Rabbi Levi saw a man running in the street, and asked him, "Why do you run?" He replied, "I am running after my good fortune!" Rabbi Levi tells him, "Silly man, your good fortune has been trying to chase you, but you are running too fast."
My friend Marilyn is a devoted massage therapist. She is very kind and works very hard. She serves in the poorest section of San Francisco, offering her services for free to those most in need. In seedy residential hotels, where there are people dying of AIDS or suffering from tuberculosis, she goes from the room of one sick person to another, massaging, rubbing the salve of good care into their isolated dying bodies.
When Marilyn and I talk on the phone, she often sounds exhausted. I invite her to spend a day at the beach. She says she can't. She has too much work, too many people to meet, too many things to do. She is almost weeping, such is her need to rest, but she has no inner permission to stop working, even for an afternoon.
Marilyn cares for others with great conviction. But she does not care for herself with the same conviction. She feels her time at rest will somehow take away from those in need, those whom she truly loves and hopes to serve. She assures me she is all right, and in many ways I know that she is. But if she does not rest, how soon will she burn out, and who will care for those who need her then?
Shortly before Jesus was killed, he was sharing a meal with his followers at the home of Simon, a leper. A woman arrived, wearing an alabaster flask containing expensive ointment. She broke open the exquisite flask and anointed Jesus' head with the precious oil. His disciples were very angry with Jesus, saying: Why this waste? This ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor. But Jesus responded, Why do you trouble this woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
What is Jesus saying--not to worry about the poor? Of course not; his entire ministry is about service and kindness for those in need. He is saying that a life of compassion must include compassion for all beings, including the giver.
Our reluctance to rest--our belief that our joy and delight may somehow steal from the poor, or add to the sorrows of those who suffer--is a dangerous and corrosive myth, because it creates the illusion that service to others is a painful and dreary thing. Jesus says there will always be opportunities to be kind and generous. Just as there is a time for every purpose under heaven, so is there a time for nourishment and joy, especially among those who would serve.
Elaine, a well-respected therapist, came to me for counseling. As a woman from an abusive family, she had for many years struggled, grown, and overcome great sorrow. Now she was very strong. She was proud of what she had become. And while she had achieved professional success, she felt it was not time to explore her inner landscape, the more subtle movements of her spiritual life, and asked if I would be her spiritual director.
In spite of her significant career accomplishments, Elaine experienced a nagging emptiness. For some people, emptiness can feel fertile and spacious, alive with possibility, as a womb is ripe for the child to come. But others feel emptiness as an ache, a void; something painful, in need of being filled. When we are empty, we feel unhealed; when we are unhealed, we can feel unworthy. I sensed Elaine was uncomfortable and afraid of her emptiness."Tell me about your sense of worth," I said. She began by recounting her triumphs and successes, and her growing sense of personal and professional self-esteem. I stopped her. "I am not speaking about your self-esteem, which I am sure is justifiably strong, considering all you have done in your life. I am asking about the quiet times, the nights before sleep, the silent moments of the day when you are alone, when you are not a successful professional. In the Catholic Mass, there is a phrase spoken before one receives communion: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But say the word, and I shall be healed. For some reason, as we sit together, I am reminded of that phrase. What do you think?"
Unexpectedly, she wept. Silent sobbing tears, for a long time. She looked at me surprised, as if I had both betrayed and loved her, hurt and thanksgiving rising together in her eyes. We had touched an emptiness that felt like a wound. It was deep inside her, and she did not know what it was. It frightened her.
This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness. If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness, a terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode and destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop moving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done--anything to fill the time, the empty space.