Thou hast made us for thyself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. Augustine’s Confessions, 1.1
St. Augustine speaks of a restlessness within the human heart – an apparently timeless hunger of the soul. The story of his own life marks a wandering and a search. He did not think or reason his way into the Kingdom of God. Despite his wandering, God found him.
There is a saying from the Lives of the Desert Fathers: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
The restless heart is carried even into the desert. Unless it learns to remain in one place it will not find the One Place within itself. The restless heart now finds itself in a restless culture. Change is a mantra recited as a key to success, whether personally, politically or economically. How does the restless heart stay put in such a world?
In the monastic life there are four traditional vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. The first three are familiar to many. The fourth is not. The form it takes in the Eastern Church is a vow to remain in the monastery you enter until your last breath. With an abbot’s blessing this last vow is often relaxed. Even monks have to change from time to time.
The monastic vow of stability offers important insight, however. It posits the idea that we are more likely to find salvation by staying put than traveling. The journey is therefore inward more than outward. Outward movement can prove to be a positive distraction.
Of course, instability, as a vice, is ubiquitous today. It is possible to stay in one place and still be witness to unceasing change. To make matters worse, in American culture, our rounds of change do not produce greater variety. The process of change in mass-culture is homogenization. The more things change, the more they become the same – and the more they become the same – the less real, permanent and truly existent they become. Our culture has a vision of hell as a franchise operation.
Among the most unstable aspects of our civilization is our individual self-identity. The “false self” or “ego” (as some current Orthodox writers are naming the self-generated inner sense of identity) floats like a point on the edge of a bubble. The anxiety that surrounds the modern identity is manifest everywhere. Mass culture, particularly those segments aimed at youth, markets identities as though they were items on a shelf. Modern Evangelicalism often assists the culture with the same market strategies, conforming the gospel to the ever-changing fashions of the world.
Augustine’s observation remains as true today as it was 1500 years ago. The heart of modern man remains as restless as ever in a sea of change. But stillness of the heart is possible.
The discipline and teaching concerning the heart in Eastern Orthodoxy go under the name of Hesychia (“quiet” or “stillness”). It is a recognition that there can be no growth in the spiritual life without a change within the heart, or a change of relationship to the heart, and that this can only come with stillness. An inner stability and sobriety are essential in our life in Christ.
Much that passes for Christianity today runs little deeper than slogan and opinion. As such, it fits neatly within a lifestyle of change. The latest book on spirituality will soon be replaced by the next latest book on spirituality. Most Orthodox bookshelves are filled with un-read or half-read books through which the answer has not quite arrived.
The Christian life is a very serious, difficult way of living. It is made possible by grace – but just as that grace was gifted to us on the hard wood of the Cross, so its reception is through grace-filled crucifixions. “I am crucified with Christ,” is worth repeating – often.
At the very least, the restless heart needs to find some measure of rest. Here are some suggestions for being at rest:
For [however long], I will not –
-use my phone (turn the ringer off)
-use my computer
-read a book (or anything else)
-engage in conversation
For [however long], I will not –
-think about what I have done wrong
-think about whom I have hurt
-think about problems or difficulties
-think about physical pain
For [however long], I will
-sit (stand if you must) before an icon of Christ
-not talk to Christ or think about what I should say
-not think about what I am doing
-will not think about another person
-will not think about God or imagine Him
Perhaps the list could be longer. The simple goal of such an exercise is to be still. It is quite difficult. This, too, is prayer. If we manage to actually do (or not do) this small laundry list, it will be very good prayer. In such quiet rest, thoughts do come to us. For the most part, dismiss them. You can think later. When I do this I sometimes fall asleep. It’s an indicator that I’m not getting enough sleep!
Learning to be quiet, to be still, not to think or feel, not to judge or worry – all of this is surprisingly difficult. The level of difficulty is a sign of just how unquiet our lives truly are. When the noise ceases and our awareness comes back to the simple presence of the moment, the heart at rest becomes possible. It may seem surprising to some that I suggest not thinking about God or imagining Him in any way. The icon takes care of that need – it is not our job. It will seem surprising to many precisely because they believe prayer includes thinking about God and spiritual things. It does not.
Prayer is communion with God. Communion does not require ideas or feelings because it is real. I do not need to imagine my cup of coffee or even think about it in the morning. The coffee just is. And that is fine.
This exercise in stillness that I have suggested is a beginning. I practice something like this whenever I pray. It is essential to quiet the noise and distraction if we are to know God. Strangely, in time, the ability to enter into such quiet becomes possible in places and settings that are quite noisy and busy (like Church). The discipline is about discovering the place of the heart and the rest that can only be found in God.