Thursday, December 09, 2004

on the question of "rest"

Kangmi asks:

Where does rest fit into your picture of the yoke and the cross?

Kangmi wrote this a while back in reference to my previous post, and I apologize for not responding sooner.

The quote from Matthew 11:28-30 is this:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

I wouldn't take this quote to imply a literal, physical rest. Jesus' sayings, taken as a whole, aren't very comforting on that score. The ultimate comfort seems to be spiritual, heavenly, not to be found in this present world but perhaps somewhere else, in the realm of some ultimate fulfillment. So Jesus wasn't saying, "Follow me and you'll end up lounging in a fine-ass La-Z-Boy recliner." But he must have meant something when he talked about "rest."

I'm not privy to the historical Jesus' point of view, of course, so I'll simply offer my own take. I think "rest" means the spiritual settledness that comes with walking the path of love and peace. For Christians, love is key; St. Paul's partial description of it in 1 Corinthians 13 gives us insight into how one should properly orient oneself to ultimate reality and to each other. Love isn't vanity; it isn't le grand geste.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body [to be burned], but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

There's a special problem here: "rest" conjures up the image of plopping down, taking a breather, not moving much. In everyday English, the word is the antithesis of "work." The image of love, described above by St. Paul, doesn't seem very restful in the normal sense at all. In fact, it seems an awful lot like work.

But ask any good father or mother what love means, and you'll probably hear that it means slogging through the day-to-day tasks of the household. To live as a loving parent or spouse isn't to live life with a mystical, beatific smile frozen on one's face; on the contrary, it's to be elbow-deep in the crap and drudgery of the ordinary. As M. Scott Peck contended in his classic late-70s/early 80s hit, The Road Less Traveled, "love is an action." Most people are deluded into thinking love is merely a feeling.

Love, like anything worthwhile, manifests itself only over time. Feelings are mercurial; they come and go. Love shows itself through what we do. Love is what we do-- our present actions and the accumulated history of those actions. And love is more than that: it's a fundamental orientation-- the right orientation toward ultimate reality and other people, deeper and closer than breathing, absolutely holy and absolutely mundane.

The loving parent isn't all about self. She can't afford to be selfish if she's hoping to do her job right. The same goes for a loving spouse, or a loving teacher, or a loving friend. When Paul says "love never ends," I take this in the same spirit as "housework never ends": it's not about boundless eternity; it's about facing each moment and renewing one's commitment to be loving, over and over again.

Two of my best friends in the world are parents several times over. Ask them about love, and they'll talk about the work that goes into family. They sound tired all the time. They are tired. But take a moment to ask them whether it's all worth it. No, don't bother asking them: you already know the answer is yes.

I'd submit that the "rest" Jesus is talking about is the power that lies behind that yes.


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