Spe Salvi 11: More On Life

Continuing with the question: Eternal life – what is it?

11. Whatever precisely Saint Ambrose may have meant by these words, it is true that to eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit.

This has been explored now and then in science fiction. Many different takes on this can be read, but in fiction an author can artificially construct situations beyond a single world. Eternal life in the mortal realm would indeed place pressure on the human race and the environment that sustains us. It might alter the basic forward vector–what would be the point of procreation, genetically speaking?

Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is—this is what it should be like. Besides, what we call “life” in our everyday language is not real “life” at all.

I think such moments are not necessarily tied down to youth or to the peak of adult life. People don’t want to linger in a life lessened by infirmity, and a suffering within a body ravaged by old age. That’s not to say life is lacking in one’s final years. Not only do those who love us not want us to die, they also don’t want us to suffer.

Saint Augustine, in the extended letter on prayer which he addressed to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow and mother of three consuls, once wrote this: ultimately we want only one thing—”the blessed life”, the life which is simply life, simply “happiness”. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,” he says, quoting Saint Paul (Romans 8:26). All we know is that it is not this. Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist. “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak”, he writes. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this “true life”; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven [Cf. Ep. 130 Ad Probam14, 25-15, 28: CSEL 44, 68-73].

This is a very important piece. Most human beings have at best a partial desire about life and living formulated in their minds. Christians also have only the merest glimpses of the possibilities God might offer. I’d include the blessings and grace of the present life as well as “eternity.” If so many of us are clueless in the mortal realm, we know that existence beyond it is an absolute mystery. In this case, our hope is grasping, elusive, and always something just beyond our senses.

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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