Restlessness and joy


This past week and a half, my philosophy/theology class and I have been reading Augustine’s Confessions, a text that I teach each year. I never tire of reading Augustine and an idea with which he begins:”Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, Lord”. This feeling of restlessness is endemic to being human, what a friend of mine describes well as a “hole in the human heart” that nothing but God can fill. Augustine, though tried to fill that longing with many things: sex, professional fame, entertainment, for example. But Augustine discovered that restlessness is not something to be escaped, but rather delved more deeply into. When we engage and enter into restlessness more deeply, we discover that the longing is not only for God (for only God can fulfill it); the longing is itself already God at work within us.

This weekend I also went to visit my prison group to discuss chapters of James Martin SJ’s Jesus, A Pilgrimage (a good read that I recommend). Among other topics, we discussed the Beatitudes, which I also teach back in my college course. The Beatitudes are often translated as the “blessed are”s: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are peacemakers, blessed are you who are rejected.” The Greek term for “blessed,” however, is makaria, or happy, as Martin also points out. In other Greek contexts, makaria means blessed, happy, or fortunate. There is even a Greek goddess by this name known for a happy death. So, we spent some time talking about how and why we are happy when poor, or mourning, or rejected.

Jesus promises both a hope of future redemption and fulfillment and an action that is already taking place now. One way to understand the passage is that we only recognize our need for God when we are really poor. It’s only in the recognition of a certain kind of human poverty–like the Augustinian restlessness of the Confessions–that we know of our own need and dependency on God.

The beautiful thing about diving into restlessness and need with God is that its end is not sorrow, but joy. Joy is distinct from happiness. In joy, we encounter God-in-the-other and simultaneously, God-in-ourselves. At the prison, one of the men gave the example that one might feel happiness after going for a good run, but joy was holding his newborn baby.  We also shared different experiences of knowing joy even in the midst of grief, for example, the joy of having loved someone that we are especially aware of at a funeral. Joy is not something that we choose–in that sense, it is not a virtue like moral virtues of courage or generosity, nor is it an infused virtue, like faith, hope, or love, in which we cooperate with God’s grace. Rather, my favorite image is of joy as like the blossoming of a flower on a tree, where joy is the consequence of loving. When we are willing to love and to love deeply, with freedom, our love blossoms into joy. That joy in God can be present to us even in times of sadness, persecution, or loss, because its deeper source is God.

God is not only the object of our restlessness, but also its source. Our very capacity to Love is God, hidden within our hearts, waiting to be revealed. Restlessness, poverty of spirit, even mourning and rejection, are not things to be escaped, but rather the way in.