Concerning Human Rest-Less-Ness

Here are my replies to my friend’s questionnaire: the second part, which deals with the topic of Human “Rest-less-ness.”

  1. What robs you of peace? What gets in the way of your resting? What makes you feel restless? What is it that we “lack” when we are “rest-less”?
    My own compulsions, probably more than anything else. My tendency to compulsive behavior not only keeps me busy (often with tasks that do not in themselves truly nurture my soul), but also introduces a sense of anxiety: if I don’t do this, and do this now, somehow things are not okay. So what do I lack: faith, trust, humility (for example, I am compulsive about my marketing my work, and much of that compulsion stems from a sense that I’m not “okay” as a writer if I’m not doing things to promote my work).
  2. Have you ever felt that you really wanted but really could not rest? … That there is something within us that resists or is afraid of resting? What do you think it is?
    Of course I’ve felt that: I’m not a chronic insomniac, but I’ve had bouts of sleeplessness ever since I was a teenager. As for the “something within us,” the glib religious answer is “sin” just as the glib psychological answer is “obsessive/compulsive behavior” — but to try to drill down a bit further, I think for me the rest-less-ness at root is a need to assert control. I think that need is both sinful and obsessive/compulsive — and probably the only antidote is a continual, gradual, process of what the monks call “joyful penance” — continually letting go of the grasping need to control, and doing that letting go as joyfully as possible, even in its imperfection and impermanence.
  3. Do you find keeping Sabbath easy? Or hard? What are the obstacles to your Sabbath observance?  What/who are the helpers?
    I am not very good at keeping the Sabbath, not only because of my compulsions but because of the joy I take in my work. Sin, like any freely chosen dysfunctional behavior, has some sort of payoff, and for me that payoff is, negatively, feeling like I’m in control, but positively, the genuine joy I find in my work. It’s like finding joy in eating lots of sweets and ice cream, I suppose: yummy, but not so good holistically. I still need to work on this. As for what helps: well, the Lay Cistercian way of life is certainly a gentle reminder: when I remember to pay attention to it!  :-)
  4. What do you hear, when the author of Hebrews speaks about rebellion/disobedience of those “to whom God did swear that they should not enter his rest” and summons us to “harden not our hearts” but to “enter God’s Sabbath rest while it is still ‘today’” (Hebrews 3:7-4:13)?
    At first I don’t see these words applying to me, since I don’t ever willfully set out to break Sabbath: it’s more mindlessness and bad habit, in my case. I suppose this sheds light on my perception (or misperception) that “rebellion” or “hardness of heart” must entail some sort of grand, dramatic, gesture. But perhaps the  Hebrews author is chipping away at the fact that we harden our hearts, rebel and disobey in countless small and ordinary ways. Perhaps it’s a slippery slope: swearing to sin comes at the end, not the beginning, of a long process of sloppiness in regard to how we attend to our response to God’s love. A priest and I once were talking about mortal sin, and he used adultery as an example: he pointed out that the decision to deny God happens long before the illicit lovers tumble into bed — it begins with very small, seemingly “harmless” choices: I’ll invite this person over for dinner when both our spouses are out of town, or something like that. And something like that could really be entirely innocent: it’s all about what’s going on deep inside. We’re always called to be vigilant about the sneaky motives that lurk in our hidden places. This is tricky when talking about Sabbath, for sloth is a deadly sin, but so is its shadow, work-aholicism. And even monitoring our own tendency to sin can become a compulsion!
    Back to Hebrews: I think “entering God’s Sabbath rest while it is still today” is the key: Sabbath is always about the present. I don’t think you can plan the Sabbath: back to my idea that the most restful time is unstructured time. Rest is not something we do, it’s something we allow. Like grace, actually.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Lisa Are Wulf

    I really appreciate this post. I have many of the same problems. It’s hard for me to keep the Sabbath too – for precisely the same reason. I either really like my work – or I’m just compulsive!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this.


  • John Marquez

    Good questions and illuminating responses. Thanks.
    Maybe this isn’t entirely apropos, but reading the questions and your answers about Sabbath I thought of something Karl Rahner wrote in a remarkable little book “Encounters with Silence” — not his usual, dense, theological stuff, but deeply personal and moving and resonant meditations and prayers.
    I think of my own attempts to enter into Sabbath, or, more accurately, my own evasions of it. I think of my “hardness of heart,” and recognize that my heart is hardened not only to God but to my own deepest self. And this is where I hear Rahner speaking to me when he writes, “[H]ow can I give myself up to You, when I haven’t even been able as yet to find myself? Be merciful to me, my God. When I flee from prayer, it’s not that I want to flee from You, but from myself and my own superficiality…from the deserted marketplace of my own soul. Every time I try to pray, I am doomed to wander in the barren wastes of my own emptiness, since I have left the world behind, and still cannot find my way into the true sanctuary of my inner self, the only place where You can be found and adored.”
    For me, entering Sabbath is hard, and my resistance to it has to do with a fear of my own radical poverty and indigence before God, and with the discouraging ways I allow myself to be diverted by what Rahner calls “the empty clatter of…distractions.”

  • John

    Oops. Forgot to sign my post above. Sorry.