Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves
and rest a while”
and rest a while”
Mark 6: 31
Imagine a place where the pressures of life, the time frames, deadlines and bills aren’t piled on top of your head like a cold, wet blanket thrust upon your head and shoulders. A place where the dog doesn’t need your immediate attention yet again, another sermon doesn’t have to be written or a presentation completed, or the demands of family illness or issues don’t consume your daily living.
Imagine a place where birds can be listened to and watched uninterrupted for a few hours, where the clouds roll by, both white and grey, against a virgin Mary blue sky, where you can walk a straight path between a wheat field and a sunflower field and turn your head upwards to see mountains around you and a big sky, big, big sky, a place where the work for the good of the community in the glory of God is first and above self.
Imagine Grandchamp. A monastery in the Canton of Neuchatel Switzerland inhabited by the Sisters of the Communaute of Grandchamp where work is performed in silence and is punctuated by prayer in the Taize tradition four times a day. A place where you are left alone to meditate or pray, stroll or hike the Jura mountainside, ride a bicycle, or sit in the garden under the apple trees and eat Swiss chocolate or drink herbal tea and taste and remember once again how sweet life really is.
Just imagine. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” to his worn out, overworked, underpaid or really more than likely ‘not paid’ disciples. They had just buried the beheaded body of John the Baptist which I’m sure was a loathsome task. And they were tired and stressed; large crowds were following them. Jesus knew what his disciples needed when they came to him and told him all that they had done. He knew they needed rest.
They needed time away from the hungry throngs of people that would soon be upon them and they needed to be at rest. You see they had had no time for themselves, not even did they have time to eat it had been so harried. So they boarded an old fishing boat on a calm Sea of Galilee and sailed away to their deserted place.
It was Jesus’ idea for them to rest, to stop what it was they were doing and take a break from the usual, the everyday, and from all that depleted their strength and their energy. It wasn’t a question that he posed to them, ‘will you come away with me?’ or ‘do you want to get a way for a while?’ but it was an imperative that he gave them:
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”
I do not have to imagine Grandchamp, I have just lived Grandchamp and what it means to come away to a deserted place and rest. It is a community ‘…out of the Reformed churches rooted in the monastic tradition and in ecumenism marked by prayer, work and the spirit of the Beatitudes: Joy, Simplicity, and Mercy.’[i]
For three weeks I worked in community with the sisters and other volunteers, mostly in silence. I prayed and worked alongside them throughout the day and evening and when I was free, I was left alone to rest in whatever way that I wanted to. To walk, to sleep, to read or stay in my room, to explore the beauty of Switzerland, the land that my grandmother was born – all of this was there for my personal retreat.
It was an incredible gift of grace and I was able to renew my spirit, examine my life, think about what matters most to me and to absorb the absolute goodness of our earth that God has entrusted to us for this short while.
Grandchamp however is by far not a deserted place! What I came to understand about this piece of scripture is that when Jesus says go to a deserted place he doesn’t mean to go to a forsaken place, or a place of abandonment or some barren and dried out wasteland where there is nothing that can possibly renew your soul, a place that is void of the very essence of life itself. What would be the use of that? He actually meant the opposite.
When he said to go to a deserted place, he meant to come away to a place that is life giving but different from the usual places of your life. It is a place that suspends your daily challenges and tasks for just a moment in time. It is someplace that will allow you the time to commune with God and be in prayer without distractions that can ultimately deplete you of your energy and your strength. It is a place where unfilled jars can be replenished and empty baskets can be refilled once again.
One of my tasks at the monastery was to slice bread for each meal, funny I should get this job, my dad being a baker and all. While this might seem mundane, for me it was not. It brought back childhood memories of the bakery and it gave me a sense of being of value to the community doing the work of Christ, which is to feed others. My father used to say, ‘bread is the staff of life’, meaning we need it to function. Like a shepherd needs his staff to negotiate the rocky terrain of life and keep the sheep in line, we need wholesome bread that will steady us and keep us filled and help us stay in line when we wander to far off the path. We all need to be fed. Slice after slice I thought about him as I smelled the bread and placed them into the baskets.
Jesus also came to mind when he said, ‘I am the bread of life, he who comes to me will never hunger.’ (John 6: 35) Christ is so very present in all aspects of living at the monastery. As I filled the empty baskets with the sliced bread I couldn’t help but think of the words of institution from our communion liturgy, take and eat, this is Christ, given for you so that you might have life.
Everything at Grandchamp is intentional, every task is accomplished in silence with the presence of God in your heart. For me living into the presence of Christ in silence was life giving and the rest that it provided was enriching and so beneficial to my well being. Who knew that slicing bread would bring me inner peace?
Yet even the sisters need a break from their daily tasks and each Monday morning is what they call their ‘desert’ day. There are no communal prayers, and work that needs to be done can wait. It is a time of rest and trust. Rest from work and trust that God will sustain them until they resume their activity once again. It is like a breath being held for as long as it can be and then released or like the sadness of Good Friday’s death held in tension until Easter morning when death finally relents and gives way to life.
Rest is not a new invention. From the beginning of time, ‘God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.’ (Genesis 2:3) Even God rested. Why should we think that we don’t need rest?
We work so hard don’t we? All of us, no matter what it is that we choose to do with our lives, are driven, especially here in the Northeast. If you don’t step aside and cease what you are doing for a while how will you know how far you’ve come? How will you know that what you are doing is the right thing and the decisions that you have made for yourself are accurate decisions? How will you be able to listen for God speaking to you if you don’t set aside time to listen? How will you be able to discern your future in light of your past and in the fullness of the present? How will you ultimately get rest?
None of us are superhuman, all of us need a break. Even if you love what you do, which I do, Jesus still tells you to rest. He certainly did, we hear of him leaving his disciples and going off by himself to pray. It was essential to him and he is a role model for us. He wants you to cease what you are doing – I mean really stop. The Iphones, Ipads, MacBook Pro’s all powered off! I am convinced that this was one of those times where his human nature is in total sync with ours because the compassion he shows for his disciples is rich. His life was difficult and he knows that our lives are difficult too. We need rest.
The poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops….a day away acts as a spring tonic, it can dispel rancor, transform indecision, and renew the spirit.”[ii]
Grandchamp was the place for me to receive my rest but it may not be for you. Where might you retreat to that will give you rest? It could be as simple as your backyard or in your easy chair for the afternoon. The place doesn’t matter so much as how you choose to spend your time of rest. It is in those moments of rest that God’s presence and peace can be felt and absorbed. Rest is essential. Rest is an imperative. To rest separates the past from the future and allows you to come to God in your totality and just be.
One of the songs that we sang very simply says it all, “Take O take me as I am, summon out what I shall be, Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”[iii]
Let this be your prayer. That in your moments of truthfulness before God, when your rest has lowered the iron shields of pretentious living and you can breathe deeply once again, you can sing out for God to take and use you just as you are knowing that God has set his seal upon your heart, never to be broken.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”
To view more of Grandchamp and the vicinity continue to scroll down