This is the final cry of John Henry Newman in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, his intellectual justification for becoming a Roman Catholic. The essay is long (like eternity!)—well over 400 pages in the paperback edition I have. It is complicated, with various “tests” to distinguish development from corruption. But I want to reflect on (and, to some degree, disagree with) his statement that is the title of this essay.
We humans are temporal creatures. By this, I mean we cannot think of ourselves, others, or creation except in terms of past-present-future. We are locked into the view of reality as flowing from moment to moment. But the idea of eternity is different. It is emphatically not simply a progression of never-ending moments. The infinite and the eternal are not the same thing. Somehow, in eternity all of what we think of as time is absorbed into a single “now.” This is important since it means that somehow, my prayers for others after their deaths can still be of benefit to them. For God, all “moments” are “now,” and so all prayers are effectual whatever the “time context.”
But since we are temporal creatures, we cannot conceive of eternity in this way. We still speak of “time spent in purgatory,” for example. St Augustine famously defined heaven (the “City of God”) as “the most perfectly ordered and harmonious society of the enjoyment of God, and of one another in God.” But this has to be understood as a simultaneous, universally instantaneous, kind of enjoyment. In the City of God there is no question of “Do I have time enough to enjoy all those I love?” They are all there, all the time, in the fullest enjoyment possible!
This brings me (by the most roundabout of ways) to this Sunday and the Ascension. Our liturgy has a wonderful statement about the meaning of this Solemnity (beyond what you can read in John 14:1-6): “…he ascended, not to distance himself…but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before” (Preface 1 for Ascension). But if Jesus is ascending into eternity, what does it mean for us to follow? He is calling us—into eternity.
Music of all arts is utterly “temporal”—the succession of sounds that make a song, or a symphony. And yet, there is a work that almost achieves a sense of “eternal now” and which is called “Ascension”—by the French 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen. It is “static” music of the most dramatic kind; I love it! It reminds me that the Lord’s ascension (and our eventual resurrection/assumption) will be our being drawn into the eternal—a perpetual state of blessedness and joy—all longings satisfied, all loves fulfilled—in the Lord, and in one another. To quote (in a completely different context) Hamlet: “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
Thinking about eternity in heaven in this way has led me to thinking about eternity in hell, as well—but that’s for another time! Meanwhile, let me simply say, in paraphrasing Newman: “Time is short; eternity is.”