In a few days we will celebrate Christ the King, which anticipates the moment when Jesus returns, time ends, and eternal life begins. But what do we mean by “eternal”? Is it the same sort of eternity as a traffic jam or a long line at the grocery store, when we notice every passing second? The easiest way for us to conceptualize eternity is as an infinite extension of time into the future, as if it marched forward without end. But this does not do justice to God’s own eternity, which is radically simple.
St. Thomas describes this difference with the terms, “the flowing now” (nunc fluens) and the “standing now” (nunc stans) (ST Ia q. 10 a. 2). He takes these terms from St. Severinus Boethius, who also says that “eternity is the simultaneous total and perfect possession of interminable life” (Consolation of Philosophy, Bk. 5, Prose 6). Boethius invites us to imagine all of our days counted up and experienced at the same instant, a burst of fullness that has neither a beginning nor an end, but simply is. This is the “standing now” of God, but on a scale infinitely greater than what we can imagine the best human life to be.
Once this idea of eternity starts to sink in, our desire for Heaven should flare up. Is there any way that we can have a foretaste of this “standing now”? If so, then our best chance is not in excitements that come and go, leaving us dissatisfied afterward, but a faith-filled appreciation of the present moment. It is only in the present moment that our time intersects with God’s eternity. This philosophical insight is available even to non-Christians, as is evident with the best-selling book by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. Oprah Winfrey featured it on her show, and millions of people have read it and tried to enter the blissful experience of the present moment that Tolle describes. If a non-Christian can experience the present like this, shouldn’t a Christian be able to even more? After all, we have faith in a personal and loving God who guides every moment of our life.
However, the hope of a constant experience of peace in the present moment is illusory. As we say in the Salve Regina, this life is a valley of tears. To claim that our life now can be free of suffering is to claim that evil is an illusion, a product of our distorted mental vision. But this was not Jesus’s answer to evil—rather, He showed us just how serious evil is by paying the price for it Himself. The reality of evil nags at us when our mood is sour and the sky is gray, and confronts us undeniably when we go through a crisis or lose a loved one. In moments like these, there is no pretending suffering does not exist.
But not all hope for the present moment is lost. It may seem like the last moment in the world we want to hold on to, but the “now” of suffering can also be a moment of contact with God’s eternity. This is not through an experience of bliss or peace, but by embracing the Cross. At the same time that Boethius wrote the words above about eternity, he was in prison awaiting execution from the unjust King Theodoric. As a Christian, his hope was that Jesus was standing with him through the abiding power of the Cross. It was in His death on the Cross that Jesus revealed His eternal love for us, and this love is available to us in our own moments of suffering. By planting the Cross into our present moment, it can be our “standing now” that unites us to eternity. In this way we can lose our fear of trials and face the future with hope, the future that will one day unite us fully to God.
Image: Fra Angelico, Saint Dominic Adoring The Crucifixion (detail)