Rest as resistance and refuge

Activist, artist, and public theologian Tricia Hersey looks at the radical biblical instruction to rest and how claiming it can be a form of resistance.

Copyright © Alyscia Cunningham 2022, Reproduction is strictly prohibited.

My experimentation with rest as a tool for liberation has been a deeply spiritual journey of letting go. It has given me the opportunity to exercise and develop radical faith. The type of faith that my grandmother, mama and daddy lived by. The faith that kept my ancestors connected to their own divinity while in bondage during the sin of slavery. It is an unwavering place. The faith of a mustard seed that allows for leaping without a net. Rest is a holy place. Rest is a spiritual practice. Rest is a disruption of the toxic narrative of capitalism that connects our worth to how much we produce for a system that views us as human machines. Grind culture and the exhaustion it produces degrade our divinity. It is a true resistance to center your rest in a world that drives on hyperproductivity, urgency and disconnection.

The Scriptures teach me that ease, comfort, rest and radical care are promised to me. My favorite book of the Bible is Psalms. The poet in me has always connected with the rhythm, cadence and song found in its verses. The Psalms of comfort have held me up when everything in my life was collapsing, the same way my spine has held my tender and strong body. My faith has guided me to hold tightly to the promises of the Scriptures when all of culture is collaborating for me not to rest. From the Scriptures, I learned that Jesus napped on a boat. I learned that ease is promised to me. Rest is promised to me. Goodness and mercy forever are promised to me.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Psalm 23)

I first memorized the 23rd Psalm when I was a little girl around eight years old in Sunday school at Robbins Church of God in Christ in Robbins, Illinois. This small congregation, right outside of the South Side of Chicago, has incubated and encouraged my faith since I was born. My mother went into labor with me while in Sunday school in 1974. Since I was her second child and she loves Sunday school, she decided to stay for the entire lesson before heading to the hospital to deliver me. My father was the choir director and assistant pastor of the church; my grandmother was a long-standing member until she went home to see God. I was married at this church and claim it now as my spiritual North Star and foundation. The beginning of my faith and rest journey.

My Sunday school teacher, Sister Moore, handwrote Scriptures into a 3-by-5-inch lined index card to pass out to all her students. I loved receiving my card, with her fancy handwriting in blue ink. Her instructions to us: go home and have your parents read the Scripture passage to you every day. Read it before going to bed. Go slowly and repeat each line until you can recite it without looking at the card. Carry the card with you. I took this assignment very seriously and went home clutching my card with the 23rd Psalm on it. I began reading it to myself on the car ride home and continued the memorization process for an entire week. By the next Sunday, I could recite the verses like I was singing an original song.

I felt so comforted as I closed my eyes and the words spilled from my mouth proudly in front of the entire congregation. Each word became a prayer to me, and I trusted and believed the imagery of lying down in green pastures. I envisioned myself on a warm summer day, cuddling up on a blanket in the backyard of my childhood home, which had thick green grass that sometimes my dad would let grow long before pulling out the lawnmower. Verses 5 and 6 were my favorite to repeat. I loved enunciating “You anoint my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I loved saying “forever” over and over again. I was mesmerized by the idea of comfort, rest and goodness. When I was a young child, God felt so close to me while repeating these verses. I felt so proud to stand in front of the entire congregation.

Maybe this was the beginning of my heart opening to the practice of radical faith. Forty years later, I still repeat these words over and over in my head like a mantra as I center rest in my life. I rest every day. I return emails when my energy allows me to do so. I slow down when the machine-level pace of capitalism constantly tells me to go faster and do more. I trust in God to make space for my gifts without the pressure to overwork. I refuse to ignore my body’s cues to rest and connect. I uplift my divinity by seeing rest not as a privilege but instead as a human right and a birthright granted to me by God. By refusing to burn out, I place my body at the altar of rest and trust I will align with the calling God has for my life. It is not easy to seek liberation in a culture that uplifts hate, division, capitalism and inequality. To seek rest is to be an outlier and will take tremendous effort and faith to push back and disrupt grind culture.

Protest and resistance do not look one way. They’re always a counternarrative to the dominant story. They’re what is really happening on the ground in the small and important details of our lives. They say, “No, this isn’t the full story. I have another perspective. I can speak for myself.” Resistance is living when you have lived in a culture that doesn’t see your inherent worth. It’s centering joy when pain and oppression surround your daily living. It’s living your truth, even when your heart trembles at the thought of being vulnerable. It’s napping when your entire culture has called you lazy. It’s resting when you have been told you aren’t doing enough for capitalism. Resistance is honoring a sabbath and standing firm on the boundaries you have created for your wellness. It is boldly trusting, even when nothing has gone your way in a long time. It’s examining the ways you consciously or unconsciously uphold and align with White supremacy thinking so that you can begin to heal and change.

Resistance looks like lamenting when our culture calls for unrealistic and toxic positivity at every second. It’s knowing that our rest is not an afterthought, luxury, privilege or anything we must seek permission for. I believe naps are a holy place, and radical community care is a spiritual practice and form of resistance for everyone, but especially to those living in the margins navigating racism, poverty and state-sanctioned violence.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  (Mark 4:35-41)

As the founder of The Nap Ministry, I create collective napping experiences for the community to rest together in a sacred space. If we can nap like Jesus did in Mark 4:35-41 and rest in the beauty of God holding us, seeing us and guiding us to rest, we can be empowered to embody the good news of rest together. In a society that says you should be doing more by maximizing every opportunity, we can take refuge in the actions of Jesus as he left the large crowds that grew after experiencing his ministry. He retreated to go inward, and he napped. In a culture that is overworked, sleep-deprived and afraid to take any breaks or say no, we should uplift Jesus as an example of rest as resistance.

Resistance looks like sleeping peacefully during a windstorm on a cushion on a boat that is taking in water because you know that you don’t have to fear because your faith secures you. God is always there, no matter what storms rage around you. After Jesus wakes up from his nap (“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’”), the text ends with the disciples still in awe and shock. Still wondering: Who is this person, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

I believe that, like prayer, rest and slowing down is a veil remover. Rest removes the veil by giving us the space and time to see what is really going on. For almost nine years I have been researching and experimenting with rest as a spiritual practice and have clung to this idea: Sleep allows you to wake up. Naps offer a DreamSpace to invent, imagine, restore and heal. Rest disrupts the cycle of trauma that comes from exhaustion and makes space for invention. Resting can be daydreaming, silence, prayer, meditation, naps and slowing down.

My grandmama, Ora Caston, would sit on the couch every day for 30 minutes to an hour in between her jobs outside the home while she was raising children and grandchildren. She would sit silently with her eyes closed. When I would inquire, “Grandma, are you asleep?” without opening her eyes she would respond, “Every shut eye ain’t sleep. I’m resting my eyes. I’m listening to what God wants to tell me. I’m listening.”

As a young girl, I loved watching her sit on her couch and hold space like this, but I truly couldn’t grasp the radical faith and refusal in this sacred act. Now that I am older, I am in awe of her consistent and intentional rest in a world that saw her labor and body as disposable. She is the muse of The Nap Ministry because of her radical faith to rest in a world that constantly pushes is evidence of our divine right to rest.

I pray that with community care, rest and radical faith we will wake up to the beauty of our empowered selves and use the power of rest to transform our lives and communities. May rest be a balm for an exhausted world. May we return to our natural state as we reject the violence of grind culture. May we listen to what God wants to tell us. May we rest our eyes. May we see ourselves worthy of rest today and forever. We will rest!