Dolce Far Niente

Those of you who know me know that I’m an advocate of working hard, being efficient, and not wasting time so that important things can be done. Let’s face it, we have a lot of work to do on some pretty important things. If you don’t know me that well but you know me a little, you know I’m also a fan of having fun, taking time off, taking breaks. To me, it’s all about the balance: work hard, play hard, even rest “hard.” The Italians have a saying: Dolce far Niente, which roughly translates as “the sweetness of doing nothing.” It succinctly encapsulates the truth that we all need to stop, rest and enjoy life, or as the saying goes, “to take time to smell the roses.”

One of my professors in seminary taught us a great life lesson. He said that we should all take breaks on regular intervals but the unique thing he taught was that we needed different kind of breaks for different kinds of stretches of time, which for most of us are mostly stretches not only of time but of work.

He said we should all take a decent break, every day. This might be just a few hours but it’s awake time (sleeping doesn’t count!) that has as its only purpose rest and restoration. Maybe you like to read. Some people like to take a long walk or just enjoy a quiet cup of coffee or tea while enjoying some quiet, but this should be besides our other restorative activities like exercise, prayer, and yes, adequate sleep.

Then there is the weekly cycle: God Himself ordained this when He commanded that we sanctify one day in seven for rest, with the pattern being set by His rest after His Creation. This is a longer rest than the daily one, because we have a week to rest up from…and another to rest up for.

Another level of rest is one that many people miss out on, but that I think is crucial.  About every month or so, we need an extended break. Maybe it’s one weekend every four to six weeks where we do all the weekend work in the yard or the house ahead of time and have the entire weekend as a break. When funds allow, it’s nice to even get away for some of this. This doesn’t have to require much in terms of funding. In the past, many families would go camp for a night or two. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are these quick weekend trips away with family and friends. I think we would all do well to try to incorporate monthly extended breaks into our routines.

Most of us are fairly good at an annual time of rest, euphemistically called a “vacation” but which, unfortunately, often involves so much work that we come home needing a vacation to rest from the vacation. A vacation away from home or the newly coined “staycation,” when done well, are extended times for rest, a break from work, and a chance to slow down the pace of life. Because we not just changing our speed but changing our pace, it always takes a few days for the new, slower pace to take effect before we can truly relax and rest.

So yes, work is important, but so is rest, and it’s needed at many levels. St. Anthony once had an enlightening conversation with a hunter, who was surprised to find St. Anthony and his monks relaxing a bit. Here’s how the dialog is recorded in the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”:

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. The old man then said, “Shoot another,” and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,” and the hunter replied “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” Then the old man said to him, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.” When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

So, yes, we all need our breaks, so let’s all try a little harder to take them at all the levels we need them: daily breaks, weekly breaks, monthly breaks, and annual breaks. Sometimes, we even need a bigger one than a normal annual break. I write this as I prepare for a longer vacation than we’ve ever had. After a busy three years in our new parish and home, which followed immediately on the heels of five busy years as a mission priest (not to mention a major accident that marked the transition between the two), it’s time for an even bigger break than normal. I’ve been asked several times about our upcoming trip: “What are you going to do when you’re on your trip?” My answer is always virtually the same. Yes, we’ll do some sightseeing and that’ll be great, but the one thing I’m looking forward to the most is literally the No Thing…nothing. I think that will be just, well, sweet. Dolce far Niente, as our Italian friends say. I’m looking forward to just sitting, staring out on the water, taking in deep breaths, and just being.

You see, we all need to just be a whole lot more while we do so many things in our busy lives. But sometimes it takes doing nothing to get back to being human beings again. It may be the height of irony, but most of us need to work a whole lot harder on not working, and on taking our loving God’s commandments to heart and recognize our need for–and the gift of–rest.