Opening the Word: The tyranny of activity


In March 2020, the world shut down. There were no more concerts, no more sporting events, no more school and no more extracurriculars. The frenetic activity that characterizes the hustle and bustle of life in the United States ceased.

And yet, almost immediately, many began to ask, “When can we go back to normal?”

August 9 – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kgs 19:9, 11-13
Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
Rom 9:1-5
Mt 14:22-23

Now, some degree of normality is good. When can we go back to public worship? When can our brothers and sisters once more work, gaining a paycheck, rather than fretting about rent month to month? When will so many of those most on the margins stop suffering from this illness?

And yet, there are other dimensions of this normality that reveal a malaise that inflicts the United States. It is the sickness that perceives economic growth as the consumption and production of endless goods. It is the sickness that looks for infinite entertainment, a ceaseless motion where we can never be alone with our own thoughts. It is the illness in which many families never share a meal together because they are too busy running here and there and everywhere.

What are we looking for in this activity? Why are we afraid of slowing down, living a more humane life?

The prophet Elijah knows what we fear. He is sheltering in a cave, burdened by his vocation as prophet to Israel. In his suffering, the Lord offers Elijah the promise of his presence. This presence is not revealed through the force of heavy wind, of crushing rocks, in the frantic movement of an earthquake, or in the spectacle of fire. It is the still, small voice where Elijah perceives God’s presence.

To hear this whispering voice, the presence of God in the smallest breeze requires attention and solitude. Elijah’s first task is to make himself present to God, rather than continue his frenetic movement from town to town proclaiming the word of God. He must be alone to hear the comfort of this voice.

Amid all his activity, all his teaching, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ craves this solitude. Having fed the multitudes, he goes to a mountain to be alone. He seeks to pray. As God, he wants to be alone with the Father, to experience the communion that is at the heart of his being. As man, he wants to know solitude, to listen to that small voice.

The disciples are still in the boat, continuing their ceaseless activity. There is a storm. The God-man, Jesus Christ, quells the raging waters. The one who ordered the chaos of creation, the watery abyss of nothingness, again controls the seas.

Peter wants Jesus to prove himself to him. Let me walk on the waters, he says, then I will know that it is you. Jesus agrees. And yet at once, Peter is frightened. The wind is too strong. He knows through his activity, he cannot continue. Peter sinks, and Jesus saves him.

We are afraid of the precise same thing that Peter is. We are afraid of giving our will over to God. Our projects, our plans, our activity is how we imagine ourselves to be saved. The still small voice whispers give up on your plans, your projects, your security, and trust in God alone.

So, let us stop wishing for a return to normal. And let us instead find a way forward beyond the tyranny of perpetual activity.

For if we listen carefully, with attention, in solitude, we may hear the voice of the Lord speaking to us once more: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for his word” (Ps 130:5).

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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