But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.
To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus:
“Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”
Spe Salvi 10
Reflection – The question Pope Benedict raises here—do we want to live forever?—is one that he goes on the answer in the subsequent paragraphs. I have already blogged about those paragraphs—you can find all my posts on the encyclical here.
I have encountered this attitude of not desiring eternal life—there are people for whom the experience of life is so difficult that the idea of just going on and on without any terminus is not a happy one at all. ‘Monotonous and unbearable’ pretty well sums it up.
The basic answer Pope Benedict gives is that we don’t really know at this point what it means to be ‘alive’ in the full sense of the word. Our experience to this point of ‘life’ is partial and contradictory, marred by sin which is death. ‘Eternal life’ is not just endless duration of this mode of ‘life’.
Rather, it is the total possession of happiness, of beatitude, in a single act of being, an elevation of our being to a participation in the life of God through an outpouring of grace, in technical theological language known as the ‘light of glory’, that we simply have not experienced yet in this short earthly life of ours.
So this is the hope we have. In our popular conception of heaven—I’m thinking of cartoon imagery and the like—we are all sitting around on clouds, more or less the same people we were in this life, with the same limited outlook on things and the same emotional responses. That does seem pretty dreary, and I don’t think plunking on a harp would help pass the time all that much, either. Nor does heaven as some kind of endless party attract me (for example). I’m way too much of an introvert for that to be my idea of a good eternity. Parties are nice, and then they end, and that’s a GOOD thing. And endless bacchanal is more my idea of hell than of heaven.
No, heaven is something much bigger, much deeper, much more real than what the traditional images can really communicate to us these days. We simply do not know what it means to live eternally in God’s presence, and in our days when more and more people have essentially ceased to have spiritual lives in any real sense of prolonged prayer and attentive hearts listening to the Holy Spirit, it is more and more difficult to communicate what it is we are talking about.
But the other point he raises in this paragraph is important, too. Life in this mode, even when it is more good than bad, more joy and delight than sorrow and pain, does wear thin after the first eighty or ninety years or so. Sin and the ravages of sin, the effect of which include the breakdown of matter and spirit, the ultimate collapse of the physical structure, do make the arrival of death in its right time more of a mercy of God than a terrible curse.
We are not euthanasiasts ending life precipitously and in violation of the fifth commandment, eradicating suffering at the price of human dignity and purpose. At the same time we are not vitalists, desperately hanging on to bodily organic life at all costs, intervening medically to prolong life long past the point where there is any hope of recovery or improvement of the patient’s condition.
There is a time to simply allow the person to die, to graciously accede to the process of dying in right order. And the reason we can embrace this inevitability of physical death peacefully is because of our hope of eternal life, that there is something quite different awaiting us, that our lives, in a sense, truly begin when this life ends.
As our society ages these questions of life and death become more and more acute, and it truly will be necessary for those of us who are Catholic to get our minds and hearts clear on these delicate and complex matters. We are never to seek death, never to kill, but we are to receive death as a merciful entrance into Life, a gift ultimately given to us by God, so as to usher us over its threshold into this mysterious thing we call heaven and eternity.
Much more could and needs to be said on this subject (for another day…), but that’s all I have time and space for today.