Work and Rest

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, September 6, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



I ran into a student I know the other day, a junior in the College, and asked her how her semester was going. It’s OK, she said. I’ve finally gotten into a rhythm, and it feels good.

I think we all know what she means. When we get into a rhythm that helps us move between work and rest, between time alone and time with others, when we find that sweet spot when it feels like we have time to be all of who we are without too much anxiety and worry, it does feel good.

The student was on her way to the dining hall, and I didn’t keep her. But what I really wanted to do was follow after her and learn how she did it! It was such an unusual answer in these days —“I’ve gotten into a rhythm, and it feels good.”

It’s an unusual answer because the days of this pandemic don’t always have much of a rhythm. For some of us, the unfilled hours sag shapelessly. For others, the hours fill with tasks that we can never quite finish. We go from classes to meetings to office hours to social gatherings without ever leaving our spot in front of the computer. That’s where we write our papers, too, and answer our email, and get tossed about on unceasing waves of breaking news. It’s hard to find a rhythm when you’re rooted to the spot.

Finding a rhythm is what we’re seeking this year as we explore the theme of “practicing hope.” What practices can we embrace that will make room in our lives for all that we are? What practices will help us remain hopeful in these difficult days and give us access to the creativity we need to imagine new ways of living? What practices will keep us resilient in the midst of change and resistant to dehumanizing structures and ideas? What small changes can we make in our lives that open space for more far-reaching changes? What step can we take that will make the next step possible?

Last month we experimented with practices that helped us cross the distance between solitude and community; this month we are turning to practices of study, work and rest, the ordinary activities which give many of our lives their shape. When the student told me she had found a rhythm, I think she meant she had found a rhythm among these elements – study and work and rest – and that she was living, and even flourishing, in its flow.

Religious traditions have passed down a great deal of wisdom about this rhythm through their practices. Our Jewish siblings, for example, have a rich practice of sabbath keeping grounded in the human need to structure time for work and rest. So fundamental is this need that it is addressed in the Bible’s first story, the account of the creation of the world in the book of Genesis, in which even God pauses for a day of rest. The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote in his beautiful book on the sabbath that “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.” No matter where a sabbath keeper is on Friday evening, the sabbath opens its great doors and invites them into God’s own rest.

Ceasing work for a day is a radical practice in our 24/7 economy — and in our university, where so many are involved in work that can easily expand to fill every hour of every day. That’s why we need a practice of stopping regularly to rest — because the work itself will never suggest a stopping place. There’s always more to read, more to write, more experiments to develop, more calculations to make, more students to check up on, more reports to write and to read. Covid has only intensified the expansive quality of work on this campus. We entered this fall after a summer of breakneck preparations for the most unusual semester any of us had ever experienced. Teachers, dining hall workers, custodians, administrators, chaplains, health care workers —everyone worked at top speed learning to do things differently so we’d be ready when the students arrived. It’s hard to stop working when there’s so much at stake. But if we don’t take a regular pause, non-stop work begins to feel normal, and it’s not. It’s not what our bodies are made for, it’s not what we ourselves, body and soul, are made for. God doesn’t want us to eat the bread of anxious toil, Psalm 127 says. God gives us sleep, the psalmist says, because God loves us.

Sabbath keeping not only offers rest from our work but also gives us a vantage point that allows us to see beyond the boundary of our own lives. Because one person’s day off is always supported by the labor of others. Sabbath keeping not only offers rest for the overworked it also illuminates the fact that only free people can take a day off. And so God’s commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath is also God’s testimony against slavery and economic injustice. God’s insistence on freedom is brought to life, week after week, in Jewish practice. Sabbath keeping not only allows for rest from work, but also makes a claim on us to work for a world in which life-giving rhythms of work and rest are available to everyone.

In the passages from the book of Proverbs and the gospel of Matthew that Elizabeth and Davis read for us this morning, those rhythms are described as lying at the very heart of creation itself. In Proverbs 8, we hear the voice of Wisdom, a female voice in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. She describes herself as God’s first creation — I was made, she says, before the depths, before the springs, before the mountains and hills, before the fields, before the skies. Wisdom was next to God as God created all of those things — “I was beside God, like a master worker, and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

The creation at which Wisdom assisted as artisan and artist seems to have rest and refreshment built into it — the work itself seems joyful. The account of creation in Genesis, at the end of which God rests, also seems punctuated by rest, in which God gazes upon what God has made and sees that it is good. God brings light into being; God pauses to see that it is good. God creates the flowering earth; God pauses to see that it is good. God’s works is not uninterrupted labor, continuous exertion. God’s way of way of working is unrushed, thoughtful, appreciative of what is emerging. Every exertion draws its strength from a profound desire for more life.

Practices of work and rest should not only help us rest from work on a regular basis but should also transform the way we work. In Proverbs, work is portrayed as participation in God’s continuing creation — something generative, joyful, and dignified — “I was a master worker,” Wisdom says. “God delighted in me.” The dignity of work is something religious traditions have long been concerned with. In Buddhism, the dignity of work is embodied in the idea of “right livelihood,” part of the Buddha’s eightfold path and a call to engage in occupations that promote human dignity rather than undermining it. For the Buddha, certain kinds of work lay outside “right livelihood”: poison peddler, slave trader, and arms dealer, for example. But work that is aligned with care for others and the earth, with human dignity helps us all flourish.

Catholic social teaching regards the dignity of work as something that needs to be protected. Nineteenth century papal encyclicals on work acknowledged that employers could not be relied upon to act always in the best interest of their employees. Pope Leo XIII, in 1891, urged workers to “form associations among themselves and unite their forces so as to shake off courageously the yoke of so unrighteous and intolerable an oppression.” The church’s support of workers’ rights, including the right to productive work, to a fair wage, and to organize and join unions acknowledges that work is an integral part of human life. Harassment and mistreatment of people at work is a sin against human dignity; wages that cannot sustain a life equally so. Even with well-honed practices of resting from work, work is such a huge part of our lives. If our dignity is not protected in our work, we are vulnerable to every manner of harm.

If Buddhism insists on right livelihood, and Catholic social teaching insists on the dignity of workers and their work, what does the Puritan tradition which gave birth to this university offer us? The so-called Protestant work ethic is alive and well here, for sure. And it’s a double-edged sword, fueling creation and discovery, but sometimes at the expense of other human needs. But within that complicated and ambiguous tradition, there is a sense of vocation, of calling, that can help us orient ourselves as people working in the world. Virginia Woolf, whose ancestors had been evangelical Christian abolitionists, inherited the conviction that one’s work should benefit more than oneself, even though she did not inherit the faith that used to undergird it. In April of 1939, a month after Nazi troops seized Czechoslovakia and four months before civilians began to be evacuated from London, she sat down to write about what she called her philosophy: that we are connected to one another in ways we can’t always see or even imagine. “I prove [my commitment to this philosophy], she wrote, “by spending the morning writing, when I might be walking, running a shop, or learning to do something that will be useful if war comes. I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.”

Getting to do the work that we feel is most necessary to do: that is one of life’s great blessings, and also one of its dangers. For the work to which we feel a duty can easily swallow us up. It’s easy to lose track of Wisdom’s voice, who speaks in Proverbs about work through which we delight in one another and in the created world. Wisdom speaks again this morning in the gospel passage Davis read for us. In this passage, Jesus speaks in Wisdom’s voice to those who are burdened by their work, offering rest. What he says next might sound counter-intuitive: take my yoke upon you and learn from me and you will find rest for your souls. Don’t we need to get out of our yokes to rest? Perhaps what Jesus means is that we need a structure that will allow us to flourish in our work, practices that will make us resilient in change and resistant to anything that would trespass our shared humanity. At its best, study is that kind of yoke; at its best, so is work. They are structures in which we learn to rejoice with Wisdom in the inhabited world and to delight in the human race, structures which shape us in compassionate attention toward other lives so that together we may discover the work that is most necessary to do.