“They Will Forget to Die”

[This is one of several posts on Ben Myers’s new book, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism. Click here to purchase the book. Click here to read the other posts.]

Gerascophobia. Do you know what that word means? It is a fear of growing old. My beard hairs are turning gray, so I have entered a stage of life in which I can no longer pretend I won’t become old someday. Sometimes I am gerascophobic.

In his chapter on “the life everlasting,” Myers summarizes a story by Jorge Luis Borges, in which a man drinks from a stream and becomes immortal. Eventually, the man realizes that “without death, life lacks definition; it doesn’t mean anything.” This story sets Myers up to make a proverbial statement: “You cannot make life better just by increasing its quantity. What matters most is its quality.”

That is what I fear about aging. The unpredictability of the quality of life. I see some elderly people in my community who are chipper as can be. One woman, well into her nineties, is as talkative as can be and as sharp as a tack. The other residents at the nursing home won’t let her play bingo anymore. She says it’s because she always wins; I wonder if it’s because she talks through the whole game. Yet, I know others do not have the same quality of life. Their years pile up while their bodies are painful and their minds are chaotic. One woman, similar in age to the first woman, wondered if God had forgotten about her. I know we cannot control the way things go in life. That is what frightens me.

I thought about this as I read Myers’s chapter on “life everlasting.” The angle he takes is useful in thinking about how to disciple those who are aging, including, someday, myself.

“Life everlasting” is better understood as “eternal life,” Myers observes. This slight change verbally emphasizes his conviction that this part of the creed has less to do with the duration of life (i.e. “we believe life will go on forever”) and more to do with the character of life we will share in following the resurrection. What is the character or quality of eternal life? “John does not really define this special quality of life,” Myers explains, “except by saying that it is identical with Jesus himself.” In other words, “eternal life” does not describe a length of time, but a relationship with Jesus.

Comparing our relationship with Christ to an intense experience of love, Myers provocatively suggests that in our relationship with Christ we may “rise above time to an eternal moment.” Thus, “eternal life” describes a way of living so completely with Christ that the “eternal moment” that transcends time becomes our only experience of time. In this eternal moment, death and life really mean nothing. And, referring to St. Francis, Myers suggests the character of eternal life is something we should strive for now.

All of this reminded me of Julian of Norwich. Suffering sickness and indescribable pain, she thought, “Is there any pain in hell like this pain?” Her thoughts of her own pain lead her to recognize that Christ has shared her pain, and all the pain of the world. At once she is relieved and disturbed. “At this point, I wanted to look away from the cross, but I dared not, for I well knew while I contemplated the cross I was safe and sound.” She wanted to look away because she hated to think of Christ suffering. Eventually, she considers looking away from the cross, toward heaven. “No,” she decides, “I cannot, for you are my heaven.” This is the eternal moment. A union with Christ so profound that it shifts our way of reasoning. “For I would rather have suffered until Judgment Day,” she explains, “than have come to heaven otherwise than by him.”*

In the eternal moment, Myers writes, quoting Irenaeus, we enter into a “blessed forgetfulness” in which believers “will forget to die.” May we pray to be so bound up in love with Christ that fear of life and death is forgotten as we enjoy the experience of the eternal moment.

*These quotations are found in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text, §10.

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