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Boyd Matheson: ‘Sacred idleness’ is a balm for weariness

A father reads to his son.
A father reads to his son.
Deposit Photos

George McDonald, a Scotsman born in 1824, captured the challenges, pressure and pace of our modern society when he said, “Work is not always required of men and women. There is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.” Incredibly, McDonald felt, way back in the 1800s, that society was moving too fast, missing too much and manufacturing too much stress in the process.

Today we live in a world that is accelerating in fast-forward with more changes and more challenges than ever before. As a result, so many of us feel weary. It is a weariness of both body and mind that unfortunately does not disappear with a good night’s rest. Many in our nation greet the dawn with weariness only to feel the discouragement and despair deepen as the day drags on.

The external influences that bring on weariness are only a small part of the overall pattern of weariness. In truth, most of our weariness is self-inflicted. We can become weary by attempting to do too much, trying to please everyone, obsessing on negative news, holding a grudge, being in a hurry, needlessly worrying, being forever tethered to technology and even by not being clear about what really matters. All of these add tremendous weight to our already wearied and burdened march through daily living.

“There is such a thing as a sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.” McDonald knew that sacred idleness was being neglected and that it was the key to overcoming weariness in a worn-out world.

Sacred idleness is not, in any way, a justification for self-indulgence, laziness or narcissism. Sacred idleness is not about escaping reality, mindlessly watching TV, sleeping late, surfing social media or justification for doing whatever feels good.

Rather, it is a focus on sacred things that renew, rejuvenate and restore. It should be noted that “sacred” does not necessarily equate to things related to religion or spirituality — though it often does for me. It is important to note that the word sacred is also defined as something highly valued, something set aside or even set apart, for a specific purpose. A parent’s sacred fund for their child’s college education, saved through their hard work and sacrifice, is a good example. Time set aside for loved ones can be sacred, as can time for self-reflection.

Sacred idleness is often an opportunity to rest — not in the lying-in-a-hammock sort of way. I once heard sacred idleness and real rest described as the energizing joy, peace and satisfaction that come from doing your duty.

In the New Testament, Christ taught his apostles this important principle of sacred idleness and rest. In Mark 6:30-32: “And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught.

“And he said unto them, come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.

“And they departed into a desert place by ship privately.”

Christ was giving the apostles a chance to have a moment of sacred idleness and righteous rest. He was not taking them on a weekend spa retreat. My guess is that there was a lot of work and study out there in the desert.

Elder Neil A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one who understood sacred idleness and righteous rest, once said, “We rest and have some solitude in order to better serve those who may contribute to our fatigue.”

Another example of Christ showing the power of sacred idleness occurred when Christ and his disciples were on the raging sea and about to perish. The disciples frantically raced about the ship and soon became weary with fear and fatigue. The Lord arose and simply said, “Peace, be still.” In this declaration I have always felt that the Savior was not really speaking to the wind and the waves! He was speaking to his disciples.

In the end, sacred idleness is about pursuing small moments that matter. It is making time for yourself, and those you care about, to do things that are important, rejuvenating and set aside for your purposes. Activities that give you energy back are sacred — and making them a priority is paramount. Finding sacred idleness can be as simple as stepping away from the constant engagement of work, disconnecting from digital devices, meditating or getting away for an evening. I have found a shoe shine at the airport can be a magic moment for me, as can listening to an inspiring song, reading history, breathing deeply, writing, or simply forcing myself to be still. Amazingly, sacred idleness can also be found in serving others, meaningful dialogue, reaching out or simply looking within.

It is true that more people run out of energy and hope than run out of opportunity. Feeling burned out, overextended and forever weary can ruin relationships, careers, organizations and personal lives. Recharging your batteries, decompressing and stepping back are important disciplines. Filling your days with inspiring, renewing and rewarding thoughts and activities will lead you to a happier and more successful journey through the fast-paced world we live in.

George McDonald was right — working, pressing and stressing are not always required! If you are feeling weary and unable to sustain your daily pursuits, it may be worth it to set aside some time for a moment of rejuvenating rest and sacred idleness.

Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.