“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”. Today’s collect – the special prayer for the day – is one which many people love* I’m always glad when it comes around. Like many of the best prayers it has a long pedigree. It is based on the words of St Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century Christian leader from North Africa, and it is from a book which is basically his autobiography, called the “Confessions”. To sum it up in one sentence, it’s the story about how his “restless heart” finally came to rest in God.
Augustine had been born and brought up in the Roman town of Thagaste in North Africa in the dying years of the Roman Empire, by a Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father, Patricius. The young Augustine didn’t look remotely saintly, though. He was looking for meaning and happiness, as we all do, but he tried whatever came to hand in order to find it. He tried wild nights out with his mates, wine, women and song… but fun though they were, they didn’t really hit the spot. All he ended up with was a rather tangled personal life, which included a child, born when he was 17, by a woman he never got around to marrying. So he looked to religion and philosophy – and there were plenty of options to choose from. We may think we live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, but it was nothing compared to the Roman Empire. All sorts of ideas jostled for followers. There was Christianity, the newly declared the official faith of the empire. There were the old Roman and Greek religions with their multitude of gods and goddesses. There were mystery religions with strange secret rituals and beliefs. Who had the truth? What was life really all about? By the age of twenty, Augustine’s “restless heart” had led him to a group called the Manicheans, who were followers of a Persian philosopher Mani. Like many groups we now tend to lump together under the name Gnostics, the Manicheans believed that the created world, the world of matter and the flesh, was at best inferior, the work of a lesser god, and at worst evil. The soul was a divine spark, they said, which had been imprisoned in the body, and longed to be free of it. To Augustine, who often felt like a battleground of conflicting impulses and desires, it all sounded very convincing.
But after a while Augustine started to feel unsatisfied with the Manicheans too. Their accounts of creation seemed too far-fetched, and he suspected that many of their teachers didn’t really understand their own teachings. So he looked once more at Christian belief, and gradually came to believe, at least in his head, that this was the faith that made most sense to him. But it was still just in his head, not his heart. He believed things about God, but putting his life into God’s hands, letting his faith make a difference to his life was a different matter. What might he have to give up? How might he have to change? It was as if his “restless heart” had led him to the brink of the ocean, but would he have the courage to jump into the water and trust it would support him?
He struggled. He thought big and complicated thoughts about faith and philosophy, but in the end that wasn’t what really changed him. It was this. One day he was sitting in his garden, he said, in despair, when he heard the sing-song voice of a child from somewhere nearby.
“Take it and read, take it and read…” sang the child. Puzzled, he picked up a Bible. It fell open at the letter to the Romans…”Let us live honourably, as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealously. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus…”
Somehow those words went right to the heart of his struggle. Living well wasn’t just about changing your mind, adopting a new set of philosophical beliefs; it was about letting God change your life – and his life needed to change.
But he hadn’t worked this out through his own cleverness, or through the teaching of some great spiritual teacher; he’d been directed to it by the words of a child, who didn’t even know that they were doing it. He’d been striving to find the way to God with his restless heart, but all the time God had been right there waiting for him to stop striving and to fall into his arms, into the place where he really belonged. It was God who had found him. Indeed God had never lost him.
There are plenty of restless hearts in the readings today too.
James writes to a church full of people who are tossed about by their fears , by the “cravings that are at war within them” . They covet things they can’t have. They are ruled by “bitter envy and selfish ambition” . They grasp for power, and they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. And why? Because they are struggling to find peace and meaning, not realising that what they seek is theirs already, if they will only “draw near to God.” .
James talks about the “harvest of righteousness, sown in peace” which they long for. Peace, in the Bible – shalom in Hebrew - is always about far more than the absence of war or the absence of noise. It’s about everything being as it ought to be, in its proper place, healed and whole. And it starts inside us, in our hearts. We can’t have peace out there, if we haven’t got it in here. We strive for wealth and status, for lots of “likes” on our facebook post or our Instagram feed, for constant affirmation, we work our fingers to the bone to get that promotion, but when we get them, we find that, actually, we don’t feel any better at all because whatever we have gained we can also lose. It’s only when we realise that we are held in God’s love, when we are centred and secure in that, that we find the peace that can’t be destroyed or taken away. “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you” says Augustine, and his words make as much sense now as they did 1700 or so years ago when he first wrote them.
That’s a lesson which Jesus’ disciples had to learn too. In our Gospel story today, he tries to teach them, yet again, that he will be betrayed and killed but that he’ll rise again. But they still aren’t ready to hear it. As they walk along the road, Jesus is aware that they are squabbling among themselves. He knows what it’s about. It’s what squabbles are always about. Who is the greatest? It doesn’t matter whether it’s children fighting for the biggest slice of cake, or nations fighting for land and political influence, our squabbles are always, in some sense, about wanting to feel bigger and better than others, because then we think we will feel more secure and more significant in a world which is so much bigger than we are, beyond our understanding and control.
For Jesus’ disciples it was no different. Like all their fellow Jews they lived under the perpetual threat of Roman takeover, and longed for a Messiah, God’s anointed one, to deliver them from that threat, to make Israel great again (and if that sounds familiar, it’s meant to). They want to believe Jesus is that person, and that he’s about to take his throne, but the problem is that their vision of greatness is one patterned on the empires they see around them. All they can imagine is that Jesus will be like the Roman Emperor only infinitely bigger and better. And when that moment comes, each of them wants to be his right hand man, the one who will share the biggest slice of his power and glory… That person will have it made. They’ll never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from ever again. They’ll have won the lottery of life.
But when they shamefacedly admit that this is really what they are thinking, Jesus simply takes a child, a small child, a vulnerable child with not a scrap of power, and puts it in their midst. If you want to really have that security you crave, the ultimate peace you are trampling over each other to find, you need to take a lesson from this little one. It’s only when you can welcome littleness and vulnerability, when you can own and embrace the stuff in you which feels helpless, when you can accept that actually, you really have no more power to control your life than this child does, that you will discover that God is with you, at work in you, that he loves you, and that there’s nothing you need to do, nothing you can do, to make him love you more – or less – than he does already. Discover that and you won’t need to worry about who is the greatest at all.
That’s as hard for us to learn as it was for Jesus’ disciples and for those whom James was writing to and for Augustine, who struggled with it all his life, but it’s the key to finding what we all need, the peace of God that passes understanding. The restlessness of our hearts may show itself in all sorts of ways. We may be anxious about our lives or the lives of those we love. We may be constantly distracted, never able to trust that we have chosen the right path, or that what we have will be enough. We may be locked in feuds or burdened by grudges which we can’t let go of because we can’t imagine life without them. We may be relentlessly competitive, in ways that drive others away from us.
Whatever form our restlessness takes, though, Augustine – and James and Jesus – would tell us that the answer to it is the same. “Lord, you have made us for yourself” says Augustine. We don’t have to compete for God’s love, or work for it; we don’t have to push others out of it in order to gain it. It is ours already. There is an “us-shaped” place in the heart of God, an “me” shaped place, a “you” shaped place, a space shaped like each of us, a space for each of us. All we have to do is fall into it and learn to trust it, and our “restless hearts” will find the true rest they have been craving.
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, now and forever.