Time and Eternity
by George deCharms
...Time, apart from its service to man's spiritual life, is as nothing in the sight of the Lord. Regarded in itself it is a property of nature. It results from the motion of material objects in space. It is determined by the daily revolution of the earth upon its axis, and by its annual orbit around the sun. It is more exactly measured by the movements of the stars, which can be accurately predicted for hundreds of years. Thence arise the measurements of years, months and days, and the smaller divisions of these into hours, minutes and seconds, by which time is continually called to our attention and forced upon our consciousness. It is of the Divine Providence that this should be so; yet to us time always appears as an unwelcome restriction. The reason is that although we are born into a world of time, we are destined for a world in which time has no meaning; and even while we live on earth, time is altogether alien to the life of our inner mind. There, our sense of time is governed, not by the striking of a clock or the ticking of a watch, but solely by the ebb and flow of our loves and affections. When we are in the full enjoyment of life, time flies, and we wish it to continue indefinitely. We deeply resent its interruption, but before we know it we are confronted by necessities that compel us to pay attention to things we do not enjoy. On the other hand, when we are sad or anxious, time drags, and every moment seems like an eternity from which we would escape.
In truth, we can know happiness only as far as all concern for the passage of time has been removed. Such is the happiness of heaven, which it is the Lord's will to impart; but without the conscious awareness of time, that happiness can never be attained. The oppressive sense of time arises from the love of self. It is caused by impatience, by fear, by lack of trust in the dispensations of providence. To these all men are prone from heredity. Only as these obstructions are removed can man know the blessing of true happiness. Nor can they be removed unless he recognizes them and deliberately seeks to overcome them. Only by the pressure of time can he be made aware of them. This is the Divine purpose in the creation of time, and that is why man must be born on earth in order that he may at last come into heaven.
As long as we live in the natural world, therefore, time is of the essence. There is a time to plant the seed, and a time to reap the harvest. There is a time for action and a time for rest. There is a time of infancy and childhood, of mature manhood and of old age; and each of these presents its own challenge and its own opportunity. If appropriate things are not done at the appointed time they may be lost forever, or, if achieved at all, it may be only with great difficulty and hardship. So important are the increments of time that a single minute may make the difference between success and failure. It is of Divine order that this should be so, because without it no one could be saved. Even the Lord Himself, in performing the Divine work of redemption, was subject to the inescapable restrictions of time, as He Himself declared when He said: "I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work." (John 9: 4)
The importance of time lies in the fact that it calls our attention to the existence of a Divinely established law, an ordered progression which is entirely independent of our personal feelings. It makes us aware, not only of physical necessities, but also of duties and responsibilities to others which take precedence over our own desires. It helps us, therefore, to realize that our life is not our own, to be devoted to the enjoyment of selfish pleasures and ambitions, but is given us in trust to be used for the service of the Lord and the neighbor. Without the insistent pressure of time we would dwell content in the world of our own imagination. We would have no means of correcting our mistaken impressions. We would be borne along irresistibly on the current of our spontaneous emotions, all of which are centered in self. Knowing nothing else, we would have no freedom of choice, no grounds for judgment and no sense of responsibility, on which, nevertheless, conscience depends. Without the pressure of time, regeneration would be impossible, wherefore the Lord admonishes us to take note of the passage of time. He has set lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night, that they may be for signs and for seasons, for days and for years; (Genesis 1: 14) and He commands us to watch, saying: "Ye know not when the Master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly He find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch." (Mark 13: 35-37)
During the process of regeneration the restrictions of fixed time are of paramount need; but when self-love has been subordinated to love to the Lord and charity toward the neighbor, man can be set free from its binding limitations and introduced into the world of eternal life. An eternity of time is an appalling thought. It appears as an endless road that has no turning. But such is by no means the eternity of life in heaven. In the spiritual world there are continual progressions of state which have nothing to do with time. There are alternations of state to which the fixed periods of earthly time correspond but which are altogether independent of them. There are states of early morning, of midday, and of evening, and these follow one another in regular succession with all the appearance of time. Yet these changes are not governed by events outside of the angels, but solely by their affections. The sun of their world neither rises nor sets. It remains constant before their eyes, shining for them with brighter ray or with waning brilliance according to their state. The state of morning is one of eager awakening to a new day, with its welcome promise of use to be performed; and the state of evening comes as the perception of use becomes less all-absorbing, and one becomes conscious of the need for rest and recreation.
Such states can be measured by no fixed standard. How long they last, and how soon they pass, is determined solely by the love. Meanwhile, the angel has no concern for the passage of time. He has no anxiety for the future, no sense of impatience, but is completely rapt in the joy of the present. Because he has complete trust in the merciful protection of the Lord, because in all things he yields his will to the guidance of the Divine Providence, and does so gladly, willingly, his soul and his mind are at peace. He lives in the present, and in doing so finds life full, rich, eminently satisfying. Such is the perpetual state of those in heaven. They experience changes and continual progressions of state whereby they discover new truths, and enjoy perceptions ever deeper and more wonderful. They enter ever more particularly into the delights of use, and by means of this are continually being perfected in intelligence and wisdom. Life for them is by no means monotonous, but ever new and full of surprises; wherefore we read that "angels do not know what time is, although with them there is a successive progression of all things, just as there is in the world, and this so completely that there is no difference whatever, and the reason is that in heaven instead of years and days there are changes of state. . . .
"In the world there are times because the sun of the world seemingly advances in succession from one degree to another, producing times that are called seasons of the year; and besides, it revolves about the earth, producing times that are called times of [the] day; both of these by fixed alternations. With the sun of heaven it is different. This does not mark years and days by successive progressions and revolutions, but in its appearance it marks changes of state; and this is not done by fixed alternations. Consequently no idea of time is possible to [the] angels; but in its place they have an idea of state." (HH 163, 164) However, the stated progressions of time correspond to progressions of state so completely that the angels use the language of time in describing changes of state. On one occasion, Swedenborg relates that an angel called together an assembly in the world of spirits, and he says, "I waited, and lo! after half an hour, I saw . . . [the spirits approaching]." (CL 2,3) On another occasion certain spirits were commanded to enter a temple in heaven, and to remain there three days and three nights; (CL 9) and so, in other cases, changes of state were spoken of as if they were times. That angels are fully aware of progressions is clear from the fact that infants who die grow up in heaven, becoming children, and youths, and at last adults; but this, not according to fixed times, but according to states of knowledge, of understanding and of affection.
The same is true on earth, except that here we constantly compare mental age with chronological age, and think of it in terms of the latter. In the spiritual world, however, there is no idea of death, no fear of life coming to an end, no sense of urgency such as that which plagues men on earth and insinuates the anxious feeling of "so much to do, and so little time." We read that for this reason "thousands of years do not appear to ... [the angels] as time, but scarcely otherwise than as if they had lived only a minute ... [because] in their present they have past and future things together. Hence they have no solicitude about future things; nor have they ever any idea of death, but only the idea of life; so that in all their present there is the Lord's eternity and infinity." (AC 1382)
Life in heaven, therefore, is a perpetually living present wherein there is a constant challenge of use to be performed, of new truth to be learned, of new gifts to be shared with others; and all this without any intrusion of time to break the state, and no thought of life ever coming to an end. Even here on earth we may attain to some fleeting glimpse of this heavenly state, because as to our inner mind we live in the spiritual world even here. When we are deeply absorbed in any work or use, when we are removed from the cares of the world, and rapt in thought, we lose all sense of time. Such is the state described in Genesis, where it is said of Jacob that he "served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her." (Genesis 29: 20) The reason is that in such a state the thought of self is removed, and with it, all impatience, all anxiety, all sense of urgency that arises from fear. It is these that induce temptation, mental suffering, an acute sense of time, and that prompt us to pray for the suffering to end, saying: "Make known to me, O Lord, my end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how soon I cease to be."
Only when the concern for self has been replaced by a perfect trust in the Lord, and we at last are willing to accept His leading without reserve and without regret, is the purpose of such temptation accomplished, and we are prepared to say in our heart: "Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth, and my . . . [time] is as nothing before Thee." When time is as nothing we are in the state of those in heaven, who know the joy of life everlasting. Then can be fulfilled for us the promise of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee: Because he trusteth in Thee. Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord JEHOVAH is everlasting strength." (10 Isaiah 26: 3, 4)
-New Church Life 1966;76:1-6