Eternal rest seems to be the notion most universally associated with the future life. ‘Rest’ is the word found engraven on the tombstones of our cemeteries more frequently than any other expression of faith and hope. The most shadowy forms of Christianity still believe in rest for the departed, and make of this idea the great contrast between terrestrial and heavenly conditions. The preference for the word ‘rest’ in connexion with the world to come is, of course, a sad reflection on the present world. For most men, no doubt, the climax of happiness presents itself to their imagination in the form of a complete deliverance from the conditions of life known to them here below. There is no human being so unimaginative as not to be impressed by that reversal of conditions implied in the release from earthly struggles. The silence that broods in the death-chamber is powerfully suggestive of rest for the one who but a few moments before may have been writhing in agony, and the least religious will say that at last rest has come to the poor struggler. People who would never dare to say of their departed friends that they have gone to heaven, still say quite naturally and without any embarrassment that their dear ones have gone to their rest.
The question may be asked here, to what extent is this visualising of the hereafter as a state of deep rest in harmony with Christian thought? It is the purpose of this chapter to show that rest is the one quality predicated most constantly and emphatically of the life of the world to come in Christian literature and tradition. It would be a great comfort to anyone who loves nothing better than the dissemination of Catholic ideas to find this notion of eternal rest shared by most men: ‘So that by all means, whether by occasion or by truth, Christ be preached: in this also I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.’ (Phil. i. 18.)
If Mrs. Mop were to come to me and tell me with all the solemnity belonging to her kind that her man, the arch-ruffian of the neighbourhood, has gone to his rest, have I not found in her a kindred spirit? I, for one, should be very reluctant to make light of this vestige of reverence and awe with which the least religious minds look upon a dead man as at one ‘who sleepeth’, however grotesque the application of that Gospel phrase may appear in the circumstances. To speak of the dead as of people who have found their eternal rest is pure Christianity, though it is not the whole of Christianity. Outside Christianity you are given the restless migration of souls, the unhappy shades that wander unceasingly through dark and barren regions; you get rest with a vengeance in the Buddhist Nirvana, a rest that means a total extinction, rest to be compared with the rest of the fly over which passes the wheel of a chariot. I am sure that Mrs. Mop means something positive when she speaks of her dead husband’s rest, though her power of discrimination between a positive and a negative idea may be extremely undeveloped. It is no small act of faith in the unseen world to take it for granted that the man who all his life has been a rebel against society has found his place at last in the great Beyond, where nothing will provoke his ire, where the dark fires of resentment that had smouldered in his breast are finally extinguished. No doubt it would be in some such way that our poor woman from the slums would explain her notion of rest in death, if she had the right words at her command. It would, of course, make an enormous difference if she added just one phrase, if she said over the dead man, as her Irish neighbour would be sure to say: ‘Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord’; this supplementary notion of rest being the gift of God, and consequently an object of man’s prayer, is more than a theological nicety; it is all the difference between old Christianity and modern paganism. This new religion claims all the fruits of Christianity but refuses to have any share in the sowing! It wants Christian happiness without the Christian tears; it asks for the risen life without the Cross; it expects eternal rest without having laboured to deserve it. No one nowadays wishes to revive the old paganism, with all its idols and vices, its cruelty and its slavery. We are even losing interest in its literature, which was its only saving grace. What people cling to is a post-Christian paganism; they are all for rest in the world to come, but no mention must be made of the tears, of the mourning, of the crying, of the sorrow, that make the ‘former things.’ (Apoc. xxi. 4.)
Now to say simply these words: ‘Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord,’ stamps Mrs. Murphy as a Christian, while her neighbour is no more than a neo-pagan when she says of her dead husband: ‘He is at rest’. She is not an infidel, she is not a pagan of the old sort, much less is she a Hindu or a Buddhist, but she is a neo-pagan; she is of those ‘last days’ and ‘dangerous times’ prophesied by St. Paul when men shall be lovers of themselves, ‘having an appearance indeed of godliness but denying the power thereof.’ (2 Tim. iii. 5.)
The rest which is the portion of God’s saints in the world to come does not inevitably follow upon the cessation of life’s physical energies. To be dead is not necessarily the same thing as to be at rest. The Liturgies of the Church, from the very dawn of Christianity, pray for the dead; and the burden of the prayer is that God may grant rest and peace to the departed. This points to one thing, and to one thing only, that there is rest and unrest, peace and discord, in the spirit-world. Otherwise how could it be reasonable to pray for the departed, that eternal rest may be granted unto them? is not that lovely old Catholic custom – prayer for the dead, wishing them rest and peace – an immense revelation of the unseen, showing us the spirit-world as a restless sea? Human spirits go forth from the body on their wanderings, and when we thought that all was stillness and quietness we are told that a multitude of spirits, numerous as the sand on the seashore, are tossed hither and thither in an effort to find some centre of stability, to reach a harbour of repose. Far from looking upon death as the goal where all yearnings cease, the Catholic Church seems to feel instinctively that the spirit of man is drawn into a seething whirlpool the moment it leaves the body, unless it be borne at once upon the placid ocean of beatific vision. Why should the Church be so anxious about the eternal rest of the departed, unless there be in her innermost consciousness a haunting vision of struggling, yearning, thirsting souls, striving towards the upper reaches of the river of life; as fish that seek the upper waters of a stream leap and dart behind the rocks, only to find that their efforts are seldom more than a momentary illusion of success?
It is true to say that the death of every Christian ought to be perfect rest; ought to be synonymous with profoundest peace. The saint, the ascetic, the martyr, in the language of the Church, finds rest in death. To such a one to die is to sit down under the shade of the trees of Eden. The consecrated word ‘rest’ is not only a prayer on the lips of the Church; it is very often a declaration of victory. When a tomb in the Roman Catacombs has the words In Pace inscribed upon it, they often signify the glories of martyrdom; the occupant is a hero to whom death has come as full and complete rest.
It would be an ideal Christianity if everyone who has faith in Christ were to long for the last hour of his life ‘as a servant longeth for the shade, as the hireling looketh for the end of his work.’ (Job vii. 2.) Death ought to be a going home after a strenuous year of hard schooling. Did not our own good Cardinal Wiseman say quite simply that he greeted death as a schoolboy welcomes his holidays? What our neo-pagans say so indiscriminately of every worldling who has ended his restless life, the Church says of her apostles, her martyrs; the Church would like to say it of all Christians who are carried to their graves, because it is in the power of most men who believe in Christ to be so perfected in faith and charity that to lay themselves down on their deathbed ought to be the same thing as entering upon their eternal rest. No doubt with many a fervent Catholic death is literally his peaceful rest; perhaps this privileged condition is more frequent than we imagine. It is certain that this immediate transition from the struggles of the arena to the repose of the blessed is an idea extremely familiar to the early Christian Fathers. In the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, for instance, the soul of many a Roman maiden, faithful to her heavenly spouse, is seen receiving His embrace the moment her bodily eyes are closed in the sleep of death.
But all this supposes that the Christian’s work has been done, and that it has been done well. For duty neglected, for scamped or careless work, there is the fire of restlessness, not the cool breeze of the restful evening. The heat of midday toil goes on for the shirkers. ‘For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: which is Jesus Christ. Now, if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: every man’s work shall be manifest. For the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire. And the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.’ (1 Cor. iii. 11-15.) Fire, not rest, is the portion of all those who have done bad work, though they will be saved when there will be no more fuel for the burning. This is why we never cease to pray for the departed Christian, that rest may be granted to him. Our imagination is well inspired when it pictures the purgation of disembodied souls under all sorts of trying conditions: the carrying of heavy burdens, the undertaking of big tasks. It is simply another way of stating the postponement of the hour of rest. It matters little under what kind of symbolism that penalty of toil be presented to our imagination; man’s soul has work to do, work that is overdue, work which was not done in the body. Till the neglected task be performed, the spirit of man, if it be one of the holy souls, will willingly exert itself in labours, that it may the sooner reach the goal from which it had strayed or fallen short through indolence. No truer, no better prayer could be formulated for the benefit of such a spirit than a prayer for rest.
Having given that natural yearning for rest its Christian setting, we may now drop all reservations and enjoy to the full the meaning of the true requies æterna. The repose that is promised to us in the life of the world to come has about it so much of the character of God’s own being, that we may justified in saying that through it we share God’s own prerogative. Our inspired Scriptures speak of the life of God as having a twofold phase: first of work and then rest. The second phase is a state of triumph and joy, the consummation of blessedness. ‘So the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the furniture of them. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made: and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.’ (Gen. ii. 1, 2.)
This rest of God is more than an anthropomorphic presentment of the mystery of creation: it belongs to God as the Causa finalis of all things, as creation is the work of God as Causa efficiens of all things. In plain English, let us say that God is first the Maker of all things, and secondly the Goal of all things. As Maker, He is described as being at work; as Final End, He is represented as being at rest. It is only God who can be at the same time the Beginning and the End, so that all things come out from Him and all things go back to Him.
This is the meaning of that Sabbath of God, the day of eternal rest. ‘There remaineth therefore a day of rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, the same also has rested from his works, as God did from His.’ (Heb. iv. 9, 10.) No words could be more expressive in order to convey what rest means in Christian phraseology. We are meant to share God’s eternal holiday. Not only do we receive gifts from Him: we also enter into His personal life; we conform to that life in its twofold aspect of work and rest. It was hardly to be expected that so wonderful a disclosure of God’s moods as is contained in the second chapter of Genesis would be left unexploited by the versatile genius of St. Paul. In the Epistle to the Hebrews he trounces the lazy, weak-kneed Christian in whom there is already ‘an evil heart of unbelief to depart from the living God.’ He pictures God as turning upon such a one, as a father would upon the petulant child that sulks on the road. ‘As I have sworn in my wrath: if he shall enter into my rest.’ But I refrain from further comment on that glowing passage of St. Paul’s Epistle. Let me exhort my reader to take up the New Testament, carefully to read and analyse chapters three and four, and fit into one mental picture God’s sabbath after the six days of creation, the wandering of the Jews for forty years in the desert, the rest of Jesus in death, and the repose of all His followers when their souls reach the promised land of heaven.
After reading St. Paul we shall feel rather disgusted with the modern abuse of the beautiful word ‘rest’ in relation to the hereafter. Rest, in the Christian sense, is of all things the divinest, and we shall never again say the prayer ‘Eternal rest give unto them’ without being conscious of the immensity of our request. The Apostle’s conclusion is: ‘Let us hasten therefore to enter into that rest.’ We are not allowed to drop into it automatically, as a tired man sinks into his armchair; we must run towards it with breathless haste.
Looking at this idea of eternal rest from the creature’s point of view, one outstanding impression is conveyed to our mind: this rest means a complete reversal of all the conditions of existence known to us. None of us really knows what it means to have perfect repose with fullest consciousness of life. Our restful periods are suspensions of activity, interruptions in the flow of consciousness, sleep. God’s rest is infinite awareness, an all-embracing contemplation of the work He has accomplished. Such also will be the rest of His elect. It means such continuity and fullness of life that the very intensity of activity leaves no gap, no break; as when one watches a revolving fly-wheel without being able to see any movement, so that one is tempted to think it is at perfect rest. Far from us be all those interpretations of the rest of our dear departed which savour more of narcotics than of faith in eternal life, which come from weariness of life rather than from a desire to see good days. Eternal rest is unchanging contemplation of the beauty of God, not spiritual anæsthesia. It is the exhilarating joy of work with everlasting freshness of mind. Fatigue is absent, because the creature’s noblest faculty is busy with its most satisfying object; the mind is fixed on the uncreated Truth.
— Dom Anscar Vonier, O.S.B., Abbot of Buckfast. The Life of the World to Come (1926): Chapter IX. Eternal Rest.