I’ve always cherished the thought of heaven as eternal rest. God rested on the seventh day of creation, so we also get to rest. So Genesis goes. God commanded Pharaoh in Egypt to let his people go so they could worship in the desert, since worship required a day of rest from slave labor. The Gospel reading at Mass a week or so ago had Jesus telling his disciples, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). So many people I know are weary from their labors and burdened by life, searching endlessly for rest. They work hard, play hard, they entertain themselves to death, but they never seem to feel truly rested. Always restless. Our culture possesses an ethos of driven-ness that makes people feel compelled to stay busy, active, but they never seem to feel rested. What’s missing from our rest?
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An elderly woman at a local assisted care facility said to me recently, “No one has any time anymore for a cup of tea.” Between the lines, I read: Just to be with me and allow a relationship to be born. Love requires rest.
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On the day we had the “Come to me” Gospel, the homilist made some striking points relative to rest. Authentic resting, leisure, he said, is the ability to simply receive the gift of life and love precisely as a gift gratuitously given to us by God. An unearned, unmerited gift. When you “come to Jesus,” who is the One through whom all things were made, you can cease your work and rest as you discover that the Creator simply loves you. And when you come with your burden of guilt and shame you can rest as you discover that the Redeemer calls you to cast all your sins into the abyss of His forgetfulness. In that moment of resting in Jesus you need do nothing impressive, be nothing important. He does not ask you to justify your existence. Those who can rest in this way find that the burdens and labors of life suddenly become light, just as a young man who has discovered the love of a woman has a skip in his step.
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I know a man who built a house for his wife over a period of years. Little by little. Almost every night after work, after dinner and family activities, he would work on the house for a few hours, and then work some more on the weekend with his dad and his buddies — who only exacted a salary of six packs. He told me that he had a photograph of his wife on the wall in the house under construction, and that he would move it from place to place on the work-site near wherever he was busy at the time. He said that picture of her face and her smile drove him on and made the work easy. “Working was like rest when I thought of her.”
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Thought of another way, Sabbath rest requires that you “becomes as a little child” (Matthew 18:3). Little children know how to rest and let down their guard with those they feel they can trust. When my children were small, my favorite thing was to see them fall serenely asleep on my lap, knowing they are loved. It gave me great joy. I found that even slightest smile of contentment from my child was enough to fill me with great delight. As I would experience this, I would imagine it being this way with God and pray that I could surrender myself in prayer. As I would see our children on my wife’s lap after nursing, I would think of Psalm 131:2:
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul.
St. Therese articulated this childlike surrender so well:
I tell you that it is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon one’s self like a child in the arms of God
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An Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in Hartford once shared with me a revolutionary insight on the Sabbath. He said:
The biblical word Shabbat, “Sabbath” does not mean “rest” in the sense of recovering from the exhaustion of work. Rather, he said, it refers to the delight a craftsman takes after his work is completed and he pauses to look with delight at the goodness and beauty of his work. “So,” he said, “when G-d rested on the seventh day, it was to gaze back at creation with delight and say, ‘Very good.’ When Jews shabbat, they look at creation with G-d and share his delight in its beauty and goodness, and then very naturally they worship him who is worthy of all our love. We also allow G-d on shabbat to delight in each of us — we are his masterpiece. Doing that every seventh day adjusts your vision so that the other six days you can share in divine work with the delight of G-d himself and see your fellow man through the same gaze of G-d.
So, it seems, heaven will be our chance for an eternity to shabbat and rest, delighting over the beauty and goodness of all God has made and redeemed, over all we have been privileged to co-make and co-redeem with him in this life, and — this amazes me most — resting in God’s delighted gaze on us.
When I was 4 my mom tells me that I said to her, as she pulled me around the block in a red wagon: “I love to look at your face.” That, to me, sums up heaven.
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The priest ended his homily by quoting from George Herbert’s poem, The Pulley:
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel in full on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead 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 restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”