‘What? Still at it?’—For Christians, eternity has already begun
Reading In This House of Brede, the beautiful novel by Rumer Godden, I came across this nugget:
“There is a story about Newman that I like very much. In his room he had a picture—I think his landlady had given it to him—of the Blessed in Paradise praising God, and every time he came in and out, he used to smile at it and say, ‘What? Still at it?’”
The character in the novel who writes those words is a Benedictine nun, attempting to explain the contemporary life in a letter to an outsider. But as I read the passage, I thought—not for the first time—how much all Christians can learn from the Benedictine way of life, the life of prayer, following the daily rhythms of Divine Office and the seasons of the liturgical calendar.
Cardinal Newman’s mot is aimed not at the Blessed in heaven, but reflexively at himself, and at all of us in the worldly world. Of course the saints are still “at it,” doing what they should be doing, singing the divine praises. The Benedictines, too, are still “at it,” chanting the Liturgy of the Hours. The life of the monastery, like life in heaven, puts things in proper perspective: praising God comes first, and everything else is a distant second.
The real question is why we are still “at it”—hustling through the daily grind, rushing after fame and fortune—even though we realize that in the long run, these things matter not at all. Here on earth—especially in the modern world, and particularly in the US—we are constantly rushing to do things. We often forget that the human person is created not so much to do as to be: to be another voice in that heavenly choir. The sooner we start, the better we will learn our parts of the music. From the Christian perspective, the human condition can only make sense sub specie aeternitatis. Anything that we accomplish here on earth will likely be forgotten within a generation or two anyway, so it is simple common sense that we should be practicing for our role in eternity.
If you are a singer—and especially if you are a singer like me, to whom music does not come naturally—it is difficult to master a complex polyphonic piece. Rehearsals are frustrating at first; the mistakes are disheartening. With time and practice the music sounds better, until finally the beauty of the composition shines through. But then a different sort of frustration arises, when, after one or two performances, the piece is set aside—maybe for months maybe forever. Having mastered the music, one naturally feels the urge to sing it again and again.
Here on earth, we are all in the position of novice musicians, vis-à-vis the heavenly choir. We keep muffing our entrances, reading the wrong lines, singing off-key. Still we are learning, as long as we are attuned to the rhythms of prayer, conscious of our part in eternity. The time will come, God willing, when we know the music well enough to take our part. Then, pulled free from the constraints of time, we’ll be able to keep singing, and rejoicing in, the same timeless and tireless song. Still at it.
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