Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Impermanence Of Temporal Things: A Sunday Rumination

     I haven’t done one of these in a while, mostly for lack of a suitable inspiration or insight. However, this morning I believe I have a good jumping-off point...though you might be a wee bit disturbed by the direction I jump in:

     In truth, if the earth and all it contains must one day disappear by fire, the goods of this world are no more to be esteemed than wood and straw. What point is there, then, in making them the object of our desires and cares? Why seek to build and leave marks of our genius and power where we have no permanent abode, and where the form of this world will be removed, like a tent that has no travelers to shelter? It may be said that it will be a thousand years before this frightening cataclysm takes place; but Christ has said that a thousand years are but an instant compared with eternity, and when the moment comes—when, from the land of the future life, we are the witnesses and actors in that supreme drama—the whole span of humanity will seem so short to us that we shall scarcely consider it to have lasted a single day.

     [Father Charles Arminjon, The End of the Present World]

     There is much wisdom in the above. If we have two lives to live – one a temporal one that will inevitably end; the other an eternal one that will never end – then it makes perfect sense to give priority to the life to come. As Robert Ringer once wrote, no matter how long you live, it’s as nothing compared to how long you’ll be dead. Preparation for eternal life – the life that follows death – should take precedence over all other considerations.

     But a question arises: If this life is as nothing compared to the life to come, what’s the point of it? Why did God bother to give it to us? What, apart from adhering to the Commandments, are we supposed to do with it?

     These are questions even the most devout, utterly convinced Christian must confront. Moreover, he must answer them satisfactorily, for they pose perhaps the greatest trial of faith any Christian can face.

     Father Arminjon asks, quite pointedly:

     What point is there, then, in making them [the goods of this world] the object of our desires and cares?

     It’s a good question that’s best answered by inserting a single word into it:

     What point is there, then, in making them [the goods of this world] the sole object of our desires and cares?

     And answer comes there none, because...well, I’ll stop short of saying that it “should” be “obvious,” and merely point to the imbalance between temporal and eternal priorities. Clearly, what matters most to the sincere believer is whether he will qualify for admission to eternal life in God’s nearness: i.e., heaven. But while we live, we must give some priority to “wood and straw,” if only to keep the rain off.

     Father Arminjon’s exhortation actually compels us to look at the deeper question I raised in the opening segment: What’s the point of our temporal lives? The answer I prefer is this one: We are here to learn to love. As God is Love, He prefers to keep company with others who have learned to love as He does. Of course, one can ask a deeper question – namely, why aren’t we created already knowing how to love? – but one mystery per Rumination is all I can handle.

     The Two Great Commandments have far more force than most people, including most Christian clerics, allot to them:

     But the Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together: And one of them, a doctor of the law, asking him, tempting him: Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?
     Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:34-40]

     That last sentence was Christ saying “Pay attention: this is the key to everything!” But if love is the key, then temporal life, which we enter as caterwauling savages concerned solely with food and the state of our diapers, is perforce a place where we must learn to love – and to demonstrate that we have internalized the lesson by our behavior toward others.

     It’s not a trivial, easily learned lesson. I wrote an entire novel about it. Indeed, I wrote that novel for the opportunity to make one, overriding statement of the principle:

     “No matter where we stand in our lives, whatever our circumstances,” Father Ray had said to her, “only three paths are open to us. We can break, we can stand idle, or we can build. The Christian course is to strive to build, to improve, to contribute whatever mortal power can add to God’s edifice. If that necessitates some demolition, the tearing down of an impassable obstacle, the Christian is commanded to do so in a spirit of understanding and forgiveness. He must not condemn. He must not hate.”
     “I’ve known a lot of people who called themselves Christians,” she replied, “and damned few of them seemed to adhere to those precepts. Not as far as I could tell, anyway.”
     The young priest smirked ruefully. “I know, dear. It’s very hard. I can’t do it any better than most. It could send a lot of us right down the chute of despair, if it weren’t for one thing.”
     “Which is?”
     “That God is love. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It rejoices not in wrongdoing but in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. And he who loves is endlessly willing to forgive.”
     The vacuum in her soul, the empty place that cried out to be filled with love but had recoiled from it at every opportunity, tugged insistently at her.
     “So a Christian is commanded to love?” she said. Her voice sounded small in her own ears.
     “Yes. But with a caveat.”
     “Which is?”
     “To remember that love isn’t just something you feel. It’s also something you do. A Christian might have a hard time feeling love for some people, especially people who’ve hurt him in the recent past. But however wounded he may feel, he is capable of deciding to love, of willing himself to love despite the difficulty—and of acting from love. And sometimes,” he said with a small smile, “the doing will bring the feeling in its wake.”

     [From The Wise and the Mad]

     I don’t think it can be said any more concisely than that.

     And so, Father Arminjon’s exhortation deserves respect, but it also requires qualification. Yes, the life to come is of infinitely higher priority than the one we live under the veil of Time. That, however, is a far cry from saying that our present lives are of no importance whatsoever. They are the forge in which we form our characters, especially their capacity for love.

     David Horowitz once made a fascinating pair of observations. In his thirties, he wrote, he realized that he would someday die. But he was also aware that until then, he had to live – and to learn how to live. How we live is important, and not only for our circumstances here on Earth.

     The two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments that follow from them tell us what we must and must not do while we live. They constitute the qualifications which, once met, permit us to live as we please. Yes, we are allowed security, comfort, and the pleasures available during temporal existence. We must merely remain in obedience to the Commandments while we amass and enjoy them.

     That is the process by which we learn to love, for love as Christ used the word has two distinct meanings. To love God is to worship Him as the Author of all that we are and have, and to be grateful to Him for our blessings. To love our neighbor is to wish him well – never to wish him harm – and to come to his aid when he deserves and requires it: a precept C. S. Lewis has called The Law of General Benevolence. Created as we are, part mortal clay and part immortal soul, to merit salvation we must employ the former in absorbing the lesson He has embedded in the latter. Beyond that, we are free.

     May God bless and keep you all!


SODea said...

Your concept of the three paths reminds me of a quote attributed to Werner Herzog: "Dear America, You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches." I wonder, are the conceptions isomorphic?

Linda Fox said...

Great coincidence - after reading this, I happened to watch A Man for All Seasons - a film that is seldom shown on network television.

A great example of someone who placed his soul and his relationship with God above Earthly goods.