Reflections on Striving Against Rest
In his “The Book of Hours,” poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes,
My life is not this steeply sloping hour
Through which you see me hasten on.
I am a tree standing before my background
I am but one of many of my mouths
The one that closes before all of them.
I am the rest between two notes
That harmonize only reluctantly:
For death wants to become the loudest tone—
But in the dark interval they reconcile
Tremblingly, and get along.
And the beauty of the song goes on.
I find this beautiful. But evasive. It’s that bit about rest. Here Rilke refers to rest within music, but all that rest can mean in life is implied. If I’m honest, I’m averse to the notion. I’d like to go on about how naturally theological rest is—Sabbath and all that. Or how it rejuvenates me. In my years of teaching, I’ve certainly talked about rest as if I had befriended it. I’ve told a fair amount of people how “restful” a holiday was, but that was because I felt half-expected to say something of the sort. The truth is, I rather loathe rest.
I’ve only recently come to realize that my aversion stems from a faulty assumption. For as long as I can remember, I’ve associated movement with life. Ambition meant growth. Progress, action, labor, these conspired to be my élan vital. Within this productivity centered way of life incubated an unintended belief. If laborious energy amounted to the feeling of life, then rest from all my toil brought a sense of death. If striving meant living, then to cease, oh, the existential horror, to cease meant to expire. It’s as if I carried Newton’s law of motion into my spiritual life with a kind of terror that, once brought to a state of rest, I’d stay at rest. How terrifying that can feel.
Now, if I’ve learned anything this last year, if this slow winter of discontent has taught one insoluble lesson, it’s that rest comes to us all. If we cannot stop for rest, then rest will stop for us. God will be faithful to see to that. And once it does, once you’ve been brought to see that not all that moves lives and not every moment of rest is a demise, you’re poised, perhaps for the first time, to find in rest a reconciliation of all that’s anxious, frenetic, and desperately animated inside you.
That kind of reconciliation is rare when we’re on the move. It requires attentive repose. To hear the Divine whisper, we must slow our pace until the passing winds of ambition quiet down. In our impatience for what we’ve mistaken as personal progress, we outrun the ease of harmony. We jostle and juke our way from that sanctifying respite of stillness. We struggle to hold the painful pose of rest long enough to receive the gift of reconciliation between all we clamor for and all that’s already ours.
I’ve wondered, since rest has so kindly stopped for me, how I might better welcome its company. These three truths, these songs, heard only on the other side of steeply sloping haste, have scored my story—
Jesus says that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I’ve come to more fully understand that one of those enemies resides within me. It’s all that’s at unrest within me that wages war on all within me that desires rest. There are anxious, ambitious parts of me that persecute those parts of me in need of wintery rest. It’s come home to me that I’ve failed to love the enemy within. I’ve withheld prayer from those parts of me that persecute me. It’s the enemy within I must love. It’s for those hostile aspects I must pray. Through an acceptance of myself only actualized in the wellbeing of Christ, I must bring my storm into harmony with the calm. I can feel the prayer form even now,
“Lord, may all that’s found rest within me befriend all that hasn’t. May every Martha passion be shaped into Mary’s pose.”
In my favorite section of Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, stillness in the present moment in time is presented as a timeless, motionless dance.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
In hitting on the paradox of present time, Eliot teaches us something of rest. Rest, for all it means internally and for all its associations with activity, is also posture toward time. Where the quick Chronos of past and future unsettle me into freneticism, this present moment asks to hold the stillness of my being. It’s in this moment, and this one only, that I find the constellation of God’s will, favor, and goodness seeking to redeem my confusion, restlessness, and shame. It’s now, no, now, no, right now that occasions reconciliation.
The dance of my self happens in the ballroom of this present interval. What is this motionless dance but life itself and where is life but in all this moment contains. It’s this moment, orbicular and full of your being in repose, that mediates what can no longer be and what must come into being. In this moment’s rest, true animation, life itself as God has given it.
There is no still moment that isn’t teaming, no rest that doesn’t hum with renewed work. Even in death, that monasterial state from which no sound is heard, vibrates with new songs.
My last help in ending my rebellion against rest comes from the fourteenth-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. In her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian recounts being shown by God a vision of a hazelnut. She writes,
“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’… In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
In this object at rest, Dame Julian finds the providential germinations of God’s sustaining love. Might these properties be true not just for me but for the rest into which God invites me? Can I say about the rest I’m so reluctant to befriend that not only did God make me for it but it for me? Is it not true that while God loves me enough to grant me rest that He also loves rest enough to grant me to it? And that not only does He sustain me by my rest, but He sustains rest itself as an immutable spiritual law.
Might this dark interval, this rest, even yours, even now, be made, adored, and kept for you? If God has asked rest to stop for you that it might mediate your reconciliation, might you also let it host your dance? Only reluctantly, perhaps, but certainly.
The featured images is courtesy of Aaron Burden on Unsplash and it is used with permission.
We are grateful for Aaron’s generosity and remarkable gift of seeing beauty in the great and small.
Corey is a poet, writer, speaker, and educator. He holds Master’s Degrees in Religion, English, and Counseling, and a Ph.D. in Literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, and the forthcoming The Serve the Work: Stray Thoughts on Christ and Creativity. Corey has written articles and given talks on subjects ranging from C. S. Lewis, the theology of creativity, the neurology of the imagination, and the power of story to heal life’s wounds.
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