When I was young, even three and four years old, I used to cry at night thinking about death and eternity. It was a feeling as if the wind has gotten knocked out of me and a huge weight was being pressed upon me. Even now, a feeling of terror can come over me when I think of eternity in relation to time. How can our lives which are so limited and passing endure forever? Forever itself seems to be an insolvable puzzle that twists the minds in knots. If I think of eternity, just sheer eternity, it makes me want to crawl under a rock and hide!
St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrates the nature of this puzzle quite well. Eternity is not simply living forever, but in the fullest sense is a perfect and everlasting now, without any form of change. Aquinas calls this a simultaneous whole: “Clearly, therefore, no succession occurs in God. His entire existence is simultaneous” (Compendium of Theology, ch. 8). Yet, this perspective is so far removed from us: “We reach to the knowledge of eternity by means of time, which is nothing but the numbering of movement by ‘before’ and ‘after’” (Summa theologia, I, q. 10, a. 1). We try to approach the changelessness of eternity from our own position of change, which, in a sense, makes it completely beyond our comprehension. Furthermore, “eternity “truly and properly so called is in God alone, because eternity follows on immutability. . . . But God alone is altogether immutable” (ibid., a. 4).
All of this is a philosophically technical way of saying that God never changes and we are so unlike him in our changeability. This is what I felt deep down inside of me as a child, unable to comprehend how a finite being can abide forever.Unlike those moments when I was a young child, when I have this oppressive feeling now, I turn to Christ and it quickly passes. I always think that if God became man and has taken on our humanity as his own, eternally, than we certainly have confidence in a place with God forever. The Church Fathers summarized this thought: “God became man so that we can become God.” It is true that limited finite things do not in themselves abide forever, but God has given us his divine life so that we can live with and in him.
The Bible reveals our divine, eternal vocation in Wisdom 2:23: “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity.” The Catechism also affirms that God has specifically made us in light of his eternity:
The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,” can have its origin only in God (§33).
God has made us in the image of his own eternity by infusing within us a rational soul, which can endure beyond the simply material. Our soul is the seed of eternity that is meant to bear fruit in eternal life, through God’s grace.
The great theologian, Matthias Scheeben, drew out this eternal reality of grace in his great work of popular spirituality, The Glories of Divine Grace:
We are called to a more than temporal, to an eternal life, and dwell in the tabernacle of God’s eternity, immediately at the foundation of all being and of all life. Here our enteral existence is as secure as that of God Himself; here we need fear neither death nor destruction, and when Heaven and earth pass away, when the stars fall from Heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be moved, we shall not be affected, because we rest in the bosom of the Creator (49).
Scheeben draws out what it means to share in the divine nature. It includes sharing in those things which belong properly to God, including his eternity: “You ascend by [grace] unto the bosom of God, to partake of His nature and the eminent prerogatives peculiar to Him, of His eternity and infinite perfection” (65). This is a pretty awesome prospect: to share in the life of God, not just insofar as we are able as creatures, but to share in his own proper life. Following up from his point above, on God’s unique immutability, Aquinas describes that “as some receive immutability from Him, they share in His eternity.”
We shouldn’t let God’s generosity go to our heads, however, as the Catechism reminds us: “Faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance” (§208). Standing before God in this insignificance, we are meant to fear God. St. Thomas describes how even filial fear (fear of offending God) still recognizes our creaturely distance from Him:
Filial fear does not imply separation from God, but submission to Him, and shuns separation from that submission. Yet, in a way, it implies separation, in the point of not presuming to equal oneself to Him, and of submitting to Him, which separation is to be observed even in charity, in so far as a man loves God more than himself and more than aught else. Hence the increase of the love of charity implies not a decrease but an increase in the reverence of fear (ST II-II, q. 19 a. 10 ad 3).
What is striking in relation to fearing God in His infinity is that even though we share in that infinity in Heaven, fear of God remains even there. St. Thomas explains that even the Saints “wonder at God’s supereminence and incomprehensibility,” because “fear implies a natural defect in a creature, in so far as it is infinitely distant from God, and this defect will remain even in heaven. Hence fear will not be cast out altogether” (ST II-II, q. 19, a. 11, corpus; ad 3). Even though God has given us such a great reason to hope and to be consoled, there is still something right and just about fearing God and feeling the infinite distance between us and Him.
As a little child crying in my bed at night, I would not have been able to articulate the theological significance of what I was feeling. There was an intuition of my littleness and the overpowering and overwhelming greatness of God and eternity. That initial fear would eventually lead to an encounter with Christ and the acceptance of an invitation to enter into a relationship that is meant to abide forever. Thinking about eternity, and helping others to do so, even with a bit of fear, may be the beginning of sharing in God’s own eternity.
image: Votivkirche (Votive Church) altar, Vienna / Shutterstock