The Father William Most Collection
On Going to Aevum
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
What is it like to die? Even without trying it, we can gather quite a bit from the combined resources of theology and philosophy.
First, Aristotle said (Physics 4. 11) that time is a measure of change on a scale of before and after. That does not fully explain time, but it does help.
However, we had better note at once that there are three kinds of duration: time, eternity, and aevum. Time is the kind of duration in which all kinds of change, both substantial and accidental, can and do happen. In fact, there is a constant change going on. Ahead of us is a moment we call future. But it changes quickly to present, then to past. (Cf. Summa I. 10. 5-6).
Eternity is the kind of duration in which there no change at all, and so there is no past, no future: there is just one eternal present with everything simultaneously present. We can explain this on paper, but cannot really grasp it. For we say, in the past tense, that God made the world. But to Him it is present. We say Christ will return at the end: but to the divine mind that too is present.
Loosely, we speak of someone who has died as having gone to eternity. But that is a loose use of the word. Only God is in eternity. The right term - for which there is no regular English equivalent - is aevum. It could be translated as "age", but that does not help us. Aevum is the kind of duration in which no substantial change is possible. Accidental change is possible, but does not go on constantly in a future-present-past sequence. St. Augustine (City of God 10. 7) said that angels "participate" in God's eternity. Their substantial being, like His, does not change. There can be changes in their thoughts or acts of will, or in the places in which they are present - but that does not mean a spatial presence, such as we have, for we take up space, they do not. A spirit is said to be present wherever it causes an effect. God Himself simply is. Similarly, angels simply are, are unimaginably happy and fulfilled.
In this life we are filled with change - every cell is constantly being torn down and rebuilt. And we are surrounded by change, for we are on a planet that ceaselessly revolves and goes around the sun.
But when we die, then we lose contact with the unceasing change of future-present-past, for the body is our contact with it. When at resurrection we regain our bodies, they will be as St. Paul (Rom 8:21) wrote, "freed from the slavery to corruption," from this unending change of which we are now full.
Most importantly, at death, as it were, the lights go on. For our intelligence now has two components, the spirit intellect which is a power of our spiritual soul; and the material brain in our heads. That material brain is a marvel of structure, yet compared to s spirit intellect, it is a poor thing indeed. Yet, in this life, the two components are tied together so that neither can operate without the other. But when death breaks that connection, then the power of the spiritual intelligence asserts itself. Even in a stupid person that is a marvelous power, for the weakness is in the material brain, not in the spiritual intellect. We take across the line with us our information about God, for that is stored in our spiritual memory. Even before seeing Him face to face in heaven finally - it will know what He is like in a way it could not know Him in this life. As a result, it will then most intensely desire Him - but may have to endure a delay. We did not say, "wait some time," for there is no time there. Here we can be quite comfortable without thinking of Him, for we have so many distractions from the constant input of the senses, telling us this is the only real world. Then those distractions will all be gone, and the knowledge of what He is like will dominate the mind.
If a soul goes to hell, it will be in a sort of twisted state, comparable to a nightmare leaving one half conscious, half unconscious, yet unable to fully wake up - on the one hand, it intensely wants Him, on the other, it is against Him. There is no substantial change possible on the other side of death, so that state must be permanent, unending. That is the chief pain of hell. Along with it, after the resurrection, will be something comparable to fire. The Doctrinal Congregation said (Eschatology, May 17, 1979) it will have "a repercussion on the whole being" of the sinner. Even though it is not, strictly, rapid oxidation (for that is what fire is) it will have a pain of the same intensity.
A childish comparison used to tell us to imagine a little bird that every ten thousand years comes and takes one peck at a granite mountain - when it has the mountain all worn down, eternity is just beginning. This imagery helps picture the endlessness of eternity. Yet as we said before, the soul in heaven or hell will participate in the unchangeability of God, in His eternity, so that it does not just go on and on being wretched or blessed - it simply is unutterably wretched in its substantial being, or unimaginably fulfilled and happy.
We spoke of substantial being, since it still can have its thoughts, its volitions, and if it reaches heaven can go anywhere it wills in God's universe without being bound to the present speed limit, the speed of light. The movement of its glorified body, if it so wills is instantaneous, timeless, for time is no more. A soul in hell, on the other hand, goes nowhere but in fire.
What of the soul in purgatory? It suffers essentially from being deprived of God, which it knows is its own fault. Is there any change in such a soul? No substantial change, but two things prevent it for having the vision of God. First, its ability to see Him was not sufficiently refined in this life. Secondly, it has not yet paid the debt for its sins in full. We might think of a two pan scales. A sinner took from one pan what he had no right to have. The Holiness of God wants that rebalanced. Our Lord in the redemption did the essential work of rebalancing, for no creature could really do that. Yet St. Paul makes clear that we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are members of Christ and like Him. So we must be like Him in this task of rebalancing the scale for our sins. If we have not fully done that in this life - then thank Heavens there is a purgatory. Otherwise, a soul in such a condition could never get to see God.
Since these two tasks can extend over some period - we did not say time - we can say that there are stages of development in purgatory. To make a crude comparison, let us think of a graph with two parallel lines on it, an upper and a lower. The upper line represents the duration of aevum for a soul in purgatory; the lower, the scale of time on this earth. We could as it were locate a point on the upper scale, then drop a line and see where it hits on the time scale. In such a sense some revelations speak of souls being in purgatory for a certain number of years.
Yet in the midst of suffering, there is immense consolations for the soul in purgatory: it knows it is finally, infallibly saved, can never lose God. It cannot help itself to get out or to gain relief. But we on earth can help such souls.
Do they know what goes on earth? They have as it were no natural means of knowing that. When they finally reach the vision of God they will see all they wish in that glorious vision. But in Purgatory they depend on what God makes known to them. We know He does at least in a general way make known to them when people pray and sacrifice for them, at least in that they perceive some relief. And they are immensely grateful, and will in turn pray for their benefactors, not only while they are in Purgatory, but also when they reach Heaven.
This lack of knowledge resembles the state of the just who died before the sacrifice of Christ: the Beatific Vision was closed until then (we are sure that when they had paid their debts God in some way brought them joy). Hence some texts of the Old Testament which have not always been well understood. For example, in Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 17:27-28 we hear: Who will praise the most High in Sheol?... . For from the dead as from those who are not, praise perishes." We should note however that the word used for praise is hallel which stands for the grand liturgical praises of God. That of course does not take place in Sheol. Similarly in Job 14:21 we find: "His sons come to honor and he knows it not." Or in Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes 9:5: "The dead know nothing." So we see that these texts are not a denial of afterlife, but only a description of the special conditions there before the Great Sacrifice.
In Heaven each soul sees the infinite vision of God. Of course, no created soul could take it in fully - not even the created human soul of Christ. St. Thomas suggests (III. 10. 1 & 2) that He should know all that God actually does, not all that God could do. In passing, we notice that from the first instant of conception He had that vision, as Pius XII tells us in Mystical Body Encyclical. So He knew, with painful clarity, from the start, every horrible detail of all He was to suffer. This knowledge must have been eating on Him all through life. He let us look inside as it were in Luke 12:50: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished." And in John 12:27: "Father save me from this hour."
But each soul in that vision sees all it can desire, all it can as it were hold. Since the vision is infinite and all souls are finite, there can be in this life an indefinite increase of ability to take in that vision - this is what an increase of sanctifying grace means. What must it be in the soul of Our Lady, who was full of grace, whose holiness from the start, as Pius IX tells in Ineffabilis Deus was so great that, "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it." Not even the highest Cherubim and Seraphim can comprehend her holiness - and hence her ability to take in that vision. Only God Himself can comprehend it! But with such vastness of vision, she of course can know all the individual needs of every one of her spiritual children, and, in her love, so great that it was willing to sacrifice her only Son to a hideous death to make the vision possible for us - in that love she does take care of each one.
Love is not a feeling: to love is to will good to another for the other's sake. So when God said in 1 Tim 2:4: "He wills all to be saved," this is a supreme expression of His love. What a horror that some theologians in the past said He did not mean it! Rather, He proved His love (Rom 5:8) by sending His Son to such a death, by calling on His Mother to endure such incomprehensible suffering at the foot of the Cross, to make it possible for us. (We say incomprehensible, for to have to will His death for us, in spite of love so great that as Pius IX taught "only God can comprehend it"- that is really incomprehensibly willing good to us (Cf. John Paul II, Mother of the Redeemer §§ 18-19).
St. Paul, on contemplating this goal beyond all imagining exclaimed (Rom 8:18): "The sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared to the glory to be revealed to us". Hence in comparison (Phil 3:7-8): "The things that were gain to me, I have thought to be loss, for the sake of Christ. Really, I consider everything loss because of the eminent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord, for whose sake I have treated everything as loss, and consider it as rubbish, so I may gain Christ." Yes, creatures are good, since God made them. But in comparison to this vision - they are just rubbish.
In addition to this vision of God, souls will also see her, their Mother. As Pius XII wrote brilliantly (To Italian Catholic Action Youth, Dec. 8, 1953, The Pope Speaks 1954. 1. p. 38, citing Dante, Paradiso 31. 130-35: "Surely, in the face of His own Mother, God has gathered together all the splendors of His divine artistry... . You know, beloved sons and daughters, how easily human beauty enraptures and exalts a kind heart. What would it ever do before the beauty of Mary... ! That is why Dante saw in Paradise, in the midst of 'more than a million rejoicing Angels... a beauty smiling - what joy! It was in the eyes of all the other saints' - Mary!"
Can Heaven ever get dull? No, because that vision is infinite, inexhaustible, but also, because there is no time there. There is not a succession of moments dragging on without end - the soul as St. Augustine told us, participates in the eternity of God Himself, it simply is, in its substantial nature, incomprehensibly filled, fulfilled, and happy.