How I’m discovering that eternity is not a long time

Longing for the eternal

I tried in vain to find my journal entry for the day I first had this revelation. It must have been about four years ago. But I can still remember the moment. I was walking down the street in my Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, DC, heading to Sidamo Coffee and Tea for an afternoon of remote work, when I stopped to admire a flower growing in a neighboring yard. I don’t know what kind of flower it was, only that it was white and it was beautiful. I could have sat there for minutes admiring it, enjoying its glory, marveling in the simple fact of its existence. After that I could have moved on to the next flower—one of the yellow ones just a few feet away—and on and on from petal to leaf to bud for hours, all within this modest plot of land no larger than my wingspan. 

But I did not have that luxury. I could not give myself that freedom because I had things to do. I had a job to get to, articles to read, phone calls to make, op-eds and Facebook posts to write. Time constrained me. I left the flower, along with my sense of wonder, so that I could attend to my adult responsbilities.

While I walked the remaining two blocks to the coffee shop I pondered what had just happened. It was not merely time, but ultimately the fact of my own mortality that constrained me. I was limited by my lifespan, however long it may end up being, and I could not give boundlessly of my time and leisure to as small and simple a thing as a single flower, beautiful though it may be. I had other priorities—most of them good and legitimate—but it still grieved me to leave the flower. I longed to remain with it for as long as my wonder and joy over it lasted. 

Suddenly it ocurred to me: I was longing for the eternal; I was longing for heaven. Would this not, after all, be the great freedom, the great life-giving joy, of eternal life? Growing up I always imagined the eternal in light of how much there would be to look forward to, but now it occurred to me that this empahsis might be misplaced. The great glory of the Kingdom of God is that I am freed to enjoy the present moment to its fullest because I have plenty of time for everything else later. In eternity I would have all the time in the world to marvel at this flower. The coffee shop could wait, or rather I could wait for the coffee shop, because I was no longer bound the pressures and limitations of linear time. 

Heaven, I realized as I walked down the sidewalk, is being utterly, wholly present. It is experiencing the fullness of life that’s within me and about me right now. How could it be otherwise?

Chronos and kairos

Unlike modern English, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. While I’m sure this distinction exists in many faith and wisdom traditions, I happened across it through the Eastern Orthodox Church. It offers helpful language for my new understanding of eternity.

Chronos refers to time on the move, time as quanitifiable in days, hours, and minutes. It’s where we get words like chronology, chronic, and chronicle. 

The thing about this kind of time is that it is devilishly close to non-existence. We cannot hear it, taste it, or smell it. We can’t stand outside of it, hold up an hour, and study it as an individual entity. Put another way, the past and future do not exist in any conventional sense. As the Orthodox Priest Fr. Patrick Reardon points out, we can only measure the “dead time” of the past:

“(C)hronos is, in this respect, rather ghoulish,” Reardon writes. “Even dead, it continues to feed on us. We may speak of ‘killing time,’ but it invariably ends up killing us. Chronos is, therefore, an image of everlasting death, what the Bible calls the ‘bottomless pit,’ or hell. What is hell but the reign of death in ongoing, unending sequence?” 

Kairos, on the other hand, does not exist in the past or future but is rather “time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional.” It’s what the Apostle Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5 when he urges the church to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” In English when we speak of the opportune moment, the time being ripe, or seizing the day, we are talking, in essence, about Kairos. We experience this kind of time in so many powerful ways: stopping to smell the roses, sleeping with someone we’re in love with, speaking truth to power at a pivotal moment of conflict, throwing up our hands when the beat drops on the dance floor. 

Kairos time, then, lies at the very heart of eternity. Reardon continues:

“Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. The dead know nothing of now. Therefore, the now, the kairos, is an icon of the life of heaven. Indeed, eternal life is an everlasting now, in which there is no sequence, no before and after. Eternity is not a long time. Strictly speaking, there is simply no length to it. Nothing elapses. The infinite is not measurable.”

I love that. Eternity is not a long time, because to conceive of it as a length of time is ultimately to despair. It is rather an everlasting now. It is being right where we are, with all of the present moment’s ecstatic joys…or piercing sorrows. 

We find a powerful example of living in kairos time, living in eternity through the here and now, in the life of Jesus. I like how Richard Rohr describes this in his book, The Naked Now:

Most of Jesus’ contemporaries missed the ‘Real Presence’ that was right in their midst… They were storing up treasures for the next world, and he was just living and talking about what was right in front of him—birds, lilies, tenants, and suffering. Eternity is going on all the time, and spiritual teachers gave us a way to dip into that stream now and therefore forever. Their assumption is invariably, ‘If you have it now, you will have it then.’ They see a perfect continuity between time and eternity.

I see this presence in the life of Jesus, this sense that there is indeed a perfect continuity between time and eternity. Yes, he spoke of storing up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, but he was also remarkably present and at peace with himself and his own limitations as a human being. As Rohr said, he talked about things that were right in front of him. He lived into kairos moments, taking the time to welcome children to his side, heeding the cry of a castaway blind man, and letting a paralytic drop in from the roof to interrupt his teaching. He withdrew for hours and days at a time to pray, taking the time to be present with himself and his heavenly Father even though there were surely more “urgent” matters at hand. 

Jesus lived out the purity of heart that Kierkegaard describes in his devotional work, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing:

The person, who in decisiveness wills to be and to remain loyal to the Good, can find time for all possible things. No, he cannot do that. But neither does he need to do that, for he wills only one thing. . . and so he finds ample time for the good.

Jesus did not find time for all possible things. What a remarkable thought. Raised in a small backwater town, he lived one life, and didn’t even really get started with it (at least not according to any of the success metrics we might be inclined to use) until he was thirty years old! Three years later the masses lynched him and his friends deserted him. It was finished. He was dead. 

Talk about a flash in the pan.

This, of course, was not the end of the story. Years, decades, centuries, and millennia have since passed since Jesus ascended to heaven. But here he is now, still alive in some mystical yet concrete way, still present with us in and through the Helper, still showing up in bread and wine, still with ample time for the good. Yes, my friend Jesus is alive, present in the eternal now, ever-ready to show up in kairos time because he holds eternity in his hands. He has time to delight in me, to show up at the foot of my bed in the morning ready to start the day with joy. He has time grieve with me, to hold me, weeping, through the lonely night when my heart is breaking and feels like I’ll never be happy again.

The shadow side of presence

This experience of the Christ’s presence in sorrow brings me to an important point. Our culture has become quite preoccupied with presence these days. We talk a big game about mindfulness and build a small economy around it. We light candles and meditate and give ourselves yoga retreats and relaxing getaways. I opened this essay with an anecdote about admiring a flower. Clearly it is easy to make presence into this romantic notion because, well, it is romantic. 

But it is also not romantic. Sometimes it is agony—it must be agony—and feels like death itself.

“I am not well right now,” I told my therapist the other day. “Most of the time I’m not doing well these days. I feel disconnected from others and my own emotions. I feel my desires deadened and split.” 

He encouraged me to sit with this moment, this act of naming my unwellness, and asked me what it felt like. 

“I feel like I can breath a little,” I said. “I can relax; I can rest. I feel more present with myself.” 

My eyes began to well with tears, a mingling of grief and sweet release.

The simple act of naming this, of sitting with my own unwellness during a painful, traumatic time, took an act of vulnerability that hurt me. It didn’t take me into nirvanna. It took me into pain, into a place I wish I wasn’t in amid a world were things aren’t as they should be, a place I would never wish on anyone. 

But somehow this was where I needed to go, choosing to be right where I was, and in doing so I experienced a taste of the kingdom of the heavens, of eternity itself. Rather than escaping from my present condition into a place of timeless bliss, I found a way of being and moving right here in the world, one where the path to resurrection life leads through a cross and a tomb. Here the deep, mystical knowledge of eternity takes me into the here and now, the kairos, the day of salvation, where in the present moment I possess all things and find ample time for the Good.

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