Many images stream into my mind when I raise this question, some popular: Indiana Jones shouting to a man in a red fez, as the boat gets hacked to pieces by a rotating propeller behind them, “We’re both going to die!” The man replies, “My soul is prepared. How’s yours?”
Others are devotional: the mosaic of St. Agnes at the National Shrine, whom we celebrate as a “happy one” (beata), yet martyred at 13 years old. Some are personal: I think of what someone said after my son, Thomas, died of crib death at seven weeks, “We can all rejoice that he is with God,” to which his mother, Ruth, replied, “But he missed out on being a boy.”
I think of Socrates who said that living well meant caring literally nothing for death, and Aristotle who said that it was shameful to prefer mere life over living well. I ponder those millions of young men who in great wars, on our behalf, so unassumingly “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
Scripture as usual seems a sure guide. Who cannot love St. Paul’s intensely romantic extravagance? “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21) For me, he says. “If it is to be life in the flesh,” he explains, “that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (vv. 22-23)
The language which recently has given me most pause is St. Peter’s: “Do not overlook this one fact, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
People say that he is simply repeating Psalm 90, but not so. The psalmist says: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” (v. 4) St. Augustine astutely comments that the psalmist is careful to add “as a watch,” which was three hours long, to block any simple attempt to map years onto days, Also, St. Augustine says, “yesterday” here means not the day before today but all of past time, because any delimited span of years for God is as if finished already. (You too can easily consult St. Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms here.)
But St. Peter, for his part, leaves out the business about the watch. He does not refer to yesterday at all. And most importantly he puts first his own, entirely novel idea, namely, that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years.” The Old Testament idea was the greatness of God from age to age as encompassing our millennia.
This new idea is the greatness of God in making dense even small spans of time. If God encompasses millennia because he is infinitely “big,” then he makes a day dense because he is also infinitely “small,” like the point of a circle: God’s presence is like a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere, as St. Augustine said.
Well, even Aristotle affirmed the presence of God in the small: “We must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous.” Thornton Wilder surely evoked the density of time, too, when in Our Town Emily goes back to her childhood and finds ordinary life unbearably painful, “I can’t look at everything hard enough. . . .Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.”
Is it going too far to find in St. Peter an even more vivid notion? His language after all does seem to invite the mapping of years to days and back. Let’s playfully do the math. If a day for us is like 1000 years for God, then a day for us is like 365,000 days for God. Since we can approximate a day as 36,000 seconds, then one of “God’s days”, presumably with a beginning, middle, and end, may be found in each 1/100thsecond – something like the minimum span we can notice. Modern video seems continuous at 60 fps only because of after-images.
(Mathematician friends might wonder here whether St. Peter anticipated the modern concept of infinity – viz. that an infinite set is one in which a proper subset can be mapped one-to-one onto the whole set – since he finds no difficulty with millennia perfectly mapped to days, and days mapped to instants.)
Spiritually, the usual application of St. Peter’s idea of the density of time is the practice of living in the present moment, the “abandonment to divine providence” of Jean-Pierre De Caussade. Past and future do not really exist, after all, while the present contains, in our relationship to God, a virtual infinity.
Of course, St. Peter was referring to the return of the Lord: and it makes sense that someone who had the same extravagant love of St. Paul, but who had denied the Lord, and needed to wait a day to be reconciled with him, would vividly regard that time as a like a thousand years.
But I want to apply his maxim to my opening question. If a day is a thousand years, and to live a thousand years would surely be enough, then “with the Lord” does length of life matter? Let’s agree that an Ivan Ilych-like character who had repented and wanted time to prove himself would think so. Or St. Thomas and other medieval theologians who spoke of a “book of life,” not as a childish fiction (see STI.24): so too, when an immortal soul begins to exist surely its life is noticed by God and “registered” with him, a millennium.
He is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, “not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Mk 12:27) He is the God of my Thomas – and yours.
*Image: St. Peter Preaching by Masolino da Panicale, 1426-27 [Branacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence]