Experiential Time, Part 3

Experiential Time, Part 3

“Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss!” Thomas Merton[1]

Eternity is not an extension of chronological time, nor is eternal life something waiting for us at the end of our calendar days on earth. Eternity is something that exists and that we participate in right here, right now, not something that exists out there, sometime. Jesus called it the kingdom of heaven and said that it is near[2]. That implies that although eternity is not necessarily something our conscious awareness perceives in this instant, the conditions from which to experience it always exist. Perhaps it is like opening the curtains to see a sunset – we cannot see it without the conditions that allow a glimpse of what exists beyond the curtains. The apostle Paul wrote, “…now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”[3]

20th Century Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, wrote that “eternity is in the present1, meaning it is here, now – always has been, always will be. We cannot perceive eternity using our model of chronological time. It does not work because chronological time grounds itself in the past and future, where eternity exists in the present. Our belief that life flows sequentially like the hands on a clock or the days on a calendar is like the curtain preventing us from seeing the sunset. It is the hazy film on the mirror that prevents us from seeing clearly. Chronological time is a human-created construct that is only accurate in a relative and limited way. Not only does not capture eternity or eternal life, it draws our attention away from it. Chronological time is tied to our perception of our 3-dimensional, time-and-space experience on earth. If we are to believe that our earthly experience is part of a larger, eternal life, then we need to view time differently. Otherwise, our existence ends with our last breath on the chronological timeline of our earthly days.

Last week I theorized about the consummation or perfection of a 30-year-old human being existing in eternity because all of the necessary ingredients – internal and environmental – existed in the being’s ancestors and in the elements of the earth since the beginning of time, and will continue to exist in perpetuity. From our earthly perspective, we cannot witness the completion of the 30-year-old being until it turns 30 in chronological time. But even that “completion” is only a snapshot, a partial rendering of an eternally present, evolving being which has and always will exist in eternity.

What I was taught about eternal life as a child was of a stagnant existence, in that it would never change. It occurred after physical death, and there were two possible destinations. In “heaven,” there would be eternal joy, no sickness or pain, some of my dead relatives (probably not the most fun ones) would be there, angels would be singing and playing harps on clouds, and everyone would spend their unchanging days praising God for all time. If I happened to be sent in the other direction, there would be eternal fire, pain, weeping, and misery, 24/7. Honestly, neither destination sounded like somewhere I wanted to be for any length of chronological time.

Our concept of chronological time leaves us with images of eternity and eternal life that are inconsistent with everything we know and experience in the created universe. It leaves us assuming that at some point we attain “perfection” and are frozen in that perfect state, as if arriving at a final destination and coming to a full stop…forever. The instances of perfection we experience, however, are never frozen in time. They move and change through time, but are connected outside of time, which is how I conceive of experiential time. A gorgeous sunset, a spectacular meal, a loving encounter with another – all are instances of perfection in that they can hardly be improved upon in the moment, even and especially by preserving them exactly as they are. Perfection does not exist in fixed permanence. The experience of a perfect sunset is inseparably connected to the eternity of perfect sunsets, none of which are identical but all of which express the single reality of perfect sunsets. In the eternity of perfect sunsets, there is no beginning or end to the movement, evolution, and variation of its many expressions.

Perfection and eternity exist in the dynamic, constantly evolving nature of all of creation in the present moment. Perfect experiences cannot remain in a single state because their perfection is their on-going movement and change. Anything less is but a snapshot of that movement frozen in chronological time.

This is the 4th in a series of Life Notes on time and eternity. The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of others. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.

[1] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Harcourt Inc., 1953, p. 361.

[2] Matthew 4:12, among others.

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:12a

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