I finished confessing, and the priest pronounced the most unusual penance of my life. Do something intentional to take care of yourself, something to relax, something to feel refreshed.
Ok, I admit it. I had been busily running from one obligation to the next, and it was wearing me down. I was exhausted, but what I hadn’t realized was how much that exhaustion was harming me — making me more vulnerable to sin and temptation and less aware of those around me. Confession sets us free to love anew, and in a remarkable way, that unique penance set me free to love myself. Although I was still burdened by a hundred obligations, the thing that now jumped to the top of my duty-oriented priority list was finding a way to take care of myself. What might I do? The possibilities were gloriously endless. Take a bath and paint my nails. Go for a long run, stop for ice cream, and walk home. Revisit those days when I had time to read a book just for fun!
That penance taught me something beautiful. Refreshment is a real human need, and it is not selfish to take the time to fill it. In fact, it is part of living out God’s plan for our lives. Not long after that penance, I was back in the thick of things. I found myself running between at least three jobs while finishing my degree. So that was the year I chose a Lenten discipline of taking 30 minutes each day to just do something relaxing and productive — refreshing. And that is also the year that I somehow managed to learn how to play the guitar in my not-free-time (after all, I was now morally obliged to do something relaxing) while taking on a fourth job. It makes me stressed just to mentally relive that spring, but those moments of planned calm and sanity were lifegiving. If I’m being real, my life isn’t too different today. I’m a busy girl, the sort who doesn’t often put on the brakes and still works multiple jobs while furthering my education. But I have learned over the years how important it is to slow down, to say no, and to be gentle with myself.
In this strange time of distancing, when working in loungewear and gazing in awe at an open social calendar has become the new normal, it seems that intentional relaxation would be the last thing I’d feel a need to write about. Yet I’ve been observing a new pattern of exhaustion. The exhaustion of endless Zoom calls and email responses and screen time; the strain of children cooped up and everyone absorbing the same space; the drain of staring at the same walls each day and missing routine. For some of us, things are as busy as ever. For those of us who have the newfound privilege of sleeping in every day, we still feel tired. Ladies, we’re not always good at stopping. So this is my invitation to you: Starting now, make this a summer of real refreshment. It is time to stop clicking the refresh button on your computer and to start making intentional choices that will refresh your soul.
Are you in? Here are five quick rules and a few ideas to get you started.
1) You have to set aside time. If you don’t, it won’t happen. Commit to at least 45 minutes once or twice a week through the end of summer, and see where it takes you.
2) Accountability is great, so find a sister to do this with you; but even if you plan one of your weekly days with a friend or spouse, make sure the other is just you — alone.
3) Choose an activity that does not involve a screen. No computer, no phone, no television. Leave them behind or turn them off. As much as screens have become our relaxation drug of choice (and don’t get me wrong, a good movie night can feel wonderful), they don’t leave us deeply invigorated and refreshed.
4) Do something you love or something you always wish you had time for but never manage to do. You should honestly look forward to this!
5) Start with a simple prayer. Offer God your moments of refreshment, and ask him to help you encounter his rest.
I like to think of it as “planning a date with God.” What might it be? A visit to a quiet coffee shop with just my Bible and a journal where I’ll slowly sip something soothing and read words without hurry. Or if everything is closed in your area, take down the fine china you never have an occasion to use and have teatime while leafing through an old scrapbook. Wander a nearby garden park with a sketchbook. Play an instrument or even the CD player (do those still exist?). Write a letter to someone you love. Bicycle to the bakery. Choose something that excites and inspires you.
If you’ve never planned a date with God, it’s time to give it a try. Smile with him, laugh with him, and leave refreshed. It’s from that place of knowing companionship with God that prayer time makes sense, not as a burden, but as an anticipated and sweet consolation that gives me the energy and inspiration to meet the day. It’s from that place of real refreshment that I discover the gift of loving myself well that I might also love others. Someone extraordinarily wise once said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” Can you refresh my memory?
Maria Mellis is a high school English teacher in Clarkston, Michigan, as well as a pianist and parish music director. She has spent time living and teaching in Poland and loves to bake, to play soccer and volleyball, and to write poetry in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. She is passionate about the daily opportunity that each one of us has to encounter God in the most ordinary of moments and is continually inspired by the incredible teens she has the privilege to teach.