From Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer
Restless Is Our Heart
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke celebrates both our longing for healing and wholeness and our primordial conviction that God’s healing power wells up in our own innermost heart. He finds God in “the spot that is healing,” while we, like children picking on a scar, keep ripping it open with the sharp edges of our thoughts. If only we could quiet all that agitation within and around us, the din that distracts us. In our silence a thousand scattered thoughts would be gathered into one. And in the thousandfold power of that concentration we would be able to hold God one smiling moment long in a single thought. Just long enough to give that divine Presence away to all life. And what form would we find for that giving? Rilke’s answer is thanksgiving.
Oh, if for once all were completely still!
If all mere happenstance and chance
were silenced, and the laughter next door, too;
If all that droning of my senses
did not prevent my being wide awake—
Then, with one thousandfold thought,
I would reach your horizon
and, for the span of a smile, hold you
to give you away to all life
This prayer rings true to us because our heart holds the pledge, as it were, of a primordial promise. Its fulfillment would mean being one and whole within myself. It would mean being one with all others in peaceful communion. Thus, it would mean no less than finding my true and all-embracing Self. But it would mean still more. When we really find our heart, we find the realm where we are intimately one with self, with others, and also with God. Yes, that is the most amazing discovery: that in the depth of my heart, to borrow Saint Augustine’s words, “God is closer to me than I am to myself.”
When the Bible tells how God creates us human beings by breathing life into us, this intimate communion with God is seen as the core of our being human. We are alive with God’s own life. The heart, the center of our aliveness, is then also the focal point of our communion with God. The heart is where we meet God. But meeting God is prayer. And so we know one more thing about the heart: it is our meeting place with God in prayer. Prayer, in turn, is the very heart of religion.
We should not talk, however, as if it were perfectly clear what one means by God, by prayer, or even by religion. Today these words mean different things to different people. What do they mean to you? As soon as we try to give an account, we may find that we are pretty vague in our notions. Out of intellectual honesty, then, let us make sure that, for our purpose here at least, we know what we mean by our key concepts. And since “religion” is the most basic term when we try to understand the heart, let’s start with “religion.”
There is something about the heart which everyone knows from experience, and which we have not yet mentioned. “Restless is our heart.” That is how Saint Augustine put it. The core of our being is relentlessly questioning, searching, longing. The very beating of the heart within my chest seems merely the echo of a restless pounding more deeply within me, a knocking on some locked door. It is not even clear to me: do I knock to get in, or do I knock to get out? But one thing is certain: restless is our heart. And that existential restlessness is what makes religion religious.
A particular religion merely provides a framework for the quest of the heart. Within each religion there are countless ways of being religious. In a personal quest we must find our own. No one can do it for us. This or that religion may provide the historical, cultural, sociological setting. It may provide an interpretation for our experience, a language to speak about it. If we are lucky, it may even provide incentives to keep us awake and alert in our quest and offer channels to protect its driving force from trickling away, from petering out. All this is of immeasurable value. Yet it remains on the outside. The heart of every religion is the religion of the heart.
“Restless is our heart until….” Until what? Until we find rest. But what can still our existential thirst? “As a deer years for running streams, so does my soul thirst for God, the living God,” (Psalm 42:2). Lucky the psalmist who could give a name to what our thirst is yearning for. But what name should we use now? Today many whose thirst is no less burning will not use the name “God” because of those of us who do use it. We have abused it and confused them. Can we find another name for that which gives rest to our heart? The term “meaning” suggests itself. When we find meaning in life, then we find rest. At least this is the starting point for an answer. But let us now assume that we know what meaning means. All we know is that we find rest when we find something meaningful. That is a matter of experience, and it is all we know about meaning. Meaning is simply that within which we find rest.
But so is the heart. It seems to be a contradiction. Yet our restless heart is also the only place where we find rest when, “at the end of all our exploring,” we arrive where we started “and know the place for the first time.” To know the heart means to know that it has depths too deep for reason to fathom, the depths of divine life within us. The heart that comes to rest in God rests in its own fathomless depth.