One of the characteristic features, and curses, of modern life is excessive busyness. With all our labour saving devices and computer automation, the pace of life seems to get just faster all the time. So many people these days have to work on Sundays, and after hours, and even take work with them on their holidays. Everyone is in a hurry; no one has time for anyone or for anything. People feel guilty if they do nothing at all, so we tend to fill every available spare moment with activity, or entertainment, and to fill all our silence with noise. The modern ethos of work, work, work; busy, busy, busy; hurry, hurry, hurry is a horrible sort of slavery that de-humanises us. So often its result is stress, and anxiety, and family break down, and mental illness, or the pursuit of unhealthy ways to find escape.
But there’s another characteristic feature, or curse, of modern life, which is loneliness. In our dysfunctional society, so many people feel isolated, or feel they have no one to talk to, and no one who cares about them. Many many people nowadays of course live entirely alone. Commuters travel to work, bumper to bumper, one person in each car. Children play side by side, each one intent on his own mobile device. In public spaces people inhabit their own private world, their ears plugged by music no one else can hear. Like excessive busyness, loneliness and isolation can be dehumanising, and lead to depression and a sense of worthlessness, and people here too can be tempted to find unhealthy avenues of escape.
Our Blessed Saviour suffered extreme loneliness in Gethsemani and on Calvary. Lonely people can certainly identify with him there, and in this way participate in his Passion. But in today’s Gospel we read of Jesus and his disciples being overwhelmed by busyness. This was not busyness they manufactured; it just came to them, as it often comes to us too. So today Jesus tells his disciples to come away to a lonely place; to rest; to be alone by themselves for a while.
One could preach quite a useful a homily on the benefits of leisure, of relaxation, of giving time to non-utilitarian projects like reading a good book, or becoming proficient in some hobby or interest. These things are good for us, and enhance the quality of our lives. But the point of the homily at Mass is always to turn our attention towards Jesus Christ our Lord. In today’s Gospel the disciples don’t merely escape busyness in order to rest: they go away to be with Jesus. And this is what all of us need, whether amid our busyness or in our loneliness. We need to spend time with Jesus, each day: to listen to his word, to speak with him, to rest in his presence. We come to Mass precisely to do that. And we do that too in our prayer. Today’s Gospel then is surely a reminder, or a call, to ensure we spend sufficient time each day in prayer; that we make sure we give time to being with Jesus for no other reason than just to be with him. Yes, we have our concerns, and worries, and plans, and desires, and distractions, and we bring them to him in our prayer. But also in our prayer it’s good to let them all go, put them aside for this moment, and just look at Jesus; rejoice in him, and love him, and allow his love for us to enter our hearts and lives.
A Benedictine monastery stands as a living sign of this sort of prayer: also as a witness to values that oppose both busyness and loneliness. Monastic life cherishes and protects what the mediaevals called holy leisure: time for the Lord alone; time to read his word, to sing his praises, to dwell with him in silence. This is not at all mere idleness: in fact it requires dedication and discipline and ascetic effort. But if being alone with God is a monastic value, so also is living in community. At least that applies to all of us who do not have the rare vocation to the hermit way of life. Community of course can sometimes be extremely difficult, but of itself it’s wholesome, and humanising, and it overcomes any tendency to isolation. Any Christian community too necessarily strives or aspires to be an image of heaven, where there is peace, and mutual support, and a communion of love, and shared joy in the Lord.
Lots of people nowadays like to know that the monastery is there, because its mere existence reminds them of what is most important in all our lives. What really matters, above all other things whatever, is our relationship with God, and our eternal destiny. We live rightly with God when we make sufficient time to be alone with him in prayer, in Christ Jesus our Lord; but also by living rightly with other people, in mutual forgiveness and mutual love.
After today’s Gospel passage, St. Mark goes on immediately to narrate the story of the feeding of the 5,000. But because his Gospel is short, for the next 5 Sundays we will leave St. Mark behind, and read instead St. John’s account of the miracle, with the discourse that follows it. There Jesus will declare Himself to be the true Bread that comes down from heaven. There he will tell us: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides, rests, in me, and I in him.
So we come now to Mass, in order to rest in Jesus, and to be fed by him. And precisely here, with the whole Church, we look forward to that “vision of peace”, the heavenly Jerusalem, where we will abide with Christ forever, drinking from the torrent of his delight (Ps 35), wanting for nothing, and reposing in the green pastures of endless joy.