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Rest and the exercise of our souls

Over the last several years I have served as a priest, one of my personal hobbies has been exercise: weightlifting, cross-training and some cardio. I’ve always enjoyed sports, having played soccer, football as a youth and intramural basketball as a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s. (And of course, I’m also a big Orioles fan – win or lose.) When we think of famous athletes, exercise and the way they train, we might be tempted to think they are always in the gym or on the practice field. But really one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom I’ve learned is that for every weightlifter or sprinter who exercises hard, the most valuable thing they need afterwards, that night and even the next day is rest. The way God designed our bodies is such that when a muscle is exercised, it is stretched and torn. Rest is vital because when our bodies are at rest, particularly at nighttime when we sleep, the muscle recovers, builds and becomes stronger. So, for an athlete to actually become stronger, faster and better he or she needs rest. That is a must, an absolute necessity! 

 Jesus also speaks of a need for rest in this past weekend’s Gospel [Matt 11:25-30.] His rest is given to all those who “labor and are burdened.” What does he mean by this? When we generally think of labor and a need or a desire for rest, it is after a very long and draining day of work, or maybe a Saturday of working on the house, in our yard or cleaning for our families.

But what is especially notable here are three small but most important things. First, he does not say, stay where you are, and I will give you rest. He says, “Come.” Move – this way. Second, he says “come to me.” To me: I myself will give you the rest you are seeking, he says. He does not say, “Go take this medicine; go see your therapist; call the doctor tomorrow morning; go talk to your local Pharisee, do this or do that.” He simply says, “Come to me… and, learn from me.” So, to learn from him implies that in this learning, we will know how to attain the rest we actually seek.     

In Jesus’ day, a yoke would have been a curved beam that laid across the back of one’s neck and shoulders, with chains or ropes at each end to carry things, often very heavy objects. Yokes were laid on oxen and animals as well. To carry one – especially alone – was quite a heavy burden, truly an exercise. But also, a yoke in Jewish and biblical tradition was a metaphor for religious instruction and the commandments of the Torah. So, to get to the point: what were the burdens that Jesus wanted his hearers to have lifted, lightened?

He is speaking not of physical burdens, but spiritual ones. The ones that relate to our souls and our “exercise” of being in right relationship with God, in good shape with him. The sincere Jewish people of his day and all those listening to him were laboring in their relationship with the Lord and they needed help with this. It is said that the Pharisees and Scribes often laid heavy burdens on their people in the way they taught them how to live the faith. Well, Jesus wanted them – and us – to know that because of him, if we come to him we never carry our burdens alone – no matter what our burdens may be.

Even Jesus himself showed us the greatest example in letting Simon of Cyrene carry the “yoke” of his cross to hill of Calvary, bearing a large wooden beam over his bruised and burdened back – the burden of our sins which he eventually died for. That’s what being “meek and humble of heart” is.    

If you are reading this, it is likely because you care about your relationship with God, you desire Heaven; you seek the good, and fight your sins every day; and you desire to serve him well in your life, and love well. If you and I are sincerely doing that, it is a burden. It is the burden of living in this world, yet not being of this world: which in July of 2017, in America, is becoming increasingly more difficult to do, to be authentically Catholic and Christian in every arena of our lives, public and private. Like lifting a weight, exercising a muscle stretches and tears it. Yet, when it finds rest, it is restored, renewed and stronger again. 

When our souls are stretched, even if to their breaking points, carrying our crosses, may we come to Jesus, who repairs, renews, restores and refreshes our souls. In him is our true rest, with him the heaviest burden is light.