It was announced last week that three scientists from the USA, Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine for their discovery of circadian rhythms, commonly known as the ‘body clock’. This important discovery has helped us to understand why some people are more alert and function better at some times of day than at others, and helps to explain why chronic interruption to sleep patterns can have serious consequences for long-term health.
We know that getting a good night’s sleep is important medically. People may, however, be less aware of the importance given to the concept of rest and refreshment in the Christian tradition. True, medieval monks didn’t get much in the way of an uninterrupted night’s sleep – they were required to wake every few hours to say their offices (the set prayers for certain times of day, and night) – but periods of rest and recreation were still built into their daily routines. Jesus’ own life, as recorded in the gospels, includes time set aside to relax with his friends, and to take time out for prayer and quiet rest. In Mark’s Gospel (1.35), for example, after a day of healing many sick and demon-possessed individuals, we’re told that the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to a place where he could be alone to pray. The implication is that Jesus was getting up from sleep, so not only was a good night’s sleep part of Jesus’ life, so was creating space to rest in God’s presence.
Sadly, in our own time, some parts of the Church have slipped into the prevailing mode of our culture when it comes to work and rest. That is, elevating busy-ness to a virtue, and losing sight of the importance and, indeed, the holiness of rest. Many in the Church have recognised this, however, and are working to redress the balance. Time doing nothing is not time wasted. Time doing nothing is time in which our bodies can get physical rest; it is time in which we can be still enough to listen for the quiet, unobtrusive voice of God (1 Kings 19.11-13). Time doing nothing is also a time when our imaginations can come alive, creating opportunity for insight and inspiration.
It should be no surprise that our bodies work in daily rhythms, or cycles. After all, on a larger scale, human beings have always depended on cycles and seasons. The importance of the marking of times and seasons is something the Church has long understood, and is reflected in the cycle of the Church year and our liturgies. At this time of year (autumn), many churches are celebrating harvest festivals, which not only give thanks for what God, through the productivity of the earth, provides, but also inherently acknowledges the cycle of the seasons. That, as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” (Ecclesiastes 3.1-2). There are times of the year for planting, for growing and for harvesting, just as there are times in the human life cycle for birth, growth, the harvest from a good life (caring for others, passing on knowledge and wisdom, the cherishing and sharing of memories, among other fruits of a life well-lived), and death.
The Church’s year also recognises spiritual seasons, alongside the seasons of the natural world. There are seasons of penitence, observed in Advent and Lent, and seasons of joy and festivity, such as Christmas and Easter.
Seasons and rhythms help to give balance to our lives. We cannot permanently live in a state of contemplation and introspection; there must be a time for action, as well. On the other hand, we cannot live all of life at full speed or we would quickly burn out. We need times of waiting and anticipation in order to prepare for the momentous events of life (something that the seasons of Advent and Lent help us to learn). We need times of work and discipline to enable us to achieve. We need times of relaxation and refreshment to restore our physical and spiritual strength. Our 24/7 society seems to have lost sight of this, even as science is reminding us just how important it is. The Church is perfectly placed, if it can hold off the pressure of itself conforming to the 24/7 society and the impatience that thrusts aside seasons of waiting to gain instant gratification, to show the world a sustainable rhythm of life, based on daily cycles and annual seasons that give time for work, rest, play, reflection, and action, as well as for joy, sorrow, regret, repentance and forgiveness; for remembering the past, looking toward the future, and living fully in the now.