“I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”John 17: 20-23
In our tradition, we speak often of death as “eternal rest.” I’ve often struggled to understand where this idea of “eternal life” as “rest” comes from. I suspected that it was a reflection of the life of so many of the poor whose lives were so effortful day to day that a place of rest would be most desirable. Yet, it always seemed to me that such a view of the life hereafter really was not far removed from the unbelief in an afterlife. Was it the perception of our dead bodies that evoked in us the metaphor of rest for our state after death?
As I began to read from the mystical tradition, however, I began to see “rest” in a very different light. For the mystics, rest is our truest state. Rest is not sleep, although in our lives sleep is most necessary to the experience, but it is rather a state of full wakefulness. Rest comes not in oblivion but rather is the state of fullness of our being. It is in communion with God, which we as Christians see in and through Jesus, that we are at rest. In the words of St. John of the Cross, we “go out” as fully ourselves only when our house is “stilled.”
To have lived as long as I have is to have seen extraordinary changes in the world, and so in the lives of those of us who live in what we call the “developed world.” My father was by trade a “pressman” at a local newspaper. He did a work that was incredibly effortful and even dangerous. He worked with molten lead in order to create the plates that would then have to be placed on the presses so that the newsprint could be impressed with the words and pictures of the next edition. On one occasion, a piece of lead penetrated the skin on his arm and he developed a case of blood poisoning that almost killed him. And so it was for most trades. Behind the experience the consumer had were hours of intense human strain and effort.
Now we get most of our news through technology. The kind of work that was required of those like my father is no longer necessary. Our innovation and technology, what we experience as progress, has greatly reduced, and continues to do so, “the work of human hands.” Yet, we have come to see that the greatest promise of our innovation has not been realized. I can recall that the greatest expectation was that we would move towards a world where the daily lives of people would reflect a great increase in leisure. With so much of what was the grueling and back-breaking physical work that was required for survival now accomplished by machines and other technological innovations, we human beings would have much more time for the distinctively human activities of knowledge, creativity, imagination, love, and contemplation. And yet, now people spend almost all their non-sleeping hours in work and consumption. While we expected to no longer need a mandated “sabbath” to free ourselves from exertion because we would have much more leisure for distinctively human activity, instead our technology has created a world in which there is no distance, there are no breaks, from the requirements of “the job.”
This is, of course, not the fault of innovation and technology. Rather, it reflects our powerful resistance as human beings to leisure and rest. What our technology has permitted is for our restlessness, our agitated cravings and aversions, to create endless outlets. It has shown us that we shall always find reasons why we have to work, lest we be confronted with our lives beyond our sense of usefulness and our capacity for production. Many years ago the psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl spoke of “Sunday neurosis.” This was the dis-ease that people could feel on a day of leisure, a day of mandated non-work, a day set aside for “rest.” It seems as if now we have a seven day a week neurosis. Whenever a moment of waiting or potential inactivity opens up, we go immediately to our cell phones or tablets. On the train, or in line at the store, or, more tragically, at potential moments of encounter and conversation with others, we turn to our technology to free us of the inner conflicts that moments of leisure evoke.
To awaken to our current experience has the potential to illuminate the teachings of the mystics concerning union with God as rest. As the experience of communion, rest is not passivity but the deepest human spiritual activity. Jesus says that the world will know that God sent him when it realizes that the love of God in him is also in all of us. We shall recognize Christ to the degree we experience that we are all one in the same love. Our avoidance of leisure is an expression of our fear of that love.
The Buddha said that enlightenment comes with the overcoming of craving and aversion. In our restlessness we can see that our craving and aversion is toward the same thing: love and union. We want to be loved and to love, to be close to others, to our own lives, and to the world, but we also fear that closeness and love. We restlessly seek the love of which Jesus speaks, but we also militantly avoid it. This vital-functional energy that comes from our craving and aversion is largely that from which our innovation springs. Thus, the paradox that what has the potential to allow us the freedom and leisure to be closer to ourselves, each other, and God, practically speaking, has the opposite effect. To the degree we live in repression of spirit, we shall keep serving our defenses against our spiritual awareness.
Jan van Ruusbroec speaks of those who are united with God as Jesus describes in the following way: “They will ebbb and flow with God and constantly stand empty in possession and enjoyment; they will work and endure and fearlessly rest in their superessential being. . . .” It is striking that he uses the term “fearlessly rest.” He knows well that, strangely enough, we fear that rest that we so desire. We so fear it in this life that we use our own creativity and innovation not to foster it but rather to diminish it. Thus, we think we have to die before we can know it. Jesus, however, prays for us to know it now.
One of the greatest obstacles to growing union and collaboration among us human beings is our compulsion to “do it ourselves.” We hinder the development and even the enjoyment in each other because instead of fostering in others their capacities to contribute we prefer the easier route of doing the task ourselves. We prefer to keep working rather than to take the time to relate to each other and to foster in another his or her way of contributing. There is no rest for us because we are constantly competing against the world and each other, rather than engaging it and them.
Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy by the allied forces in World War II. As I saw pictures of the remembrance, I was struck by the fact that the person representing the United States at this remembrance of what collaboration and cooperation can accomplish did not believe in either. What distinguishes geo-political isolationists and nationalists is their restlessness, their fear of rest. Beneath their arrogance and bluster is the fear of their own nothingness. This is, to varying degrees, the truth of all of us. We are all prone to put our false selves first, as such nationalists are to put their own country first.
This compulsiveness is born of our restlessness and fear. The truth, says Jesus, is that we are all loved as he, himself, is by God. We are already one. it is our frantic activity, born of our fear, that keeps us busy asserting our own superiority, which is really just our living out of our emptiness. The truth is that we are not empty but full of the love that is in each and all of us. This “resplendence,” says Ruusbroec, is dark, however. Thus, it can only be known in stillness. Our actions will be violent until they come from the place of love and rest in us. We shall know that rest “in death,” but we can also know it in life. It is what Jesus calls “eternal life,” which is the life we have with him in God. Perhaps one of the greatest human mysteries is why we most of the time avoid stopping and resting in order to know that love and that life, to recognize that we need not wait until after death for “eternal rest.”
Christ prayed the highest prayer, namely, that all his beloved might be made perfectly one, even as he is one, with the Father (Jn 17:23)—not in the way that he is one single divine substance with the Father, for that is impossible for us, but in the sense of being one in the same unity in which he, without distinction, is one enjoyment and one beatitude with the Father in essential love.Jan van Ruusbroec, The Little Book of Clarification, III, B
Christ’s prayer is fulfilled in those who are united with God in this threefold way. They will ebbb and flow with God and constantly stand empty in possession and enjoyment; they will work and endure and fearlessly rest in their superessential being; they will go out and enter in and find their nourishment both without and within; they are drunk with love and sleep in God in a dark resplendence.