We belong to a story. We might describe it as a fairy tale that happens to be true. In this fairy tale, each of us has our beginning and end, only, the end isn’t really the end. We have the opportunity to live happily ever after. God draws us into his Kingdom to live with him forever. There is a progression to the story, yes, but in the end the happiness that is offered to us has no outer limit. St. Augustine wrote what is considered the first autobiography, his Confessions. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe the Confessions as the story of how God works through time to direct the life of a person he loves to a happy ending. God does this for Augustine and he will do it for you, because God loves you, too.
Many of us, I suspect, feel vaguely hemmed in by the ticking of the clock, limited by human finitude, perhaps even afraid that in the end there is nothing left and our story will turn out to have been meaningless. If we read Augustine closely, though, we will be reminded that God is the author of the story. He stands outside time and writes it by the power of his will. He brings all things to himself and imbues human time with the eternal. Our lives, marked as they are by a succession of moments, even as fleeting as the grass of the field, are given eternal significance.
The Confessions is a fascinating bit of writing that never fails to delight. Augustine dedicates book XI in particular to examining questions of time and eternity. As we ring in a new year, perhaps his thoughts will be helpful for us to consider the way in which we celebrate the passage of time.
Augustine begins by questioning if the experience of time is even in the divine repertoire, wondering if God understands the human calendar:
Lord, since eternity is Thine, art Thou ignorant of what I say to Thee?
The great saint then makes a complaint that all of most certainly have also; it is not fair that we live in a limited succession of moments. There are not enough hours in the day to pray and study as much as we want! (Okay, perhaps our complaints about lack of time and the uses we would put extra hours to are not so noble, but moving on…) Does God understand how difficult it is to know him, in all of his atemporal darkness? Perhaps he understands perfectly well and is more than willing to assist, but a prayer is nevertheless required:
Grant thereof a space for our meditations in the hidden things of Thy law, and close it not against us who knock.
We find a way to understand the eternal even as we are in the midst of temporality. The only key to the door of wisdom is found with Our Lord, who himself entered time and experienced it with us. He fundamentally reorients the way we live in time because he somehow fits eternity into finitude. This is the miracle of the Incarnation. Augustine marvels,
Thou callest us then to understand the Word, God, with Thee God, Which is spoken eternally, and by It are all things spoken eternally.
Our Lord is a Word spoken in time that has infinite reverberations. Further, God creates the Church, the living Body of Christ, to bestow upon us graces that are foretastes of eternity. Sacraments actually create grace in our hearts that springs from the endless love of God. To have such grace in our hearts? To claim with a straight face that the God of the universe dwells in you? This ought to be impossible.
Our Lord chooses to work heavenly reality directly into ours by taking on flesh. He does not come to set up an eternal throne here on earth but chooses instead to live within the painful limitations of the human calendar. He is humbled to be a helpless child requiring the assistance of parents for survival. He experiences how all things come to an end and how the encroachment of death brings finality to our time here in these bodies. Each of us is granted a succession of moments, no more, no less. There is a beginning and an end. Within those moments there is a hidden path to eternity that we must unlock. He is that key.
Augustine writes that Our Lord,
Lingered not, but ran, calling aloud by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension; crying aloud to us to return unto him. And he departed from our eyes, that we might return into our heart, and there find him. For he departed, and lo, he is here.
Those who belong to the Lord are beholden by a different sort of calendar than that which governs the business of this world, one in which holidays truly are holy days instead of an equivocation that turns sacred feasts into an excuse to stay out all night drinking champagne and watching a giant, lighted ball on a pole. Holidays are not about us anymore. The Incarnation changes everything. We live by a calendar that sanctifies time and makes life a pilgrimage, the goal of which is not erased by death but rather finds its fulfillment in death as a personal encounter with eternity. Our Lord was made man in time, so too are we. He ascended to live with God the Father in eternity. So too will we.
All of this is something of a mystery. We feel the pull of eternity. We can partially grasp the concept with the intellect. We believe in it by faith. As long as we are inside of time, though, our knowledge is notional; we will never be able to understand the whole of it and will never have more than a guess at what eternity may be like. To truly grasp it, we must stand outside of it.
Augustine won’t let the difficulty stop him from at least trying! He considers time in many different facets, discussing in turn what it means for the world to have a beginning, how the past and future relate to the present, and how we measure the succession of moments. He feels the frustration of not having answers to his queries, writing,
My soul is on fire to know this most intricate enigma. Shut it not up, O Lord my God, good Father; through Christ I beseech Thee, do not shut up these usual, yet hidden things, from my desire, that it be hindered from piercing into them; but let them dawn through Thy enlightening mercy, O Lord. Whom shall I enquire of concerning these things?
It perhaps seems to us that his concerns are arcane and pointless, so many angels dancing on the head of a pin. But Augustine was writing at a time when many heretics denied the reality of eternity. In their opinion, God must have had a beginning because all other things have a beginning. Others believed in eternity but failed to see how it is possible for it to have any connection to time. It is too different. The mistake they make is to misunderstand the nature of divine Being. He is the one who Is. His Being is not like ours and his manner of existence not like ours and yet he shares it with us and we participate in it. Our Being is neither the same as God’s nor completely different, but at the time of the writing of the Confessions these are theological points yet to be fully explained. Augustine goes some way towards doing so by first establishing the importance of holding to the real possibility of eternity and its connection with time. In doing so, he vouchsafes for us our own future.
I do not fully understand all of his thoughts, but appreciate that they remain applicable in different contexts today. In modern life, we too deny eternity even if we do so implicitly. There are various obsessions amongst us for living only for “the moment”, the use of medicine to live forever, surgery and cosmetics to avoid the appearance of old age, using contraceptives to deny the generative nature of the marriage bond, tattoos to assert independence and ownership of the body, turning funerals into long eulogies that avoid mourning and actually praying for our deceased, and so on. We are destroying ourselves. We forget that there is a God outside of time to whom we are beholden, live our entire story only for present pleasure, fail to contemplate the end, and so ultimately deny the Author. We end up either foolishly attempting to manipulate time or denying that it exists altogether. This is no fairy tale. It is a modern, nihilistic bore.
The Confessions provides a different perspective for the Church. She is a supernatural communion of saints who march forth to an eternal destiny. For us, the New Year with all its hopeful expectation is already reality through the steady pilgrimage of the Church to Heaven. New Year Resolutions are always so disappointing; we don’t lose the weight or stop smoking magically after January 1. But in the Mass our hope for the future is exceeded. We do taste eternity. We do commune with the saints. It is a wonderful coincidence that the New Year happens to be a feast in honor of Mother Mary. She, having already died (probably) and been bodily assumed (certainly) into heaven, is already eternally living in the beatific vision. When we look to her we see what we will be. It is a New Year Resolution already fulfilled on our behalf by Our Lord!
Our Lord comes like a thief in the night, breaking all rules, and bending time about him in such a way that during Advent it folds in upon itself and becomes completely shattered by the Christmas miracle. In this way the Church calendar contains a description of eternity, like an unbroken spiral in ascent to heaven. Contained within the first advent is already the seed and in some sense the completion of the second advent. The end of the world is upon us, released from the chubby, already-pierced grasp of a babe lying in a manger. For this reason St. Paul is quite clear that this is already the end times. We are held in the balance of the two comings of Christ, a timeless state in which we become what we already are. Sainthood is all but guaranteed by his promise and yet it is such a struggle to get there!
Augustine turns to God,
Oh how high art Thou, and yet the humble in heart are Thy dwelling-place; for Thou raisest up those that are bowed down, and they fall not, whose elevation Thou art.
In the end, the secret to living life to the fullest is not grasping time tightly and pretending that we never die, but a letting go, a humbling recognition that death brings us all low, and allowing the God who dies and destroys death and will come again to bring us into eternity to live with him forever. At this very moment in time we make one simple request: Come soon, Lord Jesus.