Spe Salvi 12: Eternal Life – What Is It?

Looking to eternity, Pope Benedict XVI detects some trepidation in some people. I suppose in some there is the fear of hell, of eternal punishment. He doesn’t seem very concerned about that in his treatise on hope. Singer-songwriter Billy Joel’s lyric from “Only the Good Die Young” comes to mind as typical of what I’ve heard in my life:

They say there’s a heaven
for those who will wait
Some say it’s better
but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners
than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun

I think people want an existence, happy and connected with those they love. Apt that the Holy Father looks to a man known for his own inner conflict:

12. I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing (the) essential (human) situation, the situation that gives rise to all (our) contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.

The aspiration of eternity: we know it will be different. So perhaps many people simply want the best of what they know, not some endless parade of something they might not even enjoy, as Billy Joel suggests.

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

Joy is a stronger and likely more accurate term for that which Christians aspire to experience. Happy seems a surface thing compared to a deeper experience of what Jesus offers:

This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect [Cf.Catechism 1025].

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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1 Response to Spe Salvi 12: Eternal Life – What Is It?

  1. Liam says:

    And not being able to imagine eternity reinforces individualism and self-centeredness. There’s a connection between this and the human condition and the state of our world. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky issue.

    Luke’s account of the Transfiguration begins with Jesus’ purpose: prayer. The Transfiguration event and experience is the fruit of that particular prayer, piercing the veil between temporality and eternity. Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his exodus. The mission of which is what follows.

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