On not Cultivating Restlessness


Thirty-four years ago when I launched this column, I would never have said this: Restlessness is not something to be cultivated, no matter how romantic that might seem. Don’t get Jesus confused with Hamlet, peace with disquiet, depth with dissatisfaction, or genuine happiness with the existential anxiety of the artist. Restlessness inside us doesn’t need to be encouraged; it wreaks enough havoc all on its own.

But I’m a late convert to this view. From earliest childhood through mid-life, I courted a romance with restlessness, with stoicism, with being the lonely outsider, with being the one at the party who found it all too superficial to be real.  Maybe that contributed to my choosing seminary and priesthood; certainly it helps explain why I entitled this column, In Exile. For most of my life, I have equated restlessness with depth, as something to be cultivated,

This came naturally to me and all along the way I’ve found powerful mentors to help me carry my solitude in that way. During my high school years, I was intrigued with Shakespeare’s, Hamlet. I virtually memorized it. Hamlet represented depth, intensity, and romance; he wasn’t a beer-drinker.  For me, he was the lonely prophet, radiating depth beyond superficiality.

In my seminary years I graduated to Plato (“We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and has us believe that we can achieve a great embrace, make ourselves immortal, and contemplate the divine”); to Augustine (“You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”); to John of the Cross (We go through life fired by love’s urgent longings); to Karl Rahner (“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony”). Reading these thinkers helped me put my youthful romanticism under a high symbolic hedge.

Alongside these spiritual writers, I was much influenced by a number of novelists who helped instill in me the notion that life is meant to be lived with such an inner intensity and high romanticism so as to preclude any simple satisfaction in life’s normal, everyday pleasures and domestic joys. For me, Nikos Kazantzakis’ characters radiated a passion that made them virtually godlike and irresistibly enviable, even as they struggled not to self-destruct; Iris Murdoch described loves that were so obsessive, and yet so attractive, as to make everything outside of them unreal; and Doris Lessing and Albert Camus seduced me with images of an inner disquiet that made ordinary life seem flat and not worthwhile. The idea grew in me that it was far nobler to die in unrequited longing than to live in anything else. Better dead in intensity that alive in domestic normalcy. Restlessness was to be encouraged.

And much in our culture, especially in the arts and the entertainment industry, foster that temptation, namely, to self-define as restless and to identify this disquiet with depth and with the angst of the artist. Once we define ourselves in this way, as complex, incurable romantics, we have an excuse for being difficult and we also have an excuse for betrayal and infidelity.  For now, in the words of a song by The Eagles, we are restless spirits on an endless flight. Understandably, then, we fly above the ordinary rules for life and happiness and our complexity is justification enough for whatever ways we act out.  As Amy Winehouse famously self-defines: “I told you I was troubled, and you know that I’m no good.” Why should anyone be mystified by our refusal of normal life and ordinary happiness?

There’s something inside us, particularly when we are young, that tempts us towards that kind of self-definition. And, for that time in our lives, when we’re young, I believe, it’s healthy. The young are supposed to overly-idealistic, incurably romantic, and distrustful of any lazy fall into settling for second-best. As Doris Lessing puts it, there’s only one real sin in life and that’s calling second-best by anything other than what it is, second-best!  My wish is that all young people would read Plato, Augustine, John of the Cross, Karl Rahner, Nikos Kazantzakis, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Jane Austin, and Albert Camus.

But, except for authors such as Plato, Augustine, John of the Cross and Karl Rahner, who integrate that insatiable restlessness and existential angst into a bigger, meaningful narrative, we should be weary of defining ourselves as restless and cultivating that. High romanticism will only serve us well if we eventually set it within a self-understanding that doesn’t make restlessness an end in itself. Just feeling noble won’t bring much peace into our lives and, as we age and mature, peace does become the prize.  Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet, Zorba the Greek, Doctor Zhivago, and the other such mega-romantic figures on our screens and in our novels can enflame our romantic imaginations, but they aren’t in the end images for the type of intimacy that makes for a permanent meeting of hearts inside the body of Christ.

Contemplative Prayer


Contemplative prayer, as it is classically defined and popularly practiced, is subject today to considerable skepticism in a number of circles. For example, the method of prayer, commonly called Centering Prayer, popularized by persons like Thomas Keating, Basil Bennington, John Main, and Laurence Freeman is viewed with suspicion by many people who identify it with anything from “New Age”, to Buddhism, to “Self-Seeking”, to atheism.

Admittedly not all of its adherents and practitioners are free from those charges, but certainly its true practitioners are. Understood and practiced correctly this method of prayer, which allows for some variations in its practice, is in fact the form of prayer which the Desert Fathers, John of the Cross, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing call Contemplation.

What is contemplation, as defined within this classical Christian tradition? With apologies to the tradition of Ignatius of Loyola, who formats things differently, but is very much in agreement with this definition, contemplation is prayer without images and imagination, that is, prayer without the attempt to concentrate one’s thoughts and feelings on God and holy things. It is a prayer so singular in its intention to be present to God alone that it refuses everything, even pious thoughts and holy feelings so as to simply sit in darkness, in a deliberate unknowing, within which all thoughts, imaginations, and feelings about God are not fostered or entertained, as is true for all other thoughts and feelings. In the words of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is a simple reaching out directly towards God.

In contemplative prayer, classically understood, after a brief, initial act of centering oneself in prayer, one simply sits, but sits inside the intention of reaching out directly towards God in a place beyond feeling and imagination where one waits to let the unimaginable reality of God breakthrough in a way that subjective feelings, thoughts, and imaginations cannot manipulate.

And it is precisely on this point where contemplative prayer is most often misunderstood and criticized. The questions are: Why shouldn’t we try to foster and entertain holy thoughts and pious feelings during prayer, isn’t that what we’re trying to do in prayer? How can we be praying when we aren’t doing anything, just sitting? Isn’t this some form of agnosticism? How do we meet a loving, personal God in this? Isn’t this simply some form of transcendental meditation which can be used as a form of self-seeking, a mental yoga? Where’s Jesus in this?

I will let the author of The Cloud of Unknowing reply to this: “It would be very inappropriate and a great hindrance to a man who ought to be working in this darkness and in this cloud of unknowing, with an affective impulse of love to God himself alone, to permit any thought or any meditation of God’s wonderful gifts, kindness or his work in any of his creatures, bodily or spiritual, to rise up in his mind so as to press between him and his God, even if they be very holy thoughts, and give him great happiness and consolation. … For as long as the soul dwells in this mortal body, the clarity of our understanding in the contemplation of all spiritual things, and especially of God, is always mixed up with some sort of imagination.”  We cannot imagine God, we can only know God.

In essence, the idea is that we may never mistake the icon for the reality. God is ineffable and consequently everything we think or imagine about God is, in effect, an icon, even the words of scripture itself are words about God and not the reality of God. Admittedly icons can be good, so long as they are understood precisely as icons, as pointing to a reality beyond themselves; but as soon as we take them for the reality, our perennial temptation, the icon becomes an idol.

The difference between meditation and contemplation is predicated on this: In meditation we focus on icons, on God as God appears in our thoughts, imagination, and feelings. In contemplation, icons are treated as idols, and the discipline then is to sit in a seeming darkness, beneath a cloud of unknowing, to try to be face to face with a reality which is too big to grasp within our imagination. Meditation, like an icon, is something that is useful for a time, but ultimately we are all called to contemplation. As the Cloud of Unknowing puts it“For certainly, he who seeks to have God perfectly will not take his rest in the consciousness of any angel or any saint that is in heaven.”

Karl Rahner agrees: “Have we tried to love God in those places where one is not carried on a wave of emotional rapture, where it is impossible to mistake oneself and one’s life-force for God, where one accepts to die from a love that seems like death and absolute negation, where one cries out in an apparent emptiness and an utter unknown?”

That, in short, is contemplative prayer, authentic centering prayer, as a discipline.

The Struggle to not make God our own Tribal Deity


I was blessed to grow up in a very sheltered and safe environment. My childhood was lived inside of a virtual cocoon. In the remote, rural, first-generation, immigrant community I grew up in, we all knew each other, all went to the same church, all belonged to the same political party, all were white, all came from the same ethnic background, all shared the same accent when we spoke English, all had a similar slant on how we understood morality, all shared similar hopes and fears about the outside world, and all worshipped God quite confidently from inside that cocoon. We knew we were special in God’s eyes.

There’s a wonderful strength in that, but also a pejorative underside.  When there are no real strangers in your life, when everyone looks like you do, believes what you do, and speaks like you do, when your world is made up of only your own kind, it’s going to take some painful subsequent stretching, at some very deep parts of your soul, to accept, existentially accept, and be comfortable with the fact, that people who are very different from you, who have different skin colors, speak different languages, live in different countries, have different religions, and have a different way of understanding things are just as real and precious to God as you are.

Of course not everyone has a background like mine, but I suspect most everyone also struggles to accept, beyond our too-easy espousal of how open we are, that all lives in the world are equally as precious to God as is our own.  It is hard for us to believe that we, and our own kind, are not specially blessed and are not of more value than others. There are lots of reasons for that.

First, there’s our innate narcissism: Simply put, we cannot not feel that our own reality is more real and more precious than that of others; after all, as Rene Descartes put it, classically and forever, the only thing we can know for sure is that we are real, that our joys and pains are real. We may be dreaming everything else. Beyond that natural narcissism, other things begin play in: Blood, language, country, and religion are thicker than water. Consequently our own kind always seem more real to particularly apposite race, country and us. Too many of us live with the notion that God has blessed our race and country more than God has blessed other races and countries and that we are special in God’s eyes. That’s a dangerously false and unchristian notion, directly contrary to the Judeo-Christian scriptures. God doesn’t value some races and some countries more than others.

Where might we go with all of this, given that it’s hard to see how everyone else’s life is as real and precious as our own? How do we bring out hearts to existentially accept a truth that we espouse with our lips, namely, that God loves everyone equally, with no exceptions?

We might begin by admitting the problem, by admitting that our natural narcissism and propensity for tribalism do block us from seeing others’ lives as being as real and precious as our own. Very particularly, I suggest, we need to look at our false patriotism. We aren’t special as a nation, at least no more special than any other nation.  Our dreams, our heartaches, our headaches, our joys, our pains, our deaths, do not count more before God than those of persons in other places in the world, perhaps even less, since God has a preferential option for the poor. The lives of the hundreds of thousands of present-day refugees, so easy to lump into one mass of anonymity to which we can accord abstract sympathy, are just as precious as those of our own children; perhaps more so, given the truth of our scriptures about God taking flesh in the excluded ones. Today they may be the people of manifest destiny, the ones carrying God’s special blessing.

As well, and importantly, we must also correct our bad theologies. The God whom Jesus revealed and incarnated may never be turned into a God of our own, a God who considers us more precious and gifted than other peoples, a God who blesses us specially above others. Sadly, we are perennially prone to turn God into our own tribal deity, in the name of family, blood, church, and country. God too easily becomes our God. But true faith doesn’t allow for that. Rather a healthy and orthodox Christian theology teaches that God is especially present in the other, in the poor and in the stranger. God’s revelation comes to us most clearly through the outsider, through what’s foreign to us, through what stretches us beyond our comfort zone and our expectations, particularly our expectations regarding God.

God is everyone’s God equally, not especially ours, and God is too great to be reduced to serving the interests of family, ethnicity, church, and patriotism.