieved through the repeated, gentle recitation of the name of Jesus in the Jesus Prayer. This simple practice also has the effect of stilling our minds and bodies as we breathe slowly and regularly and set aside the exhausting mental activity of reacting to every passing thought that enters our minds. St Symeon the New Theologian, an earlier teacher of this way of prayer, describes how this restoration of our minds to their natural state does not exempt us from troubling thoughts, but they no longer ‘disturb the depths but only ruffle the surface.’
The prayer of inner quiet is a gift from God, a gift given through the one who today invites us to come to him and rest. As a church, we offer a beautiful space, a holy temple in which we can rest from the busy streets. Let’s also be confident in encouraging access to that inner temple where we may find rest for our souls. We may enter at any time and learn from the one who is gentle and humble of heart.