The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.” ~ St. Athanasiusi
While many modern thinkers have difficulties with Catholic and Christian faith because of the concept of eternal damnation, I’ve always thought salvation equally problematic because of its everlastingness. As a child I remember clearly being both puzzled and frightened when trying to think of the prospect of living forever, even with the hope of being in God’s presence. Nor am I alone. A 2016 article at The Atlantic discusses apeirophobia, not officially recognized by any edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders—but certainly recognized by a large number of people throughout history, not limited to the author of the article, those on Facebook, and those answering surveys on Reddit. The article cites Blaise Pascal’s record in the Pensées of his own terror in the thought of a seemingly infinite space and an everlasting time: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.”ii
Though the Atlantic article toys with a number of psychological explanations for this fear of eternity, it doesn’t really come to any conclusions about the fear other than that for the author, as for many adults, the solution to the problem seems to be not thinking about it. Of course the difficulty with this “solution” is that if the human being was made in the image of God and meant to live on forever in a resurrected state, ignorance in this case may be insufficient for bliss in the long—meaning everlasting—term. God has not only made “everything beautiful in its time,” the Preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes, but he has also “put eternity in man’s mind” (3:11). Eternity, that vast abyss of time that seems to the apeirophobic—let us say “human being”—so terrifying, is terrifying not merely because it is hard to grasp, but also because it is part of the nature of God.
As a boy I remember vividly the Pascalian night terrors I had of time and space simultaneously growing more vast and distant and yet somehow crushing in on me at the same time. It was only later that I came to associate this experience with God. In Jean Daniélou’s marvelous little book God’s Life in Us, the twentieth-century Jesuit wrote of God’s omnipresence throughout the universe he created, a presence called fittingly “immensity.”iii This immensity of God’s presence comes to us as a mystery, meaning not “that there is something unintelligible in God. On the contrary, it is because of his fullness that we find it impossible to support him.”iv
We come gradually to the ability to support the mysterious immensity of God’s presence by a process of purification of soul that is itself the work of God. Daniélou cites St. Irenaeus’s notion that the process of growing into a capacity for God is a Trinitarian work in which the Spirit takes hold of us and gives us to the Son who then presents us to the Father. Yet allowing ourselves to be taken hold of and cast into the immensity of divine life is a difficult process. Our task in prayer is to “sink” like a stone
into the abyss which is in us and which is God’s abode. The great mistake we make in our spiritual lives is to tarry at these intermediary zones instead of going straight to God. We let ourselves be infiltrated by regrets, plans, desires, care. Even if we move forward, it is only to pine over our spiritual wretchedness. Basically, our inner life is often merely another way—more subtle, more refined, less crude, more dangerous—of worrying about ourselves.v
Like the diver on the platform, the believer’s task is not to tarry on the edge of the reality that is God, but to plunge into the divine abyss despite our fears and allow ourselves to see that God dwells in the world everywhere.
My Bright Abyss, the contemporary poet Christian Wiman’s account of his return to Christian faith as an adult struggling with cancer, vividly depicts how a mature approach to God is not necessarily a comforting or easy thing. The book’s title came from an essay about a poem that he began and could not finish.
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:
Wiman’s essay explained the newness and strangeness of faith in a God who is both immanent to his creation but also utterly transcendent in a way that even his presence seems hidden and distant. He notes that when the Bible “speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.” Yet this presence is indirect and elusive. It could be mistaken simply for a dark abyss of absence, but to eyes lit up by the Spirit’s gift of faith it is instead a “bright abyss” calling out even amid images of the decay of flowers, fire, and winter.
LORD, I can approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I have no hunger greater. Indeed, so great is my hunger for you—or is this evidence of your hunger for me?—that I seem to see you in the black flower mourners make beside a grave I do not know, in the ember’s innards like a shining hive, in the bare abundance of a winter tree whose every limb is lit and fraught with snow. Lord, Lord, how bright the abyss inside that “seem.”vi
All things, as the lines from St. Athanasius that sit atop this essay have it, give us knowledge of God. Some are warm and inviting, a still small voice or perhaps that warm ember’s innards. Some, like the absurdities in both personal and public life, make us laugh in the presence of God as the aging Sarah did upon finding out that she was to have pleasure and a child in her old age. Some, like death and destruction, demand both patience and the ability to see God hidden in a providence not always easy to detect. Like tragedy, our perception of everlasting life and the tremendousness of space that echoes God’s immensity bring a fear that can only finally be faced by leaping into that abyss of God.
True knowledge of God can only be had in the midst of a life for which all work is undertaken based on prayer and all prayer leads to action. For the Catholic it is not necessary to be a person of high learning or broad culture or discerning taste to be a disciple. God is present even in persons for whom learning capacities are limited. A baptized child is just as filled with the Holy Trinity as a baptized college professor who came to faith through reading. Catholics do not suffer from what Umberto Eco called “librido,” meaning the need to understand everything exclusively through books and articles, poems and essays, words, words, words.
But we must emphasize that word “exclusively” if we are to be honest. Intellectual exploration—of the reality of God, of the world, and of humans and their culture, which bear his image in a special way—answers a human need for knowledge in general and a specific need for the believer. We want to explore and know intellectually because intellectual knowledge can be a means to our loving God more, serving him better, and making him known and loved. There is no accident that the term used to designate the eternal Son of the Father in the Gospel of John is logos—“word” or even “rational discourse.” For the Son is the mediator between God and humanity, giving us access to the Father’s frightening eternity but also translating it into something understandable and decipherable to us in the creation he made to be a temple of his immense presence.
Lent is traditionally a time of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. The fasting and the almsgiving are meant to wean us from an attention to the things of this world that hold us back from seeing and understanding that presence of God through prayer. But if intellectual exploration of the truth fulfills our nature and gives us greater insight into the God we love—remember John Paul II’s image in Fides et Ratio of faith and reason as two wings allowing the soul to ascend—it might be a good thing to add a fourth item to our Lenten penances. Read the Scriptures, the teachings of the faith, or the great spiritual masters, and think about the faith. Seek to know the dogma which Flannery O’Connor called “the guardian of mystery” which is “significant in ways we cannot fathom.” Serve the Lord with heart and mind. Eternity is already on your mind. Don’t be afraid to make the dive.
(Editor’s note: This essay has been adapted from the Fall 2017 issue of Logos.)
iii Jean Danielou, God’s Life in Us (New York: Dimension Books, 1969): 23.
iv Ibid., 39.
v Ibid., 30.