As a seminarian, I was introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. I was nineteen years old, young for philosophy, and his abstract language befuddled me for a time. But slowly some of what he was saying began to break through and it felt like I was being introduced to myself. I’d always been deeply restless, in every sense of that word, and the grip of that restlessness and its concomitant complexities worried me, leaving me wondering sometimes whether I was normal.
What Aquinas taught me was that everyone feels that way. Fierce restlessness is normal because, as he puts it, “the adequate object of the human intellect and will is Being itself.” What that means is that only one thing can fill in our restlessness, full union with everything and everybody – God, others, the world.
To be satisfied we would have to drink in every experience in the whole world, know everything perfectly, be known by everyone, be in union with God, and, in essence, be making love to the whole world. Anything less leaves us wanting more. And we feel this way not because we’re over-sexed and greedy but simply because we’re normal human beings, half-divine, half-animal, eternal souls, yearning bodies, torn in different directions, lured by greatness, suffocating in dust.
Later I began to read Karl Rahner and he, drawing upon Augustine (“You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you!”) taught me that we’re not restful beings who occasionally get restless, but rather restless beings who occasionally find some rest. In this life, our normal default is not restful, but restless. Knowing this added another little chip to my self-understanding.
Henri Nouwen added a further insight. For him, our biggest moral battle is not the struggle to choose the good, but the struggle to not choose everything else at the same time. We want the good, but we want everything else alongside it.
Reflecting on his own experience, he summarizes the struggle this way: I’d like to be a great saint, but I also want to taste every sensation that sinners get to experience; I’d like to spend time alone in solitude, but I’d also want to be with friends and not miss out on anything; and I’d like to have a simple lifestyle and serve the poor, but I also want a comfortable, well-equipped apartment. Every choice is a painful renunciation and so even choosing what’s good is a complex, trying business.
And it’s helpful to recognize and acknowledge this, not so that we can rationalize our moral lapses, but so that we don’t falsely idealize innocence so as to make it impossible to imitate Jesus and the saints. What’s meant by that?
Sentimentality is the false glorification of innocence. And we do that all the time in name of holiness. One of the ways we do this is by refusing to admit complexity and sexuality into holiness. For most of us, for example, it’s impossible to see persons we regard as truly holy – Jesus, Mary, Therese of Lisieux, Mother Theresa, John Paul II – as morally complex, sexually struggling, emotionally lonely, chronically tempted, human beings. And this makes them impossible to imitate. They’re admired but not imitated because they’re over-idealized and seen as different, without sex, without complexity, without the congenital temptations that beset the rest of us. Sadly, this undercuts their real witness. Because of false idealization, what their lives really said becomes so encrusted with over-pious sentimentality that, to the full-blooded, their moral achievement has little to say. They’re seen as creatures of a different kind.
I remember as a boy, sitting in church in our outback community and being told by a wonderful, well-meaning priest that he was pleased to be with us because we were “simple farm-folk whose lives, thank God, weren’t so complicated like those of big city people!” I was young then, naive, thought this a compliment, and then felt myself abnormal, sitting as I was with my private struggles among folks whose lives, we had just been told, were simple, uncomplicated, and free of the punishing restlessness that haunted mine.
But holiness is not to be confused with being uncomplicated or sexless. It’s about the proper ordering of things.
Therese of Lisieux recounts an incident from her childhood. One of her older sisters was getting rid of her toys and brought them in and asked the two youngest children in the family, Therese and her sister, Celine, to each choose one, before she disposed of the rest. Celine, for her part, chose a colourful ball. Therese looked at the basket and simply said: “I choose them all! I want them all!”
And we do too! That’s the real struggle on the road to God and community. We want it all. But that yearning is not a sign of pathology. It’s a sign that we’re emotionally alive, normal, healthy, and still firing on all the cylinders that God gave us.