Question: Recently I attended a funeral at a Catholic cemetery and was struck by the number of times “Rest in Peace” appeared on tombs and headstones. I began to think that I do not want to go to a heaven where there is nothing but rest. Wouldn’t that be very boring? As a retired person, I have plenty of rest now and I cannot imagine just resting for eternity. Please comment.
— Lilian, Washington, D.C.
Answer: The notion of heaven as eternal rest derives from a very different world from ours in which people worked very hard and for long hours almost seven days a week and had very little time off. This would certainly have been the case in agricultural countries, where the rhythms of nature were often merciless and people had to do back-breaking work for long hours on end. Eternal rest also relates to the fact that people in all cultures, not least our own, have lived with great psychological and spiritual stresses. The stresses of raising a family, keeping a job, handling the pace of life, taking care of sick relatives, illnesses long and short, worrying about the future, having little time for oneself, dealing with other people — all these create a very unrestful world.
At the deepest spiritual level, St. Augustine recognized this problem in his famous words: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The rest of heaven is not the rest associated with boredom and too much time on one’s hands, but the rest that comes from release from the stresses and strains of life, relief from worry about the challenges of human existence, and enjoying deep peace in God and in the Communion of Saints.
Eternal rest is not the only image of heaven that the Scriptures and the Christian tradition give us. There is the language of the beatific vision, in which we ponder the glorious and beautiful face of God without ever wishing to end our contemplation. Heaven is, in a certain sense, like an art gallery, in which our vision is constantly engaged and we never grow tired of the glorious things God sets in front of us.
We find in Isaiah, Jesus himself and the Book of Revelation the notion of heaven as an eternal wedding banquet in which all God’s people are united in unimaginable celebration. The wedding banquet brings together food, wine, basking in the company of those we love (and we assume that everyone loves everyone else in heaven), music and dancing. The restfulness of heaven and the eternal vision of the beautiful are combined with the banquet of which the earthly Eucharist is but a prefiguremernt.
My favorite image of heaven is of the eternal dance between the Trinity and the community of the redeemed. This is not an esoteric or modern idea, but one that is found in the great Fathers of the Church. There is a little book by Jesuit Father Hugo Rahner (older brother of the Father Karl Rahner) called “Man at Play” (1967, out of print) in which he searches through the Fathers of the Church for their references to the heavenly dance that never ends.
Unfortunately the theme of heaven and its many joys is not adequately acknowledged in theology and preaching today (not least due to the fact that many Christians are not counting on heaven after they die). But it is a theme that is essential to our faith. The best book on heaven I know is written by Peter Kreeft and is titled “Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing” (Ignatius, $14.95).
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.