Repining Restlessness

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and spacious the way that leads to destruction, and many are entering through it. How narrow is the gate and hard the way that leads to life, and few are those who find it.

Matthew 7:13-4

 

On Sunday, three of us made our return trip from Rome to Baltimore. This involved an eight hour and forty-five minute flight from Rome to Boston, a three hour layover in Boston, and finally an hour and ten minute flight to Baltimore. For myself, the brief last leg, the hour and ten minutes or so to Baltimore, was sheer torture. It was impossible to get comfortable in my seat, and so, for the entire trip I found myself shifting around continually. The deep physical, and I’m sure psychological, restlessness I experienced made the brief flight feel almost as long as the trans-Atlantic one. The goal, which was the arrival in Baltimore and the experience of rest which the thought of home promised, seemed unattainable. As a confrere having a comparable experience said, “You keep looking at the watch, and it seems to never move.”

There may be no more familiar words from the Patristic tradition than those of St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” For Augustine, the most compelling argument for God’s existence is the restlessness of the human heart. There is, at the heart of all our experience of life, a continual dissatisfaction and restlessness which is, at once, our impetus toward Divine union and the root of all sin and human suffering and violence. All seven of the “capital sins” spring from the restlessness of our hearts: pride, envy, gluttony, greed, wrath, sloth, and lust. As I spent most of the flight to Baltimore shifting around in my seat searching for a moment’s relief from the agitation which the physical restlessness evoked, so in life we grasp at the illusions that offer us a respite from discomfort and anxiety which are the products of our restless hearts.

If Augustine is right, then any real rest, peace, and consonance in life depends upon our truly confronting and entering into our restlessness and so discovering what it has to teach us. If we are to learn how to harmonize within ourselves the lives of Martha and Mary, the life of contemplation and action, we must, as Ruusbroec writes, leave behind and overcome “restlessness of heart and the things of this world.” The gate to life is narrow because this is in practice so difficult to do. If sin is “missing the mark,” then we could say that sin is our looking for rest from our restlessness in the wrong places. As the lyrics of a song from the 1980 film Urban Cowboy put it:

I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces
Searchin’ their eyes
Lookin’ for traces of what I’m dreaming of
. . . .
I was alone then, no love in sight
I did everything I could to get me through the night
I don’t know where it started or where it might end
I turned to a stranger just like a friend

Our very economic system is built on our restlessness and on our “sinful” propensity to seek the rest we crave “in all the wrong places.” As the values of such an economy and society become, as they now are, increasingly not only dominant but exclusive, we see that the result of seeking rest in gratification is but an increase in dissonance and violence. All that is other, including the personal other, becomes but an object that we hope will relieve our restlessness and anxiety. Yet, the more we accumulate in that attempt, the more restless we become.

When speaking with others about the extreme inequality in our society, we often raise the question of how people who have so much are still greedy for more. How is it that someone with more money than a human being could ever spend or use well is so driven to accumulate yet more of it? It is because, despite all experiential evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe that more of what we are seeking will finally satisfy us: more money, more power, more sex, more pleasure, more diversion, more recognition, more status, more respect.

The spiritual path teaches a different way to finding the rest that we seek, but it is a narrow way. Instead of attempting to still our restlessness by momentarily satisfying it, it calls us to quiet it by entering it. Instead of “feeding” our restlessness by doing everything we can “to get through the night”, to get away from it, we are called to let it be in simple awareness, to, in the words of Ruusbroec, “forgo all gifts and all consolation for the sake of finding the one whom one loves.”

I remain amazed, even now that I’ve reached old age, to discover how much I am still pursuing relief from my own restlessness. At the vital level of our personality, we seek to gain pleasure and to avoid pain. It is far too rare a moment in my own life when I cease compulsively seeking relief from my restlessness and instead move into it, in the words of T. S. Eliot, into  “A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)” (Little Gidding). The way to rest is the way of dispossession. It is giving up what we are sure we need and want, for the sake of what is.

The gate is narrow and few enter it because it is hard. The narrow way is a rejection of almost everything that our unconscious deems necessary for our survival. There will be aspects of our own narrow way that are unique to ourselves. For, as Jesus says, we must deny ourselves and take up our own cross. Many, many decades into life, as loneliness with its resultant restlessness begins to encroach (often in disguised form) on my everyday complacence, I find myself driven to distraction. I seek for the relief that comes from my own untransformed memory, imagination, and anticipation. I attempt to escape into a world that is different from what is. As Albert Camus writes, I seek to escape the deeper call “in love, and work, and communal life.” Yet, at such a time, all three are not done “in rest.” They are pursued as a means of escaping my actual and unique experience.  I act, speak, and attempt to love as an escape from what seems to be my unbearable loneliness and restlessness rather than as an instrument of God’s love and will.

This is why Ruusbroec says that “the greater the rest, the more fervent the love.” We can never harmonize the life of Martha and Mary as long as it is our restlessness that moves us to work and to love. The narrow way to which Jesus calls us is the way into our restlessness so that we may discover within it the rest and the love that we seek.

When God at first made man, 
Having a glass of blessings standing by, 
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 
Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 
When almost all was out, God made a stay, 
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 
Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 
He would adore my gifts instead of me, 
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 
So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 
But keep them with repining restlessness; 
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.” 

George Herbert, The Pulley

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