The Word Embodied
Time and Eternity
“A new heaven and a new earth.”
The chairman of the philosophy department at Creighton University, John Patrick Murray, was telling me how Augustine’s Confessions had deeply affected him during his semester’s teaching. We were in a diner near the St. Louis airport during his four-hour layover en route back to Omaha. So as the world spun on about us, jets overhead carrying thousands to temporary destinations, the two of us sat in a booth discussing eternity.
Augustine, if you give him your mind for a while, writes with such focused intensity about the things of heaven that by the time you get to the last books of the Confessions, you cannot help but wonder: Does the eternal extinguish the importance of the temporal? Do created goods pale, even disappear, in the light of God’s resplendence?
Book Nine of the Confessions presents Augustine and his mother, Monica, discussing the meaning of death just hours before she herself will depart from earth. She seems so willing, even eager, to let go of this life. They share a vision of eternal wisdom, so splendid as to wash out all other sights, so vast as to dwarf all lesser joys. God, in eternity, would ravish, swallow, and engulf us in eternal blessedness. “Son, for my part, there is nothing now in this life that gives me any delight. ... ”
Why then the “mighty grief” that flowed through Augustine’s heart and poured into his eyes when she died? “My soul was wounded, my life rent in two.”
Being here, alive, amounts to so little, and so much. We know our dreadful lack only because we cherish our lavish gift. It is all so passing, yet so precious.
And so I mull over my own life, its bounding joys, its wrenching tears. In my mid-fifties, I often feel ready to go, especially if it means a union with everything my heart has ever desired. Yet I cling to this little life, its sweet goodness, its faces, laughter, and song. Embarrassing as it is to admit, a simple cold can trigger fears of mortality now too close.
I am stabbed today with news of a young cousin and his death, at the age of five, on an icy road. A life is so terribly fragile and ephemeral; its loss so devastating. Nothing I might say can ease the anguish of his father and mother. St. Paul advises me, as he did his disciples: “We must undergo many trials if we are to enter into the reign of God.”
Yet I, with Augustine, am disconsolate. Being here on earth is wondrous and the threat of losing it is grievous. I hesitate to believe fully the dream of the Book of Revelation. “The former heavens and former earth had passed away, and the sea was no longer. I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city beautiful as a bride. ... This is God’s dwelling. ... He shall dwell with them and they shall be his people, and he shall be their god who is always with them. He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away.”
Will the tears of loss be gently dried, the pain dissolved in celebration? Will God indeed make all things new, bright, beautiful and alive again? Will all the good and grace of a young unfinished man or the enfeebled ancient be preserved?
It is our love that clings to the present, that cherishes all the disappearing goods. Our love, as Augustine says, is part of the love which makes all things to be. The works of time, even our very lives, were from the beginning pronounced not only good, but very good, very lovable. It is only natural that we should love them, even in their frail state. Our very love for the goods of this earth draws us to the good whose self is love. And the God who loved all goods into being abides in that love for all eternity.
Was this the glorious message of Jesus? That the good, and our love of it in all its forms and faces, is the final as well as the first word? That the child’s unfettered laughter rings forever, charming the earth yet enduring beyond it? That the wise and gentle endurance of the old will not dissolve as the body falls away? That the love evoked from us would last, and that the love he came to give us is for this life as well as eternity?
Yes. It is our faith that God made all things and makes them all anew in the risen Lord who gave us this command: “Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other.”
When we fear and grieve, time seems to drag cruelly. We delight, and it hurtles by, uncaring. We shall never grasp the meaning of time and its preciousness, or eternity and its promise, if we do not learn to love.
There is a verse, so common it is attributed to many authors, which goes:
Time is too slow for those who wait.
Time is too fast for those who fear.
Time is too long for those who mourn.
Time is too short for those who rejoice.
But for those who love,
Time is eternity.*
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University