The Monastery of the Heart

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“Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

                                                                                                                                    – Augustine of Hippo

We were running late. We missed our turn and had to back track, which meant we’d be cutting it close for dinner. The irony is not lost on me as we’re speeding up and down the winding rural blacktops near Three Rivers, Michigan. A friend and I are on our way to St. Gregory’s Abbey for a three day retreat. The point of the retreat is to slow down and rest. Here I am, watching the clock tick on my dashboard, breaking the speed limit and feeling anxious that we’re not going to get there on time.

My Honda Civic careens around the corner and pulls into the parking lot. Car doors slam, followed by the click of automatic locks, and we hustle up to the dining hall in a near sprint. The dinner bell has already rung. The monks and a few guests are already seated, and the Abbot is perched in his pulpit and has started reading from the Rule of St. Benedict. The monks are kind and hospitable, but they also like order and are sticklers about staying on schedule. Being on time for meals and for the Divine Office is important to them.

The Abbot sees us out of the corner of his eye and motions for us to come in. We walk in, embarrassed and still feeling the rush of adrenaline. We find the place that has been set for us at the table.   I take a few deep breaths, trying to settle in and relax. After we eat, we stand and say a prayer of thanksgiving. The monk who leads us speaks the words slowly and invites us to do the same. The pace feels unbearably slow, praying these words (like listening to the Ents in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings).  I’m present to how agitated I feel. Yet everything within my body and soul is crying out for rest.

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Rest doesn’t come easily for me. Even when I plan a retreat specifically for this purpose, I bring my hurried, anxious self into it and struggle to really settle in. I’m writing this post on my third and last day at the Abbey. Over the last couple days, by God’s grace I’ve finally been able to slow down and attend more fully to God’s presence, my own soul, and the others who are here.

I’ve come to love this place. The wide open country—a combination of forest and farm—expands my soul. The Benedictine rhythm of work, study and worship draws me in, offering a kind of counter-rhythm where self and worry are replaced by God and prayer at the rightful center. God has used this place to teach me how to rest and to enter more fully into the “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matt. 11:29, The Message).

I’ve been reading and reflecting on the subject of rest while I’ve been here. One book that has been immensely helpful is The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap by John Koessler (IVP, 2016). We suffer from a deficiency of rest, Koessler says. Our “culture of productivity” assumes that busier is better and that devotion equals more activity. “No matter what we are doing now, we should do more. No matter what we have done in the past, it has not been enough” (p.19).

The result is a highly driven church that constantly strives to exceed its current level of activity (both within and outside the walls) but, in the end, only contributes to souls feeling exhausted and burdened by anxiety. What our churches most need, Koessler insists, is rest. It’s what we all need.

But what kind of rest? And how do we get it?

Here is where Koessler is most helpful. Rest is not just a practice, he says. It is first and foremost a place, which makes it a gift. The author of Hebrews speaks of God’s rest as a destination or location (Heb. 4:1-11). By God’s grace we are invited to “enter” this place of rest. The imagery is drawn from God’s promise to provide a place for Israel after the exodus from Egypt. Koessler points out that before rest is a practice, it is an experience. We must first receive it as a gift and an inheritance.

Like Israel, we experience God’s rest starting with relocation. But instead of relocating to a different point on the map, says Koessler, we are brought into union with Christ. Rest can only be experienced “in Christ.” Then we find ourselves renewed and set free under the yoke of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-29).

What strikes me about this is the way that true rest is not something we can acquire or achieve by ourselves—taking time off, getting away, ceasing activity. Jesus is the subject of the verb in Matt. 11:28 and we are the object. Which means that rest as Jesus describes it is something that must be done to us. What Jesus says here might be better translated as something like, “I will rest you” or “I will refresh you.” In Koessler’s words: “This rest is as relational as it is experiential. We come to Christ and he refreshes us. We do not come to Christ, receive our rest, and then go our way. By offering rest, Christ offers himself” (p.32).

Learning to rest does take practice. We do have an active part to play in pursuing rest. But much like sleep (which, next to death, is the posture in which we are most at rest), Koessler says that rest begins with surrender and requires a measure of trust. As the Psalmist declares, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me” (Ps. 3:5). Entering rest is about surrendering ourselves, our cares and worries, into God’s care. We trust that God will take care of us and that the world will go on even without our activity and effort. This makes rest, at its most fundamental level, an exercise of faith.

So if rest is about remaining “in Christ” and living all of life in union with Christ, this means that rest is not just something we do every once in a while or when necessary because of exhaustion. Sure, we need moments of ceasing activity and Sabbath rest. And we need places like this monastery (or whatever places work for you) that help us slow down and breathe.

But the kind of rest Jesus offers us is really a way of life. A spiritual location, a constant state of being, where we are joined to Jesus by the Spirit and from which flows all our activity. It’s what Joan Chittister calls “the monastery of the heart.” Only then can we bear fruit that will last and find ourselves flourishing in the unforced rhythms of God’s grace.

Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

Comments 3

  1. Rest for me is found when I deliberately place myself in the Presence of God. The more time I spend in the “sanctuary of the heart” that He has built, the more I find true rest. Thank you for these truthful and wondrous words, Brian. Joanie

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