The restless heart will rest in God
Perhaps there is no passage of St Augustine's writing more famous than one of the opening lines of the Confessions. "Our heart is restless, until it rests in you", Augustine tells us, allowing us to overhear his conversation with God. The familiarity of the passage is deceptive, though. What does it actually mean? The idea of "rest" comes from the vocabulary of the Sabbath, the day of rest. The conclusion of Augustine's Confessions, less famous because many readers do not make it that far, returns to the theme of rest, invoking our life in Heaven at the end of time as the Sabbath rest that will never end. It will be "the seventh day that has no evening and sinks towards no sunset", when finally "we will rest in you, in the Sabbath of eternal life". So, our restless hearts will rest in God in the eternal Sabbath of Heaven.
Still, that does not seem to tell us very much. What does this "rest" involve? Is it even interesting? Are we going to be bored for all eternity, doing nothing but "resting"? And is it completely postponed until eternity? Is there no possibility of enjoying "rest" now, in this life?
We can find a clue to our questions in the idea of the Sabbath itself, which is not only a day of "rest" but a day in which "resting" becomes praise and worship. Sabbath rest is for the praise and worship of God, and in fact that is the essence of Sabbath rest. It is not simply the absence of work, but the praise and worship of God. Not surprisingly, we find this theme of praise in the Confessions, directly tied in with the theme of the restless heart. Let us look more closely at the opening lines of the text.
"You are great, O Lord, and worthy of the highest praise! Your power is immense! And your wisdom, without limit! And so we, the human part of your creation, we long to praise you. You incite us to delight in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you".
So here is a clue. Resting in God means praising God. God is so great that we want to praise him and our heart is not satisfied until it can speak its praise. That praise is itself the "rest". Struck with wonder by the immensity and beauty of a natural scene, of the cosmos, of another human being, we have the urge to speak out of this wonder, to say something, to tell someone. We can talk to ourselves, or write an article, or tell our friend how awesome they are, but we want to do more, Augustine says, we long to speak our wonder to the one responsible for all of these wonders, and we won't be satisfied — we will be restless — until we can do that. We want to say, in response to the most magnificent wonders we experience, "You are great, O Lord, and worthy of the highest praise!".
But how can anything a finite human being says be commensurate with God's greatness? How can it ever be satisfying to keep repeating inadequate praises? Is there any real hope for our restless heart?
Let us look for another clue in the text. At the end of the first chapter or "book" of the Confessions, we find a beautiful little prose poem. Augustine is reflecting on his childhood, and on himself as a little boy. He exclaims to the reader:
In a living creature such as this
Everything is wonderful and worthy of praise,
But all these things are gifts from my God.
I did not endow myself with them.
I give thanks to you, my sweetness,
My honor, my confidence,
To you, my God,
I give thanks for your gifts,
Because this too is your gift to me,
That I exist!
Augustine is struck with awe at his own life and existence, which, he says, is "worthy of praise". How does he give voice to that praise? By saying "thank you". Praise is not just a description of God's awesomeness, but acknowledgment of indebtedness, or, to use Augustine's word, confession. The urge to offer praise in response to wonder is only fully satisfied when we are able to confess how much God's wonders mean to us, in other words, to say "thank you".
But have we gotten to the bottom of the problem yet? Are we really ready to say "thank you" to God? We can certainly find many reasons not to. Personal tragedies in our own life, the sickness and death of loved ones, the suffering of so many in the world from natural disasters and from systemic evil, all of these militate against any ready or unqualified thanks we might want to voice. Daily stresses and disappointed hopes add to the difficulty. We experience a restlessness, but it does not seem as though it will find any "rest" in giving thanks to God, who seems part of the problem, not the solution. How can I give thanks when I or a loved one is diagnosed with terminal cancer? How can I give thanks when I am betrayed by a friend or partner and my reputation seems ruined? Giving thanks in such circumstances seems like a sacrifice of one's intelligence and rationality.
The opening lines of the Confessions give us still another clue to the solution of the problem of the restless heart. In a way, Augustine restates the problem we have just raised.
"Grant me to know and understand, Lord, which comes first: to call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you?
In other words, why would I pray to, or "call upon" or "invoke" God if I did not already know how great God is and could therefore already praise him for his greatness? But why would I praise God, if I had not invoked God and gotten some results so that I could know God's greatness? Perhaps God has "great power" and "wisdom that is limitless", but in spite of that I seem to need to call upon him, because I suffer in various ways both physical and spiritual, and the world seems to be in the same woeful state. Can God really be all that "great"? Can he really do anything? Why should I bother praying?
"But [Augustine continues] Scripture tells us that those who seek the Lord will praise him (see Psalm 21:27), for as they seek, they find him, and on finding him, they will praise him. Let me seek you then, Lord, even as I am calling upon you, and call upon you even as I believe in you".
Perhaps, Augustine seems to be saying, invoking God does not actually require an exhaustive knowledge of God's greatness. In fact, perhaps he is saying that, if we are too sure of what that "greatness" is, we will miss out altogether, and never "find" anything but our own preconceptions of God, and not the real God. Maybe invoking God is itself a kind of seeking, and "results" depend partly on the attitude of the seeker. Is one seeking God with a preconceived notion of God's greatness — one that may contain all the right phrases but nevertheless may actually not be all that great and against which it will be easy to find fault with God? In that case, one isn't really seeking at all. No wonder one never "finds" anything. Finding something requires seeking in a particular way, without a preconceived "knowledge" of God's greatness, against which we are ready to judge him (and indeed probably already have judged him), but rather with "faith":
"My faith calls upon you, Lord which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son, and the ministry of your preacher".
The one who seeks in faith, willing really to seek God's greatness rather than to assume one already has found it, will in fact find something and be able to praise God truly.
One last step remains: can we find out more about this seeking and the faith in which it seeks. In a famous sermon Augustine preached on Psalm 30, he expands on the hint he gives here in the Confessions, namely, the hint of the humanity of God's Son as determinative for the character of his faith. In this sermon, Augustine reminds his hearers that the voice speaking in all of the Psalms is that of Christ. Of course he knows that the Psalms were written by David, but David is a "prophet" and the Psalms have a prophetic dimension that is fulfilled in Christ. Still, let us not miss the main point: in these Psalms, it is Christ who is praying!
But if Christ is the voice praying in all of the Psalms, what does that mean if the Psalmist is praying out of fear, or pain, or even worse, asking for the forgiveness of sins? Are such prayers in keeping with the character of Christ the Son of God, who is, after all, God? Should not God's greatness be good for something, and at least make it so that he does not feel fear or pain? Of course, one could answer, Christ is also human, and came in the flesh in order to save us, but even if he is human, could not he be a little more philosophical about his passion and death, at least as calm as Socrates, and perhaps even joyful, given the prospect of the resurrection? But to ask questions such as these is to misunderstand the Incarnation, and so, ultimately, to misunderstand the greatness of God. These rhetorical questions, with their presupposed answers, are not the right kind of seeking.
So what is? Let us eavesdrop for a moment as Augustine is preaching:
But in fact he who deigned to assume the form of a servant (Phil 2:7) and within that form to clothe us with himself, did not disdain either to transfigure us into himself, and to speak in our words, so that we in our turn might speak in his. This is the wonderful exchange, the divine business deal, the transaction effected in this world by the heavenly dealer.
In other words, in the Incarnation, the Son of God took on a human nature and in that nature he truly felt fear. Further, though the Son of God in his human nature was sinless, and thus immune to death and all of its manifestations such as pain and suffering, he nevertheless emptied himself (Phil 2:7) not only of divine privileges but also of all the privileges of unfallen human life, and submitted himself, in loving solidarity, to the conditions of life as we fallen creatures know them. So he truly was afraid, but it was "in us", that is because of his loving identification with us, and he spoke out his fear "in our words", so he might transfigure that way of speaking into his.
This means that now, whenever we invoke God out of fear, at the very same moment that we are telling God we are afraid, we are speaking Christ's words. In speaking his words, we know we are having the same experience he was having. But in speaking Christ's words, we are also speaking not only our fear, but also his love, for Christ's fear is a function of his love for us in the first place. He would have no fear if he had not emptied himself out of love. So, when we are afraid and call on God, we find, along with that very fear, and without it having to be changed into any other feeling, an awareness of how much God emptied himself for us. There is no depth of fear at which we will not find Christ and his love. This is the "wonderful exchange"! Christ takes on our fear, and we get Christ's love! We do not find that we are perfect yet, by any means, but we find that Christ is at work "transfiguring us" into himself.
Augustine puts this very forcefully. We do not only receive Christ, we "become" Christ: facing death, then, because of what he had from us, he was afraid, not in himself, but in us. When he said that his soul was sorrowful to the point of death, we all unquestionably said it with him. Without him we are nothing, but in him we too are Christ. Why? Because the whole Christ consists of Head and Body. Were it not for the body's linkage with its Head through the bond of love, so close a link that Head and Body speak as one, he could not have rebuked a certain persecutor from heaven with the question, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9:4).
Christ accosts Saul, who was persecuting the Church, as though Saul were persecuting Christ himself, presupposes an intimacy between Christ and the Church that is nothing short of actual identification.
We can see the depth of this intimacy if we think just a little further along with Augustine. When Jesus "invokes" or calls upon his Father to tell him that his soul was sorrowful to the point of death, he is voicing our fear, as already mentioned, but it is easy to pass over the actual praying itself. This is the ultimate limit of self-emptying. God, in Christ, has emptied himself to the point where, just like any of us human beings, he too has to pray or "call upon" God. What kind of God is great enough to "empty himself" in this way, and to so completely identify with our situation? For, it would not be truly self-emptying if he, as a human being, could still pray to himself. That would be a handy way to produce security and results, to be able to pray to oneself! But it would hardly be a real participation in our own condition, and thus no real "emptying". But as it is, he is praying not to himself, the Son, but to his Father. Here we have a glimmer of the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine of God's greatness that exceeds our reason and imagination.
God is such that, in some way, God himself could be reduced to praying for help without it being the case that he is praying to himself! This is the stupefying wonder of God's love for us, work of the Trinity and visible in Christ. When we pray, we find a voice much larger than simply our own fear. We find, in our own voice, the Love that brought about the self-emptying of identification with us in all our fears, pain, hopes and desires. It is his love that is already speaking, even if, due to whatever fear or pain we may be feeling, we cannot manage to stammer out an actual word. For, as Augustine says in another place, the desire to pray is itself already a prayer, and anyway, the Spirit intercedes for us in groans too deep for words.
To translate back into the language of the Confessions, when we call upon, or invoke God, out of fear or pain or other suffering, what do we "find"? We find, not necessarily the immediate release from fear or pain, but we find the humanity of Christ, and in that humanity, we find the true measure of the greatness of God. "Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil 2:6-7). As great as God's nature is, his power and his wisdom are seen most clearly in humility, the "self-emptying" of the Son who became one of us and suffered with us. That is the astonishing greatness of the love of God. We "find" it everywhere we "seek", in fact we find it as we are seeking, while we are still seeking, if we pray with faithin the Incarnation, praying to God out of every experience of fear as well as joy in this life. "Those who seek God, will praise God", because as they seek, and speak out of their seeking, they are using the words of Christ already, they are "finding" the love of Christ who emptied himself to the point of needing to pray, even though he is God. Christ has taken up our praying, and thus, our seeking. He has formed our seeking so that we find him in the very act of seeking itself. In our seeking God, we experience Christ's seeking out of us in love.
This means that our whole life, all of our living, little by little, is transfigured into gratitude. The more we seek, the more we call upon God, the more we are aware of Christ, who, in his humanity, loved us to the point of identifying with our suffering and death, our fear and our pain, out of which we invoke or seek God. We find the sweetness of Christ wherever we turn. Our gratitude grows. Even when we ask for forgiveness of sins, we are speaking in Christ's voice, because his whole life was a plea for the forgiveness of our sins. In this gradually increasing awareness of the depth of Christ's identification with us, we have the "rest" our heart was looking for.
Christ has transfigured our "restlessness" itself into "rest". For that, we can truly confess: You are great, O Lord, and worthy of the highest praise! Your power is immense! And your wisdom, without limit! Amen.
*Professor of Theology and McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, USA; appointed to the International Theological Commission in October 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI