One of the most beloved stories about the life of Christ derives not from the Gospels but from apocryphal infancy narratives dating from the eighth and ninth centuries. In these stories, when the Holy Family flees into Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter, they do not go in haste to their destination. Rather, as fatigue and hunger overtake them, they rest on their journey, settling for the night under a fruited date palm. Here, it is said, Mary nourishes her baby at the breast and Jesus performs an early miracle. He causes a branch of the date palm to bend toward earth, so that the fruit may be easily picked. Mary and Joseph eat heartily and store more dates to sustain them on their travels. The child then asks the tree to raise itself and release a spring of water from its roots. The water flows, clear and cool; the family slakes its thirst.
From the 14th Century onward, the Rest on the Flight became a popular motif in Western art. Painters such as Caravaggio, van Dyck, and Rembrandt took up the theme, as did weavers and wood carvers. Often the images are enchantingly pastoral, like this one painted in 1510 by Gerard David. The Holy Family appears to be enjoying a divine picnic, feasting not only on the dates of the legend but on strawberries, cherries or grapes. The replenishing waters may cascade in the form of a waterfall or splash in a fountain. Invariably the setting is one of edenic nature, fertile and mild, requiring nothing of Mary and Joseph except their gracious receptivity. In simply lazing under a tree, they are granted the sustenance they need in order to reach their destination. Their divine child provides it, and they are able to go on, revitalized and renewed.
Does the story not remind you of Archimedes, solving a mathematical conundrum while refreshing his body in the bath, or of some Eureka moment in your own life, experienced not while knitting your brow in goal-directed exertion but while waking from sleep or strolling idly, crunching autumn leaves? Mysterious energies work on us when we do not work, when we allow ourselves the respite of non-doing.
Some periods of non-doing overtake us against us against our will, though. Indeed, depression, spiritual dryness, creative block, cause a paralysis of the will. Another “Rest on the Flight” painting—Luc Olivier Merson’s of 1879—stands in contrast to the earlier idyllic images. It is an austere desert scene of almost complete sterility. Joseph, his face obscured by a hood, sleeps on the sands under a vast and starless sky. Nearby, his pack animal grazes on the few sparse shoots that have somehow grown in that desiccated place. Most arrestingly, Mary reclines with her babe on a great stone sphinx dominating a third the picture. The child Jesus gives off the painting’s only light, and the eye finds that light automatically, following it, finally, to the blind, uplifted head of the sphinx itself. Stark, modern, terrifying, it is an extreme image, suggesting the dark night of the soul. They are experienced by anyone who quests, the dark nights when something vital in you sleeps, something feral in you starves.
Yet the implication of the painting is a hopeful one. Merson shows us that the divine child shines whether one’s eyes are closed or open. In the depths of the dark night lies the promise of morning when, having rested, the Holy Family will wake and move on, leaving the blind sphinx of an old order behind in the dust. However unendurably a dark night plagues us, however much it keeps us from our urgent endeavors, still it may be the vital interlude when the divine child of inspiration makes itself manifest. When we rise from that sleep, we will return to the world of work and doing with new inventiveness; life may even take a surprising course.
Our quests, no matter how vibrant and purposeful, will be thwarted if we pursue them too severely. Like the Holy Family on their divine mission, we must rest and be replenished if we are ever to reach Egypt, and all that means of sanctuary, survival, vocation, redemption, accomplishment.