The Two Faces of Restlessness

Yesterday at the Lay Cistercian Gathering Day we had a class on the monastic vow of stability (Cistercian monks have three vows: Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life). The brother who taught the class spoke at one point about restlessness as a tendency within us to undermine stability. I shared with him and the class that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this idea, because, it seemed to me, that restlessness comes in more than one flavor. Certainly, there is the kind of restlessness that does not help us. It’s born out of low self-esteem or un-faced anger or grief, and it does seem to impel us to make choices that we often later regret. This is the restlessness that causes the practicing addict to reach for his or her fix, or that can drive a married couple apart after only a mild season of conflict or challenge. I agree with the monk that this kind of restlessness is the enemy of stability, which is the vow designed to help the monks to face (and hopefully heal) their own inner resistance to love.

But I believe there is another kind of restlessness, that does not necessarily lead to challenges to our commitments or our own highest good. This is the restlessness of an artist or other creative person. I read somewhere once where somebody (can’t remember who) said, “An artist creates a new work because he was dissatisfied with his last work.” True words indeed. Art is all about facing our imperfections, and then struggling against them, by creating again. In this sense it is like religion with the ongoing struggle against sin. Nobody beats sin, at least not on this side of eternity. Nobody once and for all defeats the capacity to choose selfishly even when it hurts others or violates the integrity of love. We fall down, and we get back up again. Likewise, an artist creates, and discerns all that is wrong with the creation. I can’t hear it, but I know that guitarists of a certain caliber can point out the mistakes in a recording by someone like Jimmy Page. Man, if Jimmy Page makes mistakes, doesn’t that mean everyone else playing the guitar is doomed? Of course. We all make mistakes, whether in a religious sense (the word sin basically means “mistake”) or in a creative sense. It is out of that mistake-making that our restlessness happens. Toxic restlessness then wants to destroy all that is good and true and beautiful in our life: it wants to enlarge the beachhold of sin. But creative restlessness pulls in the opposite direction. It impels us to get up and try again. If the opposite of toxic restlessness is stability, the opposite of creative restlessness is complacency. It’s a good thing to pray for more stability in our lives, but I think we also need to pray for less complacency. So we might be asking God to take away one type of restlessness. But the other type will always be with us, and will always impel us to create and create again.

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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.

  • shabana

    Thanks! beautiful as usual.

  • Mike

    As I was reading your post I thought of St. Augustine’s statement, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” There is also a restlessness that arises from deep longing. You offer, I think, a necessary balance. Often the virtues and passions are two sides of the same thing.

    Peace, Mike

  • Shadwynn

    Your reference to creative restlessness reminds me of the bumper sticker “All Who Wander Are Not Lost.” Creatively, the artist often is a mental wanderer impelled into an exploration of consciousness and conceptualizations which inspire his/her further attempts to portray the ultimate Quintessence. Ironically, such wandering need not disturb a commitment to stability in one’s physical environment or spiritual outlook. If anything, perhaps a needful counter balance feeding into a Spirit-impelled, dynamic tension?

  • ABG

    I appreciate your counter thought on restlessness. I think we tend to think of perfection in linear patterns. Your words put me in mind of a great thinker, Olivier Clement, who also gives a broader vision on the spiritual life. In my own search, I find that true spirituality isn’t about sin and how to avoid it. It’s about the search for God, and how to remain one with Him.

  • Frank

    I might also bring up the restlessness that impells us to go forward. Think of Jeremiah who talked about the Word being “a fire inmy bones”. There is a holy dissatisfaction and restlessnesss which impells us to act as well.

  • noel

    separation from god………..sin
    even jesus pained when he descended to hell for 3 days cos that was first time he was separated from god his father

  • Gary Snead

    Our dog Molly is restless more often than stable. Just over 4 years old, mixed breed, she is restless to be let outside to relieve physical needs of evacuation and exercise. She is restless to be near, sometimes very near one of us for affection. She even can be restless while in her ‘sit, stay’ posture, her ears twitching, eyes shifting in anticipation. With sufficient satisfaction of her physical and affection needs she can be stable, calm, content, for a while, until she’s aware of a need again, a sound comes from the door announcing someone else is here, or other sounds, smells may catch her attention. Do we seek stability by denying physical and affection (emotional) needs, or beyond denial refocus acceptance that the need can be met spiritually or with some different affection or physical act than we initially expect or are trained to accept? Do we seek stability by eliminating sensory input alerting us of change – other’s speech, our speech, knocks at the door, planes overhead, etc., or by anchoring and streamlining through spiritual disciplines, trials, prayers, service we can float above, flow with or be unmoved from our purpose by the things that tug at our hearts, souls, minds and spirits?

  • The Pollinatrix

    Man oh man – this word has been coming up all over the place for me in the past couple of days. I really like what you’re saying here. Yesterday in church we sang the song “Spirit.” Do you know it? There’s that line that repeats: “Spirit, Spirit of restlessness stir me from placidness, wind on the sea.”

  • buttersisonlymyname

    Great post. This is something like the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between desire and aspiration.

    To remove all restlessness is to remove all movement, and that is just the end of life.

  • Sue

    Oh, yeah, nice one, Carl :) Definitely a big difference between those two types of restlessness. The creative sort brings to mind the spirit brooding over the waters.

  • claire

    I wonder what the monk meant by restlessness. It must be strange to live in an environment where suddenly all the distractions of every day life are gone. Just inner distractions, or irritations from having to live so close to other monks…

    In which way a monk’s restlessness is more destructive than your creative restlessness?

    I also like very much Pollinatrix’ quote about the Spirit of restlessness taking us out of our placidness…

    Maybe monks are not placid because life in such close quarters in a community is not in the cards.

    Placidness may be possible for those who live as they wish, in a self-centered spirituality…

    Not sure. Thank you for stirring up all these thoughts :-)

  • Ted

    As always, a great reflection. Like Mike, I immediately thought of Augustine’s words as another means of relating to the creative or “holy” restlessness that leads us further on the journey. While the “other” restlessness has as its symptom a certain seeking of distraction and escape, it is itself the product of a boredom with one’s life, surroundings, experiences, etc… that seems endemic of the age. I think the irony here is that if I dig deep enough, that all of this leads back to a yearning for the Divine, for the abundant life, to be loved and respond in love that is that seeking for the place of resting in God.

  • trev

    I recognize that creative restlessness. It gnaws in my heart.

  • noel

    mine too
    maybe the call to live here and now
    to be fully present
    to accept” God from whom all goodness comes”