Bishop: Flats, Furloughs and Sabbath Rest

by Bishop Joensen | July 27, 2020

Bishop Joensen July 2020 Column

In early July I finally set out on the Great Western Trail for what I hoped would be a bike ride down to Martensdale and back.  I sailed along for the first ten miles, but then my back tire flatted and so I pulled over to change the tube.  I’m not the most adept at bike maintenance, and sure enough, I pinched the tube while installing it, and so was quite receptive to the friendly group that stopped to lend a hand and get me back on the road.  Ten more miles, two more flat tires—the last one coming after I changed the rear tube for the third time and turned my bike upright, only to have the front tire hiss at me without even mounting the bike.  “God, this is not funny!” 

Thank goodness for the Good Samaritan who gave me one last tube.  I gave up on destination Martensdale, turned around and headed home, fretting and fixated for the whole twenty miles on my bike’s condition.  I never was able to get into the contemplative “zone,” where bodily rhythm liberates the mind and senses to behold the green undulating fields and majestic tunnel of trees surrounding me—the true joy of cycling in Iowa, with or without RAGBRAI.

Even though we are free once again to celebrate Mass and other sacraments in common, and though we have been blessed with another sundrenched Iowa summer, many of us are finding it hard to find our “zone” of measured activity, freedom, and refreshment.  Pandemic-induced fears, political and social tensions, and other interior factors can thwart our ability to simply breathe, release our cares, and be wholly present before God and the beautiful world he has created.  Jesus promises us that if we come to him and assume his yoke, we will find rest for ourselves (Matthew 11:29).  Yet many of us struggle with a yoke we have partially pulled down upon ourselves, a pinched life that prevents us from truly beholding what is before us.  While we are made in God’s image, we do not automatically imitate God’s contemplative capacity to find repose in what he has done, to acclaim the goodness of what surrounds us, and to habitually abide—even for a few minutes, let alone for 24 hours, in this Sabbath state of soul.

Jesus’ invitation to be “yoked” with him is an offer to experience real freedom, to let the frustrations and fears that oppress us—stirred by our vulnerabilities, the prospect of illness and even death—to recede and no longer claim our heart as an “occupied zone.”  When the “eyes of the heart” (cf. Ephesians 1:18) gaze toward God, our physical flesh is drawn into a more holistic union of trust and self-offering that sees all things according to God’s perspective.  God’s repose becomes our own—a beatitude moment that by grace we become more habitually able to extend. We develop an enduring contemplative posture that weathers the distractions and setbacks life tosses our way.

For two weeks of July, in a sacrificial spirit of solidarity with those who are experiencing setbacks caused by the pandemic, and in the interest of good stewardship, staff at the Diocese of Des Moines Pastoral Center are on a two-week furlough where they are to refrain from work.  Outsiders might bemusedly see this as an additional two weeks of vacation, but given the servant hearts of our employees and default tendency to check email and keep abreast of work before it piles up, we know that any ability to actually rest and be refreshed will be an intentional affair. It will require discipline and practical steps to resist our own acquired natures.  Fr. Donald Hagerty observes, “Whereas in former times, distraction was a common difficulty in the struggle to give full concentration to prayer or work, now it has become a kind of ‘companion presence’ in many lives. . . . It is as though a compulsive need for distraction had become a new drug-resistant disease of the mind, and nothing could tame or halt it.”  The unconscious attachment to distraction becomes an impediment to cultivating a genuine spirituality, let alone finding Sabbath rest for oneself.  Communication and access to information, says Hagerty, assume “an aggressive mode when outside of work they preoccupy our mind to excess, insisting on attention, demanding to be used.” 

Hagerty’s proposed remedy is no surprise: we need to shut down our devices at intervals if we are to experience the light of God’s self-disclosure and achieve insight into the world and ourselves.  “Training ourselves in a taste for the silent hour in solitude. . . must become a cultivated choice.”

Does this strike us as bleak advice more likely to squelch our joy and peace rather than restore these precious gifts?  Perhaps Pope Francis’ counsel is more upbeat, appealing:  we must link our love and appreciation for nature with our living Eucharistic faith. On this five-year anniversary of his encyclical, Laudato Si’/ ‘On Care for our Common Home’, in Chapter VI the Holy Father commends a contemplative ride in the world around us:  “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.  The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things” (n. 233).  The yo-yo outer-inner movement and back again expands our horizons and places all earthly cares in proper perspective.  We can exhale our pent-up tensions and breathe in the Spirit that pervades all God’s handiwork.

Unlike those who think they can casually write themselves a summer pass from sacraments and take a holiday from practicing their faith, Pope Francis begs to differ; he maintains, “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds it greatest exaltation.”  Jesus enters the material world and infuses his presence in the Eucharist; it becomes the center of the universe and molten core of life and love, whether it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church or in a grand cathedral.  “The Eucharist joins heaven and earth”; it is “also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (n. 236).

Simply stated, when we are fueled by the Eucharist, our ability to find rest and refreshment, to place fears back in the box where they belong, never runs flat.  We are free to slip beyond ourselves and our frustrations, to find nature—including our own human nature—as friendly, hospitable, waiting to be discovered and cherished anew.  We overcome the temptation to view nature as some antagonistic opponent God visits upon us like some sick joke leaving us stranded at the side of life’s road.  Dread of the unexpected melts away in the face of our childlike anticipation to behold the treasures God is poised to present to us.  Whether it’s Sunday or any other day of the week, our habitual faith attitude beckons:  Let’s ride!   

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.