Restlessness, lust, delight

I love trains. Modern ones. The Pendolinos on the Euston lines are a wonder. Take yourself to Rugby station, and wait for a northbound non-stopper to zoom up from the south tilting round the bend, and through the station at 125 mph. So, to recap, I like trains. Which means that Susan and I like trains. At the end of February, we’re off to Venice and Ljubljana. Train all the way. Paul Theroux said ‘I have seldom heard a train go by … and not wished I was on it.’ That is me absolutely. The first thing I do when I go to a new city is want to go somewhere else. Continual movement, new experiences, ultra-low boredom threshold. An inability to understand how people can survive day-in-day-out sameness. A total lack of sympathy with ruts (although as the Headmaster in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On said: ‘when one is in one, at least one knows exactly where one is’). Some would say—and I can picture finger-wagging aged relations telling the childhood me this—that it indicates a ‘spoilt’ nature, ‘he’s never satisfied with anything, and he should learn to accept what the Lord provides’. In this vein, there’s a verse of All things bright and beautiful, expunged from today’s hymn books, which goes: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate’. If that means that we all have our own gifts, skills and characteristics, and we have to accept them and work with them rather than denying them, then I see the truth in it. But if it means that we should stay still, meekly accepting what is thrown at us is, then it’s absolute pish. If we never wanted to explore we would still be living in caves. Restlessness is a good thing.

Is restlessness simply a lust, a craving, for new experience? Lust, they say, is bad. I don’t believe it. Lust can develop into love. It often does. We are animals, at the mercy of our hormones, and lust is part of life. It’s not just about sex. Spiritual lust, longing for something better, must be good. Holy Scripture is full of Hebrew and Greek words exploring cravings: urge, lust, longing (eros), delight, pleasure, passion (inordinate affections that render us almost incapable of action). Restlessness can most certainly be a good thing. It can result in easing pain, raising standards, exposing injustice. Sure, it can be dangerous when it leads us to become whistleblowers, so we need courage. The Christian story is that new life results from such courage. I suggest that we need to be mindful of our restlessness and lusts, channelling them to increase delight in the world.

I see how difficult it is for people as they get older, who have been active and restless, to come to terms with restriction, for whatever reason. It can be a real challenge for someone to accept that they have to rethink the way they live. Physical immobility forcing the need for spiritual agility. As I get older—I am 60—I see physical circumstances simply as the consequences of random events, earlier decisions, earlier restlessness, earlier lusts. And now, none of it matters like it once did. I can’t undo the past, and I can’t control the future. This means I can try to be more attentive to living in the here and now. And this, boys and girls, is Jesus’ message. My kingdom is not of this world—or the next—but an inner kingdom in which this world and its toys are illusion: here today and gone tomorrow. Rest comes when I lay aside my own attachments, interests and convenience. Self-obsessedness, the self-centred ego, the ‘me first’ attitude, are curiously lacking in nourishment. Maybe rest will come when we lay down ‘self’. But we must beware: it is easy to say we do things for others when in fact we do them for ourselves. St Augustine knew all about lust. He prayed ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.’ He was a restless man, but saw the eternal truth of our human ramblings: ‘my heart is restless until it rests in thee’.

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