Learning to Rest in God
By Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P. | How can we find rest amidst the cares of modern life? Br Pablo shares with us an example of how to make room for prayer and quiet in the middle of our daily work.
February. An icy morning. Oxford clouded over, battered by a wintry wind, whistling through its spires. The soft rain, sprinkled in all directions, taps the walls and windows of a Dominican convent. A friar in one of its cells, distracted, pauses his reading and gazes outside. The book in front of him reads ‘V. E. Smith, The General Science of Nature’. A sentence in bold stands out from the page:
ARISTOTELIAN DEFINITION OF NATURE. Nature is a principle of motion and rest in that in which it is primarily and per se and not per accidens.
With a subdued sigh, the friar returns to his reading. ‘How can I find God in this?’, he asks himself.
This is an important question, not only for a Dominican friar, for whom study is an ascetic discipline: its rigours and constant demands bind him to his desk, whether he likes it or not. The friar endeavours to turn his study into prayer and contemplation, to find God in the midst of intellectual activity. But such is the challenge for any Christian in the quiet of daily work.
‘Nature is a principle of motion and rest’. Indeed, to be part of the natural world, to be alive, means to be constantly changing, moving and resting. In Thomistic philosophy, rest is the opposite of motion: what does not move is at rest. Moreover, rest is the goal of motion, since everything that moves tends to find a place of rest. Yes, modern physics teaches that motion in a vacuum could go on indefinitely. But that is rarely the case in this world, where all movement, subject as it is to gravity and to resistance from the elements, is bound to cease.
True, certain parallels with modern life come to mind. Don’t our routines often seem defined by restless motion, as we rush from the start of the day to get back to the same place, there and back again, running endlessly like a London Tube line? Who has not felt modern life’s weariness, its taxing demands on our time and abilities? Who has not sometimes felt, deep down, a longing to find rest – not the sophisticated rest of ‘going on holiday’, that most modern of rituals – not simply the cessation of activity – but finding a point of complete immobility? ‘God alone is my rock and my salvation: I shall not be moved’, sings the Psalmist. ‘God the rock’ is a metaphor pervading the Scriptures: the place of repose that does not move, on which we can safely lean.
The cares of daily life wear us down indeed with ‘gravity’ and ‘resistance’. But Christ says: ‘come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while’ (Mark 6:31). To learn to pray is to learn to rest in God. Isn’t it symptomatic of all this that many feel anxious when trying to pray, and need a method, a technique, some assurance that one is doing the right thing? But for all the wisdom of the Monks of the Desert, this is perhaps the most important piece of advice, the secret to all good prayer: it matters little what we do, for prayer is about God, not about us. Our hope rests on the primacy of grace: His gift, His initiative. Much of the history of Christian spirituality is laden with a centuries-long battle against Pelagianism: my efforts, my merits, my difficulties, my sacrifices (even the saints!)… To leave the centre of self-preoccupation is to make room for Christ. In prayer we encounter Another who is greater than ourselves. Remember this: that’s all is needed. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). Sitting in front of a tabernacle in silence for a few minutes, resting in God’s presence, is good prayer.
Now rest is not only the opposite of motion, but also its goal. Motion achieves its purpose precisely when it ceases. Hence if we learn to rest in God we not only leave our times of prayer comforted, but we begin to look forward to them, to bringing back to God our daily cares and worries, and placing them at the foot of the Cross or the tabernacle, letting them rest there. Praying thus, our whole lives are oriented towards God as the ultimate end to which all our actions tend. ‘Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee’, says Augustine at the opening of his Confessions. This need not lead us to quietism. So long as we live, we are bound to work, and this has a great dignity of its own. Though we cannot find perfect rest in this life, we are granted a foretaste here, where we can begin to enjoy that otherworldly leisure – namely the opportunity that every Sunday brings. Do we take advantage of it? Do we see in it, perhaps, a chance for a longer time at prayer, or some extra Scripture reading…?
Thus not only are our days oriented to our encounters with God in prayer, but the succession of days, to the Day when we meet Him. Thus, on this sure rock, it is possible to find rest even in the middle of distress, trouble and sorrow: look at the Cross and see there Christ immobile, in the throes of His passion, having reached the end, a paradoxical place of repose, where everything is accomplished. It is certainly in the midst of that most anguished hour when Christ leans most completely on God, abandoning himself, commending His life into His hands. ‘In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’, says the Lord. ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword…?’ (Romans 8:35). Therefore, resting on God’s love can also help us to…
Bong, bong, bong, bong… The bell of the convent chimes. The friar abandons his musings. He closes the book in front of him, somewhat cross he did not get very far with it, gets up and hastens to the church, to say his prayers.
O Lord, my heart is not proud,
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul,
in silence and peace.
As a child finds rest in his mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and forever.
Image: Young mother contemplating her sleeping child in candlelight, by Albert Anker (1875) via Wikimedia Commons