“We do not see things the way they are, but we see things the way we are.”
I have always been a fan of a good “one-liner” that in its simplicity helps to make sense of life’s more complicated and critical moments. The wisdom and logic behind these inspired and prophetic words of the Talmud opened my eyes to several considerations that were both deeply personal and professional, leading me to a series of re-considerations in my life and ministry. Our unique capacity to be self-reflective has enabled us to move far beyond how we see the world allowing our minds-eye to envision what God wanted the world to become, if we have the courage to step outside of our narrow human perspective. The personal lens which we use to see our world can often be clouded by expectations that affect our ability to see things clearly. Yet, in reality, how else can we see the world expect through the lens that God has given us? In fact, we are called to see as God sees and when we learn to see as God sees, then we will learn to see ourselves as God sees us.
Questioning the choices we make or the decisions that have radically affected our lives can often be seen as through the filters we put on that lens complicating how we see the world. Family values, education, religion, politics, culture, and technology all are added filters on the same lens possibility creating an impaired sight line or a distorted vision of the world; forcing us to see the world the way we are not as the world actually is. St. Augustine reminds us that we must first know ourselves before we can ever get to know our God. This one-liner taps into an unexplored desire that kick-starts our journey toward self-awareness allowing our pilgrimage towards God to begin. This desire motivates us to look critically at ourselves so that we can see more of who we are as we attempt to understand who God is in our lives.
I would suggest that this journey towards self-knowledge and self-awareness have been seriously dismantled by a variety of factors creating an impaired sight line toward wholeness and holiness in our lives. It is almost impossible for us to see as God sees if we are not willing to engage in a loving relationship with God. We all have the human capacity to get to know ourselves, but that desire needs to be rooted in something far more profound than just mere superficial knowledge of self, which is ordinarily motived by one’s ego. This was the road Augustine traveled before his conversion, for like Augustine, we are often fearful of what we might uncover so we spend our life repressing that desire for the truth while avoiding the necessary steps toward authentic self-awareness, allowing others to define who we are. Our longing for authenticity can be very important as we mature in this life, but it is only the first stop on this journey toward human and spiritual development. For many of us, it appears to be a false oasis keeping us from the real task of self-reflection.
This movement inward is what we now call discernment. St. Augustine has provided us with the roadmap for looking critically at one’s spiritual journey, as well as the detours we encounter along the way, through his autobiographical work, The Confessions. It has provided any reader over the past 1,650 years a way of looking inside oneself in an attempt to see the God within. At the same time, The Confessions, highlight the complex struggle of the one who is searching. Augustine’s concept of the restless heart and the journey to satisfy that restlessness has been for me not only a personal struggle, but one that I have seen in so many others throughout my ministry. It has challenged me to remove many of the filters that have altered my ability to see myself and thereby, the world and my God differently.
The journey of the restless heart has not been isolated to any particular age in the history of humankind, but rather it has been a topic of great interest over the centuries since we have become more aware of the transcendent nature of our lives as created by God. Both believers and non-believers struggle with this concept of our restless nature and seek not only to better understand it but also to attempt to satisfy this longing in a variety of ways.
St. Augustine’s focus on this restless searching is a critical component in understanding or naming our own pilgrimage toward self-knowledge. Augustine reveals within the opening lines of his Confessions, the remedy that can heal the restless heart. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” It identifies one of Augustine’s deepest convictions: that God alone can satisfy the ever-thirsting human yearnings. As is evident in this famous one-liner, Augustine’s struggle, prior to his conversion, is not unique. When these longings are recognized as a powerful force within the human mind and heart, these struggles become identified as the source of spiritual yearning or desire for those who seek God. For those who are unable or unwilling to see the God within, their restlessness becomes a source of the human disappointment as they attempt to understand a life void of faith. In Fr. Tom Martin’s work, Our Restless Heart, he reminds the reader of the extensive vocabulary that surrounds this notion. Using phrases such as “the heart too full,” “the humble heart,” “the twisted heart,” and “the sad heart,” Martin says that, “no matter what wording we use to describe this inner restlessness, we must first be in touch with the heart in order to return to God as we attempt to satisfy this restless longing.”
Augustine’s Confessions is a dialogue with God that has been handed down through many generations. Augustine recorded his thoughts so that others might come to a better understanding of his struggle. He realized that he was not alone in this struggle, and by sharing his spiritual journal, he has opened for many the possibility for a unique relationship with God. In Book 10 of the Confessions, Augustine tells us with the help of Maria Boulding’s translation, “I entered my deepest self, but only because you helped me was I able to do this. I entered, then, and with the eye of my soul I saw the light within, the light which never changes. No, I know this light within was not the ordinary light at all. It was utterly different from any known light for it shown above my mind, but not in the way that oil floats above water, or as skies above the earth. It was above me because it was itself the light that made me.”
My ministry has provided me the opportunity to work with many folks who struggle with this notion of restlessness and their attempt to find unique ways to satisfy it, as did Augustine in his own time. His quest is our quest, and even though we have other tools at our disposal, the journey within is just as complicated because it is a journey toward identity powered often by an unnamed spiritual desire. Once we identify that desire as God, we can begin to discern how and what God might want from us so that we can eventually make the kind of commitment worthy of our call to discipleship.
Augustine writes, “How ardently I longed, O my God, ardently I longed to fly back to you away from earthly things! I did not understand then what you were doing with me.” In another translation of the Confessions, ardently is translated as a “burning desire,” which seems to describe even better Augustine’s internal struggle. This desire led Augustine closer to the God who was always within as he tried to hide from that awareness, thinking he could control this desire on his own. In Book X of the Confessions, Augustine laments, “…what can be nearer to me than I am to myself?” So often, we feel the same way about our own struggle and think that we can satisfy this ardent longing or burning desire without God’s help; all the while, God is certainly nearer to us all than we can ever be to ourselves. Our restless journey toward God is a lifelong process, which I believe requires a commitment of recognition and surrender in order to begin the journey. Without some conscious effort to look within ourselves, God, who remains the desire of our longing, will remain the cause of our frustration if we do not invite God into our restless journey.