“Resquiescat in pace” (” rest in peace “), “Eternal Rest”… There is little more than in cemeteries, on funerary plaques or mortuary wreaths, that these expressions can still be seen, often covered with a layer of dust or chipped by the passage of the years. They are the remnant of a time when rest was immediately associated with the afterlife, salvation and eternal life.
That life after death is a rest, the Scriptures give the first intuition, by associating salvation with rest. In the Old Testament, Israel appears as a people on the move “to his rest” (Jer 31, 1-2). In this peregrination, the observance of the law is already seen as a source of rest: taking the path of goodness is “find rest” (Jer 6, 16).
In Psalm 22, the God who saves is associated with the figure of the shepherd, who takes care of the sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. On fresh grass, he makes me sleep; near the waters of rest, he leads me, he revives me. » This image of the Shepherd God, who makes his people rest on green pastures, also present in Ezekiel (34, 11-16) and Isaiah (40, 11), will permanently permeate the representations of paradise in Western painting.
The Rest of the Chosen
In the Apocalypse, the rest becomes explicitly that of the sky where enter “those who are dead in the Lord” (Rev 14, 13). “From now on, let them rest from their fatigues because their works accompany them”, indicates the text. The fact of being at rest (or not) distinguishes the damned – who “know no rest day or night” (Rev 14, 11) – of the elect.
Beyond the Scriptures, it is the practices surrounding the funeral rite that will establish eternal life as a rest in the Western collective imagination. From the 15th century, requiem masses celebrated this hope, with this appeal: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine”,“Give them eternal rest, O Lord”. Over the following centuries, many composers and among the greatest – Palestrina, Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Fauré… – would compose their Requiem. As for cemeteries, they were long called “fields of rest”…
“For nearly two millennia, it was eternal rest that obsessed minds and gave fundamental meaning to the notion of rest, emphasizes Alain Corbin in his History of rest (1). Theologians, preachers, monks, pastors of all categories have constantly repeated that life, here below, was only a small thing and that the essential lay in salvation, that is to to say in the access to a paradisiacal rest, in the midst of the elect, among the angels, who surrounded the Redeemer, his Father and the Holy Spirit. »
Images of eternal life
The historian rightly points out here the ambiguity of certain theological discourses on eternal rest, which may have sought to make people desire the afterlife by depreciating earthly life and falling into the trap of a fascination for death, seen as liberating from all torment. This seduction is not absent from the Scriptures. Poor Job, overwhelmed with misfortunes, does he not begin to desire the rest of death, crying out: “Why didn’t I die from my mother’s womb, didn’t I expire when I came out of her womb? (…) Now I’d be lying quiet, sleeping a restful sleep.” (Job 3, 11-13).
Misunderstood, the image of eternal rest could also associate eternal life with a form of immobility, passivity or atony. This is why reflection on the afterlife must always link the image of rest to the other metaphors present in the Bible. “The content of the blessed life of the dead Scripture describes in a thousand images, as rest and peace, as banquet and glory, as home in the Father’s house, as Kingdom of eternal divine Lordship, as community of all who are fulfilled in bliss, as a heritage of the glory of God, as a day without decline, as satiation without satiety”, explains the theologian Karl Rahner in his Fundamental treatise of the faith (2). And, even in this inspiring profusion, this eternal life remains “mystery pure and simple”.
“When we let our imagination wander without correcting it by reflection, we imagine this eternal life as a kind of eternal idleness. (…) In reality, the happiness of heaven is the very happiness of God. »
Father Francois Varillon
Joy of believing, joy of living
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Spirituality: Towards Eternal Rest
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