Tuesday, December 4, 2007

eternity touches the present moment

You may have noticed the "warning to my readers" in the top right corner of my blog, a quote which describes how I feel about people assuming I'm "godly" because I advise them to be godly. I found it in the facebook profile of Tom Cannon, who used to be the RMIT Presbyterian chaplain, and who apparently feels the same way. It's from a book of poems by Wendell Berry, an American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.

Which led me to reading the only book by Wendell Berry I could find in our library, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, a lyrical, evocative tale of American country life in the early years of the last century. I won't quickly forget scenes like that of 9 year old Andy being welcomed into the sunlit tobacco barn on his grandfather's farm, listening to his elders' banter as they sort the crop with skillful fingers.

In the following passage, the narrator, Andy Catlett, reflects on the death of his uncle, the first of many losses during the Second World War, and the end of his own childhood innocence:
And his [death] began a series of deaths and losses that in the coming years would change the world as I had known it ... The losses and griefs that are passing always over the world would come to us, breaking like waves upon the family houses ... and so that year of 1943 was in a sense my last year of innocence, of the illusion of permanence and peace. I was about to enter the time that is told by change, by death and loss ... By now, of all the people I have been remembering ... I alone am still alive. I am, as Maze Tickburn used to say, the onliest one.

Time is told by death, who doubts it? ... Time is only the past and maybe the future; the present moment, dividing and connecting them, is eternal. The time of the past is there, somewhat, but only somewhat, to be remembered and examined. We believe that the future is there too, for it keeps arriving, though we know nothing about it. But try to stop the present for your patient scrutiny, or to measure its length with your most advanced chronometer. It exists, so far as I can tell, only as a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim. And here I am, an old man, traveling as a child among the dead.

We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come. The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome. I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have children and grandchildren. Like the flowing river that is yet always present, time that is always going is always coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held and redeemed by love, which is always present. Time, then, is told by love's losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last. (pp.133-4, my emphases)
There is an earthy human wisdom here, born of the ongoing struggle to work the ground, and the universal experience of grief and loss. It reminds me of the melancholy wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that description of life "under the sun" as perceived by human wisdom:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.

... So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, 22)

In the midst of the ongoing, seemingly meaningless cycle of birth and death there are good things to be enjoyed: satisfaction in our labour; earthly happiness; beauty, however fleeting; simple pleasures like eating and drinking; and human goodness.

But the Bible ultimately goes beyond human wisdom. For Berry, meaning is only found in this life, which is "redeemed by love", and the "great question" is whether we have been grateful for love. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, eventually looks beyond this life to God's eternal judgement, concluding that we have a duty to "fear God and keep his commandments" during our days on this earth (Eccles. 12:13-4).

Interestingly, both Berry and the writer of Ecclesiastes speak of how eternity touches human experience. Ecclesiastes says that God has placed a sense of eternity in every human heart, even if his ways remain mysterious to human wisdom (3:11; c.f. Romans 1:18-32). Berry writes that we experience eternity in the present moment as "a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim".

C.S.Lewis also observed how eternity touches the present moment in The Screwtape Letters (remember this is a devil speaking, so the "Enemy" is God):

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present - either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure. (pp.76-7)
According to Lewis, for God every moment of eternity is real and present, but as humans, we experience only the present moment as real. We often try to live in the past (through regret, guilt, or an idolatrous sentimentality) or the future (through anxiety, fear, and dread) but all that is really given to us is the present moment. God does not promise to give us grace to face all the imaginary horrors which may come to us, but only grace to face the trial he is giving us right now. We prepare for eternity by setting our minds on the hope that is to come, and by living for God moment by moment.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Spiritual Depression, which I've been reading recently, makes a similar point: that many of us live in fear of the future because we doubt whether we will have sufficient faith to face the trials which may come. We forget that God has promised to give us the grace we will need when we need it, grace that doesn't depend on our strength, for God has enabled even little children to suffer and die bravely for their faith (ch.7, pp.101-2). God gives us grace for the present moment, and will give us grace for all the moments to come, whatever they may be.

Finally, in a time when I anticipate losing someone dear to me, I find myself immensely comforted by Berry's description of how the "losses and griefs that are passing always over the world...come to us, breaking like waves." For all of us there is a "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Eccles. 3:4). Though nothing feels lonelier than grief, in a sense those who suffer are never alone. All our losses and griefs have been, and are being experienced by many people the world over, in a vast community of sorrow.

If others have found the courage to face sorrow and suffering, perhaps I will too, with God's ever present grace. Which doesn't make grief any easier: but it gives me hope. A sure and certain hope, not only for God's grace during this life, but also for an eternal future whose joys will go far beyond the uncertain happiness of this world. And gratitude, too, for the love of God and others which, in ways great and small, enfolds and supports each of us.

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