A Time To Rest

A Time To Rest November 15, 2016

Polychrome small-scale model of the archer XI of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BC. By Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-08 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Polychrome small-scale model of the archer XI of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BC. By Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-08 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. The old man then said, “Shoot another,” and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,” and the hunter replied “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” Then the old man said to him, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.” When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.[1]

No one, not even saints, are expected to be super-human. The human condition brings to us all kinds of need, and if they are not met, then we shall break down and fall apart. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that for everything there is proper time and place for it. We should not be surprised that we should find that we have need of rest and leisure:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;  a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;  a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace  (Eccl. 3:1-8 RSV).

Everyone, even monks and nuns fighting in the desert of the self, needs times of rest and relaxation in order to gain the strength and composure needed for success. We can try to go on and on and on, working long and hard without rest, but all we will end up doing is become highly stressed, with our mind, body and or soul breaking down because we have not given in to our real needs. St. Anthony realized that there is a time for everything, including rest and relaxation. Monks are humans with human needs, and if those needs are not met, they would find they no longer had the strength needed to continue their ascetic struggles.  If we are to follow Jesus, we are to follow him not only in the fight against the dark passions of the soul which would keep us far away from God, but also in the time of peace, enjoying the presence of God in the midst of friends. Indeed, we have the example of Jesus who visited people in their feasts, enjoying their presence as they enjoyed his. Moreover, he would use such feasts as ways to represent the kingdom of God. If we neglect the leisure, we will fail to understand the eternal rest which God offers us as heirs to the kingdom of God.

It is therefore not too surprising that Anthony, a great ascetic, a top athlete of God, was known to take the time to enjoy the company of his friends and disciples. What kind of celebration, what kind of things they did in their time together, we do not know – but we know, it shocked a hunter who once caught sight of them in the midst of their leisure. Were they laughing, singing, playing some sort of games, or even feasting? Probably. Because there is a time for all of that, even for monks. Part of what it means to be a person is to be social. Human perfection itself requires the ability to engage society as a person full of joy thanks to the grace of God. Asceticism serves a purpose; it is not an end in and of itself. It seeks to help restore the human person to their proper, holistic place in the world. Without integrating a social dimension to the spiritual life, that purpose would not be met. The monks would struggle without relief, and eventually, find themselves entirely worn out, incapable of doing anything more. What then would happen to them?

Anthony, with his monastic wisdom, knew the best way to demonstrate the truth of this to the hunter. What happens to his bowstring if it is overworked? It breaks. It cannot take it. It would eventually be destroyed due to overuse. Thus, ascetics need a break unless they end up wound up and breaking like an overworked bowstring. What Anthony said in relation to his monks is true for all of us. It is not that we should be lazy, that we should find an excuse for sloth, but rather, it is the realization that there is a limit of what we can achieve without proper rest and relaxation. Whatever our place is in the world, this truth remains, but of course, for monks who have a more intense spiritual struggle going on, this truth needs to be kept front and center so that they do not feel bad if and when they need such rest. In this way, as the way Anthony explained as to the why he brought his monks out to rest not only edified the hunter, it helped strengthen his monks by relieving them of any possible stress they might have had by feeling they had given up on their ascetic discipline. It is in reality a part of that discipline, reminding them of the goal of such labor is for their own good, and that this goal is not able to be attained if they work too hard without relief. Of course, the reverse is also true, that is, if they felt all they needed to do was retreats such as this, and enjoy themselves without any other struggles, they would become lax and so fail their ascetic struggles as well.

The monastic wisdom in this saying goes back much further than Anthony; it is a basic understanding ascetics of most religious traditions develop if they are to gain anything from their struggles. Siddhartha famously taught how, on an instrument such as a lute, a string which is too loose will not make a sound, but too tight will break, representing the two extremes which must be abandoned in order to live properly.  This is exemplified in a dialogue with the ascetic Soa, who had once been a lute player before becoming a monk. Siddhartha found it important to encourage the monk to keep up his struggles without going to any of the two extremes. The results of his work might not be immediate, but he needed to understand that he was slowly developing himself and so let the progress come without undue expectations on himself. This is why a  proper balance needed to be had:

“Tell me, Soṇa, in the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“What do you think, Soa? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“But, Soa, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well turned and easy to play?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“So too, Soa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Soa, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there.”[2]

By Akuppa John Wigham from Newcastle upon Tyne, England (Emaciated Siddhartha) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Akuppa John Wigham from Newcastle upon Tyne, England (Emaciated Siddhartha) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
There are many instances of this kind of wisdom being given by Siddhartha. Indeed, it is something he had to learn for himself. He had once sought to be an extreme ascetic, eating very little in a week, becoming literally skin and bones. He had a group of followers who were with him, glorifying him for his extreme asceticism; indeed, they his example and tried to imitate him even though they could not best him in his extreme fasting. While he achieved a great ascetic feat, it was actually hindering his spiritual progression, and eventually he had to accept that he needed to eat more than he was eating, to accept food from others, so that he could be properly nourished in order to have the strength needed to continue his spiritual quest. His disciples abandoned him when he took just a few grains of rice; but he realized that he had been wrong in his extremism, and that his body was breaking down, and he would have found with such undernourishment he would not be able to achieve any spiritual success, and all his struggles would have led him nowhere but the grave.

It is possible, since Buddhism had entered into Alexandria before the Christian era, this wisdom had been spread around in Alexandria.  Therefore, it is possible that Anthony, in his initial ascetic training, might have been influenced by the wisdom of the Buddha. Or it is possible that he was able to come to the same conclusion all by himself after his own ascetic labor. We do not know, nor are we likely to know, though it is very telling that this story strikes so close to Buddhist lore, that it is possible it had an indirect influence on Anthony, and that the Buddha had some impact on this saying of Anthony. In either case, we can see how universal the appeal such discourses had in various religious traditions and communities. The understanding that extreme asceticism is a temptation which must be fought lest the ascetic breaks down and fails to achieve his or her goal was clearly ratified by experience in all the various communities which is why this appeal consistently reappears throughout monastic literature. For Christianity, with the understanding that no ascetic labor without grace can lead to the desired goal of the kingdom of God, there is even more reason for why such a story is important, because it reminds everyone that they cannot be saved by works alone. It shows us that so long as we focus on our own works, we will tend to exaggerate what we need to do in and through them, and so instead of opening ourselves to the grace of God which saves, we will close in on ourselves and try to do all things ourselves, breaking down and attaining none of what we desire.



[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 3-4.

[2] The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom, 2012), 933.


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