An incurable restlessness

“Lord, what should I do?”

This is a question that God hears rather a lot.

Really, we should ask it every day. Not as a way to fill the gaps in the diary that day; rather, the question should be asked as if one is asking: “What am I doing here, Lord? Where am I going? Who do you want me to be?”

In each of us there is a certain degree of restlessness. Some people travel thousands of miles across the world to ‘find themselves’. Others whittle away the hours acquiring new technologies, or seeking bodily satisfactions, or in drunkenness of various kinds. They experience many joys, no doubt, and have many ‘laughs’. They live like little kings: kings of their own hearts, but in reality, behind the throne are unruly powers.

Our restlessness makes more sense if we allow God into the picture. By daily enthroning Him as our King, rather than our passions (however difficult that might be), our joys are made more joyful, our sufferings are given purpose and value, and our restlessness has a destination. Conversion to Christ, our daily conversion, doesn’t make life any easier (far from it), but it sets it on the one direction that will truly quench our spiritual thirst. Conversion doesn’t blot out our crosses: in fact, it does the opposite. Sometimes it even reveals crosses that we hadn’t quite noticed before. But we’ve been shown, after all, that the only way is over the hill called Calvary.

“Lord, what should I do?”

“Come to the Cross with Me.”

Conversion of St Paul

The Conversion on the road to Damascus, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – the second painting of this subject by the artist. This later version is in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

This year of Consecrated Life which the Pope has asked the Church to commemorate is also a celebration of the ninth centenary of the Conversion of St Norbert.

St Paul in his writings that we hear often at Holy Mass can seem a bit distant and inaccessible to some of us. It seems as if he is writing about very specific circumstances in more exotic parts of the world than our own, to a people very different from us, a long time ago. But if one were to summarise St Paul (if such a thing is possible!), to read him, as it were, with a “key”, then we do well to recall Paul’s own “incurable restlessness”: a restlessness for the coming of the Lord, for a fulfillment of His promises, to be united with Him in heaven. For in this last epoch of the history of our salvation, this time after the battle is won, after Christ the Lord paid the price of our redemption and made all things new, but the time before the return of the Saviour, before the effects are fully revealed, before the the new heaven and the new earth, we are commanded to prepare ourselves, to grow in holiness, to work out how we individuals fit into this great plan of salvation: to enthrone God as King and Lord in our own poor and broken hearts before He enthrones Himself in our midst in a creation recapitulated in Him.

The grace of God our Saviour has dawned on all men alike schooling us to forgo earthly thoughts and worldly appetites and to live in this present world a life of order and of justice and of holiness. We are to look forward, blessed in our hope, to the day when there will be a new dawn of glory: the glory of the great God, the glory of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us to ransom us from our guilt, a people set apart for Himself, and ambitious in noble deeds… to be ready for every good work. (Titus 2: 11-14; 3:1)

Christ’s redemptive action has an effect on each one of us: we are bound in love to respond to it. Not to live in mediocrity, but to grow in Christ, and so become more ourselves. St Paul realised this very quickly, because of a personal revelation: immediately he changed his life, he converted and re-orientated himself. Paul had been so sure of what was right, he did not notice that he had become blind: and so God made him physically blind, He knocked him down physically and removed from him all that made him great and powerful in the eyes of the world. And with the eyes of his flesh closed to the world’s vanities, the eyes of his soul were opened to all that is truly beautiful. Paul fell in love, and for a quarter of a century, he poured himself out in love, as lovers are wont to do. He encouraged others to fall in love too, to the extent that he was led to the scaffold, and submitted his neck to the cold blade of the Roman sword.

So too with St Norbert. He was “plodding along” in the world, not quite satisfied but content to be mediocre, comforted by the earthly satisfactions of good living, fashion and intrigue; like St Paul, he was awoken from his spiritual fatigue by a bolt of lightening, and so he realised for whom his heart was thirsting.

There is a passage (that co-incidentally we might have heard at Holy Mass today) in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that sounds pretty bizarre to those of us brought up in the liberal democracies of the western world. In it, the Apostle says:

The time is short. It remaineth that they also that have wives, as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away. But I would have you be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided… And this I speak for your profit: not to cast a snare upon you; but for that which is decent, and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment. (I Cor. 7: 29-33; 35)

Here Paul is not saying that marriage is a bad thing, that we should all go wild and look into the sky for the Lord, forgetting the consequences (far from it!): “Both he that giveth his virgin in marriage, doth well; and he that giveth her not doth better.” (I Cor. 7: 38)

Rather, rightly read, he is allowing for the possibility that those who desire to set themselves apart from earthly concerns, to dedicate themselves to God alone, and the service of His holy people. These people – consecrated men and women Religious – are signs of what is to come, that this life is not all that there is, that there is something greater still yet to come. In a sense, the Religious are like a leaven, to ferment the people of God, so that each one of them might daily turn towards the Lord God again and again, in hopeful expectation of the life to come, when our tears will stop flowing and our tiredness will cease.

It is on this day in 1121 that St Norbert chose to be solemnly clothed in the white habit by Bartholomew, the Bishop of Laon, the same white habit that Our Lady had revealed to the saint that would remain for ever the vesture of his spiritual sons, to be worn in honour of her Immaculate Conception. She, of course, is our model when we ask the question, “Lord, what should I do?” She said “yes”. She allowed her whole life to be about the Lord. And so she was watered with the Precious Blood of her Son at the foot of the Cross. In her joys and we can find our joys, and in her sorrows, we find also our tears.

We are reminded daily as we put on this white habit every morning of the need also for our own daily conversion, to put off the old self and clothe oneself instead with Christ. We cannot help but be reminded of what the Immaculate Conception teaches us: that the dominion of sin has been vanquished, and Christ the Lord is on His way. Even though our earthly exile is a sorrowful toil, we live not in the darkness, but in the light: watchful and sober, wearing the breastplate of faith and charity, and the helmet of salvation. (cf I Thess. 5: 6; 8)

May Almighty God daily give us the grace to keep for us this armour light and joyful to wear, for either without it, or if we make it heavy for ourselves, we will be overtaken by the thief in the night. Our King, our Hope, is a little baby in a land of exile: keep watch, wait, and adore, for in His own good time, He will cure our restlessness.

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