I should start, I suppose, by apologizing for my frightfully long radio silence here. I’ve been bouncing about the US—from Virginia to Georgia to California and, at last, back home—which hardly proved conducive to blog writing. Right before settling back in to the major work of this summer—writing my dissertation proposal—I was blessed to have an opportunity to visit Mt. Saviour Monastery, a Benedictine monastery in upstate New York, for five days.
After all my wanderings, it was nice to be properly settled for awhile. But, as I suspected, the silence and stability of the monastery was no simple tranquility—a retreat is not (or at least should not be) a slightly spiritualized version of a beach-sitting, margarita-drinking Bahamas vacation. It was a journey all its own and, for me, a lesson in how to journey.
Within a day of relative silence and solitude, I found not peace but an inner restlessness. It’s always been there—and perhaps always will be—it’s driven me in my academic pursuits and in my drug abuse, at my best and at my worst. And it was certainly what drove me to the Church. But I always found the famous quote from St. Augustine—”O Lord, our hearts are restless until the rest in You”—to be more of a torment than a comfort, a prickly accusation that I was not resting in God because my heart was still so damned restless.
The only real difference between my restlessness at the monastery and my restlessness elsewhere was that at the monastery I couldn’t cover it up. I’d intentionally left behind my cellphone, my laptop, and even most of my books (except a Bible, Augustine’s Confessions, and Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude). It is doubtlessly a testament to my restlessness that in slightly more than two days I’d assembled two 500 piece jigsaw puzzles that had been left in the room. Eventually, though, I had no choice: I just had to sit and be with my restlessness. In a rocking chair in the corner of the room, facing a window that overlooked the monastery’s apple orchard, I rocked my unquiet heart like it was a colicky child.
I thought I knew the cure: if I just knew what I was supposed to be doing with my life, this would all stop. I’d grown increasingly skeptical of whether a career in academe was the right path for me—research, which I did love, seemed such a self-centered pursuit and I was growing weary of the disciplinary echo-chamber. The thought of religious life had occurred to me long before I’d become a Catholic and the idea still tempted me.
Surely God will show me what to do, I thought. After all, I want to do what God wants me to do. He just needs to show me. In short: I had trusted God, I’d become a Catholic, I was ready for action, and now God was supposed to provide me with a destination. After all of this, surely I was entitled to a destination. I couldn’t be meant to restlessly stumble about forever, could I?
The next morning—early morning—I went to pray Vigils with the monks. Nothing else feels quite so medievally monastic as Vigils—down in the monastery crypt at 4:45 in the morning as the monks solemnly speak the verses of the psalms, you can almost forget where and when you are. After the Psalms, several readings are given—a lengthy reading from Scripture and a brief sermon or writing from a Saint, Church Father, or other major figure. This morning it was a sermon from Bl. John Henry Newman that was, appropriately enough, about “calls”:
[…] consider the circumstances of the call of Abraham, the father of all who believe. He was called from his father’s house, but was not told whither. St. Paul was bid go to Damascus, and there he was to receive further directions. In like manner Abraham left his home for a land “that I will show thee,” [Gen. xii. 1.] says Almighty God. Accordingly he went out, “not knowing whither he went.” “Abram departed as the Lord had spoken unto him.”
Such are the instances of Divine calls in Scripture, and their characteristic is this; to require instant obedience, and next to call us we know not to what; to call us on in the darkness. Faith alone can obey them.
But it may be urged, How does this concern us now? We were all called to serve God in infancy, before we could obey or disobey; we found ourselves called when reason began to dawn; we have been called to a state of salvation, we have been living as God’s servants and children, all through our time of trial, having been brought into it in infancy through Holy Baptism, by the act of our parents. Calling is not a thing future with us, but a thing past.
This is true in a very sufficient sense; and yet it is true also that the passages of Scripture which I have been quoting do apply to us still,—do concern us, and may warn and guide us in many important ways; as a few words will show.
For in truth we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in Baptism; but afterwards also; whether we obey His voice or not, He graciously calls us still. If we fall from our Baptism, He calls us to repent; if we are striving to fulfil our calling, He calls us on from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us. Abraham was called from his home, Peter from his nets, Matthew from his office, Elisha from his farm, Nathanael from his retreat; we are all in course of calling, on and on, from one thing to another, having no resting-place, but mounting towards our eternal rest, and obeying one command only to have another put upon us. He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again,—and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.
And so, it seemed, I had my answer. A paradoxical answer—almost a refusal of an answer. Or an answer to a question other than the one I had asked. When Job asks God why he suffers, God never—properly speaking—explains. But He does answer and His answer is Himself.
Two things seemed clear—I was to go on not knowing “whither I went” and my restlessness was not something to be put to rest, but was its own sort of vocation, a pilgrim vocation. And what I found, after meditating on what I’d heard, was not so much “rest” as a place to put my restlessness.
When Sunday Mass came around, the readings picked up the theme again and even more pointedly. In response to a scribe who tells him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
I returned from my retreat, then, resolved to wait and listen and follow. I still don’t know what, precisely, that will entail or where I am meant to go or if, even, when push comes to shove I’ll prove equal to the task(s). But I am grateful to God who can make even my restlessness into a kind of grace.