April 25 2021

The Eternal

One of my favourite Vespers from days gone by was the two short verses which began

Eternal Life, whose love divine
Enfolds us each and all.

And one of the reasons I liked it so much (and still do) is that it so easily identifies the central mystery of human existence. If we care to look through all the volumes of literature, poetry and drama; if we regard all the art in Tate Britain or Tate Modern; if we listen to all the music played in the Royal Albert Hall; we will find that it is full of this mystery.

As one character from Thornton Wilder says: We all know that something is eternal. It’s not houses, it’s not names, and it isn’t even the stars. Everybody knows that something is eternal, and that that something is to do with human beings. All the greatest people who ever lived have been telling us this… There’s something way down deep that is eternal about every human being.

The light we see from a distant star
Is older than we can understand.
The life of the soul after we die
Is brighter than stars and more profound.
All that is lost
Becomes all that is found.

In the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes ch3: He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also, he hath set eternity in their heart…

The eternal in humanity makes up the human mystery, and it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways: in creative thought, in all branches of the sciences, in inventive genius, and above all in love: our need to love someone and each other.

Indeed, it is in love that the eternal is most strikingly revealed. People who fall in love cannot believe that they will not be in love for ever. Our experience of eternity is to be felt in our experience of love. And those who do love each other, and are separated, live on (as we know) in our hearts.

In the writings of the pre-Christian or so-called heathen poets there is a deep sadness and beauty arising from the fleeting nature of things, of people and places. “Time, the devourer of all things” can overshadow our moments of even deepest joy and happiness. The great poignancy attached to all the most beautiful times of our lives is of course related to their transitory nature. Lovers walking hand in hand wish (don’t they) that this could last for ever. They hear and express the echoes of eternity in our human hearts, possibly more clearly and closely than the rest of us.

It is (I think I’m right in saying) our abiding sense of the eternal which promotes all kinds of aspiration within us. Poets strive after immortal lines. We say that characters are immortalised in story. But we are all aware that those very seeds of eternity are what prevent us from ever feeling complete fulfilment or satisfaction.

People have longed for and striven for all sorts of goals in life, everything from worldly wealth and fame, to spiritual enlightenment and immortality, and yet very rarely do you come across someone who is entirely satisfied. Whatever our achievements we remain restless and uneasy.

Our life activities alone may never culminate in a sense of completion, although we will always be reaching out for it. Do you remember what an agony it was to be preparing for a particular set of exams? It seemed so vital that we pass them. We worked so hard, with a sense that, when this is over I’m going to have a nervous breakdown(!) But that hurdle surmounted, and after a brief celebration, what is the next objective? We may even poo-poo our earlier achievement as insignificant compared to what faces us now. When one purpose has been attained, when one goal has been reached, when one hilltop has been climbed, there is always another one opening out and rising before us; there is more to reach out for even though we know it may exceed our grasp.

The finite within us brings us down to earth with a bump, and the eternal within always raises us up again. We always long for more truth, more knowledge, more love and affection.

That which is eternal within us can sometimes feel like more of a torment than a comfort. It can fill us with a profound sense of disquiet. In his Dream of Gerontius, Henry Newman wrote, “O man, strange composite of heaven and earth…”

This “strange composite” is full of tensions: good and evil, courage and fear, love and hate, and they all seem to struggle for supremacy within us. A theologian might say that the battle is between the eternal and the temporal. We do not have to look very deeply into ourselves to see that we are a queer combination of opposites, and that purity of motivation may not be something everybody is familiar with. When we come across an individual who has integrity, who is reliable, and as they say “is always the same”, we naturally admire them, because most of us are not like that. We are blown about by the winds of mere opportunity.

Notwithstanding, as George Santayana expressed it, “A person who understands themselves under the form of eternity, knows the quality that eternally belongs to them.” Our awareness of our higher nature, the eternity God has set in our hearts, whilst at the bottom of so many of our internal conflicts, can also be the source of our greatest comfort and inspiration.

May I end with a few lines from an old prayer for the end of the day:

We come to thee at eventide, O God, when in all generations men and women have turned aside to seek thy face. As the noise of day dies down and the silence of night creeps on, may thy calm possess our souls.  May the closing hours of day beget in us a tenderness towards eternal things.   Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period