Time and Eternity
By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.
This issue of THE ROSARY, LIGHT AND LIFE marks the beginning of another year. Whenever we pass the beginning of a new year, or a birthday, or an anniversary, we become vaguely conscious of the passing of time. Another milestone in our short pilgrimage in this world has been passed. Time steals by unnoticed until something makes us aware of its passing. And yet, in spite of the fact that as one grows older each year seems to go by more quickly, many live their life as if their time in this world were going to continue on forever.
As we pass another year, do we stop to ask ourself if we have made the best use of it. Are we richer for it, or poorer? … not so much in worldly wealth, but the kind we can take with us in the life to come.
We often speak of the passing of time, but if someone would ask “what is time,” how would we answer? Someone, looking at his watch, might think of time as the hour of the day. Philosophers would come up with many definitions of it However, the theologian thinks of time as opposed to eternity. In that sense, time is that interval of life between conception and death allotted to each of us. God has assigned to each of us a definite time in which to work out our eternal destiny. We have only this amount of time, and no more. Once we pass the threshold of this life into eternity, time is no more-for us, at least.
Time, then, is only a tiny fragment of the eternal life of man; for, once his soul-the principle of human life-has been created by God, it will live on for all eternity. Yet those few years in this world are the most important part of his life, for they determine his eternal lot in the life to come. God places these few years at man’s disposal, and upon the wise or unwise use of them, upon the choices he makes, his eternal hereafter depends. How will he use his freedom?
God has made us stewards of His gifts. Our duty is to use them well, e.g. our talents, our material resources, our time. Perhaps we don’t reflect sufficiently on time as a gift of God. We simply take it for granted. Yet each hour allotted to us is another opportunity to grow in grace, to help others, to place prayers and works of reparation in the hands of the Mother of God for the good of souls, to give glory to God by doing His will.
However, once in eternity, these opportunities (as a pilgrim on the way) are past. Any changing or correcting of our life, any opportunities of making reparation, of growing in grace, will be no more. We shall be established forever in the state of our soul at the moment of death, that is, according to the extent that the grace received at baptism has grown, or has been lost through grave sin.
If one, at the end of life in this world, has attained a high degree of love of God through growth in grace, that will determine forever his capacity to share in God’s divine life, i.e. His Infinite Love and Truth. It will fix forever a corresponding share in the glory of Christ. If, on the other hand, one has attained only a slight degree of love of God, because of a lack of self-denial, and of generosity in making the sacrifices that growth in grace requires, such a one will share correspondingly less in God’s Love and Truth and Beatitude in the life to come. Since our capacity to know and love God as He is in Himself depends not on our natural capacity, our natural intelligence and learning, but on the supernatural capacity given by grace, one of inferior natural capacity and intelligence can have a greater love and knowledge of God in heaven than another of far superior natural intelligence. Each soul in heaven will enjoy perfect happiness according to his/her capacity, but all will not have the same capacity. As some of the saints have expressed it, a very small glass and a very large glass can be equally full of water, yet one will hold more than the other. So it is with souls in heaven. Our cup of happiness will be filled to the brim of our capacity; but the glory and the capacity of each soul to share in God’s Love and Truth will differ, as St. Paul says, “as star differs from star in glory. (I Cor. 15:41). Our Lord referred to the same when He said “in my Father’s house there are many mansions.” (Jn. 14:2)
Like the servants in the parable of the talents in the Gospel (Mt. 25:14), in the few years of our life on earth, we are to use the Master’s gifts, and give an account of them when He returns. Since time is a gift of God, it will have to be accounted for just as our material possessions and talents. We can squander time, just as we can squander money, or we can use both profitably. There is a difference, however; we can keep money without spending it, but not time. It passes on and does not return. Only its fruits (good or bad) remain. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “What a man sows, that he will also reap …therefore, while we have time, let us do good to all men.” (6 8,10)
When the Master returns what will he find? If he should return today, how ready would He find us? Let us not be like the rich man described by Our Lord (Lk. 12:16) who kept all his goods for himself, and built large barns to store them, taking it for granted he could enjoy life for many years to come; for the Lord said: “Thou fool! This very night your life shall be required of you. To whom all this piled up wealth of yours go? That is the way it works with the man who grows rich for himself, instead of growing rich in the sight of God.” (Ibid. 2,21)
As we saw, once in eternity, we can do nothing to change our degree of growth or our degree of guilt. In this life, however, we change both. How much the souls in purgatory would give to have just a few moments of time in which to make reparation for their sins … in which to grow in grace. Now that they see things in their true perspective, how well they would use every moment given them… how different would be their scale of values.
How much the souls in hell would give for just a moment of time, just enough to repent for their sins. That would change their whole eternity. But that moment will not be given. And yet, how often do we see time as “just another day.” How often do we seem to have “time on our hands,” at a loss as to how to use it. If we could just see a small portion of what they now see and know, how differently would we spend our day… how different our priorities would be.
We sometimes think of time as composed of the past, the present, and the future. In this respect, some spend so much time in brooding over the past, or worrying about the future, that they fail to make good use of the present. It is only in the present that we can live our life, that we can grow in grace, that we can amend our faults, that we can love God and neighbor, that we can give glory to God by doing his will….
We can’t change the past, but we can use the present to make reparation for past mistakes. If the past is strewn with broken resolutions and indifference, we can use the present to begin again. Too, we can’t live in the future, yet we can use the present to prepare for it, by striving to get rid of our bad habits and form good ones that will carry over into tomorrow.
We can begin to see the importance of using each day well, using it in the light of eternity. The only moment we can live is the present moment, and each successive moment is another opportunity of praising God, of thanking Him, of asking His pardon, of acknowledging our dependence by fulfilling His will.
Will Rogers was once asked: “If you found that you had only 48 hours to live, how would you spend them?” He replied, “One at a time.” There is no other way in which our days and hours come to us. That is why it is so important to make the most of each hour of each day.
Using well the present doesn’t require or imply great achievements, but rather great diligence about the little things of everyday life-because you are doing them for God. Whether you are working, or praying, or partaking in some form of recreation, each of these can be a means of praising God and growing in grace, as long as we strive to give the fulfillment of God’s will the top priority in all that we do.
Because of the stress and tensions of life, periods of relaxation and recreation are necessary, and can be a source of merit and spiritual growth as well as those of work and prayer, if sought in moderation and in line with God’s commandments.
Occasionally too, the present moment can be one that calls for patience, or forgiveness, or mercy, or kindness, or the acceptance of some trial or suffering. Ask God’s help to use it in a manner pleasing to Him. If you can do this, you have grown in God’s sight. You have made a deposit that will pay dividends in the future. Whether you are alone or with others, whether working or playing, whether sick or in good health, whether in joy or in sorrow… the present moment comes but once, and is an opportunity that can be used with profit, or squandered.
If we strive to do or accept something because we are convinced it is what God wants (be it pleasant or unpleasant), that very desire and intention sanctifies our efforts, and enriches the moments given to them, whether it concern the menial tasks of the home, or the more public tasks of the working place. St. Paul seems to have had this in mind when he wrote: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31 )
The present moment can be enriched further still when our good works are offered to God through the hands of Our Lady, for as St. Louis de Montfort says, “that good Mother purifies them, embellishes them, and makes them acceptable to her Son” (True Devotion, n. 146). Referring to the good works we place in her hands, the Saint continues: “She purifies them of all stain of self-love… embellishes them with her own merits and virtues… and presents these good works to Jesus… She has but to present them for Jesus to accept them and be pleased with them” (Ibid. 146-149).
Try to imagine two persons who died when Christ lived on earth 2000 years ago, one of whom was saved, and one lost. All these centuries one of them has been rewarded, and one punished-for the few short years of freedom allotted them on earth. And those 2000 years compared to eternity, are like a drop of water compared to the greatest ocean. Reflection on this should make meaningful the words of St. Paul: “See to it brethren, that you walk with care, not unwise, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:15)
“Making the most of your time” doesn’t necessarily mean simply keeping busy. Robbers, prostitutes and abortionists can be always busy. It means keeping ourselves busy, as we have already indicated, with the things of God.
If one’s thoughts and desires are oriented mainly toward himself, he will see each day more as an opportunity to get ahead, to enjoy life, to fulfill his own plans-with little thought of God’s plans for his life. If one’s thoughts and aspirations are oriented mainly towards God he will be more concerned about God’s plans for his life, and willing to sacrifice his own. Such a one knows that the only road that leads to our eternal home is the will of God, even if at times it is one that requires sacrifice and self-denial. He knows that such, while lasting only for a time, will pay dividends for all eternity.