A Timeless Presence
We tend to think of eternity as a very long time that is impossible to imagine. Such thinking can prompt interesting questions: What was God doing before He created the universe? Why did God wait billions of years before humans appeared in the evolutionary story of life on earth? What do souls do all the time as part of eternal life in heaven?
These questions as well as many other similar questions narrowly focus on our experience of time. As such, length of time or duration is an important consideration. Often, we don’t like waiting. Anyone who has waited for a bus that is running late probably has some insight into the importance that we give to time.
Common expressions reinforce this view. The clock is ticking. Time flies when you’re having fun. Time heals all wounds. Time is a cruel thief. She’s ahead of her time. He’s behind the times. We’re in a race against time. We’re having the time of our lives. We arrived just in the nick of time. You caught me at a bad time. I have a lot of time on my hands. I have no time. This is not the time.
We often think in terms of the past. We reflect on our own personal history, our families’ history or our nations’ history. When I was eight, I made my First Communion. My parents grew up in simpler times. Ireland’s terrible famine occurred in 1845. Indeed, history presents us with the events of civilisation stretching back throughout recorded time. Still, our perception of time is not limited to recorded history.
We also turn our thoughts to the future. We organise our time to plan for future events. We prepare for college or for work. We plan our weekends and holidays. We think about retirement. We anticipate the future with hope or with trepidation.
The truth is that we cannot really abandon our past just as we cannot completely cease thinking about the future. We exist at this moment poised between our pasts and our futures. Our experience of the ‘now’ is influenced by what has gone before and whatever the future might bring. From our perspective, time is often about gaining something or losing something. It is about a reality that doesn’t stand still, a restless motion or an unceasing action. The overall effect of this ongoing experience of time is that we can falsely impose our limited perspective on all of reality.
This can stunt our view of reality and leave us with a magnified view of our own personal circumstances. We can then project this view onto everything else that we encounter. One way of overcoming this tendency is to create the space to step back from ourselves so that we can glimpse reality for what it really is.
Reality is cosmic and extends far beyond us. We gain some insight into the magnitude of reality when we contemplate a beautiful sunset or gaze up at the multitude of stars that adorn the night sky. We also experience reality more deeply when a child is born or when a loved one dies. At such moments, we question our place in the unfolding story of the universe.
Each one of us is part of this epic story for we are connected to reality in countless ways. This was true before we were even born and remains true long after our deaths. Just think about all that had to exist for you to be born into the world. The order and harmony of the cosmos, the galaxies, the solar systems, a suitable planet located at a hospitable distance from a sun, water, the development of life on earth, oxygen, humans, males and females, a father, a mother and much else besides.
The reality of nature presents us with the language of creation. This enriches our view of reality and helps us to appreciate what lies beyond our own individual experience. It can also help us to contemplate the existence of God.
It is remarkable that a non-reductionist view of modern science complements the contemplative works of the saints. Our transcendent potential, eternal life, miracles and God can all be appreciated through the lens of scientific discoveries in cosmology, quantum physics, medicine and holistic biology. Contrary to popular assumptions, phenomena described as supernatural or spiritual are consistent with a broad scientific perspective.
The universe is said to be 14 billion years old. By any reckoning, this is a very long time regardless of how we might think about the duration of eternity. Yet, when our thoughts turn to God, scientific discoveries can help us to overcome our narrow view of time. For instance, modern physics has revealed that gravitational waves are ripples of space-time that carry energy. It follows that space and time came into existence together.
When it comes to the physical universe, there is no concept of time outside of its physical existence. Therefore, it is incorrect to think of a time when there was nothing. The Church’s teaching that God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) makes sense when we understand that there was never something in the absence of time (except God). There was no pre-existing material before time for God to fashion the universe. God created both time and physical space together.
The Catechism states that God is ‘beyond space and time’. When we think about God existing in eternity, we should not think of a very long time or even unlimited duration. The expression timeless existence gives us a better understanding of God.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us the God lives in the ‘now that stands still’. From this timeless perspective, God holds all things in one unchanging, infinite act of knowing and understanding. For God, there is no past or future, there is only the present, there is only now. To quote St. Augustine, God exists in ‘an ever-present eternity’.
When I think of deceased loved ones, I often think of the now that stands still. At the cemetery where my beloved father is buried, just beyond the boundary wall, my Dad walked the path that led him to school long before he became a husband or a father. As I stand at his graveside, I like to think of him not just as I knew him but also as the curious child making his way reluctantly to school in the early morning. All of this still exists now in God’s eternal life as does all of existence.
This is not easy to understand. Often, we can confuse God’s timeless existence with our own present earth-bound desires. Modern spiritual bestsellers urge us to live in the moment so that we can seize the potential of the here and now. There are clear psychological benefits to focusing more on the present moment so that we can experience life more fully today. Yet, we can also lose so much that enriches life.
The 17th Century Carmelite friar, Brother Lawrence interpreted the power of the present moment to do his best to love God right now rather than worry about his past failings. In a real sense, the sacraments and prayer offer us a pathway out of ourselves that helps us to experience joy in the here and now but in a way that does not erase our past or neglect our future. This helps us to see ourselves as God sees us, always filled with potential and the beauty of life-giving love.
The Church helps us to see reality. With God in our hearts, everything feels sacred. Lamentably, there is much in modern culture that de-sensitises us to the love in which we dwell. For me, our experience of the sacraments and prayer can be summarised in three simple words: Let God In!
God’s self-communication to Moses: ‘I AM WHO I AM’ speaks of His timeless presence. This sense of abiding presence is also evident in Jesus’s self-identity: ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35). Similarly, St. Paul’s description of the Holy Spirit confirms this presence: ‘the Spirit of God has made a home in us’ (Romans 8:9).
When we consciously seek to acknowledge God’s loving presence, we glimpse the eternal now. It is at such moments of timeless presence that we begin to find the answers to our deepest questions and know that words do not suffice. It is then that we can join the Psalmist by uttering: ‘I have become mute, I do not open my mouth, because it is YOU who have done it’ (Psalm 39:9).