There is a wonderful teaching, given to us by Aelred of Rievaulx, that speaks of the natural tendency for all creatures to seek rest in the places which God has made for them. Aelred taught about the goodness of nature in beautiful ways. He believed that charity and friendship are inherent in all creatures from pebbles on the beach to angels in heaven. All of creation is infused with the goodness of God. In Aelred’s book The Mirror of Charity, written for novices in his monastery, he talks about the charity of God as the foundation of all existence. Charity, for Aelred, is not about giving money to the needy, but rather is his word for universal and selfless love. It is the kind of love which has no hints of romance or family ties. It is best understood like the Greek term agape. This universal love is the same thing as goodness and it is the nature of God and her creation.
There is not a single thing in all of the universe which is not good in its nature. Simply to exist itself is a goodness and so all creatures which exist are good in that capacity if nothing else. If the story of Adam and Eve speaks of the way in which humanity left behind its original goodness, then the days of creation from Genesis 1 describe the original goodness which we are to return to. In this part of the creation story we are told that God saw everything she had made, and it was very good. The seventh day of creation is the divine rest which is the same as God’s love and God’s being and all creatures are pulled towards this rest as if they were water in a stream pulled towards the ocean. Aelred believed that if you look at anything closely enough, you will be able to see the imprint of the good God who made it and that imprint is mysteriously one with everything. Aelred described it like this,
“If you more closely contemplate every creature, from the first to the last, from the highest to the lowest, from the loftiest angel to the lowliest worm, you will surely discover divine goodness – which we have called nothing other than divine charity – which contains, enfolds, and penetrates all things, not by pouring into a place, or being diffused in space, or by nimbly moving about, but by the steady, mysterious, and self-contained simplicity of its substantial presence.”
The goodness of God is present in all things and it beckons them to rest in it. Everything has a state in which it finds its rest ordained for it by God. The water in a stream seeks its rest by flowing to the ocean. Oil, when mixed with water, seeks its rest floating on the surface. A stone, when dropped from a height, seeks its rest on the earth with great speed. Seeds blow in the wind searching for a place to call home before they find their rest in the soil which best suits their needs. Animals, once they have food and shelter, are content simply to rest where they are without seeking anything more. Human beings, despite having animal bodies, are spiritual in nature like the angels. We do not find our rest in the things of creation and that is why we are not satisfied merely by filling our bellies and making a bed for ourselves. The human being, like all of God’s creatures, is restless until it finds its natural state. The natural state for a human being is to rest in God’s presence.
Most people have a kind of restlessness about them. A sense that they aren’t quite satisfied, even when all their material needs have been met. We often try to satisfy this restlessness by consuming things in the hopes that we will find what it is we are searching for. We may try to find rest in the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. We may try to find rest in the romances of fictional characters on TV. We may try to find rest in experiences and adventures. We may try to find rest in raising children. While one can, of course, find rest while doing these things, none of them will bring you the rest you seek in themselves. If we find a deep spiritual rest while raising children, it is because of something else, which can be seen in the fact that many people raise children with great restlessness. We must stop restlessly reaching out to grab hold of something which will bring us to our natural state of rest.
Because we are the image of God, the human being finds its rest in the same sabbath which God does – charity. Aelred turns to Matthew 11:28-30 in order to understand this rest which the human soul seeks. In this passage Jesus says,“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.” Aelred comments on this verse saying,
“Yes, his yoke is easy and his burden light; therefore you will find rest for your souls. This yoke does not oppress but unites; this burden has wings, not weight. This yoke is charity. This burden is brotherly love. Here one rests, here one celebrates a sabbath, here one is free from servile works.”
It is really in charity, which could just as easily be called love, which we find our rest. The natural state of the human soul is the same as the natural state of the God whose image we are made in. Aelred takes the creation account in Genesis and gives it a spiritual interpretation. In the story, God spends six days creating the world and then on the seventh day rests. Each of the first six days ends with a variation on the expression “there was evening and there was morning – the first day.” The seventh day has no such description. This, Aelred suggests, is because the seventh day in which God rested is eternal. It does not have a beginning or end. The days of creation happen within a temporal setting, there are mornings and evenings. The sabbath day, which is what the seventh day of rest is all about, is eternal. It exists ineffably in every other moment. It is the nature of God and therefore it is love. Aelred described the seventh day of sabbath rest like this,
“Charity alone is his changeless and eternal rest, his eternal and changeless tranquility, his eternal and changeless Sabbath. Charity alone is the reason why he created what was to be created, guides what needs guidance, moves what needs moving, advances what needs to be advanced and perfects what needs perfection. Therefore where his rest is recorded, there most aptly is added the perfection of all things. For this is nothing but his being. Indeed for him this is to be always resting, that is, always existing, in his ever gracious charity, in his ever peaceful will and in his ever gracious goodness.”
When we apply this story of creation to our own souls, we can understand the six days of creation as the accumulation of virtues and the seventh day of rest as the blessed experience of love itself. Just as the seventh day of God’s creation is eternal and therefore to be found before the beginning and after the ending of the other days, so too love is the virtue in us which is eternal and which forms the foundation of all the other virtues. The eternal love of the sabbath is the silence from which God spoke the universe into existence, separating light from darkness. In our hearts, love is the source of all the other virtues and is the simplest expression of the goodness of all created things. And so, as we seek to heal the vices in our hearts and bring together the contraries which have arisen in our condition, it is love and charity which is the place where our souls naturally rest. Aelred went on to say,
“Charity joins the lowest to the highest, binds in harmonious peace contraries to contraries, cold to hot, wet to dry, smooth to rough, hard to soft, so that among all creatures there can be nothing adverse, nothing contradictory, nothing unbecoming, nothing disturbing, nothing to disfigure the beauty of the universe, but that all should rest, as it were, in utter tranquil peace, with the tranquility of that order of charity ordained for the universe.”
It is by uniting the opposites in our hearts and returning to the foundation of universal love in which we are created that we are able to find happiness and the spiritual rest which God has made for us. You will never find rest in anything other than love precisely because it is love which God has made for us to rest in. The stone rests on the earth, the stream rests in the ocean, the tree rests in the sunlight, the deer rests with her full belly and her bed in the grass, but you, O rational soul, will not be able to find happiness in these things alone. Your sabbath will be found in the yoke which is light and the burden which is easy. It is found in the happiness of loving yourself, others, and God. There is no other rest for your soul – so seek only to know love, the mother of all virtues, and then you will know God and your soul will be at rest.
Have you ever experienced a sabbath rest?
In what ways do you seek to find your rest in charity?
On August 9 -11, David Cole and I will be leading a Zoom based virtual retreat. This retreat will explore the teachings of Aelred from the perspective of the influence of Celtic Christianity on Early English spirituality. There is a suggested donation of £50, but you are welcome to join us whether or not you can afford to pay. If you would like to learn more you can respond to this email or email David at firstname.lastname@example.org. David will be handling the registration so be sure to contact him if you would like to sign up.