When it comes to literature, I love the big, unwieldy, intimidating works. Give me Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and more Shakespeare any day—that’s the good stuff I crave. I really can’t get enough of the texts that lay the groundwork for things to come. And when I think back to two years ago when I first signed on for the PhD, I realize that I got all kinds of courageous when I declared my research concentration: “Give me Shakespeare,” I demanded. “If I’m going to do this PhD, I’m going big. Give me Shakespeare.”
Unsurprisingly, big questions follow the big stuff. This Lenten season, I’m feeling the weight of the big questions more than usual, probably because my primary reading material for Lent has been Milton’s Paradise Lost, that ambitious seventeenth-century English epic that recounts the fall of man. (Now there’s some Lenten reading for you…)
It’s been a long while since I first read Paradise Lost, and unfortunately most of my memories are lost in a whirling cloud of heavy undergraduate fog. How much did I really understand of this incredible poem as a 20-year-old English major? I’m afraid to admit how little I remember from that first read-through. This semester, however, several years beyond my undergrad days, I’ve had the chance to come back to it with fresh eyes and a sturdier literary brain. The wonderful thing about doing a PhD is that you build yourself up in “readiness” to take on these great texts. A doctorate demystifies so much of what used to be intimidating about works like Paradise Lost. The hard thing, I suppose, is that it also leaves you even more mystified once you finally begin to understand how heavy some texts are.
But this time reading Paradise Lost, I’ve realized something that I’m sure I never noticed the first time: there is just no rest in an epic journey.
This is the issue in all epics, isn’t it? Genuine, soul-healing rest is hard to come by. Epic journeys resist moments of restorative rest (something like Sabbath, maybe?) because that would conflict with the whole idea of an epic— “a labor large exceeding far my might,” as Edmund Spenser says.
Now that we’re at the midpoint of Lent, I feel like I keep returning to this hard question: “Where is the rest?” I could boldly ask the same question of my graduate program—halfway through, I’m beginning to wonder when I will get a chance to rest. I am currently on the brink of finishing four long years of graduate coursework (MA and PhD courses combined), and even though I suspect some rest is coming, I’m feeling skeptical. My schedule keeps prematurely overflowing with “the next thing.”
What I really need is for the next thing to be a long, luxurious Sabbath.
Thankfully, even in all the busyness, I do know what Sabbath feels like. I’ve rested before in the midst of graduate work. Two years ago actually, after I defended my MA thesis, B. J. and I took five weeks off from working and lived on savings, perhaps our first real attempt at genuine rest. It was a little tight, but we were able to catch our breaths and take in the hot Texas summer-time air. I have lazy and wonderful memories of reading books, sitting on the front porch in the early morning with hot coffee, and trying to keep control over our wild front yard garden. (I dare you to grow okra in Texas.) I remember baking a horribly formed (but delicious) rhubarb pie in honor of our two year wedding anniversary, with a cut-out number “2” nestled on the pie’s crown—a tiny, midsummer celebration for a baby marriage. I also remember it being so hot that my summer wardrobe rarely strayed from twirling skirts and flip flops, and my hair looked strikingly similar to the Lady of Shalott’s—because Texas summer, of course.
We still reminisce about that summer: how it was brimming with real rest, how we saw our creative impulses spark and burn, how we relearned what marriage is like when career stress steps out of the picture. It was a short season, but it was long enough for us to intentionally refocus our attention to enjoying God, creation, our neighborhood, and our friends.
I really believe that an epic—like a graduate degree—resists moments of true rest. And I’m becoming increasingly convinced that any real rest in graduate school has to happen by your own volition, since moments of rest are not built into the different stages of the degree. When you do finally rest—when you really observe the Sabbath or take your own sabbatical—you consciously stop making progress on your epic journey (your courses, articles, presentations, teaching, progress) and shift your focus to, as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes, “what God has done and is doing.”
I love what DeYoung says about Sabbath observance in her essay in Teaching and Christian Practices (2011)—Sabbath is a practice that combats the vice of pusillanimity or “smallness of soul.” In the academic world (and I suppose in any professional setting), pusillanimity is the condition we call “the impostor syndrome,” the sense that you are not good enough, not smart enough, and definitely not qualified to do the job you do. We feed into the myth of the impostor syndrome when we refuse to stop working. This myth makes us ask ourselves in desperation, “If I take a day off from work, how will I ever catch up with what’s expected of me? How will I be what people expect me to be if I slow down?”
DeYoung explains it better, like a true philosopher would:
Sabbath rest includes meditating on what God has done and is doing, being fully attentive and present in worship, being refreshed by God’s presence undistracted by anxieties or future plans, sitting still and breathing deeply, sleeping enough. These are patterns of action designed to help us break the bad habits of believing that success depends entirely on our own efforts, fueled by the anxiety that our efforts will never be good enough. Pusillanimous lack of trust in God was the root of my fear of failure. Sabbath-keeping helped me learn to let go of these fears and open myself up to God’s call to engage in his work with confidence. (DeYoung 29)
As Lent moves on this year, I’m working hard to remind myself that rest is indeed built into the grand Christian narrative. The Christian story is not necessarily an epic like Milton’s Paradise Lost—it’s a cycle of gifts, not quite a quest narrative. There is rest here, and thanks be to God for that truth.