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There is “no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”  — Martha Graham

One of the twentieth century’s great dancer/choreographers, Martha Graham, offered these words to a discouraged fellow artist, Agnes DeMille. Graham assured DeMille that disappointment in one’s own artistic work was only natural. Even so, she should “keep the channel” open to her unique gift, yield to that “blessed unrest” and let it keep driving her. Fun fact: my son, an actor, says that acting teachers are forever going on about “keeping the channel open.” Poor Martha’s wisdom has turned almost to cliché.

I came across the Graham quotation in a 2007 book by Paul Hawken called Blessed Unrest, a book having nothing to do with art. The subtitle is “How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.” Hawken explores what he sees as a decentralized, practical “movement of movements.” It’s a social unrest with “three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined.”

It’s an interesting book, but that’s not the point here. Instead, I want to pluck the phrase “blessed unrest” from the contexts of both art and climate work and plop it squarely in the realm of spirituality. I want to ask: to what extent is spiritual restlessness… blessed? We often wonder what God is calling us to do in a particular moment or passage of life. Could we ask ourselves, in such moments, “What is my blessed unrest here?” Is putting one’s finger on that blessed unrest a way of finding God’s purpose for us?

Hebrews 4 assures us that “there remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God,” and that we enter that rest through Christ. Well, this would hardly be a meaningful promise if we didn’t feel so much unrest day to day. Plenty of reasons to feel unrest, of course, plenty in the news, plenty in our communities, and plenty in the struggles of our own hearts. And plenty in the basic human question: What is my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing in the world? So I wonder: can the struggle itself, the sense of hiking uphill every day, or wandering about aimlessly, or whatever we might feel—can that feeling, too, be blessed? Can our blessed unrest be a guide?

All this brings me to George Herbert’s poem, “The Pulley.” Herbert, an English clergyman who wrote his poems in the 1620s and early 1630s, remains a wise commenter on spiritual struggle. Herbert was himself a consummate artist and a restless soul. He wrote many dozens of poems in a wide range of forms, and sometimes he would cast a poem in the form of a little parable. That’s what he’s doing here, all while putting a little twist on the Pandora’s box myth:

The Pulley

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

We can enjoy the almost cute word play on the word “rest” here, and we might also notice that the stanza form itself has a kind of pulley feel: the lines go short, long, long, long, short. But I’m always drawn to the phrase “repining restlessnesse,” a phrase describing the ongoing human condition. To repine means to fret, so the phrase means “fretful restlessness.” Well, that about sums up my inner life on my most days. You too? And the phrase “rich and weary”—hmm, yes. I am rich with blessings, genuinely grateful for God’s goodness, and yet weary, too, from all that is wrong with the world, and often enough from my own work—good work that I’m grateful to do, as I seek, in my own teeny ways, to help address some of those big world-wrongs.

Does God keep us restless on purpose? It might seem offensive to imagine God purposely snatching away rest from our representative “man” in the poem, but we have to remember that Herbert is being playful, cheeky even, in order to meet us where we truly are and offer true reassurance. The assurance hides in the last lines of the last two stanzas. The poem depicts a God who longs for communion with us. Both God and “man” would be losers if man ignored God and went merrily along his blessing-strewn way. What God seems to desire most is the intimacy suggested in the very last line, an intimacy in which man is “tossed” onto the breast of God (think of breast as b-rest).

In other words, I think the idea here is that God can turn even our unrest into blessing, a means to draw us to Godself. OK, toss us to Godself. Imagine God pulling downward on one side of the pulley and our hapless man flung upward to God, who catches him in the divine heart.

In this light, even amid our repining restlessness, I suppose our job is indeed to “keep the channel open”—open to the way the Holy Spirit might be prompting us to discover our own particular blessed unrest. That unrest, by grace, can keep us marching and make us more alive to the purposes of God.

Image credit: Barbara Morgan

Text of “The Pulley” from Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert, Cambridge 2007. Apologies to Herbert scholars for the poem’s incorrect formatting: WordPress does not make formatting easy.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

10 Comments

  • Ellen Van’t Hof says:

    Thank you for the insights, Debra, and for reminding me of Martha Graham’s choreography which often uses tension and “unrest” to achieve suspense and release.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Martha Graham, George Herbert, Deb Rienstra — three people I admire in one beautiful and insightful blog post!

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Thank you for a stimulating essay. It seems to me that one of the benefits of sabbath rest is that blessed unrest can reveal itself, and we can spend time exploring it’s dimensions and what it is inviting us to do in response. As a practitioner of bio spiritual focusing, I have come to an awareness that these sensations are telling us something important, and paying attention to them leads to deeper self knowledge and connection with God. Rather than pushing away discomfort, I realize there is something new ahead, and I await the clarity the Spirit will provide. Or there is an issue that I needs my time and compassion. Either way, the unrest is productive. “All will be well.”

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Oh my – this is so good. I love the “both should losers be” – what a thought! Thanks to both George Herbert and Deb Rienstra!

  • Joyce & Wes Kiel says:

    Thank you for this. I love the poem and your thought provoking discussion it leads to. As Wes pointed out, God planted this restlessness, as stated in Genesis 3, “you must not eat of the tree in the middle of the garden…”. As Herbert says: Yet let him keep the rest,
    But keep them with repining restlessnesse:
    Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
    If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
    May tosse him to my breast.
    I hear we have a choice where the restless might lead; to good or evil. In weariness, having chosen paths that lead away from God’s comforting breast, both paths hopefully, lead to God.

  • Mark Stephenson says:

    Beautifully expressed. Thank you. I came to love Herbert when I majored in English at Calvin, thanks especially to Ed Ericson. The very idea that God would intentionally remove the comfort of rest from those he loves is antithetical to a consumer-oriented American Christianity, but the Bible assures us that God’s first priority is not our comfort. “The Lord disciplines the ones he loves.” (Heb 12:6) And Jesus said, “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2) Another great poet and divine, St. John of the Cross, called this loving action of God, “Noche Oscura del Alma,” dark night of the soul. I suspect we balk at repining restlessnesse when we expect all comfort, all the time. Yes, how much better, though painful, to be tossed to God’s breast.

  • Arthur Tuls says:

    Paul famously wrote (from prison no less), “I have learned in all things to be content….” This essay made me think about “holy discontent.” Maybe not too far from the restlessness Hebert describes. What a rich paradox if the gifts of rest and restlessness can co-exist in the same heart.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Such beautiful and insightful comments, everyone. Thank you.

  • Susan Weikert says:

    So good!! Such needed insight and so helpful in my spiritual walk. Thank you.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Your discussion of the spirituality of “blessed unrest” reminds me of what Dr. Jim Brownson used to call the “radical itch” of the gospel. He said we need the camel’s hair shirt to keep us itching, or restless in our faith.

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