Currently, I am reading (and at times re-reading) my way through Pope Benedict XVI’s papal encyclicals, exhortations, and addresses, and I came across this very pointed question in his encyclical on Christian hope, Spe Salvi. After speaking of baptism and faith’s necessary relationship to eternal life, the Roman pontiff emeritus asks rather pointedly:
“Do we really want this — to live eternally?” (#10)
What at first sight appears to be a rather silly question becomes much more substantive and conesequantial when pondered in light of the various opinions voiced and emotions expressed regarding a Donald J. Trump presidency for (at least) the next four years. Sons turned on their father, daughters against their mother, son-in-law against father-in-law; and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law … if I didn’t know better I would have thought that the president was Jesus Christ himself (cf. Matt 10:35-38). Now, as a disclaimer, I did not vote for Trump … nor did I vote for Hillary Clinton (I did vote but just not for these two candidates). But, the question that each and every one of us Christians need to ask ourselves — and which Pope BXVI does ask us — is whether we really desire and place our hope in eternal life or if we actually only want this life.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I have experienced not a little despair and resmorse over these two candidates throughout the election cycle. Now that Trump has been ruled the victor and inaugurated this very day, these emotions have only escalated across the country to a degree that I thought only existed in history books. However, the question must be asked: is our despair over the state of our country the result of a healthy desire for a well-ordered society or, instead, is it the consequence of a diminshed desire for eternal life and, thus, a covetousness of the good life here and now? After all, if the idea of life beyond this current one is abandoned, then all we have is this world with any major setback being almost too unbearable to shoulder.
Even beyond the election cycle and the reasons for our angst, the question of the desire for eternal life penetrates ever more deeply into each and every one of our lives: What is your fundamental orientation to the world? For what do you live? By what hope do continue to strive in the face of defeat and failure? Put more concretely, it is a question of one’s desire for life with or without God in a complete and definitive manner one way or the other.you
But, to be fair, perhaps the lack of desire we feel so often for eternal life is not an explicit rejection of God but is instead an inability to really even conceive of what that life would be like. Thus, we are left only desiring this life because it is all we know.
However, our desire for this life is never completely defintive and unqualified. Each and every one of us feels the inadequacy of this sojourn of earth: the pain that comes with failure and loss & the boredom that results from the preoccupation with that which is temporal and finite. Thus, we are left experiencing the very situation that Benedict describes in Spe Salvi:
Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? (#11)
Man, as can be seen, is a paradox, a conundrum even to himself. For this reason Benedict says that — while the thought of this life never coming to an end is seen more-so as a curse than a blessing — what we really desire is a blessed life, which can only be given by the divine Other because it requires that which can only be hinted at and pointed to in this world. We desire the “known unknown” of the blessed life, which — while we cannot adequately express of imagine — Benedict describes in the following way:
To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in teh full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. (#12)
So, next time we encounter the hopelessness that often accompanies disappointment and failure, the question to ask ourselves is “Why? Why do I feel such emptiness of soul? Is it that my heart breaks with God’s heart for the disfunction and sin of this world, or, instead, do I despair because this life is all I believe to have?” Rather than giving into despair, I suggest using moments of humiliation and sorrow as opportunities to increase and expand our desire for eternal life, so that we do not succumb to St. Paul’s admonition in his Letter to the Ephesians that we live as if we had never received the gift of faith, hope, and love, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).