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.