The author of Sirach, one of the books that you’ll find scrounging around the back porch of the biblical canon, offers this observation. “See with your own eyes that I have laboured but little and found for myself much serenity.”
I like serenity and if “little labour” is the way to find it, all the better. But I have an inkling that “little labour” is not little labour. Even a lazy person can be notoriously laborious. He just labours at avoiding labour. No tranquility there.
No, the “little labour” that puts out the welcome mat for serenity is the releasing a busy-mind. Of course busy-ness, either that excessive striving to keep adding cushions between insecurity and what we perceive as need-to-have in order to feel secure and comfortable, or that work-in-overdrive that helps keep all the self-worth questions at bay, will give serenity the bums rush every time. Now while I don’t know about excessive-labour, I do know about a busy-mind.
Which brings me to describe the brush with serenity I had this past weekend. It came in the low clouds that arrived with everyone else at the funeral of my uncle. Nothing direct, just an absence of discomfort, a kind of apophatic solace. And then the next day, almost as a follow-up, serenity settled upon me as I sat in an empty chapel. And the day after that it tagged me as I crossed the living room floor. It was serenity, I was sure; repose I suppose. It didn’t last but while it did I picked it like low-hanging fruit.
In these few moments I was in the grip of something like a long-view. I saw past, or through, the immediate worry that threatened to overtake, past the named and unnamed fears that loom like thunderheads and anxiously charge the atmosphere. Past those stresses that mock any attempt at creative work, that shred hours that otherwise may have been lived well, that could have produced some good, perhaps even adding something worthwhile to the world.
It was the long-view that was the conduit. It was this that offered me a connection with mortality. And a mortal experience, whether at a funeral or through gazing at a work of art, always questions my priorities, and with surprising alacrity questions what I labour at and give meaning to. The paradox of the long-view is that it nurtures an attentive appreciation for the present. St. Benedict must have known this when–without a trace of contextual morbidity–he penned, “Keep death before your eyes daily.”